bianca saunders’s new exhibition is a celebration of black london creativity
Opening this weekend, the menswear designer’s exhibition, 'Nearness', explores themes of familiarity, place and identity.
“It was really based on Brixton, thinking about the area as a whole and the discussions about its changing face,” says menswear designer Bianca Saunders. She’s talking about Nearness, an upcoming exhibition she’s curated in the South London neighbourhood’s famed market. Long known as a hub for London’s Black Caribbean diaspora, Brixton has in recent years become a by-word for the urban gentrification that has left few areas of the city untouched. That’s not to say, however, that its identity and community spirit has been eradicated. Instead, Brixton has adapted, learned to accommodate the chi-chi bars and eateries while asserting an historic sense of self. “When you go there,” she continues, “you still get a real sense of what it used to be—and what it still is.”
In Nearness, held to coincide with Black History Month, the menswear designer explores her familiarity with the area, one that “brings me back to a feeling of home: being of Jamaican heritage, there are so many references to my background culture.” The exhibition contains the work of five artists — Akinola Davies Jr., Caleb Femi, Jazz Grant, Rochelle White and Ronan McKenzie — and finds common threads between their work, drawn through their relationships to place, family and identity.
Bianca’s collaboration with photographer Ronan McKenzie could be thought of as the springboard for the exhibition. Constituting the designer’s SS20 campaign, it features members of her family: “The idea was to bring it back to my background, to being from the Caribbean and the warmth I associated with that. That was the idea behind shooting against yellow walls in London, it draws a concrete connection to those associations.”
Wishing to develop on the diverse experiences of familiarity that the show’s location provokes, Bianca was compelled to invite filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr. to participate. Akinola’s film, which explores the context of an African marketplace as a site of community building, is shown against the atmospheric backdrop of Brixton Market itself to an uncanny twin effect, while films by Rochelle White and Caleb Femi respectively treat the Black British experience through both personal and referential lenses on London.
Rochelle’s work, in particular, draws upon the immediate environment, with Brixton recognisable in Roadworks. “The title is in reference to Mona Hatoum’s Roadworks (1985), which was also partly filmed in Brixton. Taking the Nike Air Force trainer as a marker of the Black British experience, Roadworks highlights the lives and experiences of Black women rendered near-invisible within inner-city dialogues. The film also nods to Abondance Matanda’s We Will Be Deadtings (2018) and features recitals of her poetry, shot and edited by Eldon Somers),’ explains the artist.
An adjoining space showcases fellow menswear designer Jazz White — the pair first came together when their pieces were styled together in a shoot. For Nearness, however, Jazz decided to put a different foot forward, creating a collage reacting to Black History Month, and with it the kinship between the UK’s contemporary Black creatives and their forebears. “The name of the series is Gated Community,” Jazz says. “I began with pioneering Black musicians, as I have always been intrigued by their strength and charisma. Many have had a unique battle with racism and prejudice while simultaneously experiencing fame and adoration. I was also intrigued by the crowds who gather around them en masse; they are drawn to these influential figures, and there’s often resulting closeness and unity felt by the individuals that make up those crowds.”
To some, the idea of a Black History Month might raise eyebrows — does consecrating 30 days to celebrating Black cultural contributions risk implying that it’s fine not to for the rest of the year? But for Bianca, and the artists participating in the show, it represents an opportunity to vocally celebrate the past, the present, and the future being built. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of Black History Month. And while the focus is on often American Black history, so much Black history took place in the UK and we need to place more focus on celebrating ourselves, our histories, and the common legacy we’re creating now,” says Bianca.
‘Nearness’ at Market Row, 408 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London, SW9 from 25th-27th October 2019