by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
It is not often that a new gallery director has to curate a major show months after starting the role. It is also not often that they are confronted with a severe budget deficit that spurs a severe restructuring. Gilane Tawadros’s beginnings as the director of London’s esteemed Whitechapel Gallery were less about ingratiating herself with the team but more consumed with terminating six positions, among them three of the institution’s seven curators.
"That was horrible and really not something I either expected or wanted to have to do," Tawadros told me. "The Whitechapel Gallery was in serious financial difficulty, we had to ensure its future." Amongst the financial turbulence, when, Tawadros says, "to safeguard the confidentiality of individuals and the organisation, it was not possible to explain everything fully," she and artist Janette Parris with art curator Katrina Schwarz began planning Life is More Important Than Art…That’s Why Art Is Important. This summer, they opened up the institution for free with an extended programme including exhibitions, broadcasts, installations, live events, and participatory projects. Tawadros has tapped into the Whitechapel Gallery’s founding mission—to bring the finest art in the world to the people of the East End—and she explained, "to really think about that rootedness in the East End not just its successive waves of migrant communities and those experiences but also, at this particular moment, about what role art can play."
The title, a quote from the American writer James Baldwin, suggests that art and life are braided together. The works chosen show it’s a crucial and subtle relationship. “We really didn’t want to make a polemical exhibition,” Tawadros explains. As such an entanglement of themes—including migration, memory, health—are captured by 12 artists, all of whom have worked from London.
The tone is set with Susan Hiller’s untitled sculpture from 1999, a wooden luggage trolley carrying five brown paper parcels. The trolley, when left slanted as if abandoned in motion, is an enigmatic statement of arrival or departure. From within the pile, faint verses of a Jewish morning prayer emit. A small luggage tag dangling from one of the packages explains this was sung on awakening to 'Thank God for the gift of a soul.' Other tags follow museological conventions and, like an inventory, detail the contents and condition of each parcel’s contents: Bima curtain, 'much stained, creased and damp when found'; burial ledger, 'wet when found.'
Hiller discovered the items discarded in the street following the demolition of a shop front synagogue in London’s East End. The J. Street Project (Index) (2002-2005), also in the exhibition, is similarly a retrieval of her heritage. Over three years Hiller photographically documented all the streets in Germany with the prefix ‘Juden’ (Jews/Jewish). Her preservation of spaces and objects associated with faith not only formalise and solidify the experiences of Jewish immigrants but equally allows us to imagine and empathise with their plight.
Osman Yousefzada uses the preservation of items, in an art installation recreating his mother’s bedroom, as an anecdote to the transition and displacement she endured as an immigrant from Pakistan. In An Immigrant’s Room of Her Own (2018), an assortment of sculpted ceramic objects wrapped in PVC are arranged on the carpeted floor of a bedroom in front of checked laundry bags and a wardrobe loosely covered by pieces of black and white fabric. A trail of black rope, plaited with hair-like qualities, emanates from a fabric mannequin head atop a dressing table. The thick chord snakes around the carpet and fuses with a wall based textile to create a cordon around the scene.
The installation, replete with a single bed and tower of steel clingfilm-wrapped saucepans, is intimate and uncomfortable. Presenting the obsessive rituals of swaddling objects in plastic bags that Yousefzada’s mother undertook in her Birmingham home gives insight into her need for strategies of self-preservation and protection. "There’s an aspect of the wrapping that is about how you create intimacy in your largely communal familial spaces," Yousefzada reflects. Each object bundle is secured with a tight knot deliberately idiosyncratic and therefore impossible to recreate. The binding system is a marker of ownership and a system of surveillance to ward off those tempted to root through her possessions.
Another territorial divider is the basis of Rana Begum’s No.1272 Chainlink (2023). Floor-to-ceiling sheets of fencing, powder-coated in red pigment, create a dizzying lattice of material and light. Set in the centre of the art gallery, the installation pushes viewers up close to Matthew Krishanu’s series of 12 delicate paintings made throughout the life he shared with his late wife. The small-scale works, that depict various seminal moments; marriage, parenthood, and sadly, death, are sparing and deeply piercing. The sound of Allegri’s Miserere, a nine-voice choral piece of music regularly sung in the Sistine Chapel, that bleeds from Mark Wallinger’s film Threshold to the Kingdom (2000), forms a sonic cocoon for works that hold and accentuate their emotional weight.
Sound is a stirring presence throughout the exhibition. John Smith’s film Citadel (2020), combines footage of London’s city skyline with clippings of Boris Johnson’s COVID-19 announcements. His sincere tone and solemnity, in retrospect, chimes with contempt. A rhythmic Urdu voiceover in Alia Syed’s 16mm film, Fatima’s Letter (1992), shot largely at Whitechapel underground station, recounts how day-to-day encounters in the city evoke memories of a home elsewhere. Syed has written that ‘London is never London’ and that is a fitting analogy for the art exhibition as a whole. Although rooted in the city physically and through the choice of artists, the show is permeable and reflects the new lives, former lives, and in-between lives being experienced the world over.
'Life is More Important Than Art' is on view until September 17, 2023, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)