Life is More Important Than Art Back to previous

Life is More Important Than Art

Photo credit: Janette Parris, Whitechapel Gallery 2023, Digital Drawing

Author: Whitechapel Gallery


Date: 14th June – 17th September
Location: Whitechapel Gallery & more

Aldgate Connect BID is proud to support Whitechapel Gallery’s Life is More Important Than Art Festival, a free summer season of exhibitions, events & more, examining the interface between art and everyday life.

Taking inspiration from the words of African American writer and novelist James Baldwin (b.1924, USA – d.1987, France), who said “Life is more important than art, and that is why art is important”, Whitechapel Gallery presents a free three-month programme of collaborations with artists, performers and thinkers to examine the interface between art and everyday life, and connections between local and global concerns. At a time when several social, economic and ecological crises are converging, the season will explore themes as diverse as health, housing, migration, money, politics and agency.

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Visitors are invited to find meaning and create poetic, playful and reflective connections as they explore works by artists including Rana Begum (b. 1977, Bangladesh), William Cobbing (b. 1974, UK), Sarah Dobai, (b.1965, UK), Susan Hiller (b. 1940, USA – d. 2019, USA), Matthew Krishanu (b. 1980, UK), Jerome (b. 1991, UK), Janette Parris (b. 1962, UK), John Smith (b. 1952, UK), Alia Syed (b. 1964, UK), Mitra Tabrizian (b. 1954, Iran), Mark Wallinger (b. 1959, UK), and Osman Yousefzada (b. 1977, UK) spanning sculpture, photography, film and installation.

Co-curated by new Whitechapel Gallery director Gilane Tawadros and artist Janette Parris, the exhibition begins with Hiller’s Untitled sculptural singing wheelbarrow from 1999, comprising a collection of five wrapped parcels placed atop a wooden barrow. The parcels, labelled and described in a museological style, contain remnants of ritual objects recovered following the demolition of an East End building once home to a tiny shop-front synagogue. At certain moments, visitors will hear fragments from a Jewish morning prayer emanating from an embedded music player. The prayer thanks God for restoring the soul after sleep.

New works shown for the first time include graphics from Janette Parris’s forthcoming book titled This is Not a Memoir. The works on display, which Parris describes as a ‘graphic A-Z for East and South London’, humorously map locations of significance from the artist’s personal life growing up in West Ham. The upstairs gallery houses a new work by Rana Begum, made especially for the Gallery’s summer season. Building on the artist’s recent experimentation with powder-coated mesh, Begum’s installation comprises a mix of 2m and 4m-wide colourful metal grids suspended from the ceiling, transforming the architecture of the space. Interlapping with one another, the mesh
sections provide a striking and sensory framework through which to experience a series of paintings by Matthew Krishanu.

Known for sparse, dreamlike paintings exploring childhood, familial memory and imperial history, Krishanu’s In Sickness and In Health series depicts small-scale paintings charting a woman’s life through marriage, childbirth, motherhood and dying. The works were made over the course of more than a decade spent with his wife, the writer Uschi Gatward, before her untimely death from cancer in late 2021. The visceral experience of Begum’s installation contrasts with the elliptical experience of Krishanu’s beguiling compositions.

Artist and fashion designer Osman Yousefzada draws on his own autobiography in his work Being Somewhere Else (2018). The installation is a fictional recreation of his mother’s bedroom, an evocation of an “immigrant’s bedroom”, inspired by his experience of being born into a conservative Afghan-Pakistani family in Birmingham, UK. Visitors encounter furniture and decoration signifying cultural displacement and the impact of migration on the domestic sphere, with many of the objects cloaked in cloth or plastic, including a totem of stainless-steel cooking pots and even the wardrobe, a nod to wrapping as a common practice in Yousefzada’s immigrant community.

Also on display is Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom (2000), which was first shown in his Whitechapel Gallery survey 20 years ago. Made in City Airport, the film captures 45 minutes of activity at the International Arrivals gate, accompanied by Allegri’s Miserere mei Deus, a piece of sacred music which was first notated by Mozart aged 14 after hearing it in The Sistine Chapel. The combination of music and the sporadic bursts of visitors loads certain otherwise mundane moments with unexpected profoundness.

Visitors go on to find the Archive gallery transformed into The Somali Museum by NUMBI, a Somali-originated African-centred arts and heritage organisation based in East London, founded at Whitechapel Gallery during NumbiFest in 2005. Building on a decade-long partnership, The Somali Museum imagines how Somali heritage can be celebrated in the UK, with displays that evolve throughout the season.

The journey continues into two project spaces, where artists and play specialists Sarah Evelyn-Marsh and Stephanie Jefferies invite families, school children and audiences of all ages to engage with tactile, sensory objects in Sculpting Conversations. In the adjacent gallery, Youth Collective Duchamp & Sons have worked with artist Gaby Sahhar (b.1992, UK) to present Escape the Slick, a space to relax, reflect, meet friends, and reflect on the potential beneficial possibilities of public space.

Visitors can view Hiller’s moving documentary film J. Street Project (2002-2005) in the former Whitechapel Library. Hiller spent three years attempting to document all the places in Germany whose names still showed evidence of their former Jewish inhabitants, recording 303 in total. The work highlights the dissonance between these everyday street signs and the triggering memories of the country’s genocidal history. The sense of retaining evidence of the past despite evoking discomfort is resonant with current topical debates such as the removal of public statues loaded with controversial histories.

On evenings and weekends, Whitechapel Gallery becomes a dynamic space for live events, with large-scale in-person and live-streamed public talks bringing together high-profile contributors from across creative disciplines discussing housing, health and migration.

Highlight event partners and contributors include Bow Arts, Bishopsgate Institute, Migrants in Culture, Healing Justice London, and 2023 Writer-in-Residence Martin O’Brien (b. 1987, UK). The full events programme will be announced in due course.

Broadcast live from Zilkha Auditorium & Studio each week Thursday – Saturday, Whitechapel Gallery Radio Station launches for the summer with artist interviews pegged to the events programme, playlists and more, available to watch live or tune in via the website.

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Led by Director, Gilane Tawadros with artist Janette Parris, the summer season’s programme project team comprises Richard Martin, Director of Public Programmes & Education, Jane Scarth, Curator, Public Programmes, Siobhan Forshaw, Curator, Communities, Helen Davidson, Curator, Families, Kirsty Lowry, Curator, Schools, Luke Gregory-Jones, Head of Visitor Services & Civic Engagement with Sam Williams, Technical Production Manager.


Part of Aldgate Connect BID’s Summer in Aldgate Event Programme, check out full programme below:

Summer in Aldgate