In a fitting final flourish for one of the most acclaimed new painting shows in recent years, last week Rachel Jones invited an eclectic lineup of speakers to respond to SMIIILLLLEEEE, her exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac which ended over the weekend.
Kicking off the proceedings, Jones described the evening of performances, which took place in Ropac’s downstairs gallery surrounded by her disquietingly vivid works, as “a selfish endeavour, to ask people to tell me stuff about my work” and revealed that she was in the same boat as the audience, having no idea how the speakers were going to respond. And they didn’t disappoint—either her or us.
First off was Margaret Busby, CBE, who, as the co-founder of the Allison & Busby in the late 1960s, was Britain’s youngest and first Black woman publisher. She talked movingly about her first encounter with Jones’ work on a cold December day last year, and read two poems, most notably Chosen Family by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, from the new anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent that she has edited.
Next Iniva (Institute for International Visual Arts) artistic director Sepake Angiama perambulated around the room, reading pertinent extracts from different books that she had deposited on the floor in front of Jones’s paintings. These included the writings of the American feminist, poet, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, Black British History and the first National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit.
Yates Norton, curator at the Roberts Institute of Art, then spoke poetically of the “complex clatter and tangle” of Jones’ paintings, describing their “dense and wayward paths” and textures both “thick like compacted makeup” and “shining like silk.” He also explored their ability to play with and off metaphorical notions of stickiness—“sticking with, and being stuck”— declaring that “being stuck down demands commitment and acknowledgment of our interdependence”.
In a poetic tour-de-force the writer, artist and educator Imani Mason Jordan delivered a series of what they termed Mouth Mantras: volleys of rich words delivered quick fire.
Finally, to round the evening off, the poet and writer Vanessa Onwuemezi who has also contributed the text for the SMIIILLLLEEEE publication, performed a work that involved combining spoken text and recorded sound. Overlaid phrases, snippets and words combined to form a rich soundscape that reverberated around the room, immersing us in yet another aural complement to the images shimmering on the walls. All of which makes me look forward even more to the new body of work that Jones is currently making especially for the very different setting of Chisenhale Gallery, which will be unveiled next month.