We Out Here is not an ordinary show, not to my eyes. It feels like something is happening here. It’s a humble premise in some ways, a show of six artists living and working in Hastings, but this is far more. It’s a band of ambitious makers with global subjects that come together with this local remit. They live and work here, but their vision is international, their vision is activist, and their product is based on research at doctoral or postdoctoral level. Each artist has something considered and well-executed to offer. It’s quite exhilarating to think that my local town is full of such artists.
Artists taking part in the exhibition are the curator Lorna Hamilton-Brown, Paul Hope, Elaine Mullings, Eugene Palmer, Richard M Rawlins and Maggie Scott. It’s a band of ambitious makers with global subjects. For this article I’m focusing on the work of two; Richard Mark Rawlins and Maggie Scott, both utilising the photographic medium to make their work, and then briefly talking about the other artists works in this ground-breaking show. The full and in-depth article about the show is available on Artlyst.
Richard Mark Rawlins has created a series of tea-towels, using this unusual format to represent the collective of natterers who come together over the ritual refreshment of tea in order to discuss the day’s concerns and share experience. Faces of people with British Afro-Caribbean heritage drinking tea are printed on these towels which are hung on a washing line to create an illustrative installation. One part of physicality suggests a history which I perhaps had encountered but forgotten until Rawlins points it out to me. Those cloths, those tea-towels were to wrap precious bone-china in because none could touch the vessels apart from the designated handlers. They were to be kept pure.
The tea-towel has continued to be an important part of our history and our art-history with material-poor painters using it as a canvas substitute. Rawlins is concerned to cross registers, and this tale lifts it out of its domestic origins, giving it some gallery-precedence. With his graphics training and experience Rawlins is expert at interpreting story into visual pieces and you can see he’s ambitious to do this.
He is also a mark-maker and I am really drawn into his drawing of Moko Jumbie. Carnival figures are very appropriate for Hastings which as a town seems able to make a carnival for any day of the week or year, and Rawlins and I laugh about this, feeling affection for this eccentric town where we live. His rendition of Moko Jumbie is affectionate, intimate, wide ranging and full of cartoon, tale, text, drawn collage of printed image and word, making a fine portrait of this divine spirit that walked across the sea from Africa to be with the enslaved people. So spirits cannot cross the water. Moko Jumbie walked on stilts. Ingenious. We all need someone to be with us and tell our stories. Moko Jumbie, perhaps for personal reasons of resonance as I have worked so much in theatre and news, is one of my favourite pieces in this beautiful, important show.
Maggie Scott’s work is to inspire conversation about our own collusion in consumerist ecological destruction, but I’m initially impressed by its texture and materialism. Felt has always seduced me, that broken-down soft cloth with its matted fibre and how the lines of thread have been distressed into something flatter. Its allure that it had for my childhood self has continued, and I enjoy standing close by the part of her work that presents this textile texture. But the felted cloth has a significance for the audience as part of a wider work about waste and consumerist colonialism in which, again, the backwaters of the world and certain parts of Africa become the dumping ground for the waste of the developed regions.
The piece certainly has a wow factor with its concertina design juxtaposing a poster image of young white women shopping and having fun with fashion. It’s an advertising image of the kind to lure youth with money into trying to achieve happiness by buying consumer items. On the other side of the concertina is the felted image of the waste grounds in Africa – I think it’s a composite of two dumping sites in Uganda and Congo – and depending on where you stand, you see more or less of one of the other sides of this situation.
The fashion branding allows Scott to have some little satirical pointers, using labelling of the company Shein, considered to be a top offender in the production of low-quality fashion and its unsustainable synthetic manufacture and consumption of oil. Scott is introducing me in this work to the global impact of fashion on the ecology of our planet and is doing this through the material itself. Scott’s work uses the Nuno felting technique in which wool and fibres become entangled through an open weave fabric, giving a support to the cloth and allowing pictorial representation. The felt blurs and softens the image. It is, in part, the low quality of fashion that leads to so much being dumped. Maggie Scott has made a high-quality textile work to be valued, shown and re-shown.
Lorna Hamilton-Brown, the others mainly refer to her as the leader of the group with great love and respect, is one of those bold makers who are choosing a maligned craft as the focus of their practice, helping us re-see this skill as being of value and helping us re-imagine its potential. She creates knitted magazine covers and found this format to be excellent for commenting on social artefacts, with its combination of headline and portraiture of the cover model. I’m taken by the artistry and humour of Hamilton’s work, the mix of register and the bold activism made flesh through fine yarn work. Her other piece was created for Yarnadelic and is a study on ‘Woman Blue’, originally sung by an unnamed eighteen-year-old black woman imprisoned for murder in America in the 1930s.
Paul Hope handcrafts black histories and creates artwork from his research in finely stitched leather. He has focused on the slave deck image from the transatlantic voyages in which so many enslaved people were transported across the ocean in the most abject misery, unfathomable. I find it so hard to focus upon their experience, yet we have to look to understand why and how we are here today.
Elaine Mulling’s work is installational, with two large sculptures focusing on exploitation and injustice. The blue in her pieces jumps out. They really are phenomenal visual interpretations and have such a presence in the gallery. The blue is symbolic – it signifies cobalt, that element that is used in lithium-ion batteries. As we strive to be green and use eco-power, we pay a human and landscape cost in Africa.
Eugene Palmer’s ‘Songs on the Sea’ returns to historical slavery, a pull felt by the descendants of slavery. Palmer’s ‘Songs’ are two significant paintings, painted so well using photographic imagery floating on flat backgrounds to make a collection to understand. He is focusing on his own community and thinking of his Hastings home. The sea and its connection to the slave trade.
Overall myself and my editor Paul at Artlyst, are so impressed by this show that I agree when he says it could be in the Turner Prize shortlist exhibition. We feel proud by association to be in a town with such artists and with a far-sighted, well-appointed gallery that gives such an opportunity for this developmental group show. I feel almost quite tearful and have written quite enough, so I’ll stop now, but I really felt this collection of work deserved my time, contemplation and action.