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Art review: Hurvin Anderson: Salon Paintings and Nengi Omuku: The Dance of People and the Natural World at Hastings Contemporary

02 February 2024

Susan Gray reviews the work of two artists exhibiting in Hastings

pete jones

Nengi Omuku, Eden (2022)

Nengi Omuku, Eden (2022)

AN AIR of reverence and wonder pervades the works of Hurvin Anderson and Nengi Omuku at Hastings Contemporary. Occupying the lower gallery, Anderson’s “Salon Paintings” reveal the fellowship of the barber’s shop, a world of mirrors and reflections, with echoes of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). The Birmingham-born artist has worked on the series since 2006, and the most recent works were completed last year.

For Anderson, the barber’s shop is a special place, with an exterior and interior life, that can be read on a surface level by outsiders, or understood more deeply by participants. “The barbershops are part of a continuation of what I call the social space. Places where people meet and gather even though there’s no one there in the paintings. You’re getting a little bit of insight into these spaces that people normally see from the outside, look at them and walk by. . .

“You walked in, people were there, sitting down, and then you turned around and had this kaleidoscopic kind of space which almost had another pace. It felt like it had almost two dimensions, two states, you went in and saw one thing, and then you turned around, and it felt like there’s more to this place than meets the eye from the outside.”

Influenced by Impressionism, and meditating on the process of painting, the Salon Paintings raises the question what we choose to focus on, and which areas we are content to leave as outline or blur. Flat Top (2008), Jersey (2008), and Afrosheen (2009) all show the same view of the back of empty barber’s chairs, facing the huge mirrors of the picture’s background. In Flat Top, primary-coloured clippers and shavers create a central detail along the the counter, their black flexes curling like drooping stems of fleurs du mal. The mirror-tiled wall is a wash of pink, with solid blocks of bright reds, blues, and green, with one central block of black, reminiscent of early abstraction. On the graphically delineated floor, hair clippings of absent customers are made from single brushstrokes. Chair backs are rendered in multiple tones of black.

The two chairs in Jersey are more detailed, with highly worked frames and swivel stands. A draped green jersey over the foregrounded arm of the left-hand chair draws the eye to its 45° angle, offering another perspective on the interior. Along the counter, expressively outlined hair products and postcards are lined up in the manner of votive objects.

© Hurvin Anderson. Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane GalleryHurvin Anderson, Afrosheen (2009)

Afrosheen, painted a year later, brings the counter-top and wall objects into vivid focus, with a scarf blending St George’s cross and the Jamaican flag’s green and yellow, together with a blurred, white-haired portrait, and sketchily rendered football team, in red tops and white shorts. It takes only a hint of detail and brief outline for stock images such as headshot portrait, or team photos with their familiar pose of kneeling and standing rows of figures, to resonate.

Objects’ creating another world within the painting is a style that the artist has developed throughout his career. “The particular element which I’m trying to draw on right now is these photographs or posters on the walls which give the space an extra layer, a kind of extra dimension. It was left out of earlier paintings, but I’m partly considering, or rethinking, it in the new work. . . There is the sense that the space itself seems to be loaded with so much, it’s not just a barbershop, but from the front, when you see it, that’s exactly what it is.”

The part played by the figure is examined in both Anderson and Nengi Omuku’s work. The recent 2023 works in “Salon Paintings”, Shear Cut and Skiffle, show caped customers reflected in the mirrors. Shear Cut also reveals the barber’s reflection above his client’s amorphous head. Anderson says that placing figures in his work goes against his 1990s art-school training, where figures were seen as a way of distracting the viewer.

OMUKU is the daughter of Bishop Precious Omuku, an adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury on reconciliation. Based in Lagos, Nengi Omuku trained at the Slade. “The Dance of People and the Natural World” fuses vibrant contemporary Nigerian art with the spiritual power of nature. In a reinterpretation of the classical Western tradition, Omuku’s work makes the landscape as significant as the figures occupying it. She also wishes to reclaim the concept of landscape as the preserve of settler communities, and works on sanyan, a symbolic cloth woven from moth silk and cotton, used in Nigerian ceremonial rites from pre-colonial times. Some of the sanyan used in the show had prayers woven into the fabric, such as fertility symbols from women wishing to start a family.

Eden (2022) is the artist’s largest work to date, measuring more than five metres long. Presented in a room with tropical plants, the setting resembles a hanging behind a high altar. A strip of brightly striped blue, red, and white cloth twists through the centre of the plane, surrounded by fantastical flowers, succulents, and lush grasses in vivid colours. On the left, brightly robed figures come down a hill. Green-robed children play in the centre, while diminutive figures watch on from the right hand corner. Exposed sanyan strips act as a border.

pete jonesNengi Omuku, Red Velvet (2022)

Omuku says that her depiction of nature as a revivifying place is influenced both by her horticulturist mother’s plant drawings, which were her first experience of art, and her own career in floristry.

Red Velvet, from the same year, is a smaller work of oil on sanyan, featuring a woman in a white veil, the sleeves and folds lightly outlined, in contrast to the richly draped red velvet skirt. She sits under a light-orange tree against a fiery-orange background, with an expression of peace resembling representations of the Madonna.

Both Wade in the Water (2023) and Lighthouse (2021) have a strong feeling of Pentecost. Lighthouse shows seated children looking up in wonder at white-robed figures floating in a purple and cerise sky. In the later work, the spirit of baptism is evoked, as semi-clad beige figures recline in a merging background of blue water and sky, framed on the right by tall blue palm trees. Whether through titles or imagery, a biblical spirit pervades the whole show.

“Hurvin Anderson: Salon Paintings” and “Nengi Omuku: The Dance of People and the Natural World” are at Hastings Contemporary, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings, East Sussex. until 3 March. Phone 01424 728377. www.hastingscontemporary.org

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