“Green spaces and nature are where I find solace and comfort. Creating images of serenity – which I feel aren’t seen enough – was the goal.” Here, photographer Donavan Smallwood (b. 1994) describes his award-winning series, Languor (2021). It contains monochromatic portraits showing the Black people he met whilst walking through Central Park in New York City. The natural setting creates an atmosphere of ease, even when it’s only suggested through blurred foliage in the background. Such peaceful scenes bring to mind the visions of Black Utopia in Tyler Mitchell’s (b. 1995) work as well as Mónica de Miranda’s (b. 1976) film The Island – a blissful space of “refuge and escape.” Now, an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, draws our full attention to the role of the natural environment. Soulscapes takes a fresh look at the genre of landscape art from the perspectives of artists from the African diaspora. It’s a major survey of more than 30 works, spanning from photography and tapestry to film and collage. Miranda’s work is on display alongside pieces from established and emerging names, such as Alberta Whittle, Hurvin Anderson, Isaac Julien, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Phoebe Boswell. We caught up with Lisa Anderson, the curator, to learn more. Her curatorial projects spotlight fine art from the African diaspora, which is the mission behind the Black British Art platform she founded in 2015. She is also the Managing Director of Black Cultural Archives, an archive museum that collects, preserves and celebrates the histories of people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK. In this interview, she tells us about the inspiration for the show, the sensorial dimension to the works on display and the conversations she wants to spark.
A: In the show, we see artists exploring our connection to the land. Could you tell us more about your own relationship with nature?
LA: During the COVID-19 lockdown my relationship to public space and the natural world intensified. Despite growing up in the less leafy side of Croydon, I’d always been a tree hugger. I was equally at home lying on the grass during summer and walking through bluebell carpeted forests, as I was ambling along a sea shore, lakeside or river bank. My fondest early memories with my family include summer playtime in our Thornton Heath terraced house garden. I remember devouring sherberty-sweet apple quarters from our apple tree, helping my parents reap corn from our small vegetable patch. On holiday, I would marvel at the lush fertility of my mother’s family home in the hills of Westmoreland Jamaica, which was surrounded by farmland and pineapple groves.
A: This genre has a long history that can be traced back from the seventeenth century, such as the paintings of Claude Lorraine (1600-1682), up to the contemporaries within this show. How did this genre inspire the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery?
LA: My love of visual art has always included a soft spot for portrayals of natural landscapes. I’d grown up with a large gold framed, archetypal 18th century European pastoral print in our dining room. But, during lockdown, this connection to nature evolved from a background interest into a sustaining source of emotional support. It was a trigger for deeper intellectual exploration, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I found myself ever more drawn to artworks that expressed our relationship to our surroundings. Given my curatorial interests, the majority of images were created by artists of African descent. When I was given the opportunity to pitch ideas to Dulwich Picture Gallery, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the possibilities of creating an exhibition that explored a more contemporary approach to landscape art – one that centred how these artists experienced and made sense of our relationship to nature.
A: The title of the exhibition suggests an environment that is internal rather than external. Why did you choose to call the show Soulscapes?
LA: For a long time the exhibition was called body and landscape as a holding title whilst I contemplated ways these works conveyed our bodily “relationship” with nature. Although the genre’s traditional onus on the depiction of natural scenery was my entry point, I soon realised that neither this conventional focus, nor the presence of the figure was guiding me, but rather, the expression of our emotional relationship or experience of the natural world. I was intrigued by the ripple effect that our inner world has on our perception and understanding of our environment and so I delved deeper into the historical relationship between portrayals of landscape and the realm of feeling, and how this linked to notions of identity as well as one-ness. Soulscapes points to the way these artists’ speak to the elements that make us who we are, our identity, experiences and emotions.
A: These creatives have vastly different practices but are united by being part of the African diaspora. How did you go about selecting artists and artwork for this show?
LA: They are united by sharing various degrees of African descent or nationality, as well as a distinct take on “our” relationship with the “natural” environment. I was instinctively drawn to artists whose technical approach to the subject would provide a multi-sensorial experience for the audience. The show also provided me with the opportunity to indulge in the works of artists that have chimed with me for a long time. Alberta Whittle, Isaac Julien, Kimathi Donkor and Phoebe Boswell are all artists I’ve spoken to, written about and admired but hadn’t had the opportunity to feature in any gallery based curatorial project. It was also important to me that the works spoke to the global African diaspora. Included are artists who live in the Caribbean or have African Caribbean descent, as well as artists whose lineage relates to specific African nations whilst living in either Europe or America. In this way, I hoped to open up the very different ways in which the relationship to land is experienced in view of the history of colonialism, migration, urbanism and national identity.
A: Could you describe the four themes – Belonging, Memory, Joy and Transformation – that make up the exhibition? Which artists speak to each theme?
LA: I chose Belonging because it helps to unpack some of the hidden or overlooked questions of identity and history wrapped up in the land, and how that affects some people’s experience of it. Work by Mónica de Miranda and Marcia Michael resonate with this in particular, but many of the artists could easily speak to more than one theme. Similarly, in Memory, artists like Sikelela Owen and Jermaine Francis powerfully convey how land stimulates and stores memories. Joy, which includes work by Kimathi Donkor, takes a look at how ease, simple pleasure and flow can be experienced through these outdoor spaces. Finally, pieces from Christine Kimeze and Michaela Yearwood-Dan speak to Transformation because nature is a source and space for revelation and healing.
A: With pieces across so many different disciplines – painting, film, tapestry and more – what considerations did you make when it came to the layout of the exhibition? How do you want visitors to explore the space?
LA: I want people to explore the show intuitively, with a willingness to discover something new about the possibility of how we all relate to the natural world around us through visual art. It was important to me that this included a variety of mediums to bring the sensorial dimension of nature to life. In particular, I want people to question the purpose of landscape depicted in art and perhaps compare what they’re seeing in the exhibition with any inherited or taught knowledge they have about the genre. The themes of the exhibition are meant to serve as kindling for contemplation rather than dogmatic categorical summations. This is because the themes are porous and interconnected. For example, the feeling of belonging is fuelled by memory. However, the works are anchored to the multifarious experiences of the Black/African diaspora. Therefore, I selected Belonging as an entry point to appreciate the cultural alienation that can be experienced alongside spiritual oneness. This contextualises the wealth of memory that land can hold. Given that there’s a hopeful ambition that the audience will be moved and inspired, I chose Joy to follow Memory and end with Transformation.
A: Phoebe Boswell’s I Dream of a Home I Cannot Know (2019) is a site-specific installation set in the Gallery’s mausoleum. Could you tell us a bit more about the piece and why you chose this location?
LA: Boswell’s work provides an immersive multi-media opportunity to meditate on the way landscape opens conversations about memory and belonging through moving image and sound. The choice to locate the piece in the mausoleum, a central point of the exhibition layout, felt right because of the way Boswell’s work combines elements of the first two sections. There is also the reverential, reflective atmosphere that the architecture creates with its circular shape and high ceilings.
A: What do you wish for audiences to take away from this show?
LA: A new appreciation for artists they’ve not encountered before and a wider, more inclusive, conversation about landscape in visual art, as well as both an inspiration to bring their whole selves into their engagement with nature – their memories, hopes and emotions.
A: What projects are you curating at the moment? What else should we look out for from you?
LA: Care is at the root of curating. The word derives from the Latin verb “curare,” which means “to take care of.” With this in mind, there are a few projects that have my utter devotion. First is caring for an organisation that houses the most powerful community sourced archive, ephemera and book collections on Black British history, as Managing Director of Black Cultural Archives. The organisation celebrates 10 years at Windrush Square in Brixton this year and we’ll be celebrating some phenomenal collections through workshops, exhibitions and events. I’m also relaunching my arts advisory practice. It’s a joy to connect people with amazing art from the African diaspora. Black British Art will continue to promote and curate projects mainly for the corporate audience, championing the best of contemporary image-makers from the African diaspora.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Soulscapes | Until 2 June
Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh and Lisa Anderson
- Isaac Julien, Onyx Cave (Stones Against Diamonds), (2015) © Isaac Julien / private collection, London.
- Marcia Michael, Ancestral Home 45 from the series The Object of My Gaze, (2022). © Courtesy of the artist.
- Mónica de Miranda, Sunrise (detail), (2023), inkjet print on cotton paper. Courtesy of the artist and Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.