Abandoning strict thematic curation, the “New Arrivals” exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art presents a diverse body of modern and contemporary works which span the last 110 years. Aside from boasting an impressive array of holdings from Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Michael Armitage and Damien Hirst, the show is impressive in its balance of the Scottish and a wider international context. Assistant curator Emma Gillespi has described the museum’s focus on addressing the gaps in the art history canon and striving for inclusion and diversity. While such issues are often contextualised vis- à-vis a contemporary climate of wokeness and political correctness they have in fact been circulating in the consciousness of the art world since the 80s through collectives such as the Guerilla Girls. Refreshingly, the sincerity of these claims shines through in the collection, with 55 per cent of the acquisitions since 2016 coming from female artists. Conceptually, the twelve-room exhibition touches on themes such as immigration, colonialism, motherhood, surrealism and the pastoral. This makes for an interesting amalgamation and dialogue in which a Picasso collage and the works of Barbadian-Scottish artist Alberta Whittle sit across from one another. While Dalí and Hirst may carry a certain artistic currency, I found myself most engaged by the works of nascent figures.
In Whittle’s series Secreting Myths, she reappropriates the 16th century engravings of Jan van der Straet and Theodor de Bry which depict the colonial encounters of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci with the “new world”. With rich primary tones and golden ink she obscures and challenges the constructed mythology of such representations. The golden trails allude to the invasive snails in her hometown while the red evokes her Barbadian childhood. Whittle chose such engravings specifically for their depiction of indigenous people as passive and idle, highlighting the visual relationship between such mythology and civilising narratives.
Michael Armitage, one of the most exciting contemporary figures in British art, similarly toys with mythology and the Western canon in Nasema Nawe. Fluid and expansive, the piece mirrors Paul Gauguin’s 1888 The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel). While the piece depicts a religious scene in Brittany, Gauguin is perhaps most renowned for his contentious depictions of French Polynesia, which are shrouded in sexual and racial fantasies. Nasema Nawe depicts another communal female ritual, the highly sexualised Baikoko dance which was outlawed in Tanzania in 2015. It is painted on Ugandan Lubugo cloth, which creates a unique coarse texture and carries political resonance as a burial garment and commoditised material. Gauguin is an unavoidable touchstone for Armitage for whom the politics of representation are a central tenet. In this vein, he is keenly aware of the fraught relationship between cultural preservation and self-exoticism. While his work undoubtedly evokes post- expressionism, it is beguiling in its own right visually and conceptually.
Grouped in the same Contemporary Figures room is Steven Campbell’s Portrait of Rorschach Testing Himself and Finding himself Guilty, which is made even more jarring and kitschy by its proximity to the Armitage. While it gropes at humour through its reference to Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, the creator of the inkblot test, it falls short and appears out of place among far better, more captivating work. While more conceptually rich, Raqib Shaw’s Self- Portrait with Fireflies and Faces falls into this same category appearing unintentionally juvenile. While diversity in medium and style is welcome, these works undermine an otherwise strong exhibition.
The Immigration and Emigration room features work from Jewish artists Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and Oskar Kokoschka who immigrated to Scotland in World War II. While such works do not touch overtly on diaspora and immigration, they are remarkable in highlighting the diversity of Scottish identity and art.
A personal favourite of mine was Graham Fagen’s video installation The Slave’s Lament which melds Scotlands national bard, Robert Burns with Jamaican reggae. In the piece, a classical score by the Scottish Ensemble is played simultaneously with the voice of Reggae artist Ghetto Priest. While such a combination may initially strike one as anomalous, it carries historical resonance to Burns’ eponymous 1792 poem and the oft ignored role of Scotland in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Unique to Burns’ oeuvre, it was the only of his poems which emphasised and acknowledged the displacement and pain of enslavement. The result is haunting and resonant, uniquely calling forth the amnesia of and hypocrisy of the nefarious institution.
On the whole, it is a multifaceted and incredibly engaging exhibition that prompts consideration into our contemporary social and artistic culture. It is particularly strong in its exploration of colonialism and mythology.