The Slippery Space of Grace Ndiritu’s “Bright Young Things”
Grace Ndiritu’s solo show A Quest for Meaning Vol. 7: Bright Young Things opened at Klowden Mann last week. Ndiritu’s work offers viewers a refreshing mix of definitive push and pulls to the viewer experience.
In a piece called “African Textiles,” for instance, Ndiritu presents viewers with a detailed photograph of textiles, printed on a fibrous paper, thus blurring the line between both textile and photography, representation and imitation. Similarly, in her “Abstract Expressionism” series, Ndiritu paints small works on felt using industrial paint, then she photographs the work, then blows it up, and finally prints it on canvas. This results in a work that then serves as both a painting and a photograph on canvas. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
The space itself too is complicated as Ndiritu’s design aesthetic guides viewers through each room. Ndiritu’s background is in textile art and some of those underlying design principles come out in the wall colors, lines, and geometric, color-block shapes that frame the exhibit and rooms themselves. Using muted colors that verge on pastels—yet are too bright to be pastels themselves—Ndiritu’s space is fresh and hip, “bright” and “young.” She uses a superflat aesthetic that mimics the rage in contemporary design practices, so that the space feels like it could be commercial, yet it frames and highlights each art piece hanging above it beautifully and rhythmically in a purely aesthetic way.
Through her troubling of established mediums, Ndiritu challenges viewers to question what they know, an underlying theme pushing and pulling throughout her show in many more ways than one.
In some of her smaller photographs, positioned in conversation with one another throughout the space, Grace Ndiritu casually asks the viewer to contemplate the complex history of anthropology that underlies the very study of art, the founding of museums, personal collections, and, as one photograph is titled, “exhibition making” itself.
These smaller pieces act as signposts throughout “Bright Young Things,” prompting viewers to again contemplate between the real and imagined, imposters and imposed, adopted or adapted. In “Museums: Delacroix,” Ndiritu frames a small black and white photograph she took at the Louvre. The composition and coloring make it appear old and dated, as if ripped from the page of an early edition of a Gardner’s art history text. “Exhibition Making: Louvre,” offers viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the process of mounting a large-scale exhibit as well. “Ethnography: African Masks” shows masks from various countries in Africa hanging on a wall in Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly, featuring art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas,.
At Ndiritu’s artist talk at Klowden Mann, gallery co-owner and director Deb Klowden Mann discussed Ndiritu’s work as creating “slippery spaces.” And they are so slippery. Ndiritu’s museum photographs, for instance, disrupt notions of time in the way she frames and prints pieces to age them, making viewers unsure of the time and reference point. They also emphasize the act of collecting itself, lying at the heart of every museum, but also at the very foundation of the modern museum itself—one which is often not discussed but stems from both early “Western” conquest in claiming, trotting home, and boasting confiscated loot (think of Napoleon and the establishment of the Louvre itself) and from the early history of world’s fairs where white colonizers forcibly took and showcased goods, art, and even people from the colonies.
In fact the Musée du Quai Branly itself, where Ndiritu snapped “Ethnography: African Masks,” opened in 2006 after dismantling the collections of both the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens to help realize President Jacques Chirac’s vision. Both of the museums that birthed the art of Musée du Quai Branly began as world’s fairs exhibitions, the former Musée de l’Homme was created for the 1937 exposition and the latter began a number of years earlier as the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931.
So it is in the details of works like “Ethnography: African Masks” that Ndiritu alludes to the problematic history of ethnographers and anthropologists, colonizers and imperialists, as they systematically collected and categorized art, all while backing and mimicking the pseudosciences of the time like phrenology and craniology, which white Westerners used to justify both colonial endeavors and racism itself.
It also refers to the very contemporary conundrum of the present—how to display these works now, when the very foundation of the museum, the specifically non-European grouping of this museum, and the objects themselves all have colonial roots? When Musée du Quai Branly opened, harsh critiques of the exhibition space and practices arose. As one critic, Edward Rothstein, put it:
“Masks of a region are exhibited together, no matter what their function or origin. The groupings are guided neither by chronology nor ritual, but by the desire to create a dramatic contemporary effect: You thought the only beautiful objects were Western artworks? Take a look at these!
But this approach, seemingly self-effacing, has a whiff of the imperial about it. It strips away contexts and claims the objects in the name of Western aestheticism. Each culture’s individuality is erased; history is scarcely noticed; the object’s purpose only vaguely mentioned.”
The history of art and art exhibition is inextricably tied to a larger, complicated history, and Ndiritu plays with this.
These works are intermixed with other small pieces of ephemera, the kinds preserved in national archives, such as “Morocco Archive: Postcard Tetouan” and “Morocco Archive: Cartoon Comic,” both offering insight into international politics of inclusion and exclusion at the time. The video installation in the back project room of the gallery is called “Raiders of the Lost Arc” and here Ndiritu ties her slippery slope together fully.
The video footage we see is from her 2010 trip to Ethiopia and shows her friend and guides “discovering” an old church that nature has begun to reclaim for itself. But the conversation that overlays the footage is from her 2012 trip to Scotland, when she was staying at a Tibetan monastery. Here she and a friend were walking together in darkness, discussing star systems, extraterrestrial life, and those larger, deeper thoughts that can come when strolling at night with close companions. As Ndiritu put it, this video brings together three locations that would never otherwise be tied: Ethiopia, Tibet, and Scotland, and it references different history points and times. So the video at once highlights and asks viewers to consider the way this work bolsters the shamanic belief that all different worlds are happening in the here and now.
After her talk, one audience member brought up the question of the smaller museum photographs, saying she felt like Ndiritu was duping viewers with them. And Ndiritu responded that it was “not about duping, but undermining so that you don’t feel so safe in your world.” She also mentioned that hers is the kind of art that she hopes will stay with viewers once they leave the gallery so that “the work keeps working.”
Ndiritu grew up in Birmingham, UK and Kenya so at the heart of her identity is something that the art world itself considers a push and pull of being both British and African. Ndiritu discusses her struggle with the firm identity borders placed on her, which other artists with similar dual identities have faced, such as Wosene Kosrof (whose work was seen as neither Ethiopian nor contemporary enough when studying at Howard in the late ‘70s) or Chris Ofili (an artist born in Manchester, UK with Nigerian roots who is often labeled as solely English or Nigerian, depending on the review). Similarly, Ndiritu described her art school experience as producing art that was neither “African” nor “British” enough. And she explained a similar struggle in exploring and appreciating both a modernist and postmodernist aesthetic in her work. It is within these struggles, that Ndiritu produces her artistic and aesthetic dialogue.
In a world of binaries, Grace Ndiritu creates a slippery space where she can present the world with art that is just as thoroughly slippery as the world, museums, and history-shaping narratives that surround us. And with these, she invites viewers to challenge the construct of their own narratives and knowledge, making us feel less safe in our worlds, yet safer in the slipperiness of it all.
“A Quest for Meaning Vol. 7: Bright Young Things” runs through May 7th at Klowden Mann in Culver City, CA.
Grace Ndiritu studied Textile Art at Winchester School of Art, UK, De Ateliers, Amsterdam 1998-2000, UK studio residency, Delfina Studio Trust, London (2004-2006) International Residency, Recollets, Paris (2013), MACBA & L’Appartement 22, Rabat, international residency (2014), Galveston Artists Residency, Texas (2014 -2015). Her recent solo exhibitions took place at the Glasgow School of Art (Sept. 2015), La Ira De Dios, Buenos Aires (2014), Chisenhale Gallery, London (2007), the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2005). Her experimental art writing has been published by Animal Shelter Journal Semiotext(e) MIT Press, Metropolis M art magazine and Oxford University Press.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.