The Whitworth Gallery is located within the leafy Whitworth Park on Oxford Road, Manchester. It is an impressive red brick building and inside exhibitions are displayed across two levels. There are floor to ceiling windows around the building looking out across the park. I found these views contributed to the calm and peaceful atmosphere of the space.
The first exhibition we looked at was “Textiles_Art” displaying a range of works making inventive use of textiles. In the central room stood “Red Abakan III“, 1970-1, by Magdalena Abakanowicz. It was a vast red sculpture, approximately 10 feet tall, constructed from sisal which is a tough fibre derived from the agave plant commonly used to make products such as rope or carpet. The huge red disc had a slit in the middle which was surrounded by texture and loose fibres. The sculpture appeared to be a representation of a vagina. The sculpture dominated the room from all viewpoints and had an awe-inspiring presence.
In the adjoining room were several brilliant works. One was a series of 13 canvasses digitally printed with what appeared to be an image of folded sheets. The work was “Dedication to Father, Vilnius City Hospital, The Slip No. 1“, 2012-13 by Laima Orzekauskiene. It appeared to be a symbolic representation of the everyday sights related to the artists fathers time spent in hospital. By reducing this down to simplistic, repetitive, monochromatic prints the work communicated a clinical and detached feel to what was evidently a very intimate topic.
There were two very impressive pieces of embroidery also displayed in this room. Do Ho Suh’s “Spectators“, 2014, is a sheet of thick cotton paper embroidered with multi-coloured threads showing the layered outlines of figures leaning forwards to, as the name suggests, watch something. The photograph doesn’t do justice to the wonderful textures present in this piece. I love how this simple idea produces such an effective representation of a crowd.
“Quis Est Iste Qui Venit“, 2012, by Jessica Rankin appears to be a fictional map rendered through embroidery on organdy. The gentle breeze of the air conditioning in the gallery made the work sway slightly, producing ghostly shadows in the wall behind and making the light play as if the surface of water. The title is a Latin phrase that roughly translates as “Who is this who is coming?”, something that can be traced back to the 1793 poem “Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad” by Robert Burns. In 1904 the poem was developed and the title used for a ghost story by M.R. James in which a man discovers a bronze whistle, with the Latin inscription on its side. After blowing the whistle the man is repeatedly haunted by a spirit which eventually uses sheets from the spare bed beside his to take form and attack him in the night. However I only discovered this explanation of the title after returning home and researching. It could be that the artist was aiming to produce a map-like image of the area where the story takes place. Certainly the use of grey-blues and snippets of words such as “figure”, “wet”, “the door… is locked” conjure a sense of unease in the viewer.
Mary Sibande’s “Sophie Velucia/Madame CJ Walker” 2009 features the three dimensional form of Sophie, the artists fictional servant character, and an embroidered portrait of Madame CJ Walker was a 19th century entrepreneur. She was the first African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire, through her invention of hair products for black women.
In this piece Sophie dominates the room amidst the luxurious swathes of her royal blue skirt. In her hands she holds the hair of Madame CJ Walker. Despite being modelled in the style of an expressionless mannequin upon closer inspection Sophie’s features are not only very definitely those of an African woman but also here clearly distorted with a look of confusion and despair. The abundance of hair pouring forth from Madame Walker is a reference to the scalp condition that she suffered with for most of her life which was the inspiration for her business.
When I saw the work I wasn’t aware who either of the women were and so read the piece as a study of class roles with the servant girl swamped by her duties (taking care of the lady’s hair) and her oppressive role, represented by her huge heavy servants dress.
After research however I now understand that Sophie’s dress is a contrast between the domestic style and the luxurious amount and colour of the material. In this work she is examining the success of a fellow African woman, perhaps trying to seek answers to how she can reach similar circumstance.
Sophie, always dressed in rich blue Victorian servants dress, is the alter-ego of the artist. Through Sophie she explores themes of gender, class and race. In 2010 Sophie was displayed on billboards around Johannesburg, elevated from her circumstances as a domestic servant to the position normally occupied by celebrities. This aspect of Sibande’s work raises questions not just pertaining to class and race but also to universal concepts of dreams, aspirations, luxury and the role of celebrity.
I was so excited to find “The Upper Class at Bay”, 2012, by Grayson Perry hanging behind Mary Sibande’s work. The tapestry, a mix of wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk, is incredibly detailed. The shapes achieved are amazingly contemporary and organic unlike the very two dimensional, geometric style often associated with classical tapestries. Perry makes ingenious use colour theory to produce striking contrast and conjure the atmosphere of a wintery sunset. His macabre sense of humour shines through in this piece, ironically symbolising the upper classes as a tweed deer hunted by the dogs of tax, social change and fuel bills. Portraying their threatened role within modern British society by making use of customs and a medium closely associated with their own history deepens the irony.
When I researched further into this piece I discovered it comes from a series of 6 tapestries titled “The Vanity of Small Differences“. The story of the series was inspired by Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress”, the main character of whom is Tom Rakewell – here he becomes Tim. The tale documents the story of his journey of upward social mobility, from working class beginnings in Sunderland to his country mansion in the Cotswolds, illustrated here in the 5th tapestry.
Along one side of the hallway that stretched to the central area of the gallery was patchwork of light boxes displaying black & white photographs. The images appeared to be family holiday snaps which, upon further enquiry, isn’t far from the truth. Johnnie Shand Kydd became known for capturing the emergent world of the YBA’s in the 90’s. This selection of his work concentrates on his yearly trip to the Greek island of Hydra, often with fellow celebrities and insiders of the art world such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Lily Cole. The photographs provide a warm, humorous and intimate insight into an otherwise exclusive world.
The last exhibit I saw was simply titled portraits and displayed works covering a broad range of styles, mediums and ages, hung in a hotch-potch across 5 walls. The piece that really caught my attention though was the sculpture in the centre of the room. Shaped like a shed and laser cut with writing lit from within, the work was called “Love Songs: Multi-storey House” and created by Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie. The writing was a collection of quotes from un-named women describing their personal experiences, understanding and encounters with feminism. I really liked the fact that they were completely abstract and enjoyed reading these different perspectives on the subject.
While we were visiting there was also some kind of boys dance workshop taking place which was really good to see.
Visiting the Whitworth gallery was a really enjoyable experience and has definitely counted as a point encouraging me to study at MMU School of Art.