by Laura Potts

‘If anything, art is…about morals, about our belief in humanity.
Without that, there simply is no art’

Ai Weiwei

Norwich’s own Space Studios hosted Bridges, a fascinating exhibition by artists Marcia X and Karis Upton, earlier this month. Entering through a small alley, I climb stairs up to the first few works, which I find in a dark setting, immersing me in the exhibition. Up another staircase, long enough for me to begin reflecting on what I’ve seen, is a much lighter space, with works hung from the sloped ceiling. Afterward, I’ll go on reflecting for some time – the themes and issues that Bridges explores are of such magnitude that every viewer is forced to sit up and listen.

The exhibition focused on social theory and cultural interaction. As the leaflet explains, the title was chosen to reflect the artists’ aim to foster connection and discussion, a crucially important aspect of any socially engaged work. An installation entitled ‘ultimately/refuge/THEN’ embodies this, exploring how the dialogue around issues such as human displacement is saturated with dismissal. The work was hung in a studio-like space rather than a classic white wall box gallery, allowing it to speak in a more familiar, less formal way, reminding the viewer of the everyday nature of these issues. It featured again in a subsequent residency at The Barber Shop, alongside workshops and talks on the themes of ‘refuge’. Through this, the work branched out of the bracket of documentation to have real societal influence, encouraging a broadened understanding, personal action. It is an instructive example of how we can use our western privilege of the freedom to make art, for good.

The exhibition confronts the viewer with the realisation of our own ignorance

Marcia X’s work often delved into ancestral history and therefore themes of colonisation; how she had been ‘ushered into believing’ things about herself. Colonisation, both historical and modern, is still shaping society. So often the privileges of some have come at great cost to others, in past or present circumstances. The common recurrence of references to water and land gave pieces such as ‘What the water tells me’ and ‘Burial’ a cyclic feel, and reminded the viewer of the basic humanitarian issues underlying the work. Within the gallery space, the combination of audio and visual work rendered the artist’s personal presence presence calmly. The work spoke of a very personal relationship with the issues being explored and how her own life was ‘in bed with the political’.

When making art about issues that are of social importance and personal connection, it can be hard to find the balance between the metaphorical and the factual. Bridges achieved this with grace, the craftsmanship of the works going hand in hand with the very real issues they aimed to address. Marcia X and Karis Upton’s paintings, audio-visual work and larger mixed-media installations were all impressive in themselves, but none drew attention away from the central themes of the exhibition. The small gallery space was well used and the dark environment lulled the viewer into calm before a very unsettling realisation. The exhibition confronts the viewer with the realisation of our own ignorance of the vast, ongoing impact of colonisation and the injustices of recent and current refugee crises. Curator Rosie Smith admits to this herself in the exhibition brochure, describing how the two artists taught her waves of information through their work. As a result, Smith has curated a bridge to the public with the artists’ work, creating a space for many to begin gaining perspective on a long running cultural conversation.

Find out where to see more of Marcia X and Karis Upton’s work:–news

Featured image credit: Laura Potts

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