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Green Light in the City

Exhibition Review: Cut & Mix at New Art Exchange

22 November 21 words: Katie Green

An inspired perspective of Black masculinity packaged into a succinct and glorious exhibition, Cut & Mix at New Art Exchange is a spectacle. Works from Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Keith Piper, and Marlene Smith, among others, offer a nuanced look at exactly what Black masculinity is, cleverly tearing apart notions of race, gender, and class in a whirlwind of contemporary art...

Amartey Golding, 'Foxtails (Still)', 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Notions of race, gender, sexualities, class, and place intertwine together in this new outlook on British Black masculinities in New Art Exchange’s latest exhibition, Cut & Mix.

Seven Black British artists explore these themes through a range of art mediums. Whether it is drawing or the spoken word, each artist explores their perceptions and experiences of black masculinity. 

The emergence of the Blk Art Group (1979-1984) is what this exhibition is based on and inspired by. It was this art group that was an important signifier of an emerging sense of a ‘black consciousness’ within Britain by Black artists in the 1980s.

A blast of colour hits as you turn the corner into the gallery, as Birmingham-based artist and curator Antonio Roberts’ Heavyweight Champ stretches over one wall in a singular area of the gallery entrance. The pixelated graphics as you enter provides a striking yet welcoming entrance to the exhibition, daring us to question exactly what it is we are looking at.

Heavyweight Champ is a flashback into the past. For those who are familiar with the Sega Mega drive gaming system, Roberts engages with this world and its depiction of black men within video games, portraying different games of past and present and their featured black characters.

The title is inspired by what is believed to be the first game to feature a black character, an arcade game released by Sega in 1976 where players would control a fictional boxer. 

During the process of creating this work, and also as he was growing up, Roberts noticed “in video games, black characters are always very aggressive and have these quite bad stereotypes.” Heavyweight Champ shows a vast range of games where Roberts’ perceptions are clear, through the pixelated images of different games over the width of the wall. 

Antonio Roberts, 'Heavyweight Champ', 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

“Black people are a nuance, they are an individual not just stereotypes,” added Roberts. His piece takes the use of something so simple as gaming, taking it to a new level in its levels of representation where black men are concerned. The crossing over of a fictional gaming world, with a real-world societal issue that, although represented in the past with these old games, is a message we take with us to question what our society needs to do differently. 

Turn a corner and on display is Amartey Golding’s mixture of photography and film, Foxtails, that displays his chainmail battle costumes. In the same room, on the opposite wall, is Michael Forbes’ photography series Auto Portrait: After Rembrandt Black Man in a Wig and Baseball Cap. The four separated self-portraits are Forbes himself, his eyes covered by brightly coloured wigs. 

The fact these two artworks by two different artists are displayed in the same room may make you question why? One brings the past to visitors with the use of armour on display, whilst the other displays modern photography in the form of portraits. It displays two ends of the timeline. We look at the photography in the present day, and the four individual portraits display how although people may be the same, they each have a uniqueness and individuality to them. It shows how the attitudes of individuality have changed.

In the portraits, the wigs were similar in style but with four separate colours; the accessories used the same colours but with different styles to each of them. As humans - whatever our race or ethnicity - we still have the same features inside and out. However, as individuals, we each have a uniqueness to us, and that is what makes us similar yet different, something Forbes and Golding are trying to show within their artwork.

“Curator Ian Sergeant made clear the importance of conversation; the conversation that went into initiating this exhibition, as well as conversations about what it meant to the artists and curators, informs precisely what visitors take away from the exhibition.”

Nigerian-born artist Rotimi Fani Kayode’s work is displayed on its own, tucked away in a red corner of the room. Kayode, a founding member of London-based arts organisation Autograph, was actively involved in the Black British art scene of the 1980s. 

The red painted corner of the studio clearly correlates with his photography, and perhaps it is the fact he has the most on display means his artwork needs its own space for audiences to take in the multiple messages he is trying to explore. 

The standout of his work was how modern the photography looked for 1989. Kayode’s series Bodies of Experience is deeply tied to Kayode’s own lived experience as a Black man. Having died of a heart attack whilst recovering from an AIDs-related illness, Kayode’s own body is integral to his photography. Taboo topics are explored unapologetically, displaying human genitalia and challenging how art is supposed to break boundaries.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 'Every Moment Counts (Ecstatic Antibodies)', 1989. Courtesy of Autograph, London.

Curator Ian Sergeant made clear the importance of conversation; the conversation that went into initiating this exhibition, as well as conversations about what it meant to the artists and curators, informs precisely what visitors take away from the exhibition. 

It was this conversation between the artists, organisers, and curators about their experiences that needed to take place, discussing the perceptions and interpretations that come about from black masculinity within Britain both in the past and the present. 

The opening night delivered a standout piece performed by mixed-media poet Samiir Saunders. Performing a collection of poems, the anger and passion spoken in Saunders’ performance was most clear in their reading of Queer Noir. It really made you take in what was being said, and how it could be taken in such a creative way from someone who has experienced oppression from individuals and wider society because of their race or ethnicity. 

Ultimately, Cut & Mix gives audiences the chance to explore varying interpretations of British Black masculinity through a collection of art mediums, marking this as an exhibition that delivers a truly enriching experience.

Cut & Mix is on view at New Art Exchange until January 9.

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