Thursday, 4 February 2010

Delaine Le Bas at Chapter Arts Centre

Delaine Le Bas - Witch Hunt - seen here

We drove to Cardiff this evening for an opening event at Chapter Arts Centre. Delaine Le Bas' Witch Hunt exhibition was accompanied by a short performance by the artist and her compadres. We were accompanied by a house guest from London we have been trying to wean off London-centric thinking, she has been feeling jaundiced by the whole business of elitism and cliques; she so often feels like an outsider in her own world.

I have been really looking forward to this show, it appeared to have all the ingredients for an edgy, effecting experience. As a British Romany, Le Bas promised a show that would explore 'otherness', the power of language in the process of 'othering', the cultural ostracisation of the gypsy. I really wanted to like it but I have to admit that I was sincerely disappointed. There were a few interesting enough elements to the series of installed structures (transitional dwellings) and tableaux; some nice sewn work, some evocative figures. I remembered the Cameroon artist, Pascale Marthine Tayou, at the Venice Biennale last year - but the comparison did not fare well.

I was very suprised by the seeming naivety of the work. I am aware that the artist operates like an outsider artist, but it must be pointed out that she attended St Martins College of Art and cannot, with any authenticity, claim that ground. The political messages and imagery scrawled throughout the show seemed to me quite juvenile, and artless. The show was peppered with Mighty Boosh type skulls, which are perfectly placed in surreal comedy, but totally misplaced in this context. I am even more upset to say that I found the performance piece lacking in all subtlety, depth and maturity. I felt really uncomfortable with the whole thing, it actually reinforced the problematic stereotypes I wanted to see overcome. Being Romany is not enough in itself; take off that tag and how does it stand up as art? In that respect it felt dangerously close to cultural exploitation. I do not doubt the sincerity of the artist and her views in any way I should add, but bringing the work to a publically funded white wall gallery space brings particular baggage - it alters the contexts of the work, it's a very edgy conundrum. Jean Michel Basquiat wrestled these problems in the 1980's, but his work was visionary, it still stands apart in its extraordinary visual literacy.

On the issue of language, I felt very unsure about the inclusion of Welsh in the show. I'm an 'incomer', not a native Welsh speaker, I continue to learn the lanuage. We are so sensitised to language as an issue of inclusion and exclusion here; it is a troublingly deep and traumatic issue. The simplistic comparisons and connections made in the show were, for me, problematic. It's such a loaded issue, I nearly didn't mention it here - because I was born in England, because I live in Wales, because I'm not a fluent speaker....

This blog has been deliberately pitched with a positive slant on the work I see day to day. I'd generally rather not comment on work I don't like or respond to - it's tough out there for artists, curators and venues alike. In this instance I actually felt upset by the whole experience however. Chapter is a beacon, a fabulous cultural oasis; I felt a bit let down. The opening was attended by many people of note and high reputation from the Cardiff art scene. I chatted to a fellow visitor, a retired outreach teacher who had worked for 20 years with gypsies and Irish travellers in Cardiff, I don't think she felt at all connected to this experience, she said: "It's not really what I was expecting, to be honest I'm a bit confused". Our London friend said: "Same old same old..." meaning one can't escape the machinery of the art world.

I took my camera but was very pointedly told by the official photographer to refrain from using it (not very egalitarian chaps!), so I didn't - but I was assured that the whole event would be documented on my behalf for posterity...


  1. I too felt uncomfortable with the artists deliberate use of primary materials and cliched imagery, to create a faux scene. However, Chapter is an arts centre used by many members of the general public, and not only by experienced or educated artists and members of the Cardiff art clique. What someone interprets as juvenile and lacking in visual literacy, to another person may be imagery that is easy to identify with and interpret. Art is for every one and not an eliteist phenomenon. It shouldn`t have be labelled as `outsider`.
    The performance was dreadful tho`! Get out of the clockwork orange boiler suits.

  2. I know where you're coming from, but showing art that is 'easy to identify with and interpret' is a bit insulting to the audience isn't it? It suggests that non-art educated people are incapable of subtle or complex thoughts. People of all stripes bring their own wealth of experience and thinking to the work - it doesn't need to be art-lite for people to identify with it does it? If it's good art it will communicate, that's the artist's job and the curator's responsibility...


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