During the 60th Venice Biennale, London-based gallery Unit will present ‘In Praise of Black Errantry’, a group exhibition that celebrates the radical Black imagination. Curated by Indie A. Choudhury (The Courtauld Institute of Art, London) with assistant curator Kelsey Corbett (Unit), the exhibition brings together 19 modern and contemporary Afro-diasporic artists.

A number of a-n members are taking part, including: Adelaide Damoah, Charmaine Watkiss, Phoebe Boswell, Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper and Trevor Mathison. Other artists featured in the show include: Stacey Gillian Abe, Winston Branch, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Rachel Jones, Hilda Kortei, Sola Olulode, Anya Paintsil, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Paul Dash, Miranda Forrester, Hank Willis Thomas and Joy Yamusangie.

The exhibition is inspired by the Martinique-born French writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant (1928–2011), who proposed errantry as a form of freedom and resistance, evoking a spiritual or purposeful wandering beyond national borders or the limits of exile. Here, three of the artists featured discuss how their work fits within this theme, the importance of exhibiting at Venice Biennale, and what it means to be an a-n member.

Adelaide Damoah, Enumɔ (Five), 2023, Cyanotype, ink, skin paint, gun metal pigment and gold on watercolour paper, 39cm x 57cm

How important does it feel to be part of the 60th Venice Biennale?

Adelaide Damoah: This is arguably the most important exhibition of my 19 year career. As a self taught artist, I have taken a convoluted route to get to this point and it has been an exciting, fulfilling and at times rocky journey! When I was asked to participate, I was ecstatic and really in a state of shock for a little while because I understood the significance of it. The Biennale has a long and rich history, and it is one of the few events in the art calendar where the whole of the international art world appears en masse, during opening week. I can’t overstate the importance of the opportunity to add to the melting pot of artistic ideas, styles, and perspectives from around the globe and to contribute to the cultural exchange that is the Venice Biennale.

There is also the huge potential to leave a lasting impact on my career legacy. It is an unparalleled opportunity to showcase my work on a global stage, alongside some of the greatest artists of all time (including Basquiat in our exhibition, which blows my mind), receive validation from the art world’s elite, forge valuable connections, contribute to art’s ongoing narrative, and leave a lasting legacy in the annals of contemporary art. This milestone not only celebrates what we (the exhibiting artists) have achieved thus far, but also potentially propels us to unknown and likely greater success in the future. It is a dream come true and makes me even more excited about what is to come.

Charmaine Watkiss: It feels extremely important to be part of the Venice Biennale, particularly as this year’s curator Adriano Pedrosa is committed to highlighting the art of the Global South. It feels like a great time for my work to be present.

Phoebe Boswell: I always cherish the pleasure of gathering with fellow artists and seeing each other’s work, and Venice provides such a beautiful space to do that so I’m looking forward to it. That said, it’s a strange and discomfiting time to be showing work during the Biennale, this pageant of statehood, as the world bears witness to genocides, climate catastrophe, immigration being used as a callous political pawn, and the very notion of nation state necessarily being called into question. It perhaps becomes even more important to think of errantry as we wrestle with our own complicity in all these global horrors – as citizens, passport holders, taxpayers, diasporic people, and of course as artists.

What do you hope to gain from the experience?

Adelaide Damoah: Exposure to an infinitely wider audience of enthusiasts, curators, collectors, writers, artists and other art professions and all of the above!

Charmaine Watkiss: I hope my works connect to a new international audience and I hope to make valuable new connections.

Charmaine Watkiss, The Warrior mediates all the forces of nature, 2024, Coffee, water soluble graphite, pencil, watercolour, ink and colour pencil on paper, 88x66cm

‘In Praise of Black Errantry’ explores the concept of errantry as a form of freedom and resistance. How does your work fit within this context?

Adelaide Damoah: In Édouard Glissant’s framework, errantry represents a state of constant movement, flux, and negotiation between different cultural identities. It emphasises the dynamic nature of identity formation, being in ‘relation’ to others and the resistance against fixed categorisations imposed by colonial powers. My use of multiple images spanning generations, colonial texts, and maps reflects this notion of errantry, as it traverses various temporal and spatial boundaries – ‘betwixt and between worlds’.

The significance of ‘errant resistance’ in the work lies in its exploration of how individuals and communities navigate and resist the oppressive structures of colonialism while embracing the complexities of cultural heritage. By incorporating unconventional materials such as gold leaf, colonial texts, gun metal pigment and skin paint – all materials imbued with historical significance – I was attempting to highlight the violence and exploitation inherent in colonial systems, but also to subvert those narratives through artistic intervention. I intentionally disrupt traditional artistic boundaries, as a form of ‘errantric’ expression. In addition, the overlapping images and geometric shapes create a sense of fragmentation and disorientation, challenging a clear-cut colonial history while the ghostly ancestral figures hint at a past that is troubled; travelling back and forth in time; refusing to be neatly categorised; and encouraging an epiphanic response in a spectator to the appearing, disappearing and uncanny reappearing of spectres from the past.

Overall, I feel the artwork embodies the spirit of errant resistance by challenging dominant narratives, reclaiming agency, and embracing the fluidity of cultural identity in the face of historical colonial oppression. It invites viewers to engage critically with the complexities of history and to envision alternative narratives of empowerment and liberation.

Charmaine Watkiss: My work connects in that I am concerned with emancipatory stories about the African diaspora connected to the era of colonialism and western empire building. My work looks at the knowledge which enslaved African people had about plants and healing. This botanical legacy fed into western science and medicine. This knowledge also helped enslaved Africans in the fight for liberation and enabled many to free themselves.

Phoebe Boswell: I hope that this show – and my work in its context – asks some pertinent questions, encourages necessary conversations and that throughout the Biennale the artists who have been thinking and dreaming of new worlds are heard truly and fully. 

Adelaide Damoah, Nycnma Ten, 2023, Cyanotype, ink, skin paint, gun metal pigment and gold on watercolour paper, 29cm x 38cm, framed

What is the best thing about being a member of a-n and why should other artists join?

Adelaide Damoah: There are so many important resources and benefits tailored for artists that it is difficult to pin down one! Overall, it is very inexpensive to sign up and within the membership, you get access to a legal and tax helpline (especially important if you cannot afford tax accountants or lawyers and are self employed or freelance), very good insurance (public liability and professional indemnity, alongside other packages) that’s tailored for artists, exclusive bursary opportunities and a host of excellent resources and toolkits. The membership website is stuffed full of very useful information on everything you can possibly imagine for artists. One of the important benefits for me that is less immediately obvious, is the opportunity to contribute to advocacy efforts, including initiatives like Paying Artists through focus groups and forums.

Charmaine Watkiss: The best thing about being a member of a-n is the community of other artists. If there is something I need to know I can post a question and someone somewhere will have the answer. I would encourage artists to join because there is a lot of information that they can tap into such as jobs and opportunities. The public liability insurance alone makes membership worthwhile!

‘In Praise of Black Errantry’ is at the 60th Venice Biennale, Palazzo Pisani S. Marina, 17 April – 29 June.

Featured image: Phoebe Boswell, Transit Terminal, 2014-2020, 12 box drawings charcoal and carbon on painted wood construction, 213 x 61 x 31cm

The annual World Art Day was founded by the International Association of Art (IAA). This year’s celebration falls during the opening week of the 60th Venice Biennale, 70 years after the first General Assembly of IAA took place in Venice in 1954.

IAA Europe is a network of 40 national member organisations within Europe, representing professional visual artists and aiming to improve the economic position of artists at a national and international level. a-n is the UK National Committee.