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Art review: Soulscapes at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21

12 April 2024

Jonathan Evens sees a show extending the genre of landscape

Courtesy of the artist, Corvi-Mora, Various Small Fires, and Nicola Vassell Gallery

Che Lovelace, Moonlight Searchers, acrylic and dry pigment on board panels (2022), private collection. See gallery for more images

Che Lovelace, Moonlight Searchers, acrylic and dry pigment on board panels (2022), private collection. See gallery for more images

MANY of us rediscovered the joy of green spaces and the countryside during the pandemic. Lisa Anderson, the curator of “Soulscapes”, was among those who found solace from walking in her local park.

That experience led her to propose an exhibition that drew out the healing properties found in landscapes by focusing on the work of contemporary artists of global-majority heritage. Doing so expands and redefines the genre of landscape paintings by introducing a range of other media, highlighting black voices in what has predominantly been a white genre of Western art, and exploring fundamental human experiences, including belonging, memory, joy and transformation.

Several of the artists featured here including Hurvin Anderson, Michael Armitage, EVEWRIGHT, and Nengi Omuku have, relatively recently, had major shows at the likes of Firstsite, the RA, and Hastings Contemporary, while Che Lovelace had a commission for St James’s, Piccadilly, installed in September 2023.

Additionally, there have been group shows exploring legacies of the past, including that of colonialism, through the work of contemporary artists of global-majority heritage, to posit creative ways forward. These have included “In The Black Fantastic” at the Hayward Gallery (2022), “Rites of Passage” at the Gagosian Gallery (2023), and “A World In Common” at Tate Modern (2023). Each has noted the mix of collective memories and cultural and spiritual practices that such artists draw on in their work.

This exhibition mines similar sources, while creating an awareness of the extent to which the landscapes of Africa and the Caribbean in the work of artists from Africa and its diaspora in Europe, North America, and the Caribbean add immeasurably to the genre of landscape as a whole. The concept of “Soulscapes” is explored here in terms of souls or figures within landscapes, the soul or spirit of place, and the constructions of “natural” surroundings by the territories of our soul — “the constituent parts of our identity and the layers of our personal histories, cultural values, gender, family relations and beliefs”.

Grouping works under the somewhat interchangeable themes of belonging, memory, joy, and transformation, the exhibition moves from Mónica de Miranda’s Sunrise, in which three figures stand in the surf on a beach, highlighting travel between continents and the possibilities provided for belonging and home, through Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s lush multimedia piece Cassava Garden, which layers images from fashion magazines, pictures of Nigerian pop stars, and samplings from family photo albums to represent a hybrid cultural identity, to Christina Kimeze’s Wader (Lido Beach), in which a pregnant female figure, immersed in water and light, enjoys a solitary communion with the ocean.

In between are works such as Unforeseen Journey of Self-Discovery, a tapestry by Kimathi Mafafo, in which a woman emerges from a cocooned veil of white muslin, finding her way into the vibrant, colourful, and healing space of the natural world, and Phoebe Boswell’s I Dream of a Home I Cannot Know, a meditative video work that documents daily life on a beach in Zanzibar, a place of deep connection for the artist.

Several of these works and artists draw on aspects of spirituality. Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s large abstract Another rest in peace — from a holy land in which we came contains snippets of text urging us to “Go forward” to “The forest I make my home” as “Earth and heaven are still waiting”. Having trained as a horticulturist and florist, Nengi Omuku, the daughter of Bishop Precious Omuku, creates in paintings such as Star Gazers “an ethereal place of natural co-existence”, where the distinction between her figures and their natural settings is deliberately blurred. Painted on stitched-together strips of sanyan fabric, her images are visions of a re-communion with nature which are formed on pieces of Nigerian cultural heritage.

Michael Armitage also paints on traditional fabric: lubugo cloth, harvested from Mutuba trees in Uganda. His work often refers to mythical narratives deriving from natural landscapes. These have often included Christian narratives, but, here, in Anthill, the reference is to Tanzanian accounts of witches’ flying out of anthills on the backs of hyenas.

Kimathi Donkor has said that, as an artist who has often focused on “the struggle”, he is showing works here that “represent hopeful visions that honour what the fulfilment of black liberation might sometimes feel like — even if only fleetingly”. His “‘Idyll’ paintings celebrate tender and contemplative moments shared by families and friends as they enjoy serene meadows, lakes, mountains, forests, rivers and beaches together”.

There is a positive vibe throughout this show through curatorial decisions that proactively chose works revealing the “universal possibilities of healing, reflection and belonging” found in nature. As Alberta Whittle says of her work, the show, as a whole, privileges “thinking about the land and the natural world as sources of indigenous, pre-colonial knowledge(s)” to “become a pathway to explore different ways of dreaming new ways of being”.

“Soulscapes” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 2 June. Phone 020 8693 5254. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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