Review: Grace Wales Bonner @ Serpentine Galleries

The rising British fashion designer opens her first exhibition project at London’s Serpentine Galleries, rendering it a collaborative platform to connect with artistic peers from the African diaspora. Spirituality, magic, pain, and beauty: Johanna Wiklund reviews Grace Wales Bonner‘s “A Time for New Dreams”.

At the entrance of Serpentine’s Sackler Gallery sits a delicately-faced man on a zebra skinned daybed reading poetry. He is wearing an elegant kimono by Grace Wales Bonner, in a colourful patchwork fabric by Eric N. Mack, an artist the London-based fashion designer has collaborated with since making an instalment for her A/W 2018 show. The daybed is placed upon a traditional Iranian carpet, patched by glimpses of sun coming from the entrance door. This brings the scene of a serene Sunday morning to mind. It is the scene welcoming us to the designer Bonners first-ever formal exhibition. The daybed invites for contemplation and reflection on words written on the opposite facing wall. They are invocations with which readers make the surrounding shrines of the exhibition “come into being.” According to the writer Ben Okri, this is a place in which to meditate on thoughts of who one is, as well as reflect on what has shaped the identity that one has. Assigned by Wales Bonner, Okri wrote a poem that reads:

“We Ought to Use Time
Like Emperors of the Mind:
Do Magic Things That the Future,
Surprised Will Find.”

What is more to the foundation of this exhibition is Neo-HooDoo-ism, a belief that every man is an artist and every artist a priest. It is a term coined by author Ishmael Reed, derived from Voodoo it consists of beliefs inspired by Haitian, African and South American spiritual practices. Wales Bonners exhibition is a presentation of the designer’s far-spanning research that ultimately informs the realization of her A/W 19 clothing collection, Mumbo Jumbo. The name is honoring Reeds 1972 book of the same name. Bringing together practitioners from various artistic fields and places in the world, the designer initiated collaboration in the creating of her collection of shrines. There are flower constructions by Kapwani Kiwanga; a collection of objects such as print, stone, bamboo, wood and cloth by Liz Johnson Artur; erotic dark pictures by Rotimi Fani-Kayode; the film Twilight City (1989) by Reece Auguiste, the Black Audio Collective; a bible, photographs and a rock inserted with hair of Africans, by David Hammons.

Wales Bonner, the 27 year-old designer is self-aware and timid, yet of a ferociously strong artistic persona that represents her Jamaican and British heritage; a graduate of Central Saint Martins and winner of the LVHM Prize for Young Fashion Designers. At the Serpentine, she has assembled artefacts of spirituality and creativity by a generation of artists from the African-Caribbean diaspora, active since the 1980s. We honor past creators here. Each shrine is a port to spiritual and intellectual histories of different land and cultures in the world. Because of the history as countrymen from European colonies, artists with African or Caribbean origin are sometimes grouped together. Historically, they are seen as one collective force that informed and inspired each other in reverence of a spiritual energy. Yet, it might not have been a conscious collaboration at the time. To draw inspiration from creators of the African-Caribbean diaspora in her research is not an uncommon practice of the designer, pairing it with influences from the contemporary metropole London where she lives, Bonner makes a hint to an artistic exchange, crossing over cultures. We have seen this in her past collections, too. Shell adornments, pieces of colourful knitting and African patterned fabrics, coming along with classic dressmaking. Her clothes are incredible garments, finely cut and well-tailored. It was present in her graduate collection Afrique at the Central Saint Martins, 2014; and a year later in her collection Ebonic at the Fashion East as well as in her contribution to Fashion in Motion at the V&A that same year.

Today, in London’s cultural circle, a prophesy says this decade will be remembered as the time when the scene changed from being not so white-dominated to become more diverse. This is not an only fashion and art-related question, nor does it simply concern London, although, the incredible multi-culture that exists in the English capital enables a research and an outlet unlike many other places. In the last six months, we’ve had two great examples emerging on the fashion scene. One was Hala Kaiksow. Her design and production processes are inspired from the Middle East and Islamic traditions, using traditional weaving and dying, on old as well as new materials. She is in search of what is in between tradition and modern, man- and mechanically made, East and West. She was nominated to the international Jameel Prize for contemporary artists and designers inspired by the Islamic traditions, and during the autumn 2018 she exhibited at the V&A. Next was Mowalola. Graduating from Menswear at Central Saint Martins in 2017, she, like Wales Bonner, went on to the Fashion East and presented a collection there this January. Rock music and male culture in 70s and 80s Nigeria, and the subject of the African male sexuality and desire, shines in her tight leather clothes.

Even though it was the black collectivity that spurred Wales Bonners creativity, this exhibition is not exclusive. In the first days after the opening, the American musician Laraaji held aartis (Indian collective singing) and laughing meditations. He sat in his shrine of orange fabric cushions, surrounded by personal belongings, offerings and yellow and red Marigold flowers. The flower has for centuries been essential in both African, Caribbean and Indian rituals. Wales Bonner continuously refers to the collective force a group of people may generate when assembled by a shrine. Emphasizing it is not the creators of art, nor the ones featured in it, but the respect and honour with which it was constructed that enables its meaning. Grace Wales Bonner is, as every great artist ever was, the child born with a spirit. Enriched and nourished by her ancestors, she succeeded in collecting her heritage to create a multi-layered and contemplative identity for her creations. We assemble by the shrine at the Serpentine Gallery to honour her. A leader and a saint for her generation of creators that the future, surprised, will behold.

Words by Johanna Wiklund
For more information, see Serpentine