For the better part of 20 years, mixed media artist Mary Evans has fused elements of her Nigerian heritage and European upbringing. Spending her shaping years between the cities of Lagos and London made an indelible mark in her arts practice. It was in her youth, that she had to acclimate to British traditions, language and societal ‘codes’ which in turn have manifested into large bodies of work amassing the significance of cultural transgressions and migratory displacement. For her, art and history is intricately woven. Her mixed media artworks reveal not just her story, but African ancestral stories that are not often told. I will liken Evans to a griot. This role is an important one, as she is both historian and storyteller. She carries the collective narratives of the village, the tragic and the triumphant. She who remembers can reinterpret the unwritten histories and share the untold stories of the un-namable that may have otherwise been forgotten.
Cut and Paste, her first solo exhibition in London, at Tiwani Contemporary unleashes a collective narrative, based on recollection, reverence and appropriation. The tales of her ancestral forefathers begin with Held (2012), a sweeping 50ft wide by 10ft high wall installation. The arresting beauty of life-sized brown craft paper silhouettes with leisurely poses call to mind impressionist painter Manet’s Lunch on the Green (1862) and place Evans in the milieu of mixed-media artist Kara Walker, known for her use of large silhouettes. These brown paper figures are striking and in situ. A slight variance in their shape gives reference to their sexuality. They command you to be still while you take in their dimension, easily contrasted against large pillars and arched ceilings. Evans is a masterful storyteller, as she gently urges you to look beyond the decorative beauty of this scene so that you may realize the wall is based on the history of the slave port in Elmina and Cape Coast castles in Ghana. At once these curved silhouettes become exposed naked bodies stripped of their homeland and void of their identity.
“In many ways most of the work in some form reconfigures work I’ve made before in other formats or dimensions. The title of the show, Cut and Paste, a title I used for a talk I gave a few years ago, refers to the craft aesthetic in my practice. Literally the cutting and pasting I do when I make my work. Simultaneously it refers to the dislocation and assimilation experienced when one is transplanted from one location with its cultural and social influences to another with different cultural and social influences.”
– Mary Evans
Evans use of craft paper provokes a discourse around the notion of that which is fragile, ephemeral and disposable. Her images call to mind domestic household items you have seen before, such as a doily or paper plate. With an interest in delving beyond the purely ornamental, she is an avid, site-specific researcher who infuses social, geographical and historical clues into her works. To confront the issue of dissipated narratives and historical legacy, Evans constructs bodies of work in which patterns become a focal motif. She incorporates traditional symbols and textiles, as triggers for emotive response. Unveiling a new vision about that which is decorative and ornamental, particularly through her use of craft paper whose repetitive designs embody the social and historical strings of its source.
“The imagery in my work is based on signs, symbols and pictograms culled from popular culture. Over a number of years these images have developed into a kind of visual Esperanto. The images are accessible and I rely on them being easily read. In this way I am able to construct simple yet powerful motifs. These images are often used to make site specific, spatially dynamic installations working with a variety of materials: (paper, rubber, paint, print and digital media) on a variety of surfaces (paper, walls, flooring, glass.) I see my practice as fluid and mutable in terms of my approach and the materials I use.” – Mary Evans
A precise and poignant reconfiguration of the cultural databank of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is found in the Willow Series (2012) that also have the same figures found in Held, but on a much smaller scale. These works directly communicate how cultural influences are transported, albeit through empires, trades and migration. Referencing the Chinese Willow plates that were found in her British home and the homes of others, Evans points to the direct impact of imperialism, as these plates were considered ‘quintessentially English.’ Each delicately cut doily bestows a new narrative, in which the silhouettes return to Elmina, the original site of their departure. The profile of African figures in place of the commonly recognized European figures one may see in ‘cameos, commemorative plates, and doilies’ is present throughout the entire exhibition. Evans collectively uses the works as a tool for remembrance and respect. By paying tribute to the unspoken narratives of African culture, she creates historical legacy that asks us the questions, what have we chosen to remember? What have we chosen to forget?
Cut and Paste is on view at Tiwani Contemporary, 14 September – 20 October, 2012.
Mary Evans was born in Lagos Nigeria and lives and works in London, UK. She studied Fine Art Painting at GLOSCAT, Goldsmiths College and The Rijksakademie. She has taken in part in several exhibitions throughout the UK and internationally including solo exhibitions; Meditations Baltimore Museum of Art, (2008) Baltimore, USA, Cafe Gallery Projects, (2001) London, Filter, Leighton House Museum (1997) London, as well as group exhibitions; 5 Continents and 1 City, Museum of Mexico City (2000) Mexico City, Mexico, Farewell to Post-Colonialism, 3rd Guangzhou Triennale, (2008) Guangzhou, China, Port City, Arnolfini, (2007) Bristol and A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad, Contemporary Art Museum St Louis (2003) USA and Tour.
The recipient of several residencies, awards and commissions, her most recent, The Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, USA (2010). Evans teaches as an Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
Written by Stephanie Baptist.
All images courtesy of the artist and Tiwani Contemporary. All rights reserved.
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