The Road to Nowhere

Dalia Al-Dujaili on identity, storytelling and the importance of providing a platform for second-generation immigrants

Hark1karan, Zimmers of Southall (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020-2021)

Identity is complex a complex thing. In The Road to Nowhere, a magazine from Dalia Al-Dujaili, a British-Iraqi editor and journalist, the concept of identity is torn apart, scrumpled and analysed as she addresses her frustration with a lack of accurate representation of second-generation immigrants – where so often are diaspora communities spoken for in the media and therefore turned into a “political issue only”, she says. Where in fact, migration is a vital part of global culture, and The Road To Nowhere – now in its second issue – seeks to highlight this through a celebratory merging of art and writing, told first-hand from “third-culture kids”. She says, “Humans are mosaics of their experiences, their upbringings, the people around them and their personal history. So none of us fit neatly into a box, we’re all so messy and complicated!” Below, Dalia reveals her reasons for making the magazine, what we can expect to find inside the latest issue and her personal thoughts on identity.

Courtesy of Angela Hui

What are your reasons for starting The Road to Nowhere, what provoked it?

Oof, so many reasons… I started it during lockdown of 2020 as a way to pass the time as I was still a uni student then and didn’t have much to do. It was partly a way to raise aid money for the famine in Yemen which remains one of the largest humanitarian crises in history yet receives almost no media coverage. 

However, mostly, I was frustrated at how little agency diaspora communities have over telling their own stories. Representation is few and far between; when we are represented, we are spoken for and don’t get to choose how we’re shown. I was annoyed at how migration was almost always made into a political issue only. Whilst obviously it’s inherently political, it’s so much more than that. Migration creates culture and art, feeds creativity, inspires us, connects communities and reminds us to be human, so I found the constant politicising aspects a bit objectifying, belittling and limiting. 

On the other hand, migration is one of the most important aspects of humankind’s growth and its richness and is the oldest and most natural phenomenon, yet under current policies in the UK and the EU, migration has never been under more scrutiny; immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are fighting some of the most aggressive and oppressive policies. As children of immigrants, we owe our livelihoods to freedom of movement, so I’m desperate to fight totalitarian control of movement and borders through creativity and joy.

Edmund Arevalo

What can we expect to find inside issue two? How does it compare to the debut edition?

Firstly, it’s so much bigger than the last issue! Almost double the number of pages. And you can expect to find an extremely diverse range of stories; for this issue, we have contributors with backgrounds from Aotearoa, Ghana, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Poland, and many more. The contributors use a range of poetry, fiction, personal essays, photography, illustration, digital art and film, and we have several interviews with trailblazers like Rohan Rakhit and Angela Hui. So I really sought out stories which greatly differed from one another but, at the same, were all connected by the same thread of their very human and sometimes even mundane nature. 

Family meal before service

Can you pick out a couple of favourite stories featured in the magazine and talk me through them? 

Oh my goodness, very difficult to pick out just a couple. But if I have to… Zain’s story is one that I keep returning to. Not only is his personal story absolutely fascinating – the move from Lahore, Pakistan to East London, then Morecambe – but the way he talks about objects, and clothes especially, as archives of our families’ migration is so relatable and poetic. Again, it’s just a deeply human story that almost any diaspora kid can relate to, no matter their background. Also, Zain’s work is just absolutely stunning. 

My interview with Angela Hui is another that I really treasure and feel very honoured to have in the magazine. Angela is about to publish her own book, Growing Up in a Chinese Takeaway, and we discussed her upbringing in rural Wales working for her family’s business. What I love about her story is how deeply Welsh and Chinese she feels. It was fascinating hearing her speak so passionately about Welsh culture and a love of Wales. I think people often forget how we do in fact love the countries we grew up in, as well as loving the cultures our parents imported for us from their homelands; Angela’s story is a reminder that we don’t have to ‘pick a side’.

Natasha Zubar

What does identity mean to you? And how have you represented (or scrutinised) the concept of identity in the magazine?

Identity is both everything and nothing. It’s a made-up concept and whist I deeply resonate with my identity as an Arab Brit, I also try to reject rigid notions of ‘identity’ because they can be so limiting. Many diaspora feel the same way because we fit in “everywhere and nowhere at the same time”, to echo Theo Gould in his TRTN piece, Mixed. I also think some aspects of identity politics can be more harmful and divisive than uniting. Identity to me is just being able to express the different parts of yourself without feeling the need to cater to a certain audience or change yourself to fit into other people’s boxes. Humans are mosaics of their experiences, their upbringings, the people around them and their personal history. So none of us fit neatly into a box, we’re all so messy and complicated! 

I think a good example of this in the magazine is Hark1karan’s Zimmers of Southall series (the cover image). Other than being obviously stunning, this series is so refreshing because it’s almost got nothing to do with Sikh culture – it’s about a community which is devoted to classic BMWs and which happens to be Sikh. The subjects of the images are evidently Sikh because of their clothing and appearance, but the series isn’t making their Sikh identity the sole focus, which just really humanises this community and de-exoticises them. Hark, perhaps unintentionally, re-writes this stereotype of South Asians being associated with Bollywood, curry and turbans, but he also shows how this community haven’t rejected their culture either; they manage to fuse their saris and Bhangra with their love of German Whips. I mean, to me, it’s just quietly genius. 

I hope in this magazine I have shown how identity is both a beautiful thing and ultimately a futile exercise – you will never be able to fully embody one identity and the magazine is part of a mission to learn how to accept this as a beneficial and powerful existence instead of it being simply frustrating. 

Rachna, Mom, 2021

What are the key takeaways, what can the audience learn?

Joy! I just want people to feel joy, and feel more open to listening to stories that challenge their views.

What’s next for you?

We have a couple exciting events lined up this year with the magazine, including a sold out screening of shorts at the Barbican, Finding Home, Forging Identity, and we’ll be selling the magazine at Bow Arts with Baesianz Makers Market. 

Currently, I’m just pushing and promoting issue two as best I can. We already have ideas and collaborators for issue three – I’d like to keep growing our online platform to showcase more audio-visual content, and I’d love to keep collaborating with arts collectives, organisations and institutions on in-person events like workshops, exhibitions and screenings/readings. But to be transparent, we need funding to make the next one even better, and the bigger our audience, the easier it is to convince someone to give us money… And as you know, funding is competitive and extremely difficult to attain. So the work starts now in anticipation for next year. 

The Road to Nowhere can be purchased here.

Jyni and Chuey, by Jai Toor, 2022

Marco Russo

Mirror Mother, Lorena Levi, 2021

Mixed, Theo Gould, 2021

Senja, by Maddie Sellers

Yousef Sabry, for The Road to Nowhere, 2022

Zain Ali, by Nancy Haslam-Chance, courtesy of Zain Ali

Hark1karan, Zimmers of Southall, (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020-2021)

Hark1karan, Zimmers of Southall, (Copyright © Hark1karan, 2020-2021)

The Golden City

Mimi Plumb’s new book documents a world grappling with climate change, war and poverty

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

There are countless reasons why someone might refer to San Francisco as The Golden city – the consuming, orange sunsets; the constant rolling fog that heats up the air between the buildings; or its involvement in the California Gold Rush. But even before it was nicknamed The Golden City, San Francisco wasn’t even called San Fransisco. It was only in 1847 that it was given its title, just a year before the Gold Rush which sparked a surge in the population. Then, in 1906, California experienced what’s deemed the worst earthquake of all time, shaking miles upon miles with impact reaching the Bay area. In fact, it’s noted that some remember it as the fire that ripped through the city, giving it a misleading title of San Fransisco Earthquake. San Francisco has an interesting past – its history still looms and is felt in the hills, landscapes and even the people.

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

Mimi Plumb, is an American photographer currently based in Berkley, California, beholds distinctive memories of the area of San Fransisco. So much so that she’s now compiled these past thoughts and snapshots into a book, aptly named The Golden City and published by Stanley / Barker. Mimi grew up on the edges of the city, where the rents were cheap and humdrum of city life was more diluted and dispersed. “San Francisco, known as The Golden City, truly is a golden city,” Mimi tells me. “But, as with most cities, it has an underbelly, which is where I lived and what I photographed in the 1980s.” The city during this time was rife in radical activism, with inhabitants taking to the streets in opposition of gentrification and the policies coming from the White House. It was a tumultuous time for politics and society, which caused sharp contrasts to those living in a gentrified, inner-city world and those on the fringe. Protests and anarchism subsequently forged and the arrival of a more underground, DIY culture, music and art stared to grow. But it wasn’t without its downside. 

“I was an art student working at a minimum wage job,” explains Mimi of the time. “I lived on the edge of the city where the rents were cheap. I photographed the environment around me, often taking daily walks in my neighbourhood of Bernal Heights; Dog Patch, along the bay; and the Mission District.” In one part of the neighbourhood named Warm Water Cove, located on the bay, Mimi observed captured a pile of tires and abandoned cars. In another spot, she climbed the chimney of a power station that was positioned above the 25th Street Pier – she’d sit and watch the planes swooshing above. Mimi is an observer and this becomes explicitly clear in her photography, that which steers from bleak landscape shots to the more intimate, candid portrait. All of which is shot in signature black and white and features a distinctive luminous tone – an ominous hue that probably couldn’t be captured anywhere else apart from The Golden City. “I actually began this project in the early 1980s using colour film,” says Mimi, “but the blue skies didn’t convey the edgy content of the work.”

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

To accurately (and artfully) tell her stories, Mimi has divided the book into sequences. The first half features notes from The Golden City itself, “predominantly of landscapes in and around the city,” she says. The work in this part is particularly distinguished as she documents the link between “wealth and power to climate change and poverty” – that which is pictured through angular cliff edges framing the city, almost like a colony of concrete ants in the distance; or busy streets peppered with suited city dwellers juxtaposed with the stark, deteriorating landscapes. Then, you reach the middle point: “The breaking heart and the two spreads that follow represent the heart of the book for me,” she adds. “The second half of the book, mostly portraits of both friends and strangers, reflects the psychological angst that I felt in myself and my community, both then and still now. One of the last pictures in the book – the girl in the polka dot dress hiding her head – is a stand-in for me not knowing what to do about it all. And my cat, Pearl, waiting and crouching is a portrait of me, as the world grapples with climate change, war and poverty.”

What’s most interesting, however, is that although the work in The Golden City was shot between 1984 and 2000, the topics, themes and issues explored are especially relevant today. The world over continues to tackle the warming climate, the dangerous policies imposed by the government and increasing poverty, not least in San Francisco. Mimi’s work, then, reminds us of the cyclical nature of things – that life and history tends to repeat itself. She concludes: “I see this book as a testament to the time and place that we are all experiencing.”

Mimi Plumb’s The Golden City is published by Stanley/Barker

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

Sem Langendijk: Haven

In an exclusive chat with the photographer, Sem reveals the details behind his new book documenting the effects of gentrification across post-industrial cities of the Western world

Look around at your local dwelling and you’ll likely notice change of some sorts. And not just the seasonal kind – the blossoming trees or sprouting bulbs, for example – but more in the way of concrete; the gentrification of our cities. Whether it’s the increasing density of luxury flats, the growing peaks of the buildings or the demolition of community-led spaces, our environments are becoming dispersed, pushing those unable to afford its increasing prices out onto the edges. We’re in the height of long-term displacement and our cities are becoming sterile.

This is the crux of Sem Langendijk’s new book Haven. An in-depth study into the displacement of urban citizens, the project is shot in an atypical documentary style and told through the distinctive lens of the photographer. Having grown up in the “hinterland” of Amsterdam, he witnessed first-hand the effects of gentrification over the years, inspiring him to start researching the disused docklands in his home country, as well as the harbours of New York and London. This was between 2015 and 2020, during which he published a three-part, site-specific series named The Docklands Project, telling “stories about those specific communities and district”the backbone to this latest accomplishment, Haven.

An unavoidably autobiographical book, Haven is a coming-of-age tale that sees the narrator, Sem, navigate adulthood amongst the growth of the world around him. It feels personal just as much as it does activist, achieved through a mix of intimate portraits and stark (although oddly warming) imagery of the urban landscape. Yet surprisingly, less so is it about the places specifically, and more is it an open-ended project structured around the lives of the people, published for infinite interpretations. We see subjects building their own structures on the waters edge, posing in front of the lens with might and force; empty buildings and forgotten facades left to decay; the children growing up here. Each element throughout Haven has its own chronicle, its own history.

What we do know, though, is that what Sem has experienced is something of a universal one. We’ve all witnessed the mass evolution of the modern world and the effects it’s had on the civilians. But some might just not be aware of it yet. And through Haven, these matters are revealed and confronted head on. Below, in an exclusive chat with Sem, he shares the details about the project, what displacement means to him and what he hopes to achieve from the work.

What does displacement mean to you and how have you addressed this within Haven?

As fringes of the city are redeveloped into waterfront districts, which are to attract high incomes and offer luxurious housing, the displacement that occurs here is that of the communities that had previously been cast to these abandoned areas, where no one else wanted to live. Often these communities are referred to as city nomads, people who only temporarily live somewhere. But the fact was, these people ended up staying in these fringes for decades due to the postponement of redevelopment. It’s enough time to build a home, have a family and get grounded there. One of the environments I photographed for the project is very similar to where I lived as a child. In the book, this is where portraits are dominant. In the later stages of the book, the portraits are less frequent and become more anonymous. The people are replaced by the urban fabric of a modern city; glass, concrete, hard shadows. I wanted to gradually change the atmosphere of the book, and through doing so, address the issue of communities being forced out of the city. 

You’ve also described the book as being autobiographical, how so? In what way have you tied this in with your own personal experiences?

In the edit for Haven, I decided to build a narrative around a boy who grows up simultaneously with the city’s transformation. Gentrification is a general phenomenon occurring in a lot of Western, former industrial cities. My motivation to make this work was very personal, and the voice I wanted to use was my own, the subjective one. Who am I to make this project and what is my relation to it? 

As someone who has lived through 30 years of city renewal, it is an autobiographical story. The opening image of the book is a portrait of Tommy; when I made this photo it felt as if I was looking at myself, 25 years back in time. The edit jumps to different environments, from an industrial ship wharf turned into an experimental living site, to the areas where we encounter metal and wood workers, garage shops and other businesses that relate to the harbour. It comes to an end in a financial district, which is a completely different world from where it started. These all share the history that they were once the docklands where ships were built, and relate to the different stages of gentrification. 

Can you give some more detail about the places you visited?

I picked the places I photographed and researched specifically. I wanted to trace back the timeline of the change I witnessed, and compare how former ship wharf areas were used. 

The Docklands Project is divided into three different series. The first is dedicated to a community that had lived on an abandoned ship wharf for over twenty years; I lived in an abandoned rail station next to the Central Station in Amsterdam, which was a similar place. I had stayed with this community over winter in a caravan, two years prior to starting this project (2013). From 2017 to 2019 I visited the community frequently, up to the point when they had to vacate the land, after legal procedures were lost. 

For the second chapter, I looked for a ship wharf in Red Hook, a former Dutch settlement, and found a lot of resemblance with the area I lived in during my teenage years. The second series deals with its contrasts in architecture and the increase of wealth to the area. The public space is changing, I encountered a more privatised use of the space around houses. In some cases, the architecture almost seems to turn its back on the street, with blind walls which make it less inviting for visitors to enter the area. The urban landscape is becoming more structured and planned, with less options for the citizens to shape and alter their environment. The final chapter looks at the Docklands of London, a city which early on invested into these areas and saw a potential. Now a new financial district, these docklands are private lands, managed by corporate companies from overseas. Instead of police, private security patrols the streets. In some areas you’re asked for ID and proof of address. It is almost dystopian to me, but it is the direction that regeneration has resulted to that’s steered by capitalistic ideals. In Haven, the work is brought together and mixed, to create the idea of one city that transforms over time. 

Who did you meet while photographing? Tell me more about your subjects.

I’ve photographed a number of people who I thought were inspiring, often young adults who were still discovering their place in the city, attracted to the buzz, whether it were artists, musicians or high school kids that were having a lunch break. I’m photographing strangers, people whom I’ve never met before, but I am intrigued by people who, sometimes distinctively, express they’re out of the norm. Whether it’s as small as an earring or tattoos, or more expressive hairstyles, I tend to turn my camera to people who show some type of resistance. At least, that’s my interpretation of it, what I project on them. 

The work deals with freedom and the freedom to be different – to be present in the city’s demography. One effect of gentrification in an increasingly more homogeneous demography of the citizens, and more segregation. The people I photographed for Haven are part of marginalised communities. By making a book about place, but including the portraits as a significant element of the work, I mean to amplify their existence and presence, and importance within the city. I believe diversity and inclusivity are essential for the city’s dynamic. If we lose these elements, we might create cities that lose their importance in our society. It is here that innovative (new) ideas are born, often by looking at something from a different perspective, fuelled by the input of the unexpected.

What are the main causes of displacement and what can be done to preserve our environments? 

I think that is difficult to answer. The systems that are resulting into displacement are not so easy to separate into main causes, besides maybe rising rent. Something I’ve experienced is the dispersing of communities and the vast demolition of old parts of the city. When a large part of a community is replaced by different people, the social infrastructure is disrupted. Your neighbour moves, but if all your neighbours move, why would you stay? 

Next to the people, the urban fabric is something we relate to, as anchors and reference points. In many cases, large parts of the industrial buildings were demolished, to make way for apartment blocks, with different materials. I feel like the aim should be for a more diverse type of urban fabric in regenerated areas. Leave some of the old, both physical as socially – not everyone needs the same luxury. Keep these affordable, so people can stay. Integrate the new into the old. In a way, would it not be beautiful if everything that is present in Haven, can co-exist in the same time, the same area? Cross-pollination is key for the city’s progressive nature. I think this can be increased, or at least preserved within cities, by being more aware of the potential of some old areas. 

What are they key takeaways from Haven, what can the audience learn?

The intention of the book is to leave things open for the viewer to interpret. The second chapter is more informative: a short history of harbour areas after the 1980’s, with additional perspectives from sociologists who studied our cities in length. But there is a focus in the book on people that shape their own environment, that re-invent space for new, needed purposes. In today’s cities we face scarcity of affordable housing, while office buildings sit empty. There is a need for experimental solutions. Certain communities and their way of life can be valuable to how we think about city renewal. 

All photography courtesy of Sem Langendijk. Haven is available to pre-order here.

A Symbol of Love

Strength and resilience rise to the fore through the first major UK exhibition of artist Robert Indiana, currently on show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park 

Robert Indiana, LOVE (Red Blue Green), 1966–1998, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Arriving at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on a cloudless morning in March, it was strange to think that just days ago one of the worst storms in years had wreaked havoc here. The 500-acre park had lost three of its ancient trees; the grounds were left muddy and the branches bare. But, in a moment of respite, there was a refreshing sense of hope and resilience in the air, as well as the welcomed scent of spring exuded through the dozens daffodils sprouting from the earth.

Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, the park has been at the epicentre of contemporary sculpture for the past four decades. There are currently more than 80 works from major sculptors peppered amongst its grounds including Phyllida Barlow, Ai Weiwei, Joan Miró, Damien Hirst and Barbara Hepworth, with site-specific works from Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and James Turrell. It’s a treasure trove for art lovers, nature enthusiasts and dog walkers alike; there’s something for everyone whether it’s a leisurely stroll, a picnic, a gawk at the 18th-century Bretton Hall estate, or to revel in the work of some of the world’s best-known sculptors. 

Robert Indiana, Exploding Numbers, 1964-66, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

There’s much to explore, not least in the park’s ongoing exhibition programme located in six indoor galleries and the outdoors. For 2022, the YSP opens the doors to the first major UK exhibition of American artist Robert Indiana, spanning 60 years of his magnanimous sculpting career with many works previously unseen. Additionally, there’s a selection of drawings by sculptor and land artist David Nash presented in The Weston Gallery and Bothy Gallery, while Yukihiro Akama’s miniature wooden houses are shown in the YSP Centre. A common denominator throughout it all is a profound feeling of love and strength, addressed through the key topics of the major exhibitions – that being politics and sustainability. This is oozed through the works entirely but most prominently at the entrance of the site, Indiana’s iconic Love (Red Blue Green) (1966-1998), stands proudly as if it were watching over us all, reminding us of one of the most universally felt emotions.

Clare Lilley, who’s recently been appointed the new director of YSP, spoke of the “incredible coincidence” of making this exhibition at this point in time. The moment she saw Love being installed at the park, for instance, she sobbed. The invasion of Ukraine had just been announced and – holding back her tears greatly – she remarks how “love is symbolic for the current world”. Love couldn’t be more symbolic or more pertinent, despite the fact that it was crafted decades ago. 

Robert Indiana, LOVE WALL, 1966-2006, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

The tone was set for the remainder of the day as Clare took us on a guided tour of the park, first beginning with Indiana’s outdoor structures allude to his fascination with the graphic, numerical form. “Numbers fill my life,” he stated, penned in the release. “They fill my life even more than love. We are immersed in numbers from the moment we’re born.” Heading indoors, we gazed at the surprisingly mixed-media works; brass pieces constructed to look like wood, earlier collage forms, or phallic columns addressing the impact of the AIDS crisis to name a few. Tracing six decades through 56 sculptures, we saw the artist’s practice in full swing as he depicted his own version of the American Dream – a darker one at that. Forging a connection between politics, society and art, Indiana’s momentous career has poked hard at the world for its discrimination of LGBTQIA+ communities and racism. It’s a hopeful reminder of love and unity. 

The day continued as we strolled through the luscious grounds, inhaling the fresh air and either avoiding or ingesting the Marmite pieces from Hirst in the nearby distance. David Nash was our next stop – a painterly depiction of our relationship with nature perceived through an evolving study of trees – before heading to witness James Turril’s Deer Shelter Skyspace, a moment of calm as we peaked through the cut out roof of an 18th-century Grade II Listed building (an old deer shelter). Swapping the foot for a sturdy Land-rover, the final steps of the day were observed through the window as the helpful guide navigated us through the on-site sculptures and artworks. A personal favourite being the biodegradable pavilion created by Studio Morison, where timber, thatch and compacted earth has been constructed to allow visitors in for a moment of peace and quiet. Eventually, the piece will fall in on itself and decompose. It’s a stark comment on the fragility of nature, echoed by the fallen trees and bent branches from the storm.

YSP is undeniably a tranquil setting, and the final moments of the day were with concluded with calm, wind-hit faces and an unanimous feeling of contentment. Consumed by nature-rich parklands and the evocative artworks on display, I couldn’t think of a more apt location for discussing themes of love, resilience and our relationship with the planet – a greater reflection of what’s happening in the world right now.

 

Robert Indiana: Sculpture 1958-2018 is on show at YSP’s Underground Gallery and Open Air between 12 March 2022-8 January 2023

Robert Indiana, American Dream # 5 (The Golden Five), 1980, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, AMOR (Red Yellow), 1998-2006, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Ash, 1985, cast 2017, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Love Is God, 1964, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Robert Indiana, Monarchy, 1969, installation view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Artwork: © 2022 Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

America in Crisis

A group exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery explores decades of social change in the US

The Selma March, Alabama, USA, 1965. © Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

In the 60s, a project entitled America In Crisis was released into the world conceived by photographer Charles Harbutt and Magnum New York’s then-bureau chief Lee Jones. Featuring imagery from 18 photographers, the show, book plus accompanying short film and installation explored the issues prevailing in the country at the time. This was decades ago and little has progressed, point blank. In a new revisiting at London’s Saatchi Gallery, an exhibition of the same name sheds light on social change in the US with a group exhibition of 40 leading American photographers such as Bruce Davidson, Zora J Murff, Kris Graves, Stacy Kranitz and Mary Ellen Mark. Multiple similar themes from the work proceeding have been brought to the fore: inequality, racism, poverty and the demise of the American Dream to name a few, which are coupled with the more modern-day markers like Covid-19 and the rise of Black Lives Matter.

Curated by Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris and Tara Pixley, the exhibition – which runs until 3 April 2022 – illustrates many deliberate comparisons towards the original project. This includes the same chapter structure as before, with titles such as The Streak of Violence, The Deep Roots of Poverty and The Battle of Equality making appearances. It also consciously sheds light on a diverse and contemporary presentation of photographers today, featuring honest and thought-provoking imagery from those who are actually embedded in the stories – like Zora and his mixed-media narration of power, race and privilege, or Stacy Kranitz who’s spent years documenting a community in Appalachia. Below, I chat to Sophie, one of the show’s curators, to discuss the danger of repeating history and the wavering power of the image in today’s digital world.

The Capitol, 6 January 2021. Washington D.C. © Reuters/Leah Millis

Can you tell me about the parallels between the new and old exhibition with Magnum Photos?

Clearly, things have changed. I studied history and history of art college, but in my day and age, you were told that there was an idea of history of progress. Maybe it’s just getting older, but it all becomes a bit circular after a while. 

In 1968, it was a massively tumultuous year globally. Charles Harbutt felt there was an opportunity and a need to create the original project, and it was that same period of time leading up to an election that he and the Jones had the instinct it was going to be quite a pivotal moment. 

We’ve used the original framework, but we involved all chapter headings except one; a chapter on the unwanted Vietnam war in 68. We didn’t replicate that into the contemporary project, because we felt that there isn’t an unwanted war or any contemporary equivalents. Now, you could say Afghanistan, but honestly, we felt that there was so much going on with the domestic policy issues that we were addressing, that to bring that in would have made it too complicated. 

In 2020, there was the unlawful killing of George Floyd, and that was really the catalyst for the explosion on the streets of Black Lives Matter. And there’s Covid-19, which was a very different experience to the original exhibition. There are a number of different catalysts and contexts. However, the core premise is the American Dream versus reality on the ground, and the long form issues within, the founding of America, the slavery and the issues around equality; all of these things are long-form issues. The Deep Roots of Poverty being another section that addresses the fact that, despite it being such a wealthy country, there’s a lot of people below the poverty line. So there were a number of things that we felt still resonated 50 years after the original project.

Smithville, Tennessee, 2015 © Stacy Kranitz

How do you think photography can impact social change? And how does this exhibition highlight that?

I don’t think photography changes things by itself. I think the days of believing in that are long gone. We all take photographs but it is a very slippery medium; I think it can be re-contextualised in lots of different ways. That’s what the third room deals with – the fact that people tell stories with photographs that sometimes shift the meaning of that image completely. 

What I do think, though, is that because it’s a recognisable medium, we all know how to take pictures and there’s a way to gain a better understanding the world around us. I think it is a language, despite its mutability, and it does inform us about and gives access to points of view; it’s all about acknowledging that it provides a window into different perspectives on the world. 

I think there’s also something to be said for the still image. There’s so much visual noise out there; we’re all hopelessly addicted to our phones. I think there’s something quite meditative about standing in front of an individual picture and just engaging. I really feel this is a project to be seen in the space that it’s shown. It gives you time to pause for thought. It’s also telling that there’s a lot of different strategies within the show from the individual practitioners, in terms of how they choose to communicate using their photographs. 

Bungalow Family with Last Ash Tree, Midway, Chicago, USA, 2018. © Paul D’Amato

What would you say are the key takeaways for visitors of the exhibition – to educate, to steer away from the noise of the digital world?

It’s interesting to see how history can repeat itself. I don’t want to oversimplify, but I want people to be more conscious of how they read images, the power of photography and the importance of it as communication as well as an artistic medium. 

Some of these earlier images would have been viewed by the original audience in 1969 as news photographs, and now they’re almost iconic, which I hate as a word. But something like Bruce Davidson and the Selma Marches, they have such a power as images; they’re almost talismanic because they’ve been reproduced multiple times. Then the reboot was referenced a lot during the Black Lives Matter protests pre-2020 as a kind of seminal protest image. Photography is an incredible, aesthetic medium. I want people to enjoy the layers of the show and how we encounter photography. The top line is to engage with the issues that have allied between both eras, but also to be conscious of photography, how we encounter it and read it and to do it in a considered way.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a joint Senate Judiciary Committee and Commerce Committees hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. © Reuters/Leah Millis

Grant Park, Chicago, 1968 © Charles Harbutt

Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020. Courtesy of Sasha Wolf Projects © Kris Graves

Pink Sidewalk, Florida, 2017. From the series Floodzone. © Anastasia Samoylova

Massive Support for Richard Nixon at the Republican Convention. Miami, Florida, USA, 1968. © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

The Capitol, Washington, USA, January 6th, 2020 © Balazs Gardi

America in Crisis, organised by Saatchi Gallery, opens from 21 January to 3 April 2022. The exhibition is curated by Sophie Wright, Gregory Harris from Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and academic Tara Pixley. Tickets from £5. Members go for free.

My Hijab Has a Voice

Jodie Bateman’s empowering series raises awareness of the difficulties Muslims face in the West

Jodie Bateman, a photographer who grew up in Earlsfield, London, converted to Islam in December 2017. During this period of her life, Jodie began questioning the stereotypes often pinned with being Muslim and living in Western society. Deciding to record these experiences with her lens, Jodie commenced work on My Hijab Has a Voice: Revisited – an authentic and autobiographical series that both challenges and empowers her subjects. Within the project, she takes predominantly self-portraiture with the odd portrait tossed in for good measure, placing herself and younger sister in the frame as they replicate historical paintings, those that often objectify women. The work is captivating, poised and provoking for the ways in which it demands attention from the viewer; she hopes to share a new perspective, to realign the stigma and to raise awareness of the difficulties Muslims face in the West. Below, I chat to Jodie about her journey into photography, her experiences with converting to Islam and what she strives to achieve through her imagery.

First, it would be great to hear about your journey into photography, what inspired you to pick up a camera?

I first fell in love with photography when I discovered my mum’s boxes of photographs as a little girl. She used to have loads of photographs printed from the little disposal cameras; she always had so many of them and I was always mesmerised by the photograph as a document or object. I remember holding it, looking into its information and then, when I got my first camera phone as a young girl – I think I was around 13 – I started shooting made up shoots with my sisters. That’s how it started. I knew from then on that I loved photography and taking pictures, so I decided to study it at college and so on.

What stories are you hoping to share in your work?

So far, it’s been a personal story about my journey and experiences, especially around the hijab and converting to Islam. Through my work, I’m trying to put a different narrative out there. I hope to take this further in the future and share other Muslim women’s experiences with the hijab too; I just want people to see it from our actual point of view and direct from our voices.

Can you tell me more about your personal experience with converting to Islam, and how this impacted your photography?

It changed my whole style. I found myself, and I realised the stories I wanted to tell and the issues I felt were important to me had changed. It’s had a huge impact on how I feel and how I am able to use photography. It’s such a powerful tool to be able to tell stories and raise awareness of issues, and being able to have your own unique voice with it.  

What’s it like photographing your family, are they happy to be involved? How do you want to represent them in your imagery?

It’s easy because I am so comfortable around them, so I can really just be myself and be free in directing my project how I want to. I’ve never actually gone out of my comfort zone and not shot my family, but they are happy; they’re used to it and they like to take part and support my work In any way.

I guess it depends but, for my project, my little sister is like my muse. I have also done documentary photography with my family, representing them as they are at home as well as our relationships and bonds with each other.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite shots and talk me through them? 

This image is my favourite image from my recent project My Hijab Has A Voice: Revisited. It’s inspired by the painting La Grande Odalisque; it was known for being unnatural in how the nude woman is painted, and in my image she is posed in a similar manner but fully veiled. It may seem unnatural, as paintings and the objectification of women started as being fully nude only for the purpose of pleasing the male viewer – so it’s about reclaiming our bodies. Being fully veiled mimics these types of paintings whilst also showing the beauty in being veiled; our bodies concealed from eyes seeing us in this objectified way.

In this second image from my project My Hijab Has A Voice: Revisited, myself and my sister are fully covered. She is laying on my lap and we are connecting; it’s not sexual, it’s supportive and there are books which convey the message that, as a woman, I am educated. I always get asked if I converted for a man or if I was brainwashed, as if a women cant make an educated decision to be a certain way. it also mimics paintings, as usually they leave bits of information around like mirrors and brushes to convey this vain message that women are in competition and compete against each other.

The last image is another favourite of mine again from my project My Hijab Has A Voice: Revisited. I am holding her head, her hair is out and we are both covered wearing black. This image concept is based around the idea that all women suffer from being told what to wear; whether we are being forced to cover or being forced to uncover, we are constantly being managed by men. This image is like a symbol of support from women to women, no matter what race or religion or how we dress. We should stick by each other and not against each other.

What are the key takeaways for your audience?

I hope it’s a positive reaction and that they are interested in listening. My message is that, as a woman, I can be educated enough to make my own decisions. I don’t need to be influenced by a man, that Islam is not what the media portrays and if people take time to listen to Muslim women especially, they can learn a lot and see a more meaningful side to our stories.

 

London 82

Traverse back to London in the early 80s, as seen through the eyes of photographer Sunil Gupta

The last time I indulged in the work of Sunil Gupta was during his major retrospective at The Photographers Gallery in London last year, during which he presented his politically charged – and narrative heavy – portraits and street shots on topics such as family, race, migration and sexuality. Sunil, who’s an Indian-born Canadian photographer based in London, has become widely acclaimed for his image-making, particularly his documentary work in New York and the lensing of injustices suffered by gay men globally. He tells stories through a merging of honest portraiture, candid street photography and the more intentionally staged, which in turn raises awareness of gay rights plus the struggles and complexities that the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced over time. It was in this very retrospective that I began to understand Sunil’s career-long goal and subject matter: he’s a visual storyteller, an activist and political voice of a generation.

And now, I’m given the opportunity to observe the photographer’s work once again, this time composed as a new book from Stanley/Barker and entitled London 82. The publication marks the moment in which Sunil began experimenting with colour, a time when he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London and started playing around with the processing facilities. With an aim of capturing gay life around the UK’s capital during the early 80s, what first commenced as an inquest into an exclusively gay subject matter soon evolved into a wider exploration of life in the city – encompassing all sorts of characters from gay men, the elderly, migrants and people of colour. Here, Sunil tells me more about this momentous collection, the types of people he sought to photograph and what life was like as a gay man when he arrived in London.

Can you describe what London was like in 1982?

I had come to London as a young gay man at the end of the 1970s from New York with an interest in photography. It felt like a cold and unfriendly place for gays. Also, there was hardly any photography scene worth mentioning at the time. And of course it was so much shabbier than it is nowadays but then so was New York City. London felt depressed, cold, dark and lonely. It was also a place where I acquired a race problem by being South Asian. There were counter cultures like punk, the left, and of course the emerging gay disco scene but most of that was closed off to non-whites. It was the time when I felt very alienated.

What inspired you to pick up a camera in the first instance and start shooting this body of work?

I was in art school and I was learning to make work by project. In between the projects, however, I would do street photography as a way of exercising my camera skills and also of discovering a new city. I had the experience of shooting a specific street, Christopher Street, in New York as the centre of gay public life. However, I could not find anything similar over here, so in the end I settled on a route between where I lived in Fulham, my classes in South Kensington and my outings to the West End. Being in college allowed for some experimentation with colour negatives as equipment and processing were available for free.

What sort of person caught your eye while out shooting?

All kinds of people caught my attention when I was out shooting; gay men, of course, Black and Asian people, various OAPs who appeared randomly amongst the better off in West London. I wasn’t really trying to make any kind of sociological commentary, just some juxtapositions and formal arrangements that caught my eye. Of course all the backgrounds were very much part of the scene.

Can you share some anecdotes from working on this project?

I’m trying to remember if there had been any encounters with people whilst shooting these pictures. Mostly there weren’t, as people really did not want to be spoken to. In that sense, it was very different to my earlier experience of New York. I had to rein myself in and not appear too aggressive whilst I was photographing, as I had to learn to approach people directly and instigate encounters with my camera. People in London didn’t seem to like that very much. One of the things that really struck me was the extremes of wealth and poverty on display amongst the people on the streets. 

How does it feel looking back on this body of work, and how does it compare to the West End today – particularly in terms of queer culture?

What I didn’t realise was that, in a way, I had had a very sheltered life in those few years centred on my very privileged life as a photo student at the RCA in South Kensington. I hadn’t seen these pictures again until very recently when they got scanned. I’m amazed at the kind of naïveté they have from my point of view, since I’m giving everything equal weight; most of my projects were heavily weighted towards some critical stance or the other. London also seems curiously white and the Asians seem to be newly arrived. Contrary to now, when that is certainly not the case, as the West End has become much more diverse. And although London never developed a Christopher Street, it does have a small, touristy version around old Compton Street – a version that was palatable enough to be shown as advertising on airlines promo videos where the city is diverse and tolerant, despite having an appalling record number of arrests of gay for cruising in the 70s.

What can the audience learn from London 82?

I hope the audience can see that, in 1982, London was much less brash and more economically mixed in the centre. People had their own styles of dressing and that seemed to be fine. The streets seemed messy and lived in but that seemed fine as well. Gay men had become clones and were beginning to emerge from the fearfulness of the 1970s. I suppose the key takeaway is that it’s the moment that Thatcher swept into power with her mantra that society does not matter, only individuals do, and that it was every man for himself. That was going to define the 1980s.

What’s next for you, any upcoming plans or projects?

There are several projects online; a new commission is underway that is being organised by Studio Voltaire and the Imperial Health Trust. I’m researching the experiences of long-term users of the HIV OPD at St Mary’s as well as people who have recently had gender reassignment surgery at Charing Cross Hospital. An edited version of this new work will hopefully be on display at those hospitals by the end of February 2022. I am continuing to work with my archives, the next publication will be a text-based one. I am gathering all of my writing on photography over the last 40 years into one publication that will be launched by Aperture in the autumn of 2022. My retrospective exhibition that was at The Photographers Gallery earlier this year is opening at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and will run from January to April 2022.

Sxwrker

Erika Long discusses her serene and tonal photo book lensing the celebratory side of sex work

The world of sex work has been under a scrupulous lens for some time now, forming the subject matter of many practicing artists and photographers today. This includes Erika Long, a photographer originally from Athens and currently based in New York, who has recently launched a book that jolts all preconceived ideas of the adult industry – that which is often portrayed in the media. Titled Sxwrker and published by Catalogue Library, the visual tome is just as much a serene and warming depiction of the photographic medium as it is a powerfully enriching narrative: it’s a celebration.

“Sex work is an incredibly important part of making society continue to operate on a functional level,” Erika tells me of the reasoning behind the project. “We live in a culture where kinks and fetishes are unable to be explored openly by a lot of people, whether it’s due to religion, stigmatisation or what have you, and people’s needs don’t just magically disappear. Sex work is the world’s oldest profession for a reason – they’re like underground therapists, yet we ostracise them and imprison them for it.”

Throughout the pages of Sxwrker, Erika employs a half-candid, half-staged style of photography, zooming in on the twists and curves of her subjects’ bodies which, in turn, reveals an abstracted view of reality. The postures are arched, boot-sucking and confident, but the symbolism goes far deeper than a tonal and somewhat sexy aesthetic; Erika’s pictures have a purpose and, through her intimate image-making, she unravels (almost effortlessly) the personal narratives of her subjects. “Their stories are their own and not mine to share,” she notes, “but what I wanted to accomplish was just to open a dialogue and do what I can to get people with critical opinions on sex work to lighten up.”

In one image, a mask shields the face of one of her subjects, posing topless in front of the camera with a soft yet stark backdrop framing the silhouette; in another, a leg crosses over the other in diamond fishnet tights, positioned sculpturally with the rest of the body hidden from view. Besides the more shapely and abstract, there are also a selection of traditional portraits – like the hazy and sepia-infused shot of someone smiling directly into the lens. It shows a different side to the performative nature of the industry. 

“I’m so sick of seeing sex workers being photographed in a dim lit corner of some motel at a highway rest stop,” she continues to explain. “I’m not saying that’s not a reality for some sex workers, but it’s not the reality of all sex workers. All the sex workers I’ve met are proud of their work and love what they do, and I wanted that to come across in the images.” While working on the project, Erika admits that it’s the most fun she’s ever had while working on set, and this inadvertently shines through the work. “Everyone in the book, down to the forward, is a sex worker in some way. Some are active, some are former – some are dominatrixes, some are strippers and some are escorts. Some are friends! I have a few fiends who are sex workers and when I mentioned wanting to start this project they were integral in making it happen.”

Now that Sxwrker has been released into the world, Erika hopes that this will trigger something in an audience that she wouldn’t usually reach – like someone’s aunty, second cousin or colleague. Striving to change the way that sex work is viewed in society, and the world, Sxwrker is part of a necessary conversation and one firmly roots itself in the art-cum-activist photography canon.

Photography courtesy of Erika Long

Zora J Murff

The esteemed photographer talks us through his new roster of exhibitions and book, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis)

American Father, 2018

For Zora J Murff – a photographer, artist and educator based in Arkansas – to be published by Aperture is not too dissimilar from a chimera. An illusory dream of kinds, Zora could “hardly believe it” as he won the Next Step Award and was affirmed a new book from the publisher, entitled True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis). Coupled with an exhibition at London’s Webber Gallery plus a presentation of his new series American Mother at Paris Photo, Zora is sharing perhaps his most direct and critical commentary of work to date – that being a compilation of photographs, archival imagery from the past 12 years. In these works, the artist speaks of power, privilege, race and white supremacy, plus the impact it’s had on Black people in America. Zora tells me more below.

Fronting (Affirmation #4), 2020

It would be great to begin by hearing about your first steps into photography. What sparked your interests in the medium? 

I started taking photographs in my early 20s. At the time, I was a social worker providing services to kids in the juvenile criminal justice system. I found the work rewarding in many ways, but something always seemed missing. Being an employee of the criminal justice system was conflicting. Even though I served kids and families who found themselves in difficult circumstances, I was present as a punitive measure. It was an environment where most of our practices and processes were dissonant from rehabilitation, and even though I could understand what changes could change that reality, I wasn’t in a position to speak on or enact them. 

I often felt stuck and decided to go back to school to study art. I started my first serious body of work, Corrections. Creating that work was my first education in researching a violent system and speaking on that violence through the practice and interpretation of image-making. Furthermore, I was fortunate to have a couple of professors, Margaret Stratton and Jeff Rich, who were present for my ideas and taught me how to articulate what I was trying to express both visually and in language. I quickly learned that I had been searching for a profession where I could work with people and help them in similar ways. 

At No Point in Between

What’s your ethos and what messages are you hoping to share? 

My ethos as an artist is to have the courage to be vulnerable and to speak my truth. In my earlier works, I kept a distance between myself, the subject, and the viewer. I am present with my thoughts and camera, but I am speaking on those things through nuance and perhaps imperceptibly. I credit this to studying in historically/predominantly white institutions where Blackness had not been allowed, was not accepted and therefore not understood. Because of our society’s belief and wholesale practice in racialisation, I find myself in adversarial situations for being Black. These confrontations happen daily, sometimes self-initiated but mostly by force. My work deals directly with existential questions and presents various aspects of our social reality. Those answers I have found don’t differ from my early experiences with my first professors: being an artist is an endeavour in self-determination. I carry this sentiment with me into everything I do. 

At No Point in Between

You’ve opened two exhibitions and recently published a new book with Aperture — tell me about this new body of work. How does it compare to your past projects? 

True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) is me going for broke. When I first learned that I had won the Next Step Award and would be publishing with Aperture, I could hardly believe it. I had a conversation about it with the good homie Kris Graves, and his advice was, “Now is the time to be direct.” This book is me, parts of my life narrated by me and a choir of folx who have all supported me in getting to this exact moment. It’s not so much a body of work, but my collective commentary on the last 12 years as a means of being critical of “the come up.” I am talking about what it means to participate in systems whose agents have continually seen and used me as a diversity token. 

At No Point in Between

How do your hope your audience will respond to the work?

My goal with this process was to create something that pulled out all of the stops because it’s not every day artists get to publish at this level. My goal with this process was to spread this opportunity as widely as possible, so my people could eat. 

I don’t have goals for audience response or plans for what this work can accomplish in general. As the title states, the book is me putting out affirmations for myself as I experience a crisis of consciousness. People who have lived similarly to me will find themselves in these pages. The only thing I could ever ask is that viewers bring themselves to the artwork with an open heart and critical mind (both outward and inward). 

What’s next for you?

I’m going to take some time to celebrate and enjoy in this work with the people I love. Everything else is just white noise. 

Gas Money (Affirmation #1), 2019

Reservoir

At No Point in Between

Self Portrait as a Dreamed Man (After Bayard), 2020

Untitled (False walls #1), 2020

E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition

What role does fashion play in society? A new exhibition at Antwerp’s ModeMuseum explores

Cover image by David Sims, The Face, January 1998, © David Sims / Art Partner, model: Bridget Hall, makeup: Linda Cantello

Fashion is a mirror of society, often reflecting the shifts in attitudes, ideas, tastes and preferences that evolve throughout the years; it’s a Zeitgeist. An early example harks back to the hemline, with skirt lengths shortening along with the fight for women’s rights and equality. While in more recent times, the influx of globalisation and the internet – and thus the immediacy of information and access to goods – has also altered our perceptions and ideals of identity, meaning that, on the one hand, fashion choices have become more liberal, conscious and sustainable, while the other is quite the opposite (taking fast fashion into account). Then there’s health crises, a pandemic, economic inequality and social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo signalling to a change in a global society. But what is fashion’s role amongst it all, and where does it sit in the recent world?

Posing this very question is a new exhibition titled E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition. Presented as part of the reopening of ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp – which opened its doors on 4 September – the exhibition is curated by Elisa De Wyngaert and features works from Helmut Lang, Walter Van Bierendonck, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano, Raf Simons, Versace and more. A time capsule of sorts, E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition, looks at how fashion has “served as a visual signifier of contemporary instabilities, concerns and emotions since the 1990s,” explains Kaat Debo, MoMu’s director and chief curator. Below, I chat to Kaat about the role of fashion and how it can evoke real change.

‘Boxing Gisele’ editorial, Big Magazine, 1999, © Photo: Vincent Peters

What does emotion mean in the context of this exhibition and in the wider sense of fashion?

The choice for the title E/MOTION was motivated by a need for genuine emotion. Over the past 18 months, we’ve all had to work, live and create from home and a large part of our lives took place online. Also, designers have been forced to work digitally because of the pandemic. We wanted to research whether there’s place for genuine emotion in a digital world. We felt the need for real human interaction and the wish to integrate a live aspect in the exhibition, which is difficult within the static context of a (fashion) exhibition. We invited director, performer and countertenor Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe, in collaboration with the opera house in Antwerp (Opera/Ballet Vlaanderen) and the exhibition designers (Jan Versweyveld & HuismanVanmerode) to create a live performance for the exhibition. A challenging but also very exciting experiment. 

In order to reflect on the future of fashion, as well as on the recent past, we conducted numerous interviews with fashion students and established designers during the pandemic. The designers gave their personal views on a wide range of subjects: what impact does the digital (r)evolution have on their creativity? Are fashion shows important? Can fashion evoke genuine emotions? What is the importance of craftsmanship, local production and sustainability? And what do you hope for the future? Fragments of these interviews formed the basis for this performance, that will be the closing installation in the exhibition. The performance will be brought 20 times during the entire exhibition period (September – January).

Untitled # 359, 2000. © Photo: Cindy Sherman Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Fashion has long mirrored certain shifts in society. Can you tell me a bit more about this, and how fashion responds to particular events?

Over the last three decades, we have borne witness to unprecedented globalisation, which has had its impact on the creation, production, dissemination, communication and consumption of fashion. More than ever before, it has pushed fashion into the barriers of its own complex system and made it a stage for international political crises, from the Gulf War in the 1990s to terrorist attacks at the start of the new millennium, as well as for financial crises and recessions, the ecological crisis, and such health crises as the AIDS or the current Covid-19 pandemic. Fashion always reflects the prevailing zeitgeist, from social and economic inequality to global social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. How have these evolutions impacted the way we see and perceive emotion, success, beauty, creativity, authorship and collaboration? And how has the role of the fashion designer changed in all this upheaval? Some examples…

Kristen Owen, Helmut Lang backstage series, Spring Summer 1994, Paris, 1993, © Photo: Juergen Teller, All rights reserved

90s recession: Against a backdrop of recession, a deflated job market and pessimism about the future among the younger generation in the 1990s, the Heroin Chic look became popular in fashion imagery. Fragile-looking models with messy make-up and drugged expressions appeared not only in photography, but also in fashion shows. The emergence of the look was linked to the Junk Culture of contemporary movies about addiction, such as Trainspotting (1996). The embrace of heroin and unhealthy body images in fashion drew vitriol. After the turn of the millennium, the Heroin Chic look was replaced by a tanned, toned and – in contrast to its predecessor – ‘healthy’ looking body.

Health crises: Our fear of death and disease during the past three decades has been further fuelled by various epidemics and pandemics, including HIV, swine flu and Covid-19. These health crises also affected the fashion industry. In the early 1990s, Benetton, the Italian fashion brand, ran controversial advertising campaigns referring to the AIDS crisis; while Martin Margiela created t-shirts for charity to encourage open conversations about AIDS; and Walter Van Beirendonck included rubber pieces as protective shields and printed messages about safe sex in his activist collections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the face mask has emerged as a symbol of the crisis.

Joan Didion, Celine Campaign, Spring-Summer 2015, New York 2014, © Photo: Juergen Teller, All rights reserved

Terrorist attacks: The euphoria of entering the new millennium ended abruptly in September 2001. The repercussions of the terrorist attacks in the USA were complex, violent and disruptive, changing the course of world politics. The attacks occurred on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week, making fashion journalists the first to report them. Though incomparable to the tragic loss of life, the financial impact of 9/11 forced many independent designers to file for bankruptcy or to look for outside investment. Another challenge occurred when, against the sudden trauma of 9/11, some of the Spring-Summer 2002 collections were reinterpreted by the press and buyers as inappropriate and insensitive. Some fashion photographers faced the same issues when a few editorials had to be cut at the last minute. In these, models were depicted falling from buildings or looked like survivors covered in dirt; they suddenly seemed too close to reality.

Military references in fashion were often in direct response to pervasive images in the news about war and terror. In the last two decades, a series of terrorist attacks in European cities led to increased military presence. The surreal experience of encountering soldiers in camouflage uniforms – previously out of context in cities – heightened a sense of unease and fear. Directly or indirectly, these ongoing emotions of anxiety and terror prompted fashion designers to investigate the dichotomies between feeling protected and feeling threatened, between soldiers and female warriors.

Vivienne Westwood campaign image, Spring-Summer 1999, © Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri

Can you give an example of what’s involved in the exhibition and how this relates to the theme?

One of the exhibition themes is dedicated to the digital evolution and the internet. In this theme, we present a chiffon Versace dress, that was worn by Jennifer Lopez in 2000 during the Grammy Awards. People all around the world Googled her photo. This sudden peak in the search for a specific image was the reason Google Images was invented. The look became a metaphor of the ever more powerful symbiosis between fashion and celebrity culture. Twenty years later, Jennifer Lopez appeared on the Versace runway in this very dress.

What can the audience learn from this exhibition? 

I hope the exhibition will inspire and move our visitors, as well as provoke conversation about fashion culture and its impact on society.

E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition is on show at MoMu from 4 September 2021 – 23 January 2022

Delphine Desane, cover image for Vogue Italia, January 2020, Model: Assa Baradji, © Photo: Laurence Prat. Condé Nast Italia
Exactitudes, 104 Commandos, Rotterdam/Paris, 2008, © Photo: Ellie Uyttenbroek
Y/Project by Glenn Martens, Autumn-Winter 2019-20, Model: Leopold van der Noot d’Aasche, (c) Photo: Noel Quintela
Walter Van Beirendonck, æstheticterrorists® collection, Spring-Summer 2002, © Photo: Ronald Stoops
Untitled # 588, 2016/2018. © Photo: Cindy Sherman Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Stany Dederen
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Stany Dederen
Copyright: MoMu Antwerp, Photo by Matthias De Boeck