Fred Wilson’s first ever solo exhibition in London consisted of just seven works in two small rooms. The eye was immediately caught by Regina Atra (2006), a replica of the diadem designed for George IV in 1820: rotating on a plump white cushion in a wooden vitrine, the delicate sprays and crosses of the original design had been embedded with black diamonds; the crown scintillated under LEDs, an object of literal and metaphorical black brilliance. A challenge to historical presumptions about racial worth, Regina Atra recalls George IV’s role in sanctioning slavery, the economy of which was directly linked to the bloodied history of African diamond mining. In 2007 the ‘dark queen’ (as the title translates) was installed in the V&A’s Norfolk House Music Room as part of the exhibition ‘Uncomfortable Truths’, which marked the bicentenary of the first parliamentary act toward abolishing the British slave trade. If Karsten Schubert gallery was a less sumptuous setting then the timing was still apt: the artist raised Britain’s dark imperial past just as jingoism reached its height around the royal wedding.
The thoughtfulness with which Wilson curated this exhibition – entitled ‘Works, 1993–2011’ – is no surprise. Beginning as a freelance museum educator in the 1970s, the New York-based artist became known in the late 1980s and early ’90s for using museology as his medium. Representing the US at the 2003 Venice Biennale, he presented ‘Speak of Me as I Am’ (the title taken from Othello’s final plea), an elaborate installation centred on the overlooked cosmopolitanism of Renaissance Venice through representations of Africans in European fine and decorative arts. In the Pavilion’s central atrium hung Chandelier Mori (2003), which was made from black Murano glass – a material that Wilson has returned to in more recent works, such as Quartet (2010), which was included here. Four black, blown-glass droplets trickled down the wall, perhaps again relating to Shakespeare’s tragic hero, who claimed to ‘Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees’. Their sheen is deliberately seductive, luring the viewer towards his or her own reflection. As Wilson explained in a 2006 interview with the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: ‘you’re drawn in, and then you have to deal with the subject matter […] you can’t let yourself get swallowed up by beauty’.
The slick surfaces rhyme with the textured coating of A Thousand Points (2009), exhibited in the adjacent gallery. An illuminated plastic globe is lacquered with an enamel paint resembling oil, and perforated across Africa to indicate the pores from which the natural resources of the continent have been leached. The obscured colours of the earth reappear in the information sheets that accompany ‘Flags’ (2009), a series of 16 African flags reduced to black acrylic outlines. Conceptually reminiscent of David Hammons’s African American Flag (1990), which re-configured Old Glory in the Pan-African colours, these ‘naked’ unprimed canvases await the visitor’s imagination, as colour can only be envisaged from reading the descriptions of their symbolic significance. So we are told that green represents the agriculture and prosperity of Burkina Faso or the lush vegetation of Dominica; blue is the majestic sky and sea around the Seychelles or St. Lucia; while red returns as the blood spilled for independence in Ghana, Malawi or Senegal.
Wilson’s selection of monochromatic works is reinforced by titles such as Gray Area (Black Version) (1993), five plaster effigies of Queen Nefertiti painted in a sliding scale of greys that relates to the historical ambiguities surrounding the racial identity of ancient Egyptians. The omnipresence of black (as a word, a colour and an ethnicity) ties Wilson into a network of other artists, such as Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker and Ellen Gallagher, who have been loosely referred to as ‘post-black’, the somewhat disputed term developed by Thelma Golden to define those ‘post-Basquiat and post-Biggie’ artists who spurn the label of ‘black artist’ while interrogating the whole notion of blackness. Wilson accentuates the motif by off-setting the busts against a (Caucasian) ‘flesh’-coloured wall, in a gesture reminiscent of his landmark 1992 exhibition ‘Mining the Museum’ at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. There, artefacts from the permanent collection became Wilson’s raw materials as he created new dioramas that revealed the prejudices veiled by institutional practices of display; using a careful selection of wall colours, he guided the visitor from ‘the gray area of historical truths’ through to ‘the red environs of slavery and rebellions’. Since Wilson began his practice (and particularly in the wake of Hans Haacke et al), institutions have learned to respond to and engage with artistic critique; indeed, he has long been a favourite on the circuit of conferences held in London museums and galleries. So it is intriguing then that this long overdue exhibition is encountered in a commercial context – all credit to Karsten Schubert.