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  • Raise Up, Hank Willis Thomas, 2014. Photo courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

8 contemporary artists you should know

By Sara Khan

As Chinese artist and human-rights activist Ai Weiwei creates another series of thought provoking sculptures, I found myself reflecting on the creative power of activism. Ai Weiwei is internationally known for his political art and his newly elected sculptural structures showing in New York are no different in his desire to make a statement. He used metal fencing to create three large structures that resemble security fences to campaign against Trump’s border-control measures. 

Back here in the UK we are in the midst of Black History Month (BHM) – a month long celebration of the contributions that Afro-Caribbean communities have made to society. 2017 saw BHM celebrate its 30th anniversary and 2018 will mark the 70th Anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush – one of the ships to bring 500 migrants from Jamaica to the UK.

In light of the cultural relevance of these moments, the Crafts Council wants to celebrate eight international makers and artists that are trying to create change by reflecting on history and challenging our perceptions through their creative practices.  


Ubhule Art Collective

Ubuhle are an all-female collective that first came together as an attempt to find specific solutions to issues faced by post-­Apartheid South African communities with the mission of supporting women becoming financially independent using traditional craft. The art of beading is also very important in the Xhosa tradition where women traditionally used the practice to reach a spiritual state that would allow them to connect with their ancestors.

Artist and Ubuhle co-founder Ntombephi Ntobela’s work often reflects on the theme of water such as the lack of access to a clean water supply, as well as water being a symbol connected to femininity in both Xhosa and Zulu cultures. For example, it is believed that a Sangoma (female healer) must devote herself in the bodies of water to harness her spiritual powers.  In Dynamic Emergence from the Sea, she uses her beading skills to draw reference to her mother who had spent half a year in the sea to complete her training as a Sangoma healer.  You can see Ubhule Art Collective’s work at Collect: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects on 22 – 25 February at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Tickets start at £16.

Detail of 'The Jurors', Hew Locke. Commissioned by Surrey County Council and The National Trust. Photo: Charles Littlewood

Hew Locke

Hew Locke is a London-based artist who grew up in Guyana before returning to the UK in the 1990s to complete an MA in sculpture at the Royal College of Art. Hew’s work often explores the languages of colonial and post-colonial power, how different cultures fashion their identities through visual symbols of authority, and how these representations are altered over time.   

His work The Jurors was commissioned by Surrey County Council and The National Trust to mark the 800th Anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. It is formed of twelve bronze chairs, each decorated with panels of images and symbols relating to past and ongoing struggles for freedom, the rule of law, and equal rights. 

This artwork is not a memorial, but rather an artwork which requires people to complete it. The chairs are awaiting a gathering and invite an audience to sit, debate, and reflect the implications of the histories and the meaning of justice. You can watch a film of how the chairs were made here.

Student Teacher, Maïmouna-Guerresi. Photo courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

Maïmouna Guerresi

Maïmouna Guerresi is an Italian photographer, sculptor, video and installation artist based in Senegal. She was born in a religious Catholic family and converted to Sufi Islam in 1991. Her work presents an intimate perspective on female empowerment that often celebrates diversity by bringing together individuals and cultures in appreciation of a shared humanity beyond psychological, cultural and political borders.

There are recurrent metaphors within Maïmouna’s photography such as milk, light, the hijab, and trees to represent the spiritual and healing qualities of Islam whilst embracing the cultural ancestry reflected in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Shrine, Alexis Peskine, 2016. Photo courtesy the artist and October Gallery London

Alexis Peskine

Alexis Peskine is a Paris-based visual artist and photographer. His work focuses on identity and the ‘black experience’. Alexis draws inspiration from his paternal grandfather who survived a German concentration camp, to his maternal grandfather who lived in the favelas of Salvador, Bahia, to the loving marriage of his own Franco-Russian father and Afro-Brazilian mother. He challenges the audience to think about what identity is by using powerful portraits that are literally nailed into wooden planks to pay tribute to the many individuals undertaking the dangerous boat journeys from North Africa to Europe. Alexis uses several sizes of nails as brushstrokes, and drives in the nails at different depths to create a sense of relief and to introduce a third dimension. The nail for Alexis represents transcendence and expresses pain as well as the force of resistance.

Raise Up, Hank Willis Thomas, 2014. Photo courtesy the artist and  Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas is a New York-based conceptual artist whose work focuses on themes relating to identity, media, and popular culture with a particular interest in how the media portrays racial stereotypes. Talking about his work with Artsy, Hank said “I could be a black artist, but I’m also many other things. All of us inhabit multiple identities at once. The craziest thing about blackness is that black people didn’t create it. Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing us created it. Five hundred years ago in Africa there weren’t black people. There were just people.”

In Hank’s work Raise up, he presents a series of bald bronze men emerging from a white base facing a wall with their arms raised up. The sculptures were based on the historic photos from Apartheid South Africa by Ernest Cole. These photographs captured a moment of time that documented the humiliating medical examinations black African miners were made to endure. Raise up was shown as part of a show in Johannesburg in 2014. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which spawned the protest phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement took place two months later that gave the piece another unanticipated meaning.

Gaia III, Curtis Talwst Santiago, 2017. Courtesy Gallery MOMO

Curtis Talwst Santiago

Curtis Talwst Santiago is a Trinidadian-Canadian visual artist living and working between Brooklyn, New York and Johannesburg. His practice explores issues of trans-culturalism, memory and ancestry. Curtis’ series of miniature dioramas consider the absence of certain narratives in dominant culture, drawing on the tradition of storytelling to question the production of historical understanding.

The stories told in each diorama often reflect African and Caribbean culture. He uses these miniature scales as symbolism of silencing history and the ring boxes to reflect the need to protect such oral practices through generations. 

Suburban Bliss, Lawrence Lemaoana, 2017. Copyright Lawrence Lemaoana. Courtesy AFRONOVA GALLERY

Lawrence Lemaoana

Lawrence Lemaoana is a Johannesburg-based artist who produces graphic fabric works that critically engage with mass media in present-day South Africa. Seeing the relationship between media and the ‘people’ as inherently problematic, he identifies and repurposes existing control apparatuses using his trademark cynicism. His embroidered works are emblazoned with appropriated political statements that ask the viewer to reflect on how media has the ability to shape social consciousness.

His work is woven on exclusively on kanga fabric- a material with its own complex ancestry. These fabrics are manufactured in East Africa and brought to South Africa to be sold in bazaars. “The journey of the fabrics speaks of the idiosyncrasies and trade imbalances of globalisation” says Lawrence. “They are regarded as significant markers of spiritual healing, imbued with great religious and spiritual power, used by divinators and fortune-tellers.”

Africa Moving Forward, Ndary Lo, 2016. Courtesy Sitor Senghor

Ndary Lo

Ndary Lo is a Senegalese sculptor who is best known for his cast sculptures of willowy trees and lithe bodies. He took inspiration from reflecting back on history when Alberto Giacometti and his contemporaries were heavily influenced by African sculpture in the 1920s. In response, Ndary wanted to re-appropriate this cultural heritage.

The tree is a symbol of life, nature and wisdom in Senegalese culture and Ndary refers to the bodies as ‘nit’, the Wolof word for person. They are made in recycled steel reinforced bars and resins from auto body workshops, using antique aging processes.