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Lost City

Nottingham Contemporary is Reopening with Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio

15 October 20 words: Caroline Barry

It’s hard to sum up someone like Grace Jones in a single word. Singer, model, actress, songwriter, record producer. Icon. With a life as eclectic as it was iconic, it’s only fitting that she’s the subject of the expansive, multimodal new exhibition, Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio at Nottingham Contemporary. Caroline Barry headed there for a sneak preview to find out more... 

It’s hard to have a favourite image of Grace Jones. There are so many truly iconic shots in a world where legends are leaving us, and they don’t make ‘em like they used to. With this in mind, Nottingham Contemporary have opened their part-portrait, part-stage show, part telling of cultural history exhibition of singer, model and muse, Grace Jones.

At a time where we ask that Black lives matter and that transgender rights be recognised as human rights, the selection of an artist known for challenging gender stereotypes, embracing the gay community and for being a proud black woman feels culturally of the moment. It’s juxtaposed against an art world where we are still asking as women, do you need to be naked and white to get into the Met? It is, quite frankly, about damn time there were exhibitions like this.

Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio charts the incredible ability of Jones to reinvent herself from disco queen of Studio 54 to androgynous muse to part-woman, part-machine. As a queer non-binary person, the sight of Jones unapologetically staring straight at the viewer in sharp men’s tailoring, a buzzcut and a cigarette means something to me. That combined with Bowie in a playsuit, Annie Lennox with a neon buzz and Prince in a crop top inspired me to not always play by the gender playbook that insists I must be sugar and spice and all things nice at all times.

The show curators, Cédric Fauq and Olivia Aherne, explained that the exhibition was born out of previous ideas, “Grace Jones is the embodiment of many topics that Nottingham Contemporary has been exploring in recent years: black image-making; gender and performance; and the production of popular culture. These subjects have always been important for us to interrogate, and Grace Jones allows us to address the nuances and overlaps that are at the forefront of many conversations today.” 

All too often gallery space isn’t dedicated to the type of art being made by the underground. This includes art by the gay community, artists of colour and those making types of art considered too new for the current style of the time. The white walls of the Contemporary have all but vanished in what feels like a very stage-like setting of wooden beams, photography sitting on flight cases and at any second you feel like you are going to be called for curtain up. It feels intimate and real in a way that makes me feel like I am backstage at a show, be it art, fashion, or music.

The exhibition presents itself as an alternative way to write and tell art history, and we hope it shines a light on the very construction of an identity and how that construction has developed and multiplied over time

This is deliberate. “We collaborated with a local architect, Borja Vélez who came back to us with an incredibly perceptive and ambitious proposal, in which the design and material choice echoed some of the key themes of the show; performativity, visibility and an interest in threshold spaces,” Aherne explains. “The exhibition uses theatre flats as dividers and walls, which have a DIY aesthetic and convey the idea of the ‘backstage’ as a space of trial, rehearsal and experimentation.” 

Culturally, it captures moments in time that are starting to be lost to younger generations. This is encapsulated in the covers of legendary Interview magazines, with artist Keith Haring painting Grace before a show and ‘Antonio’s girls’.

I rounded the corner into Gallery 2 in time for the music starting, and immediately felt that I had wandered into Studio 54; my camp gay heart screamed in delight as I sang along to The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow. For a second, no matter how pandemic-heavy my heart had become, I truly believed it. I also realised it had been a few months since I had stood in an actual nightclub.

Jones collaborated with many of the most legendary artists that went on to define art genres and styles of their era, including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe. She appeared in art, music, fashion, design, and cinema spanning decades of creative work. All of this has been meticulously documented in the many eclectic sections of the show.

I was genuinely thrilled to see the work of Antonio Lopez, whose illustrations and classical eighties style drawings of ‘his girls’ have been a favourite of mine for years. Not to mention the stunning floor length, no doubt custom-made, Azzedine Alaïa dress that hung from the ceiling.

Another beautiful touch to the exhibition is the brochure that accompanies the list of art. A collectible, and free to anyone who attends the show, it provides attendees with a keepsake of an immersive exhibition that explains the areas of Jones’ life from proto disco to pills. But it is the end of the show that has a sober note and one that, in a pandemic, is a touch close to home.

It’s sad to note that a lot of the art in the gallery is made by a ‘lost’ generation of young artists wiped out by the AIDS crisis of the eighties. While there is no end of Jones, the gallery has made reference to the loss of life within the fashion, art and creative communities that contributed to the legend of Jones. The AIDS-era ushered in a silence and a feeling of absence in the art and fashion world when artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Antonio Lopez and Tseng Kwong all passed away from the disease. The final section of the exhibition prominently displays a black and white ACT UP poster for a benefit that Jones appeared in to raise awareness. It cannot have been easy to watch a generation of talent, creativity and indeed, friends, pass away.

While it ends on a sober note, the exhibition itself is a triumph for the Contemporary. I found myself queuing for more and going back round the exhibit a second time to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The delight and disco is something we could truly all use, as is the defiant celebration of being truly yourself, be that queer, black, singer, muse or model. 

Curators Fauq and Aherne, and the Contemporary, hope this will leave a lasting legacy. “Oddly enough, no one has staged a project exploring Grace Jones’ life, career, and collaborations in this way before, revealing the truly expansive influence and legacy. The exhibition presents itself as an alternative way to write and tell art history, and we hope it shines a light on the very construction of an identity and how that construction has developed and multiplied over time.”

You can see Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio at Nottingham Contemporary between 26 September 2020 and 3 January 2021

Full image credits:

Richard Bernstein, Blue Pilule, 1966. The Estate of Richard Bernstein.

Richard Bernstein, L’Orange, 1966. The Estate of Richard Bernstein.

Richard Bernstein, Inside Gatefold for Muse, 1979. The Estate of Richard Bernstein.

Richard Bernstein, Grace Jones Mask for Warm Leatherette, 1980. The Estate of Richard Bernstein.

Richard Bernstein, Grace Jones photograph for On Your Knees, 1979. Eric Boman courtesy of The Estate of Richard Bernstein.

Nicole Wermers, Untitled Chair - FXG-1, 2015. Private Collection, London. Courtesy the artist and Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate

Kayode Ojo, Kravitz, Stockholm (ASOS), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Sweetwater, Berlin.

Alexandra Bircken, Enfilé, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Herald St, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

Alexandra Bircken, Kirishima, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Herald St, London. Photo: Raimund Zakowski/ Kunstverein Hannover.

Ming Smith, Untitled (Grace Jones Ballerina), 1975. Courtesy of the artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, New York and San Francisco.

Richard Bernstein, VAMP, 1986. The Estate of Richard Bernstein.

Antonio Lopez, Personal Study, Angelo Colon, 1983. © The Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos.

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