A Review: Grace Wales Bonner’s ‘A Time for New Dreams’

Figure 1: Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1), 2012, branded red oak, zebra skin, black soap, wax, rug, courtesy of the artist and @hauserwirth, photo by the author

It is a rare occasion in London – dashing to an exhibition viewing on a Friday morning, knowing full well the minute it finishes you will have to jog (Edina Monsoon, c.1992 style) across Hyde Park and back to your desk before the lunchtime window ends – when a meditative silence mutes the mounting traffic, perpetual hum of voices and underground announcements, and clattering cacophony of horns surging to a swell just metres away.

It is unnerving, and the precious nature of such transportation is achieved through Grace Wales Bonner’s thoughtful reimagining of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s familiar space. Here, an open portal is carved out through which the visitor can travel to #atimefornewdreams. 

Wales Bonner is most predominantly recognised as an innovative British Menswear Designer. A Central St. Martins graduate, her inaugural Autumn/Winter ’15 collection at Fashion East, ‘Ebonics’, received resounding praise and was featured in the V&A’s Fashion in Motion programme. In 2016, she received the LVMH Young Designer Prize and was recently awarded the British Land London Design Medal (2018) – I’m not being fan-girly-gushy when I say that Wales Bonner is a remarkable woman. 

Laraaji, Transformation, 2019, personal objects, ephemera, sound, courtesy of the musician, photo by the author

A Time for New Dreams is a bringing together of multiple interdisciplinary creative practices: music, fashion, art and design. The exhibition effectively functions as an assemblage of works that explore Wales Bonner’s given themes of mysticism and ritual, accompanied by a fascinating constellation of events and happenings. These range from meditation workshops led by musician Laraaji to a live reading by South London composer, playwright and artist Klein. The vast array of objects, artworks, photographs, memorabilia, books and ephemeral flowerpieces collectively provide a rich blend of multisensory stimuli. As you move through the exhibition, you feel the weight of important and varied histories being carefully layered and interwoven in the creation of a shared narrative. 

Left: Grace Wales Bonner at the exhibition’s press view
Right: Kapwani Kiwanga, several works from the series Flowers for Africa, 2014/5, signed protocol by artist including iconographic documents, photos by the author

I have this sense of freedom, some acknowledgement of my ancestors and a history that’s come before. It’s an open space for me to be able to feel quite free in the way that I reference histories or I enter different territories and worlds. I’m always interested in the idea of fluidity and the mixing of references … I always think about is rhythmicality.
—Grace Wales Bonner in conversation with Ishmael Reed

There is gloriously complex and nuanced storytelling present in the curation of A Time for New Dreams—the accompanying publication alone is the stuff of dreams! The contribution of each work to The exhibition’s wider composition prompts contemplation of Wales Bonner’s exploration of the use of shrines and improvisations throughout black histories—the exhibition’s driving force. Two of the artist’s shrines are featured: ‘the exhibition focuses on the shrine as a symbolic pathway for imagining different worlds and possibilities’ (Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams exhibition catalogue, 5). 

Grace Wales Bonner, Shrine I & II 2019, Altar objects, courtesy of the artist, collection of photos by the author

Wales Bonner’s Shrine I  is a direct portal to her intellectual and ancestral lineage. The material included traces certain ideas of brotherhood that have impacted her identity and creative process: the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves’ exhibition catalogue for Theaster Gates’ 2014 The Black Monastic exhibition, a looped video installation that includes footage of Ishmael Reed playing Tadd Dameron’s ‘If You Could See Me Now (2008), a copy of Nigerian poet Ben Okri’s introductory An African Elegy (1992), a treasure trove of Wales Bonner-specific paraphernalia. It is as though Wales Bonner’s Shrine I were a miniature of the wider exhibition, a prototypical maquette that alludes to the exhibition’s portal-like structure: a gallery that has been transformed into a vessel to carry London’s weary to a space-time of alternate worlds and different possibilities.  

Eric N. Mack, Capital Heights (via stretch), 2019, assorted cloth, Spandex, cotton, silk, polyester, rope and straight pins, courtesy of the artist and @simonleegallery, (right) Wales Bonner discussing aesthetic practices during the exhibition’s press view (18 Jan 2019), both photos by the author

Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams
19 Jan – 16 Feb 2019, Serpentine Sackler Gallery 
To learn more about it this (sadly) month-long exhibition, go to @serpentineuk / @walesbonner or https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/grace-wales-bonner-time-new-dreams

Sources

Ishmael Reed, ‘Diving into the occult with Grace Wales Bonner and Ishmael Reed’, Interview Magazine, 18/01/2019. Online edition. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/grace-wales-bonner-ishmael-reed-conversation.

Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams, exhib cat., Serpentine Galleries, London.