In Re, Ed Cross presents the work of four artists: Dina El-Sioufi, Wole Lagunju, Freya Tewelde, Abe Odedina, as they reiterate, repeat and restage. Their subjects have all appeared elsewhere in some incarnation, hence the again-ness – or the in reference to of a long email chain – implied by the show’s title. Across painting, video and performance, Re offers an arena for careful reinterpretation and passionate revision alike; in concert, the exhibition broaches new ground as well as treading old paths with fresh fervour.
Abe Odedina’s work is populated by recurring characters, one of whom appears in Re as Grace under fire. Revelling in her moniker’s double-meaning – Grace as name and grace as attribute – Odedina’s fire-eating protagonist takes up residence in the gallery space, performing as if for the viewer alone. In Resuscitation of the golden goose, Odedina reprises two characters from different cultures – the titular goose from European folklore and alchemy, and Oya, the Yoruba Orisha responsible for mediating between the living and the dead, seeking to revive the bird and reinstate its power to bestow material wealth.
Lucky, meanwhile, recalls the folk hero William Tell – invoked by the apple on Lucky’s head, the fruit foreshadows the arrow we know will thud into it. How do we know? Well, it’s an old story. Like Resuscitation, Lucky draws on time-honoured tales with enough currency to be instantly recognisable – what’s more, both paintings echo that spirit of retelling in their material reality as well as their narrative arc. Odedina’s practice has always been characterised by his no-nonsense approach to his own pieces, reworking and painting over ostensibly finished tableaus as the mood takes him; in Re, his painterly palimpsests take on new conceptual weight, the unseen elements of his compositions as crucial as what is visible.
Showing with Ed Cross for the first time, Dina El-Sioufi uses paint to retell stories native to other mediums; in Der Kaiser von Atlantis, she grapples with European history and its intersection with opera. Inspired by Vicktor Ullman’s 1943 opera of the same name, the composition presents three figures in a triangle, reminiscent of the Christian trinity. Wielding tyrannical power, authoritarianism devoid of humanity, the Kaiser presides over two figures beneath him, representing life and death respectively. The opera was composed in the notorious Terezin, where Ullman was interned by the Nazis along with other Jewish luminaries before being deported to Auschwitz.
In El-Sioufi’s The Tannhäuser Dilemma, a central figure is flanked by a crowd of dancers – faces visible on the left, legs on the right – as he conducts an invisible orchestra. Inspired by Wagner’s opera of the same name, Tannhäuser depicts its protagonist’s struggle between sensual pleasure in Venusberg and holy love with his heroine Elizabeth. That binary – Madonna-whore, salvation-damnation – is reflected in the atomised dancers on either side, compositions lifted from photos by German artist Christian Schad. Layering stories and using mediums as lenses to explore each other, El-Sioufi’s painting meets history at its interstice with performance and reprises it for a new century and setting.
Picking up El-Sioufi’s theatrical thread, Freya Tewelde’s Suffocation features as both a looped video work – repeating in its own right – and as a one-off performance to be staged in the gallery. Considering the layers of artifice we all inhabit every day, Tewelde begins with a black body suit as a conceptually blank canvas before pulling on garment after garment. As the performance continues, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable and unwieldy; roller-skates put on halfway through make movement difficult, and the increasing bulk of Tewelde’s clothes makes it easy to imagine how hot and constricted her body must be beneath them. Yet, she continues – while dispensing with the layers of cultural signifiers might be liberating, it is rarely an option, for Tewelde and her viewer alike. As the video begins again, Suffocation illustrates a cycle that encompasses us all.
In three new works on canvas, Wole Lagunju continues his practice of layering imagery from myriad sources, finding new resonances in old vessels. Collaging western fashion models, monarchs and icons of beauty with traditional Nigerian Gelede masks and textiles, dichotomies of gender, power and geography find generative tension in Lagunju’s subversive juxtapositions. Fallen Angel, for instance, sets a Gelede mask over the face of an otherwise unmistakably Tudor figure, complete with ruff and bodice. Reminiscent too of eighteenth-century Grand Manner portraits, often commissioned by the owners of estates to adorn their private residences and communicate wealth and power to visitors, Lagunju’s composite images nod to that history as well as the slave trade and theft of natural resources that occasioned its wealth in the first place.
Clutching the head of a decapitated man, the protagonist of Black Girl IV recalls classical european subjects – Salome with John the Baptist, or perhaps Judith with Holofernes. The work’s familiar cues are confounded by the blackness of the figures embodying them; dressing his protagonists in all the finery of colonialism, Lagunju’s works trouble their opulent gold-frame setting by falling – almost – in step with its aesthetic cues: an uncanny juxtaposition, echoing the layers in the works themselves. Reappropriating what was stolen, retelling stories with different heroes – in Re, Lagunju unites medium and message, oil paint finding new sitters and retroactively adjusting power structures.