HULL, UK — Across the northeast industrial city of Hull, first-time host to this year’s Turner Prize exhibition, a clever billboard marketing campaign declares, “Whatever you think about Turner Prize 2017, you’re right.” Nodding to the spectrum of critique the Prize attracts as an annual showcase for “emerging” British talent, the Prize is known as much for the variability of practices nominated as the controversy the works often generate. This year’s four shortlisted artists, Hurvin Anderson, Lubaina Himid, Andrea Büttner, and Rosalind Nashashibi strike a less contentious note than preceding years, while individually delivering engaging, as well as accessible, micro-exhibitions that uncommonly work together as a coherent show. Whereas last year’s shortlist were accused of being apolitical in the wake of a snap, post-Brexit election, this year’s nominees each handle social inequalities in highly measured and thoughtful ways that are still firmly embedded in current political questions.
The winner is due to be announced on December 5th but that won’t be the only talking point about the 2017 Prize. Much has been already said about the show’s maturity after Tate recently removed the nominee age limit of 50. Two of the four artists shortlisted — Anderson and Himid, age 52 and 62 respectively — evidence the belated wisdom of this new rule. A further factor in making this exhibition distinct from previous years is the appreciated diversity in the shortlist roster. With three female nominees, two people of color, and all with roots that extend outside of Britain, the optics alone make a poignant statement of who are regarded as “emerging” artists in Britain today.
Diverse backgrounds are integral to this exhibition as, in each of the four micro-exhibitions, they are wielded to address pressing social issues. Poverty, war, slavery, and intersectional identity are often framed through intimate and personal lenses, and this framing, in combination with the politics of including nominees diverse in age, gender, and ethnicity, accounts for why this show is so surprisingly cohesive; strong and distinct cultural points of view materialize across compatible, socially engaged topics. To wit, curatorial care has been taken to introduce the artists’ individual motivations; on entry or exit to the exhibition visitors must funnel past a huge, purpose-built, wooden display containing explanatory videos of the artists talking about their practices.
This priming is particularly useful for German-born Andrea Büttner, whose work is perhaps the most dense. Her assortment of conceptually-minded multimedia works call on historic or esoteric cultural sources deemed relevant to the present. For example “Beggar” (2016), a series of nine, large, black woodblock prints, offers simple iterations of a hooded kneeling figure with arms outstretched. Referencing a German sculpture from 1919, the prints’ repetition insists on poverty’s perpetuity.
Continuing the theme of social deprivation, “Simone Weil: The Most Dangerous Disease” (1990) is a complex series of interconnected, infographic panels that curl through two rooms. Büttner did not make, but rather borrowed the display from the Peace Gallery and Anti-War Museum in Berlin where it is an education tool for teaching about war and peace. The installation is captivating and doesn’t feel out of place next to Büttner’s abstract works. The striking early- and mid-twentieth-century black and white photographs by noted photographers are interspersed among polemical quotes from Weil. As with one panel beguilingly titled, “The Needs of the Human Soul,” Büttner piques both intellectual and aesthetic interest.
Unlike Büttner, who uses diverse media, Hurvin Anderson only uses paint on canvas — a medium underrepresented in the Turner Prize. Anderson’s large, expressive paintings remind of the medium’s capacity to tantalize the senses and narrate the past in a contemporary way, as seen in “Northern Range” (2010) and “Greensleeves” (2017). These lush and verdant landscapes are among the artist’s recollections of a childhood in Birmingham, places near his London studio, and an ancestral home in Jamaica. Using emphatic but controlled paint strokes, dabs, drips, and smears, these images simultaneously recede and approach in terms of abstraction and figuration, which cleverly simulates the equivalent qualities of memory as a sensory experience.
Taking a different, yet still biographical approach, are Anderson’s interior still life scenes of his father’s barbershop. The visible detritus of newly shorn afro hair on the unswept floor of the empty shop in “Flat Top” (2008) evokes the absent black male bodies that are represented elsewhere in two companion paintings. One of these, “Peter’s Sitters” (2009), conversely isolates its figures from the barbershop context.
The other, “Is It Ok to be Black?” (2016) is still located at the barbershop, but the work deploys the potent portraits of American civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and adds deliberately indistinguishable black figures. The icons amplify its title’s question while anchoring its wider issues firmly within the specific subcultural site of black male hair salons in the Midlands, a part of central England with a sizable British-Jamaican population and cultural heritage.
Lubaina Himid’s pieces also explore racial issues, but she adopts a deeper, historic lens. The installation “Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Series” (2007) stands out with its many porcelain plates and jugs over-painted with black slave portraits. These pieces make a simple yet effective statement about the need to redesign cultural objects’ historic narratives — an issue well-placed in Hull, a city with strong historical links to the abolition of slavery. “A Fashionable Marriage,” (1987) recalls Hogarth’s famous “Marriage à la Mode” (c.1743), using a tableau of colorful and oversized plywood caricatures to cast Margaret Thatcher as a villainess ruling on the fate of black, disabled, and female citizens. The work is arguably not “contemporary” in the Turner Prize’s sense of the term — it was made in the late eighties — but being exhibited recently has made it eligible. The work proves Himid a formidable artist able to convey the salient point that British social inequalities have a trans-historic nature. Himid is a curious inclusion here, not because her work isn’t deserving of accolades, but because her practice is not “emerging.” Rather, it emerged decades ago, but, for reasons we might speculate have to do with problems of diversity in British art, her practice wasn’t adequately acknowledged.
Rosalind Nashashibi exhibits two films, set across two different geographical locations, but united by an exploration of the way environments shape social relations, and vice versa. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, “Electrical Gaza” (2015) charts the artist’s trip through the war-torn city during 2014. Using documentary techniques, Nashashibi weaves the camera through various activities of Gazan life, punctuated with animated scenes, transitioning viewers between real and unreal. “Vivian’s Garden” (2017) adopts an altogether slower pace, examining a mother-daughter relationship, both immigrant artists living and working in their secluded garden home in Guatemala. The unhurried quality of the pacing and lack of narration allow for intimate and mundane details about the women to become noticeable, while information intentionally omitted leaves unanswered a raft of questions about their fate. As with Nashashibi’s other films, here you feel as if you have stumbled into complex and rich narratives placed just out of the reach to fully comprehend their nuance.
This exhibition leaves you sated in a way you might not expect. The temporary relocation to Hull creates a fresh context for defining “emerging” art in the nationally designated “2017 City of Culture.” Plus, with the nominated artists’ backgrounds being so varied, the scope of their themes so socially inclined, and the personal inflection in most cases so accessible, each work arouses intellectual curiosity as much as it visually pleases. Perhaps too, within the climate of Brexit and the UK’s palpable sensitivity to how cultural identity plays out in British public spheres, such an exhibition, at the intersection of biography, politics, and contemporary art demonstrates a collective concern for art that intervenes in topical social debates in engaging and accessible ways.
The Turner Prize exhibition runs at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull until January 7, 2018. The winner of the Turner Prize will be announced at the gallery December 5, 2017.