Exhibition Review by Kuhu Kopariha

Wayfinders – Wanderers – Outsiders: In stories we find comfort

Larry AchiampongWayfinder
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
May 20, 2023—October 29, 2023
Curated by Emma Dean.

Figure 1. Larry Achiampong: Wayfinder (installation view), Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Reece Straw © 2023 Baltic

Upon entering the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in Newcastle, the first introduction to Larry Achiampong’s artworks from his first solo exhibition Wayfinder are the Relic Travellers. Three mannequins, dressed in green bodysuits and astronaut-like masks, are staged to look like they are moving up the high ceilings towards the third floor where the exhibition continues. The costumes are designed by the artist and are part of his multi-media ongoing project Relic Traveller (2017–now). The suits are worn by actors in Achiampong’s films as they travel through space and time to recollect histories/stories of the African diaspora, marginalised through colonialism and capitalism.

Through the first door, one finds a yellow gaming room filled with popular products of capitalist culture: video games. The specially curated collection of video games are a nod to Achiampong’s influences in creating films exploring journeying, adventure, narration and animation. Simultaneously, these games are an escape and a source for connection with others – a place to “chill out,” as the artist says.

Figure 2. Gaming Room, Larry Achiampong: Wayfinder, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Reece Straw © 2023 Baltic

Two flags hang from the ceiling of this room. These are the Pan African Flags for the Relic Travellers Alliance – a mythical organisation which supports the climbing, green jumpsuit-clad travellers outside. Each flag uses the colours red, yellow, and green adopted by many African nations and Black Liberation movements. The stars represent the number of countries and are black, representing the people themselves. Two more flags hang in the exhibition space upstairs, prompting the viewer to reconcile with the complex and multi-layered ideas in this second space. Here, the Relic films give life to the Pan-African Alliance, the travellers and the testimonies of the unheard.

In each of the four rooms in the upstairs gallery, TV screens or wall projections play several of the artist’s films on loop. Some are autobiographical, reflecting the artist’s personal experiences, like Sunday’s Best (2016) mapping his (individual and communal) relationship with white Jesus. Others, like Expulsion (2019), explore his mother’s world as a migrant and a labourer, navigating through her social and economic inequity. Themes of lost histories and invisible people from the Relic Traveller carry forward to the present injustices in Expulsions. Themes of isolation and segregation from both are reflected in the artist’s visual letter to his children in Reliquary 2 (2020) made during the pandemic. The disproportionate loss faced by the oppressed communities during the pandemic are carried forward with Wayfinder into the future. These invisible webs created throughout the show, extending beyond the four walls of the institution, is what makes Achiampong’s first solo such a remarkable, engrossing experience.

Achiampong is a British-Ghanaian artist, born in London 1984 and has a pluralistic approach to creating and consuming art. He produces, directs, writes the narration and the music, develops costumes and sometimes even narrates the stories in his films. For the artist, sound is the bare essence of any story and the range of score in his films, from piano to electronic music, are successful in eliciting emotions from the viewer. Achiampong’s practice is therefore multidisciplinary, incorporating music, installation, performance, collage and photography alongside his films.

Figure 3. The Wayfinder, 2020 (installation view), Larry Achiampong: Wayfinder, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Reece Straw © 2023 Baltic

The titular work, Wayfinder (2020), commissioned by Turner Contemporary with MK Gallery and Baltic Contemporary, is the centre of the intricately webbed show, though it is the final film viewers see. It represents the artist’s need to address conversations about class and race, belonging and displacement, cultural heritage and gentrification. For Achiampong, the urgency of these themes comes from an inability to address these concerns in his youth. With Wayfinder, he overlaps fiction and reality as he unfolds regional stories from the future across England. The film is divided into six chapters, following the journeys of a young girl, played by actor Perside Rodrigues. She is witness to conversations, histories and stories of different community members. In these travels, Achiampong weaves in his own views on the gentrification of East London where he grew up and criticisms of art institutions and artists in their depiction of Black bodies. These are presented alongside fictitious conversations between members of different races and historical events, like Anita Bell’s interview revealing her experience as the first Black female Olympian.

The Wanderer also reflects on the British tradition of travelling and penetrating ‘virgin’ lands, and uses it to look inwards, on the divisive politics in the country today. The film indirectly deals with the effects of propagating an ‘independent nation’ post Brexit and the rise of a national conservatism in which the rhetoric of “us” vs “them” gains popularity. Alluding to such division present within the country, the seating arrangement in the room is designed to represent a fragmented map of the UK. It is these simultaneous representations of past, present and future in Wayfinder which are echoed in other films and the exhibition at large. For Achiampong, time is not linear, it is “Sanko-time” or cyclical. He bases this on the Twi word Sankofa which means to go back and retrieve.

The exhibition’s design allows the viewer to move through space and time with the artworks and become “The Wanderers.” With each film in the show, the viewers, like the protagonist of Wayfinder, are witness to accounts, conversations, places and histories. However, the choice of placing the central piece, which is also the longest film, at the end of the show is counter-intuitive. Each film depends on narration for its storytelling and is ten to twelve minutes long which results in a tired audience for Achiampong’s final labour of love, Wayfinder. Their run-time and wall length size of projection overshadow the bodysuits and collage works by the artist present in the third floor. The narrative format of the films leaves little room for the viewers to form their own answers or find their own way, which disappoints only because the artist himself wishes for the audience to leave with their own inferences.

Irrespective of whether the audience is able to absorb the show in its entirety, the show needs to be credited for creating a welcoming and comfortable space for all, especially children. The video games and comfortable seating are a great incentive for families to spend their afternoons here, despite the complex subject matter of the show. For those who persevere to the end, the Wayfinder is a delightful film, sporting beautiful landscapes, folk vocals of Mataio Austin Dean and orchestral scores that leave you with goosebumps.

Figure 4. Reliquary 2, 2020 (installation view), Larry Achiampong: Wayfinder, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: Reece Straw © 2023 Baltic

Kuhu Kopariha completed her Master's in Art History at the University of York in 2023. Her dissertation on Pardhan-Gond Art, a contemporary indigenous art movement from India, examined the art historical discourse framing the movement and its impact on valuation. Passionate about under researched artists, art forms and histories, Kuhu has worked closely with modern and contemporary paintings, textiles, 19th century photography and numismatics. She has also been the recipient of Friends of York Art Gallery Scholarship and interned at York Art Gallery exploring decolonial theory and eco-feminist art.

Article Information
Kuhu Kopariha, Wayfinders - Wanderers - Outsiders: In stories we find comfort,” Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 8083. DOI: 10.15124/yao-gd7f-4k86