Throughout the UK’s third lockdown, Mancunion Arts have paid as much attention to online exhibitions as we would to their offline equivalents. With museums and galleries due to reopen in May, we turned our gaze on one of several exhibition that fell through the cracks – ‘Art Comes HOME’ at HOME Manchester.
Although three artists’ work is featured in the show, this review focuses on the artist Joy Yamusangie.
Dreaming in blue
Joy is a London-based visual artist, whose work explores memory and political themes from a personal perspective. Their show’s title, Blue Glass Fortunes, comes from a painting that, in turn, was inspired by a dream. The painting shows blue goblets and bodies outlined in electric white against a black background, in what seem like celebratory postures, and which at the very least feel intimate and communal.
The bodies of Joy’s figures are reminiscent of Keith Haring’s dancing people, with their thickly outlined fluid curves. The resemblance is most striking with pieces painted on large sheets of rubbery fabric, which Haring often used. But unlike Haring, Joy gives her figures detailed facial features, suggesting a greater attention to individual identities; the absence of other bodily surface detail draws our eye to the faces. Interviewed by HOME, they noted that “the pressure to have work that speaks for a whole community is often one that is only applied to Black artists.” These, then, are determinedly individual experiences of Blackness.
I also had the feeling, looking at these pieces, of the fluidity as representing potential energy that is somehow trapped or restricted by the environment. This is most clearly seen in Underneath the Black Sky. The painting depicts a Tube carriage seen from above, with people in their seats looking trapped in their boxes. On closer inspection, one notices the seats either side of Joy are empty while the other passengers are shown consuming the products of black culture, highlighting how cultural appropriation sits comfortably alongside micro-aggressions.
The vanishing hours
Joy has cited Matisse’s cut-outs as an influence and it’s easy to see: their paintings are mainly composed of planes of bold, smooth, undisturbed colour. Ironically, then, a technique Matisse developed while recuperating from surgery – allowing him to move forms freely about with ease – can just as easily evoke the inhibition of movement and freedom.
Coming back to these faces, it struck me how many of the figures don’t quite meet one another’s gaze but seem to be staring at one another just off-centre. For instance, one of the biggest pieces features two diners facing each other across a table, with one looking at the other, who is staring off to the side. I’m not sure if this was the artist’s intention, but it brought to my mind the quiet despair of the near-but-far inhabitants of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks – that sense of human connection being just out of reach. (Interestingly, the curator had a different response, seeing them as intimate scenes interrupted by the viewer’s gaze.)
Another noteworthy feature of these bodies is their transparency. In many of the works, they take on the colour of their background, which relates to the invisibility of non-white bodies within dominant social narratives (e.g. An English Breakfast, with its mantra-like ‘BREXIT’ headlines). Elsewhere, Joy has said their work recognises a distinction between night, which is “linked to nightlife and community and safety”, and daytime, which is “linked to invisibility in working and public spaces in terms of Blackness and gender.”
‘Blue Glass Fortunes’ is part of the ‘Art Comes HOME’ exhibition, which formally closed in January 2021. However, most of the works are still available to view on the exhibition site, as well as a virtual curator’s tour.