Following the success of Social Works, a group exhibition put on at one of the Gagosian galleries in New York, a sequel opens in London today, aptly named Social Works II. Both this show and the previous chapter were curated by Antwaun Sargent, the art critic who was announced as the global gallery’s new director and curator in January this year.
The London chapter continues the central theme of the New York exhibition, foregrounding artists from the African diaspora and their insights into the relationship between space on the one hand, and social and artistic practice on the other. It brings together 11 artists from all over the world, including some people who are better known for their work in other creative disciplines, such as Sir David Adjaye and Grace Wales Bonner.
To find out more about the artists on display and the way the exhibition was put together, we caught up with Antwaun, who was at the gallery for the opening. First, how did his approach differ for the development of this London chapter? “Geography played a huge role,” he says. “I want to have a conversation about the African diaspora, and given, historically, London’s role in creating that possibility and all that means, the destruction and colonialism, this was the place to have that conversation.”
As this answer suggests, one of the ideas that Antwaun returns to time and again is the importance of dialogue and within the spaces of the Grosvenor Hill gallery, that dialogue takes on many forms. First, there is an intergenerational dialogue, which is immediately obvious as you step into the first room. “What’s really exciting about this particular exhibition is that you have Tyler Mitchell partly in conversation with Isaac Julien,” says Antwaun. “Two prolific and distinct image-makers from very different generations with varying concerns.”
Then there is a really clear inter-disciplinary dialogue. Sir David Adjaye brings his architecture background to bear on his contribution, a group of sculptural forms made using a rammed-earth technique inherited from West African architectural vernacular. The earth that has been used is British soil, however. “It’s about the passage of time and what has happened on that soil,” says Antwaun. He then turns to a photograph of Tyler Mitchell’s, Georgia Hillside (Redlining), which depicts – as you might guess – a sunlit hillside in Georgia, on which small groups of people relax. “It’s also talking about what is possible with earth, but in a very different context that might or might not bear some similarities,” says Antwaun. “Those dialogues are deeply important to me.”
There are also thematic echoes throughout the exhibition. The first room, dominated by those earthen sculptural forms by Sir David, feels more grounded in physical geography, whereas the second room, which houses artworks by Rick Lowe, Kahlil Robert Irving and Amanda Williams, steps more into the realms of psychic geography. Yet still, there are similar concerns being grappled with.
For instance, the very last room hosts the London premiere of Isaac Julien’s video work Lessons of the Hour (2019), a contemplative journey into the life and work of Frederick Douglass, the visionary African-American abolitionist. Like Sir David’s countless layers of rammed British soil, this too explores the passage of time. “That film really ties together a lot of themes,” says Antwaun. “It also tells us that we’ve been in this engagement for a very long time. So, when we’re thinking about this current moment, and so much feels new and feels newly challenging, for those of us from certain lineages, it has always been this way.”
Antwaun adds that he was conscious of not wanting to overhang the exhibition, so that visitors have time to introspect and reflect (all to the soundscape of the ethereal noises emanating from Grace Wales Bonner’s beautiful installation). “You have all of these poetic connections that are all being drawn sort of loosely between the artworks,” says Antwaun. “What I’m always trying to do in exhibitions is not hit anybody over the head and say, ‘This is what this is.’ Instead, come to the gallery, walk through the gallery, and sit with the work and see what connections you draw.”
Social Works II at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill opens today and will remain open until 18 December. Walk-ins are welcome but are subject to capacity, so you are encouraged to make an appointment, which you can do here.
Portrait of Antwaun Sargent by Chase Hall