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  • Writer's pictureRachel Cockburn

Geo print ethics and wellness inspiration at Tate Modern

Trigger warning: themes of colonialism.

On this visit to the Tate Modern in October 2022, the first gallery I visited was ‘The Tanks’. This is a double height, basement-level concrete space with no windows, which used to be used to store oil when the gallery was a power station. There are lots of dark interlinking rooms, with the works there displayed under spotlights.

We can see fluorescent lights on the ceiling in the foyer area of the tanks gallery, a polished concrete floor, a disused doorway and steps at ceiling height, and a white sign that says ‘THE TANKS’.

The first gallery I stepped into was called “Enmeshed”, part of the current curated display “A Clearing in the Forest”. As I read one of the room descriptions on the Tate wall, I was struck by the phrase:

“the restitution of land rights and preservation of pre-colonial ways of relating to the world.”

As a white woman raised in a middle class family I am aware of the unfair privilege I have in many spaces. I continually try to excavate and question this, and the phrase reminded me, so importantly, that although much is said about the violent colonial history of many countries, the pre-colonial history is less often discussed in spaces that I’ve experienced. I stand corrected, and I thought that the pieces in this collection (and throughout the Tate Modern at this time) were helpful in correcting my ignorance.

 Background is a very dark floorspace and in the centre is a pool of light, displaying a film still of a man’s torso, naked except for a white sheet round his waist. He has light brown skin, black floppy hair and black moustache, standing in a desert with mountains and blue sky in the background.
Léuli Eshrāghi - AOAULI (VILIATA) (2020/22)

In this piece, on display in the pitch-black Tanks Room 4, video footage is projected from above onto a pool of sand framed by bricks, on the floor of the gallery. It’s stunning - it draws you in, and it’s only as you get closer (so bright on the ground in the darkness) that you see the video is being projected onto sand, and it glitters in the light of the projector. The colours take on the warm hue of the sand and everything sparkles; it’s a beautiful way to show a video piece.

“Artist Léuli Eshrāghi is reflected on its surface while their voice fills the room. They offer a vision of a possible future in which Indigenous concepts of time, space, pleasure and collective knowledge are reconciled. The pool forms part of the artist’s site-specific presentation of their ongoing series Siapo viliata o le atumotu, which includes the silk banners flowing down from the ceiling.” Tate Modern 2022

Find out more about this artist here:

Five squares of black printed geometric patterns on translucent fabric, in a clean wooden frame, displayed at an angle on a grey concrete wall.
“Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?” by Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser

As a print lover, I was drawn to the big patterned pieces at the side of the space, part of an installation called “Piña, Why is the Sky Blue?” by Stephanie Comilang and Simon Speiser. Translucent fabric made from pineapple leaves is 3D printed in black, with a combination of traditional Ecuadorian and Filipino patterns and new ideas. I learnt from the description that pineapples were brought to the Philippines from South America in the seventeenth century. It made me think how the legacy of colonisation continues to this day in the way that pineapples are produced and the treatment of the workers. The prints are stunning and make me want to create similar ones, and cover every surface with these beautiful patterns. But they also make me uncomfortable.

My discomfort as a UK white woman should never be centred, but I find it helpful to examine personally how it flags up things that need to be reframed, and unconscious racism that I have learned.

It makes me think how the repeating patterns and prints that are used across the retail, fashion, and wholesale industries here in the UK are often derived from traditional prints, and rarely credited or referenced when the products are sold for huge profit. Often designers like myself unknowingly create repeats inspired by prints that are actually native to other communities - it is, ultimately, a form of stealing. We include copyright or even pay licensing fees to well known designers, but fail to reference traditional inspiration.

A large pitch black space containing a single bright screen on the furthest wall, the still shows a woman’s face overlaid on a blue sky. She has dark brown skin and she is smiling.
“is i am sky” by Dineo Seshee Bopape

The final piece I want to talk about in this post is “is i am sky” by Dineo Seshee Bopape. The curation of this is phenomenal - a whole huge darkened tank room, with a giant bright projection at one end, showcasing the 17min 48sec work and demanding attention. The piece centres on a low angle shot of Bopape’s face, merging with the sky above her and other “spillages of colour, cosmos and blackness” - it’s about identity. The uncapitalised title references jazz composer Sun Ra’s 1972 poem ‘The Endless Realm’. Tate says that the composer celebrated cosmic Kemetism, “a modern revival of ancient Nubian spiritual practices, as a frontier and launchpad for Black liberation”.

Bopape’s video is mesmerising, and I stayed here for some time soaking it in and getting in touch with my feelings about identity, whilst simultaneously feeling very excited about the beautiful colours at play on the screen, shining in the dark.

Key takeaways from this display:

  • Using darkness & spotlights as a way to draw attention to objects and film is super effective and really elevates the user experience. This would be a really refreshing new way to consider displaying products in retail.

  • Consideration for where inspiration is sourced and referencing traditional prints is so important to the sustainability of the design industry, and can be part of reparations for the legacy of colonialism. Ways of doing this could be to use a geometric collection as a way to educate customers on the origins of the prints and the histories of cultures that they may not know about. Even better would be to support and donate to the communities who are descendant of those who created the amazing prints in the first place.

  • The overall feeling here was one of reclaiming the ways of living and relating to the environment that existed before colonisation. I suspect this could become a trend, as it is not too distant from Hygge and yoga, and other wellness practices that have become popular with consumers in recent years. However it is absolutely essential to reference the traditional practices that we are inspired by and give the consumer a way to learn more and be part of a genuine practice if they want to.

More to come on this visit - there was an overwhelming sense of trauma in the pieces on display at this time and a clear effort to reframe art history, and to re-centre Black artists and the non-white world majority.


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