Jade Montserrat’s practice is research-led, excavating shared histories alongside delving into her personal narrative. She works in painting, drawing, film, performance, installation, sculpture, text and print. Much of her work focuses on the entertainer and civil-rights activist Josephine Baker (1906-1975), whose story represents the intersection of gender, race, class and celebrity culture that fascinates Montserrat.
In the 1920s, Baker performed at the Folies Bergère and became the first Black woman to star in a feature film. She later joined the French Resistance during WWII and became a figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. Baker’s extraordinary life is the basis for Montserrat’s Rainbow Tribe series. It references a period in Baker’s later life when she adopted 12 children of different ethnicities and religions as the embodiment of her vision of a world without racism. Taking this fairy tale-like idea as inspiration, Montserrat explores contemporary issues of diversity, belonging and movement, examining our globalised world through the lens of Baker’s flawed experiment.
In the performance piece Shadowing Josephine (2016), Montserrat re-enacts Baker’s famous dance routines. By doing so, she explores racist stereotypes, the status of the Black body and how Baker was able to capitalise on these elements to become the most famous Black entertainer of her time. During the performance, Montserrat’s enthusiasm appears to wane, her movements becoming lethargic, calling into question her willingness to continue performing. It evokes the uncomfortable question of whether she is a willing participant or being coerced and relates to the racial and gendered dynamics of the performance.
In 2018, Montserrat was commissioned by Art on the Underground to produce a new design for the tube map cover and a series of posters. The works are pencil and watercolour text pieces comprised of short statements that explore the dissemination of messaging, from political propaganda to social media. She uses the public nature of the work to address instances of injustice with a sense of urgency and poetry. The poster titled My anger became my motivation (2018) quotes Baroness Lawrence on Grenfell Tower, while another is titled In Memory of Sarah Reed (2018) and reads “Freedom will blossom from the skies of prisms prisons”, a reference to the suicide of Sarah Reed in Holloway Prison. Reed was the victim of a high-profile case of police brutality and in 2016 committed suicide in Holloway Prison, despite staff knowing of her long-standing mental health issues. The series paints a picture of structural racism and institutional failure presented through poetic statements that cut through the noise of daily life.
The Contemporary Art Society has acquired nine works on paper by Montserrat for York Art Gallery. The works are watercolours and drawings that combine Montserrat’s own writing with quotes exploring ideas of identity, belonging and care. The works employ text and imagery to interrogate ownership, the body and the legacy of colonialism.
Jade Montserrat (b. 1981, Scarborough) currently has an exhibition at Iniva, Stuart Hall Library until 29 February 2020. She had a solo exhibition at The Bluecoat, Liverpool (2019) and won the 2017 Jerwood Student Drawing Prize for No Need for Clothing.