Fashion Designer Grace Wales Bonner Journeys Through Landscapes of Colonialism and Resistance

‘A Time for New Dreams’ at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery transcends fashion, offering insights into Wales Bonner’s influences across art and literature

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 29 JAN 19

‘‘Research is a grounding point’ – this message, from a recent Instagram post by fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner, could also be the mantra for her current exhibition, ‘A Time for New Dreams’, at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, an erudite group show combining literature, music, art and performance. With a title borrowed from a 2011 collection of essays by London-based Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, who has also contributed new texts applied in vinyl to the walls of the gallery and read out on the tannoy, the exhibition greets visitors with a pair of daybeds by American artist Rashid Johnson. Untitled (daybed 1) and Untitled (daybed 6) (2012) are upholstered with zebra skins and positioned on Persian rugs, setting the tone for a meditative voyage across cultures and landscapes marked by colonialism and resistance. Wales Bonner, who is of mixed Jamaican-British heritage, engages confidently with several elders of African diasporic culture, including Okri and the American writer Ishmael Reed, whose unconventional 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, set in 1920s New York lends its title to her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection. 

Grace Wales Bonner, Shrine I, 2019, installation view, Serpentine Galleries, London. Courtesy: and Serpentine Galleries, London 

Selected Wales Bonner garments are for sale in the gallery shop, where they hang on racks inspired by the American artist Terry Adkins, yet Grace Bonner’s proposition here transcends fashion, and she is keen to provide an insight into the wide-ranging influences on which she exerts what Serpentine curator Claude Adjil describes as ‘a gentle extraction’. In Wales Bonner’s world, boundaries between disciplines are acknowledged but they are also porous: her clothing designs are inflected by ideas absorbed from literature and theory, and her collections are launched with accompanying booklets and films made in collaboration with artists and filmmakers. This exhibition is clearly a collective endeavour, in which lines defining individual practices have been softened down into a sort of cultural adhesive. 

Several uncanny sculptures by American artist David Hammons set an enchanted tone: Rock Head (2000), a large smooth stone onto which hair sourced from an African-American barbershop has been glued in a pattern resembling a human hairline, brings a welcome sense of levity to the exhibition, but also teases deeper questions around the representation of black subjects in – and the exclusion of black artists from – museum collections. Russian-Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur’s installation There is only one…one (2019) includes portraits of revelling black subjects and images of ritual masks printed on textile alongside collections of stones, sticks and objects resembling amulets, all laid out on a low, felt-covered plinth. Since the exhibition opened, Johnson Artur has continued to add elements to this shrine-like arrangement. There is a patina, an heirloom quality, to the components of Wales Bonner’s exhibition, in the materials and in the ideas that have guided their handling, and the exhibition booklet notes that Robert Farris Thompson’s 1993 book Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African America was an important source of inspiration. For his installation Capital Heights (via stretch) (2019), Eric N. Mack stitched together assorted old and new fabrics, suspending them with ropes to create a tunnel or enclosure in a corner of the gallery. It resembles temporary encampments, but the variety of colours and fabrics, from Spandex to silk, leaves its social status open to interpretation.

Liz Johnson Artur, There is only one…one, 2019, detail shot. Courtesy: and Serpentine Galleries, London

The idea of rhythmicality is central to Wales Bonner’s work – ‘black rhythmicality’ was the subject of her student dissertation at Central Saint Martins – and here elements are repeated and accented throughout the exhibition. One in particular, ‘an image of a man engaged in an African ritual [sitting] next to a portrait of an Indian God or Goddess’, as Reed describes it in the exhibition booklet, recurs in different contexts. It is part of Laraaji’s saffron-coloured Transformation (2019), which includes musical instruments and offerings of fresh fruit and flowers set on a meditation rug strewn with pillows. This is where Laraaji, a musician and mystic whose 1980 album Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance was part of Brian Eno’s influential ‘Ambient’ series, conducted deep listening sessions during the exhibition’s opening weekend, which involved guided meditation with visualisations, breathing exercises and live music. Further copies of the image are placed on top of and inside a sideboard for Wales Bonner’s Shrine I (2019), which also features editions of books such as Langston Hughes’s poem The Weary Blues (1926) and Theaster Gates’s The Black Monastic (2016). 

Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1), 2012, Serpentine Galleries, London. Courtesy: and Serpentine Galleries, London

The sideboard also holds a copy of issue 3 of the magazine Revue Noire, which features a cover by Nigerian-born photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode. One of the founders of Autograph, the Association of Black Photographers, Fani-Kayode died of Aids in 1989, aged just 34. Five of his exquisitely composed homoerotic images of black men are displayed in such a way as to bracket the film Twilight City, made the same year by Reece Auguiste, of Black Audio Film Collective. Some of Fani-Kayode’s images reappear in Auguiste’s film, which weaves together interviews with cultural theorists including Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhaba and Gail Lewis, with a letter from a woman in London to her mother in Dominica. ‘I live in two worlds’, she writes; meanwhile the theorists discuss race relations, history and the impact of Thatcher’s economic policies on London and its inhabitants. Wales Bonner was not yet born when the film was made 30 years ago, but the issues it raises, including the redevelopment of certain neighbourhoods, polarization of wealth, increased homelessness, and questions of belonging make it acutely relevant to contemporary life in London.

‘Grace Wales Bonner: A Time For New Dreams’ is on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, until 16 February 2019.

Main image: Salagram Sharma in Malik SS16. Courtesy: Harley Weir

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.