On the occasion of Ellen Gallagher solo exhibition at Tate Modern in 2013, playwright Bonnie Greer explains what it is about the artist's gorgeously intricate and highly imaginative works that she finds so powerful and important.
As a writer, I’m always looking for visual artists. That’s how I found her. Ellen Gallagher uses writers partly as her inspiration, so it’s a really interesting kind of synergy.
I really love Odalisque. This, for me, is kind of the heart of what Ellen Gallagher is about. It’s a self-portrait, and she’s looking at one of the fathers of modern Western thought, Freud. A very high Western ideal.
It’s a lot, for me, about what black women are, a lot of what I love about being a black woman. It’s kind of sassy. The irony of it, the silliness of it, the sort of audacity of it in this world that’s run by great, big ideas about Western thought and big thinkers.
Bird In Hand explores one of Ellen’s recurring themes. It’s a pirate. The pirates of the Caribbean were the ones who helped run the slave trade. This is about Cape Verde. It was used exclusively as a slave port. That’s what the Europeans did with it, that’s what it was. A place for doing business in human beings. So what Ellen Gallagher does is give you that image, then what she does, which I love, is gradually this begins to change. And for me, I start to see dreadlocks. I start to see the African image overtaking it, and this is Ellen’s idea of ‘look at history, but survive it’, and this is an example. Bird In Hand.
There are so many layers in her work. Even looking at the work now, there are things I’m discovering. Ellen Gallagher cites as one of her favourite writers, Gertrude Stein, and one of the things that Ellen says that she likes about Gertrude Stein, is how Gertrude Stein layers words.
I returned to Paris after these long years spent in the countryside, and I needed a young painter. A young painter who would awaken me. Paris was magnificent, but where was the young painter? I looked everywhere, at my contemporaries and their followers. I walked a lot, I looked everywhere, in all the galleries, but the young painter was not there. Yes, I walk a lot. A lot at the edge of the Seine where we fish, where we paint, where we walk dogs. I am one of those who walk their dogs. Not a single young painter. What Stein paints is a picture…you painted in your brain. Ellen copies that and pushes it to another level, and uses it to express the reality of people of African descent in the world today.