The Tate08 Series goes from strength to strength in 2007 with an exhibition of work by Ellen Gallagher. Born in 1965, Ellen Gallagher is best known as a leading contemporary painter, although she has also created drawings, prints, sculptures and, in collaboration with Edgar Cleijne, a number of 16mm films. Touching particularly on issues of representation, Gallagher’s work explores the language of Modernist painting (particularly the monochrome and the grid) and brings a symbolic or narrative content to these forms.
In her recent work, including paintings, a series of drawings collectively titled Watery Ecstatic, and a number of 16mm films, she has explored the myth of a ‘Black Atlantis’ – known as Drexciya - populated by a marine species descended from the captive African slaves thrown overboard for being sick and disruptive cargo during the gruelling route from Africa to America. She has also explored the history of the islands of Cape Verde and their volcanic landscape that was for centuries the scene of trade in salt and slaves. Gallagher’s works refer to the gathering of salt, the ‘white gold’ upon which the Cape Verde communities were built. These works include the major new painting Bird in Hand 2006, a composition dominated by the figure of a black sailor or pirate. Cape Verde slaves, who gathered salt, also gained knowledge of sea-faring to the extent that some became sailors and captains. Such specific references merge with Gallagher’s own biography as a black Irish American woman. Her work has also embraced themes drawn from natural history, fantasy and science fiction. All of Gallagher’s work is characterised by a density of imagery and complex, built-up surface detail.
Gallagher is well-known for reworking advertisements featuring Afro hairstyles, wigs and skin products from black magazines such as Ebony and Sepia, to explore the impact of consumerism on black identity. She says ‘I take archival material from the 1930s through the 1970s and reactivate it through a series of transformations using photogravure, dry point, plasticine, coconut oil, paint, ink, toy eyeballs, gold leaf. These fugitive characters reoccur throughout the grid both as themselves and as other worldly presences. Each repetition is an initiation of that character into an altered state.’ In other works she employs an apparently abstract imagery, which is derived from the stereotyped eyes and mouths found in caricatures of the black body.
The exhibition at Tate Liverpool will include Bird in Hand 2006, the series of Watery Ecstatic drawings and new works that explore related themes. A programme of public and educational events will complement this exhibition. For more details visit www.tate.org.uk/liverpool. This exhibition will tie in with a number of events organised around the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain in 2007.
The Tate08 Series is made possible by the generous support of the Tate08 partners: DLA Piper, Manchester Airports Group, Liverpool John Moores University and recently-joined members Cains Brewery. Tate08 Partners is Tate Liverpool’s new sector-exclusive ‘super club’ wherein partners directly support the gallery’s key ambitions during the years leading up to, and including, 2008.