Last night was the opening of Bill Ming’s exhibition at New Art Exchange in Nottingham, his first substantial solo show in Britain for almost 10 years, though his work has been celebrated in his native Bermuda. I’ve known Bill since 1982, and worked with him on several occasions, most recently on Bread and Salt, Stories of Art and Migration, for the Regular Marvels series.

I believe him to be one of the finest artists I’ve met but, over the decades, I’ve also observed the art world’s indifference to his work.

Da W:Eight (detail)

It’s true that it has qualities that are not much valued in contemporary art today. It’s approachable, visually rich, has figurative and narrative elements, and can be humorous. But those are not unforgiveable sins:  some of the YBAs can get away with them. The real problem, I think, is that some of Bill’s work includes woodcarving. Last night someone said to me:

‘I wasn’t expecting much, but I was blown away. I hadn’t seen much of his work but I thought it was just a kind of African woodcarving.’

The speaker is a thoughtful and knowledgeable person who’s known of Bill’s work for years. He’s also, for various reasons, sympathetic to non-mainstream artists. But he still came expecting to see ‘African woodcarving’.

The first problem is allowing surface appearance to prevent us from seeing beyond it, to the work’s nature, purpose and meanings. And yet what is contemporary art about if not inviting—challenging—us to look beyond the obvious?

The second is the implicit association of the diverse artistic practices of an entire continent with ideas like ‘craft’, ‘folk’ or even—under your breath—‘primitive’. I know nothing about the traditions and culture of woodcarving in Africa, but I know that it cannot be a single thing any more than ‘European music’ is one thing.

The British art world has often seen Bill Ming’s work as a cliché. A black man carving wooden figures—how interesting can that be? But the real cliché is in that thought, not in the work it condemns. It is prejudice masquerading as artistic critique. In a famous passage from James Boswell’s Life of Dr Johnson, the author reports his mentor’s reaction to the idea of a woman above her station:

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: ‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

Life of Dr Johnson

(To get the full pomposity of that remark, you have to hear it in the voice of Robbie Coltrane, playing Dr Johnson in Blackadder the Third.)

The western art world too often behaves like Dr Johnson, complacently unable to recognise a challenge to its authority. But such challenges do not go away when they are ignored. Closing your eyes makes the bogeymen appear, because they’re your bogeymen. Bill Ming’s work has already done more to change how people think and see that that of many more celebrated artists. I think it will outlast much of what’s admired today as well.

Bomb in a Baby Carriage

A friend gave me a piece of wood from this old house he was renovating; it had newspaper stuck on it, underneath the wallpaper. And that’s where the stories of mustard gas and people coming back injured from the war came up, in that old newspaper. This title comes from the Vietnam War, and the Viet Cong. It’s about the women who ferried the bombs into public areas and just blow people apart, to pieces. It is about people coming back from war in wheelchairs, and the whole piece spins on this little point. They are just going round in circles. We don’t seem to learn from those mistakes. On the side here is a little shield and a part of Africa is on it, where you can close the shield when the baby is sleeping. He is coming into the picture: the old guy has come back from war, and this baby has sort of attached itself. But the whole thing also came from an American artist called Edward Kienholz. In 1964 he did a piece called ‘The Wait.’ It’s a woman sitting in a chair, and she waited for so long that she has just become skin and bones. I quite liked that as a starting point, so I used some of that idea.
A friend gave me a piece of wood from this old house he was renovating; it had newspaper stuck on it, underneath the wallpaper. And that’s where the stories of mustard gas and people coming back injured from the war came up, in that old newspaper. This title comes from the Vietnam War, and the Viet Cong. It’s about the women who ferried the bombs into public areas and just blow people apart, to pieces. It is about people coming back from war in wheelchairs, and the whole piece spins on this little point. They are just going round in circles. We don’t seem to learn from those mistakes. On the side here is a little shield and a part of Africa is on it, where you can close the shield when the baby is sleeping. He is coming into the picture: the old guy has come back from war, and this baby has sort of attached itself. But the whole thing also came from an American artist called Edward Kienholz. In 1964 he did a piece called ‘The Wait.’ It’s a woman sitting in a chair, and she waited for so long that she has just become skin and bones. I quite liked that as a starting point, so I used some of that idea.

Available downloads

Wit Dese Hands by Bill Ming, including the artist’s reflections on his life and work, over 70 colour photographs and a piece by Andy McKay as well as this essay  (PDF file 55MB download).

Against the Tide: text and images of this essay (PDF 250kb download)

Venus

It’s about looking at Victorian sculptures that hail from Africa. I tried to make it into a porcelain doll; I used a lot of glues to get that effect. It’s to do with Sarah Baartman, a woman who was taken from Africa and brought to Europe. She was exhibited in freak shows and theatres where she used to sing and dance. Europeans were obsessed by her different shape, especially her derrière. She died very young and when she died they cut her up and put her in bottles. They had her in bottles in different museums in France. It was only when Nelson Mandela became President that he was able to persuade the French Government to return her remains. She was buried back in South Africa 200 years after she was born. It’s such a sad tale; it’s scary really.
It’s about looking at Victorian sculptures that hail from Africa. I tried to make it into a porcelain doll; I used a lot of glues to get that effect. It’s to do with Sarah Baartman, a woman who was taken from Africa and brought to Europe. She was exhibited in freak shows and theatres where she used to sing and dance. Europeans were obsessed by her different shape, especially her derrière. She died very young and when she died they cut her up and put her in bottles. They had her in bottles in different museums in France. It was only when Nelson Mandela became President that he was able to persuade the French Government to return her remains. She was buried back in South Africa 200 years after she was born. It’s such a sad tale; it’s scary really.

One thought on “A culture of received ideas

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