Where the art feels like home
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“It felt like a homecoming,” says Wangari Mathenge of a trip back to her childhood home in Hampstead Garden Suburb in 2016. Now living in Chicago, the Nairobi-born artist spent her first four years living in north London, and while her memories of that time are hazy, they have been formative. The pilgrimage ignited a deep excavation of her parents’ way of life – and her own. “It’s bizarre,” she says. “The place hasn’t changed since the 1970s, and weirdly enough, being there didn’t feel strange at all. It felt happy; it was home.”
Her trip has sparked a rich seam of work, most recently seen at her latest solo show Wangari Mathenge: You Are Here in London. Her work will also be at group shows including Black American Portraits at Lacma until 17 April, 2022, and Stretching The Body at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin until 15 March, 2022. At Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, she recreated her Hampstead sitting room in forensic detail. Carefully piecing together photographs, memories and conversations, this time-capsule interior was about as true to the original as it’s possible to be – from the doilies that cover the chairs to the Jungle Book viewfinder on the side table, and her parents’ ABBA and Cliff Richard records.
“I never felt detached from family life in England because my parents would fill in the gaps,” explains Mathenge. “As their stories are retold and retold you begin to feel like they’re primary memories – but they’re actually just imposed on you through the years.”
Mathenge is one of a diverse collection of artists whose cultural histories are mined in work that seeks to observe, interrogate and ultimately shape identity. Whether it’s visiting their parents’ homeland, or returning to their own birthplace after many years, this exploration is at once physical and psychological.
For the Polish artist Marcin Rusak, returning to Warsaw after living abroad forced a recontextualisation of his work. “When I came back from studying at the RCA in London it felt like going on holiday,” he says. “The pace was much slower, and it’s so much easier to travel – to the mountains, to the beach, to the lakes – that I started to think of Poland as one big city.”
Crucially Rusak, who renders textiles, furniture and ethereal Perma sculptures from otherwise discarded, decomposing flora, began to develop a deeper recognition of the seasonality and natural beauty of his homeland (where they recognise not four but six seasons). His return also kindled a fascination with his maternal grandfather, a flower grower and orchid specialist. “The nostalgia of coming back after being an exile made me want to connect with this crazy plant scientist who travelled the world trying to assemble his garden of dreams.”
Reconnecting with these familial roots – some of his materials now come from MAK, the boutique florist run by his mother and sister – has also opened his eyes to the craft culture of Poland. And it’s this heritage that he has explored in his latest work, an otherworldly sculptural installation wrought from zinc, wire, jute and dried flowers that’s part-human, part-hay cone, and riffs on a pastel by the artist Stanislaw Wyspianski. Currently on show at the William Morris Gallery in London as part of Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement (1890-1918) until 30 January, it reflects Rusak’s own heightened awareness of his “Polishness” and its central themes.
When the Brooklyn-based British artist Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, whose work typically explores his Nigerian heritage through dynamic figurative canvases, first moved to the States to study, his experiences largely served to highlight his Britishness rather than his blackness. His latest work is a marked by a poignant return to London via Mexico City after his father died at the height of the pandemic.
“I’m used to being a nomad,” he says of the tragic journey to his hometown. “But this was extreme nomad. I was suddenly thrust into these new cultural spaces that were inspiring and informative, and left an undeniable imprint on my work.” Fashioning makeshift studios in his aunt’s London garage, and in various Mexican hotel rooms, he found a new kind of liberation and began producing loose sketches on paper, many of which form the foundation of his current solo show Tunji Adeniyi-Jones: Astral Reflections at Charleston, East Sussex, until 13 March, 2022.
“It made the work much more elastic and versatile,” says Adeniyi-Jones of the series. “I became much more free to place my figures in a non-space that’s floral or abstract and colourful, but not specific to a time or a place.”
A seismic journey to Dakar in Senegal at the start of 2020 with the artist-in-residence programme Black Rock also proved significant. “A lot of my work up until this trip was tapping into my Nigerian heritage, but from a distance,” he says. “I might go back to Nigeria once a year for a family occasion, but mostly I’d be pulling from ethereal resources I’d see in images or at the Brooklyn Museum… Suddenly in Senegal I had this direct source of history and culture that I was invested in first hand.” All this is wonderfully evident in the canvases that comprise his forthcoming debut display at the White Cube in Bermondsey this November. “We did a lot of dancing and saw a lot of dancing, and that has really fed into the expression and movement of the characters in my work,” he says. The paintings’ palette is often pulled straight from the streets of Senegal and Mexico City, “but I’m also still in grief, so a lot of the work comes from a place of enforced healing.”
When Sol Calero returned to her native city of Caracas in 2015, she found Venezuela in ruins, both literally and metaphorically. Now living in Berlin, this homecoming experience shook the very foundations of her being. “That idea of going home is especially complex when the country you come from is so dangerous and has deteriorated beyond all recognition,” says Calero, who left for the Canary Islands at 17. “What happens to your ideas of home when your homeland has essentially disappeared?”
This question has fuelled an entire body of work, with Calero looking back at her Latin American origins from her newfound home in Europe. Her newest public work is a mural and mosaic inside Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse station that’s a riot of colour and pattern. But though her paintings and installations are vibrant, her work belies a darker story. In 2019, Calero was commissioned by Tate Liverpool to create El Autobús, a commentary on the disparity between western travellers’ expectations and the harsh reality inspired by tourist buses. Now the bus is embarking on its own tour, pulling up at Kiasma, part of the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki, next spring.
Finally, the American painter Cy Gavin takes Calero’s feeling of transience further in an exhibit of sublime paintings at David Zwirner in London (23 November to 23 December). After a difficult period of exploring his Afro-Caribbean roots in a homecoming trip to Bermuda in 2014, Gavin is keen to move on. “I’m not an ethnographer or a sociologist,” he says. “I’m not speaking for a whole group of people.”
Tracing the trajectory of the planet, Gavin’s cosmic voyaging reflects the detachment he feels from the sociopolitical concerns that have dominated his past. There are moons, stars, trees, flowers, geological phenomena – and even a portrait of the tiny islet he has amassed from excavated earth and restored meadow close to his studio in upstate New York. With Untitled (Stars) 2021, he hopes to convey the futility of conflict in the face of global threats. “Just being able to see the stars enables you to situate yourself cosmically,” he says. Think of it as a celestial homecoming.