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Issue 234

Matthew Arthur Williams Opens His Family Archive

An exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts interrogates the relationship between memory, experience and preservation 

BY Helen Charman in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 23 JAN 23

Matthew Arthur Williams’s first institutional UK solo exhibition, ‘Soon Come’, presents a rich body of work that fully engages with history’s slipperiness and its affective legacies. ‘Soon Come’ is a West Indian phrase that assures return without committing to specifics: somewhere between now, later and never. Time, here, is fluid rather than linear, as multiple pasts coalesce, particularly the intertwined histories of Clarendon in Jamaica, where Williams’s mother was born, and Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, where she grew up.

Matthew Arthur Williams
Matthew Arthur Williams, Soon Come, production still. Courtesy: the artist and Dundee Contemporary Arts

Comprised of the two-channel film and sound installation Soon Come (all works 2022), as well as a number of photographs displayed formally on the walls, in glowing vitrines and on the gallery floor, Williams draws on archive material both public and private: interviews with family members, documentary footage and personal memorabilia, including a Road Operators Safety Council badge proclaiming ‘5 Years Safe driving’ that belonged to his grandfather. Ancestral histories are positioned alongside broader narratives of the decline of Stoke’s industrial significance and the history of West Indian migration to Britain – the ‘mother country’ – after World War II. The idealization of the UK – in the film, one interviewee recalls that they ‘were coming to the land of riches […] we thought it was paradise’ – is dismantled by the documentation of overcrowding, low wages and the implementation of racist ‘colour bar’ hiring policies, although Williams is careful to leave space for ambivalence: ‘We enjoyed our childhood,’ his mother recalls, ‘even though it was a bit brutal.’ 

Matthew Arthur Williams
Matthew Arthur William, Soon Come, production still. Courtesy: the artist and Dundee Contemporary Arts

Williams’s film quotes from Walter Benjamin’s 1940 ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was”. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.’ Danger certainly feels present in ‘Soon Come’, in the breathy woodwind of the soundscape and the rapid movement on screen: red lights flashing, industrial chimneys smoking, a ship’s wake disturbing the surface of the sea, Union Jacks fluttering in the breeze. The long shot of a brilliant sunset soundtracked by Chosen Few’s version of ‘People Make the World Go Round’ (1972) (‘Trashmen didn’t get my trash today / Oh why? Because they want more pay’) is unsettlingly vivid; the 16mm footage of a performance by Williams and fellow artist Akash Sharma, interspersed throughout, shows two pairs of arms, by turns caressing and combative, teetering on the edge of intimacy and aggression.

Matthew Arthur Williams
Matthew Arthur William, Soon Come, production still. Courtesy: the artist and Dundee Contemporary Arts

To ‘seize hold’ of a memory has practical implications for the photographer. Williams’s black and white images, such as Hustler, developed on fibre-based archival paper, are textured, granular: you can almost see the labour that went into their exposure, the effort of something being brought back into being. In an interview that plays outside the gallery, he describes his use of negatives from a 2003 trip to Clarendon as a kind of resurrection, an attempt to breathe some fire back into the image; the exhibition, he says, is both a ‘starting point’ and the culmination of a decade of work left ‘buried for a long time’, ‘begging to be made’. Central to this is Williams’s use of his own image: the exhibition opens and closes with self-portraits (Untitled I and II). He is there, and then he disperses into the rest of the show: the artist, looking into the camera, shutter release in hand, shows us how he is constructing himself before opening outwards onto a vast expanse of historical feeling. ‘Soon Come’ does not consider such tasks of unearthing and reanimation to be trivial undertakings: this work, both languid and urgent, interrogates the relationship between memory and experience, and the role of preservation itself. 

Matthew Arthur William’s ‘Soon Come’ is on at Dundee Contemporary Arts until 26 March 2023. 

Main image: Matthew Arthur William, Soon Come, production still. Courtesy: the artist and Dundee Contemporary Arts

Helen Charman is a writer and academic based in Glasgow. Her first book, MOTHER STATE, is forthcoming from Allen Lane. She teaches in the English Studies department at Durham University.