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This opening room presents a number of works from different periods, introducing ideas, images and techniques that will be developed later in the exhibition. It includes some of Gallagher’s earliest paintings, in which she was beginning to establish a distinctive visual language, adopting and playing against the modernist grid. In many of these works she builds up the surface of the canvas using sheets of ‘penmanship paper’, designed for children to practise handwriting. The patchwork of lined papers provides Gallagher with an ordered surface that she can overpaint, develop or disrupt with her own marks. The ephemeral quality of the penmanship paper adds an element of instability and even fragility. ‘It will darken with time, and that is interesting to me’, Gallagher has said. ‘It means that I don’t really have control’.

The grid re-merges in Negroes Ask for German Colonies 2002, arranging 20 images of women’s heads playfully augmented with plasticine. The title is taken from a 1919 article by Hubert Harrison, one of the major activists of the Harlem Renaissance, discussing whether the African territories belonging to defeated Germany should be given to the American descendants of slaves. For Harrison, the idea was an unrealistic distraction from the real struggle to establish equality in the United States. The apparent disjunction of title and image invites the viewer to draw connections betweenHarrison’s theorising about the ‘New Negro’ and the assertive urban consciousness embodied in the women’s exuberant hairstyles.

Originally made for an exhibition at the Freud Museum, Odalisque 2005 is based on Man Ray’s 1928 photograph of Henri Matisse sketching a model in harem garb. Matisse has been replaced by Sigmund Freud, while the figure on the couch has Gallagher’s own face. The collage generates a complex web of allusions to high modernism and psychoanalysis, and mischievously tweaks the racial and gender politics underlying them.

From the same exhibition, Abu Simbel 2005 is based on a print that hung in Freud’s library, showing the Temple of Ramesses II. Reworking the faces of the Pharaoh’s statues and adding incongruous figures, Gallagher also brings in a cartoon-like spacecraft derived from Sun Ra’s film Space is the Place 1974. The evident humour of the piece belies its knowing references, setting black historiography that claims a cultural lineage stretching back to ancient Egypt alongside Sun Ra’s fantasy of discovering a new homeland in outer space.