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Art review: Michael Forbes, Blk this & Blk that . . . a state of urgency, at the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham

21 October 2022

Jonathan Evens sees the Michael Forbes show in Nottingham

Nick Dunmur

Installation view showing Untitled I by Michael Forbes.

Installation view showing Untitled I by Michael Forbes.

ON ENTERING Gallery 1A at the Djanogly Gallery, one sees a series of dismembered torsos — the arms of all the figures being absent — of the crucified Christ in cast Jesmonite, primarily white, but with gold and pink also used, and hung upside down from ropes the ends of which trail across the floor. In this, the largest sculptural installation here, some of the torsos wear life jackets, pointing to recent political and humanitarian events.

Untitled I highlights “how the white European male has dominated the image of Christ” and challenges white viewers with the question how they “reconcile exemplifying Christ whilst reaping unjust benefits from being white”. Forbes has, for many years, questioned this aspect of religion, “believing that it is morally and theologically incumbent upon Christians to realise how whiteness confers privileges that have an impact on the lives of black people and people of colour”. The installation (through the inclusion of life jackets) raises these questions in relation to the legacies of the slave trade and also the current refugee crisis.

Both the slave trade, with the ocean journey of the Middle Passage, and the refugee crisis, with its Mediterranean and English Channel crossings, feature again in An Eldorado of 512.6 million, in which these same figures are tossed and submerged in an ocean of gold that alludes to the economic disparities contributing to mass migration. That the Christ figure is now black with arms extended in the position of a crucifix is to equate the sufferings of slaves and refugees with that of Christ himself.

The figure included here from Forbes’s 12 Stations of the Masquerade series is a mixed-media piece incorporating expanding foam, OSB board, razor wire, African carvings, handbags, and a baseball cap. The latter items are counterfeit designer goods exported from China and sold by migrants on European streets in order to survive. This work, and his lightbox works Shop. . . Selling the Ontology of Whiteness, based on photos of shop windows, comment on globalisation and processes of valuation in relation to migration and trade. “Whiteness sells” is the hypothesis that Forbes advances, setting aspects of consumerism alongside aspects of religion in privileging whiteness.

Nick DunmurInstallation view showing Untitled (white man’s burden) and #BLM by Michael Forbes

In Untitled (white man’s burden), white mannequins ride, rodeo-style, bulky PVC-wrapped parcels illustrating the precariousness of the white supremacist position. Mirroring statues on plinths which depict the perceived winners in the game of history, these wheeled plinths are actually inherently unstable. The malformed mannequins on them depict the ugliness of minority views that “allow discrimination, race hatred and violence to thrive”.

As these works ably demonstrate, Forbes works with sculpture, installation, photography, and digital media to explore themes of contemporary racial politics, migration, history, religion, and the dichotomy of blackness/whiteness. These new works, exhibited together for the first time across three galleries, were conceived during Covid lockdown for Forbes’s MA in sculpture at the Royal College of Art.

The heart of the exhibition is to be found in his honouring of the black body for its survival. Masquerade . . . evolution of the black body revisits totemic sculptures, which Forbes has swathed and bound cocoon-like in shiny black PVC. The bulging skins absorb and conceal an assemblage of symbolic objects, which, he suggests, have been consumed and processed in the evolution of the “black body”.

His artistic practice originally began with photography. His series Carnival… beyond the glitz of the parade documents vibrant Caribbean street carnivals with images that celebrate music, dance, fashion, and sexuality, as they assert and unapologetically honour those who are underrepresented. Set alongside are the most obviously polemical works in the exhibition. These text-based works either reproduce slogans taken from the banners of demonstrators at the 2020 BLM protests or replicate signs warning of the presence of surveillance cameras or the hazard of electrified and razor fences. This exhibition is an act of protest in the face of historic and current constraints.

“Blk this & Blk that . . . a state of urgency” is at the Djanogly Gallery, Lakeside Arts, University of Nottingham, until 6 November. www.lakesidearts.org.uk

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