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21 February 2024

Race across the landscape

In “Soulscapes”, contemporary artists of the African diaspora depict the lands that shaped them.

By Michael Prodger

Landscape as a stand-alone genre in art only properly took root in the early 17th century. In 1627-28 Edward Norgate, a gentleman musician and connoisseur who served both James I and Charles I, wrote a treatise called Miniatura or the Art of Limning in which he described landscape painting as “An Art soe new in England, and soe Lately come a shore, as all the language in our fower Seas cannot find it a Name, but a borrowed one”. That name – landscape – came from the old Dutch landtschap and, said Norgate, meant a “beautifull prospect of Fields, Cities, Rivers, Castles, Mountaines, Trees or what soever delightfull view the Eye takes pleasure in”. What he had also identified was that the difference between land and landscape is human perception. The first exists regardless of our presence, the second only in our experience of it.

Landscape paintings quickly took on numerous forms – topographical, emotional, ideal, imaginative, documentary – and as colonialism spread ever wider it started to record new realms. Frans Post, for example, sent back images of Dutch holdings in Brazil, and William Hodges, an artist attached to Captain Cook’s second voyage, painted Polynesia. Such unfamiliar and evocative lands would inspire painters as diverse as Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Klee and John Minton.

“Soulscapes” at Dulwich Picture Gallery sets out to offer an alternative version to this white, European tradition. It asks: what is the contemporary relationship of artists of the African diaspora to the lands that shaped them? It is not in fact an exhibition of landscape art – only three of the paintings are free of the human figure. The original title was apparently “Body in Landscape”, a more accurate and less wilful indication of the real theme of the show.

If the British landscape tradition flowered in the age of empire, here are the descendants of the people most directly and painfully affected, offering personal and often complex views of the natural world and its role in their lives. Of the 21 artists represented, 14 live and work in Britain.

This is not a historical survey of black landscapists. There is no Robert S Duncanson (1821-72) whose Land of the Lotus Eaters (1861) was bought by the king of Sweden; no Edward M Bannister (1828-1901), about whom the New York Herald wrote disparagingly: “The negro has an appreciation for art while being manifestly unable to produce it”; no Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a painter who declared, “I cannot fight prejudice and paint at the same time.” Nor are there moderns such as Frank Bowling, the first black artist to be elected a Royal Academician, whose map paintings of the late 1960s are full of cultural and historical resonances; or Kehinde Wiley, whose recent work offers a black perspective on the romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich; or Ingrid Pollard, whose photographs capture the experience of black people in the British countryside.

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The artists here have been divided into four categories – “Belonging”, “Memory”, “Joy” and “Transformations” – all of which are long-standing themes in landscape art. But as the curator, Lisa Anderson, director of Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, points out rather disingenuously, many of the works would sit just as happily under another banner. It is an exhibition that includes works in many media – painting, collage, video, textile and photography – and the selection is what Anderson calls an attempt “to provide a philosophical lens through which to contemplate the significance of our relationship to our environment”. In this noble but rather nebulous aim it is intermittently successful, a philosophical lens not necessarily being the best of optical instruments.

It helps perhaps to look at some of the paintings in the gallery’s permanent collection before entering the show. There are works by Nicolaes Berchem, a Dutchman who painted as an honorary Italian; Canaletto, an Italian who showed the Thames as a version of the Grand Canal in Venice; and Thomas Gainsborough, an Englishman who imitated the Dutch. This cultural cross-pollination is evident in “Soulscapes” too.

For example, Evewright (Everton Wright), the son of Jamaican parents, drew patterns in the sands of Silecroft Beach in Cumbria and invited members of the public to follow his lines on foot, enlarging them as they went. He chose a beach both as a memorial to the 21 Chinese cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay in 2004, and as a symbol of migration. As with the landscape art of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, photographs of these Walking Drawings are all that remain after the tide has scrubbed the beaches clean of both images and history.

Touches of John Constable’s myriad greens and Graham Sutherland’s voracious plants echo through Limestone Wall (2020) by Hurvin Anderson, another British-born artist of Jamaican descent. It shows a house with a patterned and perforated veranda being swallowed by variegated foliage and sucked back into the jungle. It is based on photographs he took during a visit to Jamaica in 2017: the island, he has said, represents “a kind of loss”, a utopia that he never experienced. The picture is both a wonderful piece of painting and deeply suggestive, full of ambivalence.

Elsewhere it is Peter Doig who is the unseen presence. In many of his paintings, Doig, a Scotsman who lived in Trinidad for decades, is far more overt about the history of the Caribbean than any of the pictures in the exhibition. His conquistadors may not be here but his ominous and impenetrable shorelines and slick waters can be felt in, for example, Ravelle Pillay’s There Is Water at the Bottom of the Ocean (2023) in which palm trees and lagoon are bathed in a sickly light: this idyllic spot hints at a dark history. Pillay is a South African artist whose forebears were taken to the Natal province as indentured labourers to help establish a sugar industry there. Here is the world from which her ancestors were wrenched.

In Anthill (2017) by the Kenyan-born Michael Armitage, the link to the land is both inherent and folkloric. Armitage, who trained at the Slade and the Royal Academy, has long mixed traditions in his rich and often disconcerting work, which can be dreamlike but sometimes violent too. This image is painted on lugubo, a bark cloth which ripples and pools; these undulations form the surface of the anthill from which emerge three witches riding on hyenas which, according to tradition, are the familiars that signal demonic possession. Beneath the anthill is the victim herself, face tense in its shadow as if both the cratered mound and the occultish, Goyaesque swirl in the sky above have emerged from her disordered mind. This is not landscape as a nurturing force but simultaneously quotidian and malign.

Armitage’s painting is, surprisingly, a rare exception in the exhibition in that it shows a separate and unfamiliar mental realm. For a show that invites the viewer to look beyond the “cultural and socio-political formulations” of Western landscape art, the majority of the works instead confirm the fact that, wherever it is sited and whatever form it takes, nature evokes a similar range of emotions in all artists, regardless of their roots.

Soulscapes
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21
Until 2 June

[See also: Byron’s war on tranquillity]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

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