When I was in London last week I made my first visit to the Unit London Gallery. The gallery is in the heart of London’s Mayfair at No.3 Hanover Square which is off Regent Street, very close to Oxford Street underground station. It is well known for representing some of the finest local and international talent, and provide an unhindered showcase for artists who operate outside of the mainstream art world and by so doing, has successfully launched and enhanced the careers of many influential contemporary artists.
The gallery was hosting two exhibitions and my blog today is all about one of those, which closed at the end of January. It was a large display of work by the Ugandan multi-disciplinary contemporary artist, Stacey Gillian Abe entitled Shrub-let of Old Ayivu. Like my previous blog featuring Kyu Hun Kim the artwork is best described as unusual but this does not detract from its beauty.
Bibiana’s Window, by Stacey Gillian Abe (2022)
The name of the exhibition is unusual but Stacey says it can be traced back to the clan is a descendant of. She explains:
“…Ayivu is one of the major clans of the Lugbara-speaking people from Arua in the West Nile region of Uganda. We are a tribe intersecting three countries that is Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Uganda. Our people are spread out within these countries, and I belong to the Ayivu clan in Uganda. Shrublet of Old Ayivu is a metaphoric term which alludes to growths that have originated for a long time from a place of great significance that eventually create the perfect conditions for shrub-lets to morph and branch out of the old ways to form new connections independent of their origin. The shrub-let is representative of this transportation from traditions, mindsets, norms and past lives, places to mention but a few…”
The Farmer’s Daughter by Stacey Gillian Abe (2022)
She goes on to say that the imagery of the plant life also extends to the colour of the models themselves. Jute is seen as a symbol of the Ayivu clan, and it is a motif that unites all of the work on display. She reveals that jute is a plant of many uses, so this totem recurring in the work is a symbol of possibilities and growth.
Stacey Gillian Abe was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1991. From an early age she loved art. For her, it all started with painting and drawing in high school in 2008. In 2014, she graduated from Kyambogo University, Kampala, with a BA in Art and Industrial Design.
Forbes Africa Under 30
In 2018 Abe made it onto the 2018 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 list which is the definitive list of Africa’s most promising young change-makers. There are thirty “game-changers”, all under the age of 30, in each of the three sectors – business, technology and creative, a total of ninety young African people who were said to be challenging conventions and rewriting the rules for the next generation of entrepreneurs, creatives and tech gurus. Abe was placed in the “creative” group of thirty. Over six hundred candidates had been put forward and months were spent researching, verifying and investigating them.
Of herself, Abe describes herself as being reticent:
“…My passion started from the need to express myself more, I am not an introvert but a bit reserved…”.
Her way of expressing herself is through her art. She says that a huge part of her practice now revolves around highlighting complex situations as autobiographical documentations of past and continuous experiences.
Fatou by Gillian Stacey Abe (2022)
Unit London gallery describes the exhibition I went to see:
“…Stacey Gillian Abe’s first solo exhibition at their gallery as an exploration of memory, time and emotion. It focuses on the concept of shared memory, Abe’s latest body of work examines how memories have been passed down through her family’s lineage, alluding to the ways in which traditions are absorbed and transformed from generation to generation. These ideas are represented in the jute plant and flowers that are detailed in various paintings. A fibrous plant with multiple uses, jute is a totem for the Ayivu clan, one of the major clans in Arua in the West Nile Region of the artist’s native Uganda. The shrublet appears in sections of embroidery that decorate Abe’s paintings, becoming a motif that connects each canvas. Most importantly, Shrub-let of Old Ayivu questions how memory can be shared. With her paintings, Abe explores the transference of abstract memory, of subjects that are not easily explained visually. These notions do not simply materialise through composition or through the artist’s own subjectivity. Instead, they take shape within the space of the canvas itself, seemingly forming from the subject’s own consciousness. Each painting and each figure tell a different story, becoming part of a tapestry of interwoven threads…”
The Sitting I by Gillian Stacey Abe (2022)
The colour Abe uses for her figures is further explained by the gallery:
“…These ideas of generational memory link to Abe’s striking use of the colour indigo. Acutely aware of the colour’s presence in African history, the artist acknowledges its role in centuries-old textile traditions in West Africa. The rich dye was subsequently introduced to East Africa through the exchange of textiles, facilitating the East African slave trade or the Arab Slave Trade and the Indian Ocean Trade. Here, Abe references Catherine McKinley’s study Indigo: In Search of the Colour that Seduced the World (2011), which details that one length of indigo was equivalent to one human body. Through the Indian Ocean trade, Abe’s home country of Uganda also encountered trade routes from the coast to the mainland in the mid-1800s. Her village of Arua, positioned at the intersection of Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Uganda, saw many Congolese people from the surrounding areas abducted into the slave trade to work in silk production…”
What We Wanted by Gillian Stacey Abe
In Abe’s own words:
“…Indigo for a skin tone in my work signifies a tribe, a breed of black, a people that are not limited to social, economic, cultural, political or historical constraints…”
In the exhibition, Shrub-let of Old Ayivu, Abe also shows us her fascination with indigo via its connection to cloth and material. She is fascinated with the colour and this manifests itself as an exploration of the relationship between cloth and the body. Through embroidery and the cloth there is a strong visual element throughout Abe’s body of work, which allows her to revisit the traditional, historical and personal significance attached to fabric.
See you Later, Again. by Gillian Stacey Abe
During the last three years Abe has carried out wide-ranging research on the colour indigo. It is a colour that has been viewed as both very rich and very valuable, but in her mind also one that has fashioned narratives around the black body. She says that indigo is a dominant colour in her work and she utilises it as a skin tone for her subjects. In a strange way it allows the observer to behold the black body in a different light.
Too Much and Not the Mood by Gillian Stacey Abe
Like my previous blog featuring the work of Hun Kyu Kim, Abe’s work is one you either love or hate. I actually found the exhibition fascinating.