Larry Achiampong wants to talk to you. More accurately, perhaps, Larry Achiampong wants you to talk. Discussing his Pan African Flag For The Relic Travellers’ Alliance – an applique flag hoisted above Somerset House in London for six months to the end of January 2018 – he says: “Whether it’s about the elephant in the room, or to expand on a set of ideas that I’ve been thinking about… all that I really want is for a conversation to happen.”

And what rich subject matter Achiampong lays before us, from the music his mother gave him, through photographic montage, to hacked digital landscapes, this 34-year-old British-Ghanaian artist has, since his days as a postgraduate student at Slade School of Fine Art, revealed himself through his work.

Alongside work by Mark Essen and Nicola Singh, a second Pan African Flag For The Relic Travellers’ Alliance is installed at the Jerwood Space as part of 3-Phase, a development initiative run by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Together with Achiampong’s film, Relic 0, this new work combines themes of identity politics, racial stereotyping, post-colonialism, and the acceptance of digital spaces as real locations that people negotiate daily.

The flag, which is hung in opposition to the projected film, combines multiple symbols of the pan-African experience; a black star for each of the 54 African nations, a field of red representing centuries of bloodshed, and a golden sky signifying a prosperous new dawn. A single black figure in the centre of the flag represents the movement of people, through displacement and mass immigration, that has characterised the continent since the dawn of humanity.

Achiampong and his four siblings were born and raised in East London by his Ghanaian mother, a fact that he regularly refers to when asked to talk about his work. He speaks about how, throughout his childhood, he became aware of things being somehow not quite right, as he explained to FAD Magazine in 2013: “We ate a lot of Robertson’s marmalade as kids. I always found the experience of looking at the Golly character, which was part of their branding, strange. It looked so alien. Why would this kind of image exist? Over the years I put the pieces together.”

This experience directly influenced Lemme Skool U (2007), a photographic montage featuring a young Achiampong from his school years up to his graduation picture. In each photograph, his face has been replaced by a black circle whose only feature is an illustrated pair of exaggerated, cartoon-like bright red lips. The image is as reductive a representation of black identity as one can imagine. Simpler than an emoji, it reflects a colonial-era stereotype that, although no longer openly portrayed in polite society, has drifted back to the surface as part of the post 9/11 swing to the right in Western politics. Achiampong wants us to know that not much has changed. “A lot of this derogatory stuff is still in the air,” he says. “It’s there in the art world, too.” Which might explain why he performed a physical version of this piece in Tate Modern in 2013.

Achiampong’s selection for 3-Phase follows several collaborative projects with well-established artist David Blandy – a union born out of a mutual love of “video games, comics, and hip-hop” as Achiampong said in discussion with Blandy and curator Ben Borthwick at the opening of their film Finding Fanon, at Plymouth Arts Centre earlier this year. That the Plymouth exhibition followed Achiampong’s selection as one of Britain’s representatives at the inaugural Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale is demonstrative of the increasingly high regard in which he is held by his peers.

As much as Achiampong wants to talk about identity politics and everything that goes with it, he also wants to discuss the human experience. In mining his personal archive for material, he has unearthed a multitude of cross-cultural reference points to which anyone from his and subsequent generations can relate. His ongoing collaboration with David Blandy may at first seem an unlikely fit, but despite the differences in their upbringings – Achiampong is black and working class, Blandy is white, middle-class, and privately educated, to boot – their backgrounds include many shared experiences. Their childhood and early adult years straddle the periods pre- and post-internet; Achiampong talks about “growing up an age in which digital and technological frameworks were becoming more central to the way we live our lives”. Together, they have created works based on the vast digital landscapes found in video games. By hacking into the framework of games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 they can take a character on a journey away from the narrative of gameplay and into its surrounding landscape, as they did for FF Gaiden (2016), to which they also added an original score and audio recorded from volunteers discussing contemporary identity and selfhood in the digital age.

Relic 0 retains the video game aesthetic of FF Gaiden, only this time the footage is of IRL (In Real Life) locations. A spoken soundtrack lays down advice for a yet to be formed Relic Travellers’ Alliance, and talks about location and expectation in light of globalisation and what we know about empire, and the recording of history. This is Achiampong maturing, hitting his stride as he deals with the same issues he’s always dealt with, still “digging into that which most people find uncomfortable”. Instead of donning the face of a golly he has taken a more poetic turn, and while his work was always considered, it is now less confrontational, though no less sincere. The consistency of his message speaks for itself, and Achiampong’s response to a question from Borthwick on that very topic helps to explain why: “If you hold back you begin to think tactically, and that leads to a lack of authenticity.”

Trevor H Smith

3-Phase continues at Jerwood Space, London until 10 December 2017.
www.jerwoodvisualarts.org/exhibitions/3-phase


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Having visited the 3-Phase exhibition at Jerwood Space, London during the second a-n Writer Development Programme workshop, Eastbourne-based writer Judith Alder chose to write her 800-1000 word profile piece on the artist Mark Essen.

On a visit to Mark Essen’s Birmingham ceramics studio you might come across an artist in residence exploring “unconventional means of making humans”, or find the winner of The Woman’s Hour Craft Prize running a clay workshop for beginners. Another day there might be a hen party in full swing, or a workshop run by the homeless charity Crisis. This unique studio, used not only by artists but by all sections of the community, epitomises Essen’s ethos of combining traditional craft materials with fine art practice, tackling big conceptual issues while engaging with ordinary people, and promoting health and well-being through art. You can’t rush the making process, believes Essen, and there is time here to take control and enjoy making, with no expectation of the end product: “There is no such thing as a bad ceramic,” he says.

In an interview with curator Linsey Young in 2016, Essen explained how he discovered clay during a residency at Wysing Arts in 2011. It was the year The Grantchester Pottery was formed and visiting artists were working with clay. The residency offered Essen six weeks of time and space and marked a changing point in his career, as he turned away from purely conceptual work and developed a more hands-on practice. A 2015 article in the contemporary ceramics magazine C-forum mentions Essen as one of a number of artists using clay as “an affordable and easy way to make sculpture, to blast through ideas in the studio quickly… a kind of 3D sketch that is easily rubbed out or made permanent depending on how successful it is deemed.” This certainly applies to Essen, who does not draw in a conventional two dimensional way.

Born in 1984 in Reigate, Essen moved to Birmingham to go to art college. He graduated in 2007 with a Fine Art BA, achieving an MA in Sculpture from the RCA in 2014. Experiences such as the Wysing residency and others at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and South London Infinity Projects have provided the opportunity to develop his practice alongside other artists and curators. Selection for exhibitions such as Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Rough Music at Cass Sculpture Foundation and ‘That continuous thingat Tate St Ives have kept him in the spotlight.

Essen speaks animatedly about the people and ideas that are important to him. He mentions philosophers and social thinkers, quotes Heidegger – “technology moves faster than culture” – and refers to an article on “metabolic rift”, Marx’s theory of ecological crisis caused by capitalist production. He is also a fan of Newcastle University’s Professor Richard Clay, who recently presented a series for BBC4, Utopia: In Search of a Dream. Essen’s principles are grounded in his knowledge of political and social movements, his interest in the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and characters such as John Ruskin, the Arts and Crafts movement, and Matthew Boulton, the 18th century manufacturer who enabled mass production of coinage.

The artist’s concern with currencies began at university and developed in response to his exploration of the disappearance of money as a physical object. He almost bought a bitcoin when he was at the RCA but couldn’t afford to waste money on it, he says – a possible cause for regret now that the virtual currency’s value currently outweighs that of gold. A commemorative Bitcoin now features in Essen’s new installation at Jerwood Space, London.

The installation is part of the first of three exhibitions for 3-Phase, an artist development initiative aimed at supporting artists with less than 10 years practice. Essen’s installation, ‘Tis ‘Ard to be a God, is comprised of three new works and is contextualised in a thoughtful essay, Ideological Warfare in the “Age of Clay”, by Angels Miralda. In it she reflects upon clay as a “staple product found ubiquitously in advanced cultures…”, “a fundamental tool to the three ideological pillars of the 20th century… communism, capitalism and facism.” It is these three words which are presented on three clay buckets in Essen’s reworking of a Greek water clock, Believe Your Beliefs and Doubt Your Doubts.

A second work in the installation, A Possibility This Will Never End, features a display of defaced and alternative currencies, including the Bitcoin, hinting at the possibility of alternative economic systems. The third work sees him literally nurturing the seeds of ideas in his hydroponics tower, The Illusion of Growth. Through this hydroponics system, he points to the notion of a more sustainable future, with a nod to Degrowth, a movement advocating the downsizing of consumerism, and an emphasis on well-being, culture, nature and community.

Essen’s previous work seems hard to pin down. Earlier subject matter and means of making are varied with works such as Mobile Mixtape, a music mix inspired by ‘90s rave culture, and Chisel Break, a film of found footage, exploring paranoia, power and popular culture. His work for 2013’s New Contemporaries, Everything will come to an end but your testament will still exist, consisted of an enigmatic assemblage of oil drums, ceramics, a mirror, a plant, and a chess table.

Sarah Williams, Jerwood Visual Arts’ head of programme and one of the 3-Phase selectors, suggests that Essen’s current work demonstrates more clarity of intention. She says he stood out among the 719 applicants for 3-Phase because he showed the potential to push forward with ideas around social change; ideas which had been in his mind for a long time, but which had not yet visibly surfaced in his work. Linsey Young describes him as “very left wing and very politically outspoken”, but like Williams, she notes the absence of visible representation of political ideologies in his work, though she acknowledges that his decision to set up his studio in Birmingham is “a hugely political act”.

Essen cites contemporary artist and social activist Theaster Gates as an influence. Gates uses funds raised from sales of his artwork through the art market to finance projects which bring about social change. This, says Essen, is what he wants to do. Like Gates, he presents an optimistic alternative to pessimistic visions of a dystopian future. Perhaps it is this optimism and Essen’s attempts to posit alternatives which make him stand out. In the words of another of Essen’s heroes, John Ruskin: “What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.” And there is no doubt that Essen’s actions speak louder than words.

Judith Alder

3-Phase continues at Jerwood Space, London until 10 December 2017.
www.jerwoodvisualarts.org/exhibitions/3-phase


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As a follow up to the second a-n Writer Development Programme workshop at Jerwood Space, led by Fisun Güner, the writers were tasked with writing an 800-1000 word profile of one of the three artists featured in Jerwood’s 3-Phase exhibition.

Edinburgh-based writer Jessica Ramm chose to profile Larry Achiampong.

It’s May 2013 at the Whitechapel gallery and Larry Achiampong is watching the artist David Blandy presenting a performance video. In it, Blandy tries to remember as many hip-hop lyrics as he can while sitting in Sigmund Freud’s consulting room. Surrounded by Freud’s exotica – statuettes, artefacts and tribal textiles – he struggles to remember what the next lyric might be. According to Blandy, after the performance Achiampong asked: “You’ve got the lyrics but where’s the production? Where’s the music?” Blandy replied: “Well, I’m only one person.”

Music is important to Achiampong. His early childhood memories are closely bound up with his family’s collection of Highlife records, brought from Ghana. He remembers, age eleven in the mid-1990s, discovering bin bags of records his mother was throwing out during a spring clean. He recalls his childhood inner voice saying, “‘What do I know about DJ-ing?’ I just thought, ‘these things are important’, so I stuffed them underneath a bunk bed that me and my brother shared and they survived, fortunately.”

This collection of music would later provide audio samples to be used “either to expand upon the space from whence they came, or be transformed to take on a different form”. His working and reworking of this material is emotional and intuitive, a way of keeping in touch with his identity while conveying the excitement he remembers from his youth: an era during which he was “surrounded by people who were really into sound: people who were using cheap bits of technology to do bedroom audio production”.

Though Achiampong’s current exhibition as part of Jerwood 3-Phase is his first solo presentation, he has a prolific back catalogue of works including his presentation as part of the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a performance at Tate Modern, a residency at the British Library and a vinyl LP, More Mogya, released in 2013. For Achiampong, the gallery is a testing ground, a space in which he re-presents material drawn from his experience of growing up in East London to Ghanaian parents.

Achiampong and Blandy’s conversation at Whitechapel quickly developed into a collaboration which is ongoing. Though their experiences of growing up in London were very different, being black working class and white middle class respectively, they are united by a shared appreciation of the video games, films and music that provided immersive virtual environments in which they played as children. They went on to form a hip-hop crew called Biters, which Blandy describes as a way of talking about authenticity and appropriation: “We would steal rhymes and beats and re-present them in white cube spaces.” The Tate’s website describes Achiampong and Blandy as investigating “the self as fiction, devising alter-egos to point at their divided selves” in their work together, which includes “digital imagery, exhibitions, performance and video”, as if they are triumphant computer game heroes.

Achiampong’s power as an artist is in his ability to proliferate numerous versions of himself, populating virtual reality as well as culturally framed spaces of real life, such as lecture halls, newsstands and exhibition spaces. Each of these avatars has the potential to vanquish an assumption or stereotype of what it means to be a man of African descent living in the UK today. Rather than attempting to undermine the cultural narratives that linger on as the UK works through its colonial hangover, Achiampong draws dynamic energy from the community in which he grew up. Arts Admin describes his work as a response to the idea that while the sharing of information via the internet continues to expand, “a conservative version of history, as previously dictated, continues to be eradicated”.

For Achiampong, there is a certain pride in being able to “achieve a lot with very little”, such as his use and re-use of the family record collection. This is paired with an opulent sense of flexibility that comes from, in Blandy’s words, the possibility of “referring to different identities in different spaces and the self as a fiction… like different Street Fighter characters”. In their collaborative work, Finding Fanon, the pair appear wearing tweed suits as a way of “playing into the idea of the intelligentsia” of the 1950s; an era when “everyone would have been wearing those”. Blandy acknowledges that their suits “have something to do with authority, adding a marker of ‘academic prowess’”, while Achiampong adds: “We were invoking the spirits or the energy of these highly intellectual individuals. Of course, we kind of breathed in our own spirit, versions of ourselves, and thus we created avatars out of that.”

Achiampong remembers posing in a suit next to his older brother while his mother took photos. He describes a wider phenomenon of people “taking photos of themselves in suits and sending them back to family, almost like, ‘Hey, I’m doing well, look at me, this is the deal’”. This memory informed his decision to wear a slick-looking suit for his performance, Cloudface, in which he is shown seated next to a master painting in the Tate Modern with a black sphere covering his head. He elaborates, saying: “From a black cultural perspective it’s about the spectacular. I wanted to invoke that spirit, rather than someone in Adidas tracky bottoms and T-shirt, because then there would be an element of stereotype there.”

Since he was a schoolboy, Achiampong has been aware of how narrative can be shaped and re-shaped depending who’s writing the textbook. He remembers “slavery being taught like it was an actual trade, a trade in the sense that Africans got something in return and it wasn’t this aspect of atrocity”. By creating his own avatars, he avoids stepping into the clichéd persona that society is still ready to bestow upon him.

Jessica Ramm

3-Phase continues at Jerwood Space, London until 10 December 2017.
www.jerwoodvisualarts.org/exhibitions/3-phase


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