Installation Image: When The Heavens Meet The EarthPerry Hastings (courtesy the artists and the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge)

The Heong Gallery’s new exhibition, When the Heavens Meet the Earth, brings together an array of fascinating artworks that play on the relationship between African heritage and Western preconceptions of cultural expression. Located in Downing College, the gallery is packed full of pieces varying dramatically in medium and mood: works that are sometimes peaceful, often violent, and most intensely political.

The Heong Gallery itself is perfect for such an exhibition. Over thirty-five works fill the bright room, their density creating a sense not of order but of a colourful, diverse expression of identity. The artistic medium varies across and within pieces: there are sculptures, paintings, photographs and videos, made up of a variety of material objects which underline the importance of modernity in the collection. El Anatsui’s Oga is a prime example, an incredibly abstract piece which uses everyday objects such as keys, hair combs and hinges to create a visual artefact at once seductive and deeply penetrating.

El Anatsui, Oga, 2003, acrylic, kente cloth and found objectsEl Anatsui (courtesy the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge)

This great mixture of art makes up part of Robert Devereux’s ‘Sina Jina’ collection which, named after a restored merchant’s house in Kenya, literally means ‘the place with no name’. The exhibition provides an insight into the collection’s ambition, and concern with the issues encountered in modernity, identity exploration, politics, LGBT+ representation and everyday life. There is a strong sense of the personal, and the variety not only between the artworks but also in their irregular positioning around the gallery is fundamental for conveying this sense.

“The pieces are stimulating, subversive and challenging”

Certainly, not all the art provides comfortable viewing. Whether it be Richard Kimathi’s What?, depicting a woman and a man with a gun replacing his genitalia, or Enchantment, where Nandipha Mntambo sculpts a cowhide to portray a woman’s body, there is often a sense of the violence of political hegemony. Devereux’s comments in the Exhibition Catalogue are enlightening in this respect, underlining also the extent to which this exhibition is made up of personal choices by the collector.

Though the focus of the exhibition is often on the notion of collection and diversity, this doesn’t take away from each artwork’s unique value. There is no unified message to When the Heavens Meet the Earth, for all the pieces are stimulating, subversive and challenging in their own right.

Although Devereux’s collection contains a multiplicity of figures and representations, the real focus is on the individuals that make up this diverse collection. From the dignity and grace in the face of adversity and oppression evoked by Zanele Muholi’s photographic work, Miss D’vine II, to the chiaroscuro corporatism of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s High Power, the multi-faceted representations of the individuals of Africas past and present challenge the western artistic hegemony and our expectations of fine art.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, High Power, 2008, oil on linenLynette Yiadom-Boakye (courtesy the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge)

The mixture of filmic and traditional paint media with more abstract, textural styles and techniques is a reflection of this diversity – the titular work, When the Heavens Meet the Earth, dominates the eye as one enters, the carefully-placed fresco of netting evoking storms, lightning, and destruction ­– reminding this Varsity reviewer of the Dies Irae in the Sistine Chapel. Some works employ pins, needles, nails and feathers, others traditional paint and canvas, and some lie on a continuum between the two. The result is a tactile, physical, palpable art – it’s not simply hung from the wall, it’s there, it has a presence, a character. This is particularly evident in Mário Macilau’s portraits of children, whose penetrating gaze exposes the viewer to challenging questions about race, gender and poverty.

As one explores the intimate Heong Gallery further, there are smaller-scale works which also capture the essence of Devereux’s collection – one particularly striking and abstract portrayal of the individual was the triptych Alphabet by Marcia Kure, which employed a series of abstract symbols to convey some of the most basic morphemes of language ­– ‘Yaha’, ‘Shh’ and ‘No’.

Language featured also as one walked into the Gallery, in the form of a series of quotations in English and French that capture the élan vital of the Sina Jina Collection: a collection ‘without a name’ – a recognition of the diversity and eclecticism of not only the art, but the lived experiences of both artists and subjects. To assign it a name would be reductive, as these aren’t the works of an individual, but individuals. And it is the bold, electric individuality of this exhibition that will entice audiences most.

‘When The Heavens Meet The Earth: Selected Works from the Sina Jina Collection’ runs from 25th February to 21st May at the Heong Gallery

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