An exploration of The Abstract Truth of Things by Charmaine Watkiss and Andrew Pierre Hart at Tiwani Contemporary
Stepping into Tiwani Contemporary, a gallery I have visited numerous times previously, the first thing that came to my attention was the sound of jazz emanating from the rear of the gallery. The playlist, curated by the artists Charmaine Watkiss and Andrew Pierre Hart, serves to create not only a soundtrack to the exhibition but also a common thread tying together their works. The title of the show refers to both a 1961 album The Blues and the Abstract Truth by saxophonist Oliver Nelson, and a 1997 exhibition title of the same name by David Hammons.
The deep, blue pigments used throughout both artists’ works conjures references not only to jazz and the blues, but the Atlantic ocean and the deeply interwoven histories of Black people on all sides of it, as well as the literal colour blue. Indigo dye has been traditionally used in textile making in both the Caribbean and West Africa, and appears here in paint and ink, along with gentle washes of lighter shades of blue.
Of the two artists in this exhibition, Andrew Pierre Hart directly makes reference to music in his work, exploring “the symbiotic relationship between sound and painting”. Hart’s large scale paintings have a dense layering of frenetic brushstrokes and white marks which appear to be a scratching or scraping away.
The artist only begins work after being inspired by a piece of music, and refers to his painting process as a ‘release’ onto the canvas. I could feel a one-ness between the rhythmic brushstrokes and the music playing in the gallery. Human figures also appear in vividly coloured nightclub scenes in the paintings bass experiment (sisters) it works in our town (s1:e1) and bass experiment, the blue night sequence (s1:e1), the latter also featuring a shadowy figure holding a gigantic speaker. Hart seems to be as interested in nightlife culture as in the sonic aspect of the music itself.
While Hart’s paintings have a vigour and spontaneity to them, the detail in Watkiss’s illustrations suggests a slow and intentional process of art making. The female figures in each drawing are modelled on Watkiss herself, and are repeated without being identical. They are adorned with garments decorated intricately with unique designs, which include geometric and floral patterns, as well as symbolic references to various West African spiritual and cultural practices.
The World Has Four Corners features a bowl similar to vessels used in the religion Ifa, while the head of the figure in Knowledge Keeper is crowned with a headdress decorated with carvings resembling Nok sculptures. Watkiss is the daughter of a dressmaker, and her work brings to mind a lineage of Black women artists working with textiles and garments, including those as notable as Jae Jarrell and Faith Ringgold. In this case, the clothing is rendered on paper rather than on fabric.
The works together with the musical backdrop, serve to create an imagined, alternate Black existence outside of conventional notions of reality. What is initially a serene atmosphere, builds in intensity with closer observation of the work; the music seems to crescendo as the viewer approaches the installation at the rear of the gallery, where the speakers are located. Traces of Memory is a series of eleven cyanotypes on paper, mounted directly onto the gallery wall which has been painted a deep blue.
Each cyanotype features a blue silhouette of a female figure with hair styled in bantu knots – a figure who is first seen in The Empress, another piece displayed in the exhibition. Each rendering of this figure varies by the patterns with which it is decorated, which appear to be constellations. The music soars, inviting you to gaze deeply into the starry sky within each silhouette, a nod to the multitudes of magic and possibility within each of us. Stepping away from the mesmerising combination of sound and visuals was like blinking my eyes open from a daydream. I felt for a moment that I had travelled through space and time.