LR Vandy creates Contemporary African masks to recount hidden female stories.

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Lisa Vandy, These Women Series,
Lisa Vandy, These Women Series, Courtesy of the Artist and October Gallery

An all-female colony has descended upon the October Gallery for the opening of LR Vandy’s first solo show, Hidden. Cast in bronze and jesmonite, miniature workers in cylindrical forms, have taken pride of place atop plinths in the center of the main gallery; adjacent to a duo of Superhero Cog Woman. They are all under the benevolent gaze of deities that have ascended onto the walls of the gallery. Each member of the colony carries a piece of the multifaceted story of women – particularly Black women. They have come together to recount their stories and redress a lopsided history, that buried them so deep and for so long that they look foreign and exogenous.

The arresting deities on the walls are a contemporary reinterpretation of African masks and are in a class of their own. Their majestic, cheeky or fearsome expressions come to life through the pins, needles, and quills that delicately pierce their rounded faces at regular intervals. It’s only their sometimes-protruding noses, shaped as keels, and mouths that betray their previous functions. They were initially model boats and achieved their transmutation at the hands of Lisa Vandy, to become the artist’s first body of work: the Hull series.

Lisa Vandy, Hull Series, Hidden. Courtesy of October Gallery
Lisa Vandy, Hull Series, Hidden. Courtesy of October Gallery

In the artist’s studio in east London, a wide range of model boats is carefully lined up on the wall. She keeps them for a while before starting to work on them, acutely aware of the amount of labour and craft that had shaped them into these miniature vessels. “I have already started with a beautiful object. So it’s a bit scary sometimes to start drilling holes into it.” Of those she selects for the transformative journey, she says, “I feel a character. I feel something – sometimes, it’s grandeur, sometimes it’s cheeky, sometimes it’s solemn, grave.”

For the hulls to become sculptures reflexive of these sentiments, Vandy initiates a long, painstaking process of cleaning and priming. It is an exercise akin to a meditative interaction between the material and the artist. During this symbiotic exchange, the hull reveals its specificities and unique qualities while it is slowly stripped of previous characteristics and imbued with layers of new meanings and narratives. This preamble sets the stage for the complementary floats, pins and sometimes brushes, to be carefully affixed in a pre-planned pattern. The outcome, on very close inspection, is an alluring and sophisticated system of interrelated subparts that all seamlessly fit together.

The precision and craftsmanship of the sculptures hark back to Vandy’s training in furniture design and also lie at the core of her practice. “I think,” she says “that confidence, that making gives you, is incredible. Looking at how things fit together, why they fit together like that, it’s the history of that.” It is no surprise then that Vandy’s curiosity about how things work is applied on a larger scale to understanding the historical, social, and economic structure that underpin our modern society: a society that has systemically rendered women, particularly Black women’s voices, histories and contribution, invisible.

Artist Lisa Vandy in her studio.
Lisa Vandy in her studio. Courtesy of the Artist and October Gallery

Vandy’s preoccupation with these issues is long-standing and predates her debuts in the art world. “I got to the stage when I was in my 30’s, I still do have a rage against racism, and I suddenly thought, why wouldn’t you want to know these stories? What is it that makes you want to hold on to your ignorance? Block me out? The long answer is in Adrian Piper’s 1981 essay on Ideology, confrontation, and political self-awareness. In it, the artist and philosopher describes in detail the mechanisms that underpin people’s avoidance of ideas that can challenge their biases and ideologies.

As a socially charged symbol, the boat encapsulates almost to perfection these antagonistic visions of the world. For a select few, the boat implies leisurely time at sea, and moments of carefree abandon. For a majority of others, it remains a vessel of displacement through the centuries, a suffocating prelude to a slow death. Vandy seized on this tension inherent to the boat and redeployed it throughout her work. “Attraction and repulsion: I have used that a lot of in my work. It features in the film and the railway too.” For Vandy, the coexistence of that duality in the masks examines the fractious relationship western societies have had with the Black female body: an eroticised object of desire that is often loathed and rejected for its very distinctive black characteristics.

Guardian, one of the most striking pieces in the artist’s latest body of work, is an all-white streamlined mask, covered in a delicate pattern of acupuncture needles. It is an outstanding figure of beauty and pain intertwined together. The first iteration of the Hull series with its minimalistic aesthetics and narrative of displacement was an instant hit when it was unveiled at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London last year. The series has since been exhibited at other Art Fairs in South Africa and New York. The commercial success has come in tandem with institutional endorsement. Crimson and Black (2019), one of the hull series, is included in the group show Get Up Stand Up Now at Somerset House while another, European was acquired by the British Museum.

Lisa Vandy, Railway No 1,
Lisa Vandy, Railway No 1, Courtesy of the Artist and October Gallery

This first timely solo exhibition has offered an extensive view of the Hull series and put on full display, the breath of Vandy’s creative expression through new works. They include model railway pieces carefully mounted on burned pieces of wood encased in golden rims, to expose the human cost that lays underneath the railway expansion of the 19th century in the British Empire. She admits, “it’s too painful to be thinking on that level all the time, but nonetheless, [She] keeps returning to it.”

Thankfully her work on the Superhero Cog Woman has provided her with a salutary respite. Shifting her practice from investigating agonizing topics to lighter-hearted ones, Vandy has composed an ode to women’s dynamism with her Superhero Cog Woman series. The black miniature sculptures seemed to be frozen in a dance move and able at any given moment to leap back to life and return to their dance. The duo of Superhero Cog woman is made of only 12 pieces each, stacked up cog and gear, that evoke the inner working of a machine. A video showcases the multiple configurations that the duo could be shaped into, in a nod to women’s ability to juggle considerable responsibilities and activities.

In confirmation of Vandy’s vertiginous ascent, it has been announced that the scaled up version of Superhero Cog Woman, also on view in the solo show, is slated to be shown at Frieze Sculpture Park this summer. It is a dizzying upward mobility through the layers of the art world, that is no easy feat for mid-career artists, let alone for someone who turned her back on her career as an artistic director only two and a half years ago.

Lisa Vandy, Superhero Cog Woman
Lisa Vandy, Superhero Cog Woman, Courtesy of the Artist and October Gallery

Vandy is still adjusting to this sudden interest in her work, and admits to finding it “weird to be the most important person in the room.” Her focus is firmly on her practice and continuing to excavate these long-forgotten stories, especially through a continuation of the railway series. “I am never happier than in the studio. That’s where I want to be.” Still, I am surprised that race and gender-based inequalities are still so prevalent, and the onus is always on Black women to confront these issues. “I guess,” she responds, “it will have to be us. The time is now. We are on the backs of all the other artists that came before us that got lost along the way.” At 61 years old, she is only getting started. The exhibition is ending soon, but expect more hidden stories to be unearthed and dissected. These female figures are standing firm and proud, and their stories can no longer be hidden.

LR Vandy’s debut solo exhibition Hidden at the October Gallery will conclude on June 29. Her sculpture Superhero Cog Woman is on view at Regent’s Park, as part of Frieze Sculpture Park 2019, from July 3rd until October 6th.

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