Pots filled with water, jugs with earth, cactuses coming out of containers, crosses and rounded shaped forms fill the room of Arcadia Missa’s new space in central London. These small scale ceramics are the works of Phoebe Collings-James, an artist who encountered clay in 2014 while at NUOVE//Residency, a Ceramic Residency in Northern Italy, and developed this interest while at the Wysing Arts Centre in 2018. The artefacts displayed demonstrate a mastering of the skill of working clay and all its different stages, resulting in gloss glazed forms. It is a material that undergoes a specific process, one that deals with uncertainty, failures and trials.
The objects are displayed across the room, along the walls, hanging from the ceiling and placed directly on the floor; referencing the sphere of domesticity. The video sound piece Mother Tongue inserts the presence of the artist, her head moving swiftly with a net over face to which some bells have been stitched – referencing to the language we speak and the place we come from; an important question for this British-Jamaican artist.
The reference to the domestic interior is the first element of this show. Ceramics can be seen as middle class activity in Britain, with the proliferation of pottery classes across the country and the many ceramics pieces present in the English home. The focus on the small scale of these objects asks for a particular intimacy with them and the dramatic lightning of the show accentuates their metaphor and interpretation.
Nina Edge, an artist emerged in the late 1980s and whose practice has included ceramics, textiles, batik, sculpture, installation and performance is an important reference for Collings-James. Through clay Collings-James connects with what is made by man; antithetical to the computer age era, where things are either digitally made or delegated. She enjoys the very direct experience with clay and understands her pieces as “live and active gut cultures or subaltern spirit guides or the detritus of devotional memorabilia.”
Instilling life into artefacts, Phoebe Collings-James subverts the traditional functionality of pots and vessels and gives to these artefacts a magical dimension. These become linked with rituals of everyday life, reflecting upon the borders of personal rites and ceremonies – where the interior is in itself a container of occult activities.
Another important element of the show is the understanding of pottery production globally that plays a crucial role in defining identity in other parts of the world. Amongst this broader dimension of clay as material culture, there is a running thread between ceramics and the symbolism of soil. The title of the show – Relative Strength – is taken from a passage by Martinican Marxist philosopher and revolutionist Franz Fanon. In his book Wretched of the Earth from 1961, Fanon writes “colonisation and decolonisation is simply a question of relative strength”, to contextualise and understand violence as a necessary mean for activists in conducting decolonisation.
Throughout the installation of the ceramics, Collings-James also refers to the struggle of decolonisation, its history and its impact. The strongest visual metaphor of this tension is perhaps the series of ratchet straps that hang heavily from the ceiling and to which fragile ceramic pieces are attached, creating a tension on what is actually being held. The fragility of clay is relative, and it could be that the strength relations we take for granted have other strengths and stabilities, subverting the order of things. Could it not be that the delicate ceramic holds the straps and the overall composition? Strength and weaknesses are subverted in Phoebe Collings-James powerful display.
Dr. Ilaria Puri Purini
Curator of Programmes
Arcadia Missa, 14-16 Brewer St, Soho, London W1F 0SG. Open Wednesday – Saturday, 12.00 – 18.00. Exhibition continues until 31 May 2018. arcadiamissa.com
Phoebe Collings-James is a Jamaican British artist, born in London and living in New York. Her works take form in drawing, video, sculpture, text and music, with distinctly corporeal approach. She burdens ubiquitous materials with a process of symbolic layering, all in order to explore emotional connections to the politics and erotics of violence, language and fear. Recent exhibitions include Relative Strength, Arcadia Missa; The Yellow Wallpaper, Ginevra Gambino; Harlem Postcards, Studio Museum Harlem; ATROPHILIA, Company Gallery; Just Enough Violence, Arcadia Missa; and Blood on the Leaves Blood on the Roots, Preteen Gallery, Mexico City. In 2017, she was a Sculpture Centre featured artist and created an original soundtrack for two performance works by long time collaborator Jamila Johnson‐Small, which toured Europe with locations including ICA, London and MAC, Birmingham. In 2018, she was artist‐in‐residence at Wysing Art Centre, Cambridge and presented the performance, Just Give Me A Minute, at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.