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Issue 226

Keith Piper’s Jet Black Future

At New Art Gallery Walsall, a founding member of BLK Art Group depicts the near future through the anxieties of the present

BY Cathy Wade in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 03 FEB 22

In ‘Jet Black Futures’ at The New Art Gallery Walsall, Keith Piper exhibits works that articulate narratives from race, myth, prophecy and science fiction to explore recurrent tropes used to depict the near future through the anxieties of our present. In Search of Four Horses (2021–22), for instance, reimagines Kassandra, the cursed daughter of Trojan royalty, as a self-reliant Black woman conducting objective journalistic research into how we perceive the future. Spanning the entire length of the gallery, the four-screen video is a monumental collage of an interior lockdown world of home furnishings and half-remembered outdoor landscapes. 

Keith Piper
Keith Piper, Jet Black Futures, 2021–22, digital prints on banners. Courtesy the artist;  photograph: Ilona Zielinska (Elona Photographer)

Showing archival images of John the Divine, author of the Biblical Book of Revelation, Kassandra recalls the numerous persecutions he suffered for his mystic visions of the apocalypse. On her desk is a part-drunk glass of water, some paperweights, an electric fan and a laptop, which she uses for research and to interview a series of participants via Zoom to determine whether they are feeling optimistic, pessimistic or a combination of both about the future. Conversations emerge that defy singular narratives: new eras of colonialism, climate change, pollution and social justice are discussed alongside memories of when the depleting ozone layer signalled the end of the world. The hope for change is palpable: future generations can relearn, adapt and assimilate interwoven histories and the mythos of mitochondrial genetics. One participant tells us that our ability to move forward is inhibited by fear. As the film loops, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are sketched fleetingly, charging towards us before they disappear. In an update of his eponymous 1984 painting, Piper has transposed these mounted harbingers from the political landscape of the Cold War into a present-day multiverse where, seemingly, there are no resolutions.

Critiquing the hysteria that surrounded the formation of the European Union in 1993, Surveillance: Tagging the Other (1992) dissects the enforcement of multi-national border controls that seek to repel spectres of otherness. In retrospect, this work could equally have been responding to any number of subsequent events, from the introduction of biometric passports in 2010 to the Brexit referendum of 2016 or the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. The cut-and-paste aesthetic of Surveillance: Tagging the Other is echoed in some of the more recent works on display, including the series ‘Pulp Fictions’ (2016–17) and the newly commissioned ‘Jet Black Futures’ (2021–22) – a sequence of banners depicting the predictions of prophets in which monuments are repurposed, the globe rotates east, borders dissolve and the sun draws close. 

Keith Piper
Keith Piper, In Search of Four Horses, 2021–22, four screen video projection with sound.  Courtesy the artist; photograph: Ilona Zielinska (Elona Photographer)

The New Art Gallery Walsall is situated in the Black Country, the region where Birmingham-born Piper, as a founding member of the BLK Art Group, staged the exhibition ‘Black Art An’Done’ at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 1981. Planned as a model of accessibility and participation by inaugural director Peter Jenkinson, The New Art Gallery Walsall, routinely commissions work for the large window that faces out onto Marsh Street, enabling the art within to permeate the public arena and spark discourse. Here, Piper has installed the monumental banner Searching for a Jet Black Future (2021), on which a Black man’s hands cradle a mobile phone as he scrolls through the Google search results for ‘young + black + male’. The results speak to the hostility that exists within the pathologization of news reports, policing and governance. Searching for a Jet Black Future offers a reminder of the power that regional galleries have in engaging us with artists’ practices that speak beyond the confines of the exhibition to address the commonalities of our shared present.

Keith Piper ‘Jet Black Futures’ is at New Art Gallery Walsall, UK, until 24 April 2022.

Main image: Keith Piper, Surveillance: Tagging the Other, 1992, mixed media installation with 4 video monitors, video projection, sound. The New Art Gallery Walsall Permanent Collection.  Presented by the Contemporary Art Society through the Rapid Response Fund, 2020. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Ilona Zielinska (Elona Photographer)

Cathy Wade is an artist and writer based in Birmingham, UK.