In 1996 the artist Magdalene Odundo introduced me to Meriel Hoare, a teacher whose approach to drawing radically influenced my own practice. The following year I began the first of many fieldwork trips to African countries, during which I would invariably work with contemporary artists. In January 2001 the new African galleries at the British Museum opened with an emphasis on contemporary art – it was this event which sparked the idea of a festival of African art and culture which was to become Africa ’05. In September 2001, by means of 150 paintings and drawings, I portrayed the human family which I had experienced and imagined in my life. Shortly after the opening of that one person exhibition I heard that the World Trade Centre in New York had been attacked.
In January 2002 I bought a sculpture for the British Museum by the Mozambican artist Kester. Constructed entirely of firearms, the Throne of Weapons – and the messages of peace and conflict resolution which it carried – struck a chord with audiences around the world and prompted me to commission a much larger sculpture from Bishop Sengulane’s Swords into Ploughshares project in Mozambique. That sculpture became known as The Tree of Life, and as it neared completion at the end of 2004 the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had become the cornerstones of the global War on Terror.
In February 2005 the Africa ’05 festival opened, with the Tree of Life as one of its iconic images; that summer the July Bombings hit London. Lives were lost and countless more changed forever, not least the huge numbers of innocent people who were suddenly viewed with suspicion and fear simply because of their appearance.
Since 2002 I had been working in eastern and southern Africa researching the global history, production and social significance of machine printed and woven textiles. This became an ongoing research interest and developed into the exhibition Social Fabric at the BM which subsequently toured to four other venues around the UK.
In 2006, while thinking how the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade might best be commemorated, I became aware for the first time not only of the details of the trade itself but of the breadth and depth of the psychological legacy it has left and the bravery of those who struggled – and continue to struggle – against its almost unimaginable evil. The sculpture La Bouche du Roi by the Beninoise artist Romuald Hazoumé was displayed at the BM in 2007 and subsequently toured the UK. It is a profound meditation on human greed and exploitation.
In 2010 I worked with Dr June Bam-Hutchison on the South African Landscape at the BM. Her book ‘Peeping Through the Reeds’ tells her own story of life under the apartheid regime – it is a story of survival but also, in common with many of the other stories and events which have touched my life, it is a triumph of the human spirit. That triumph was reaffirmed in 2012, as I travelled through Japan towards Hiroshima with Kenji Yoshida and Bishop Sengulane, and in 2013 as I went with the Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi to the desert town of Temacine where the Tijani brotherhood was founded in the late eighteenth century. In 2015 I did fieldwork in South Africa researching an exhibition which opened at the end of 2016. I have been privileged to have met many remarkable people during these past years, people who have helped to shape my thoughts and my artistic practice, and I look forward to the coming years at West London Art Factory with great joy...