“You say that anyone would recognize this painting but I have never seen it before in my life.” The comment comes from a young woman as Gerard Houghton, Director of Special Projects at the October Gallery in London, shows Botticelli's Primavera. The setting: a talk with artist Sokari Douglas Camp about her latest exhibition at the October Gallery bearing the same title as the Italian painter's masterpiece. A question sparks to mind immediately: does it really matter whether one knows the Botticelli in order for them to appreciate Douglas Camp's pieces?
Entering the October Gallery, one is welcomed by a suffused light reflected on a multitude of textural metallic surfaces. Indeed, steel sculpture is Douglas Camp's chosen medium with casual inclusion of color, perhaps in that same spirit of Spring (in Italian, “Primavera”) that pervades the atmosphere of the exhibition. As mentioned by Houghton, all of the various figures from Botticelli's Primavera are re-proposed here in a contemporary key. The busts of two pairs of lovers (Lovers Whispering and Whispering and Blowing) are shown in intimate gestures. The artist's ability allows her to ply the steel into ever so graceful and delicate details that truly give the sense of lovers sharing a secret, avoiding the horror of the story of rape of Zephyros and Chloris, the respective characters in the Botticelli.
Primavera, the piece corresponding to Flora in the Botticelli, whose steel garment defies one's expectation of heaviness and solidity that metal usually connotes to show, in fact, a lightness such that her dress seems to flow in the wind. Enriched with a mixture of colorful flowers and toy cars, she is a perfect equilibrium between human nature and technology, such that she could have perhaps fitted on the red carpet of this year's man-v.-machine-themed Met Gala. To her right is the monumental composition of Blind Love and Grace, in which the artist cleverly uses empty oil barrels to create a structural background for the figures of what in Botticelli's painting would have been Venus and Cupid. An outstanding exercise in balancing the elements of the piece, Love floats in the air right above the figure of Grace which is adorned with red garments, maintaining Botticelli's color palette, yet departing from his style in that both the dress and the headdress are typically African.
Similarly, the three figures of Europe Supported by Africa and America, while exhibiting a similar composition to the homonymous work by William Blake, does differ from it, yet again, in the choice of clothing. As with Primavera and Blind Love and Grace, the three women in this sculpture are wearing colorful and patterned clothing (inspired by the respective continents they represent). Interestingly, the garland they hold, while reflecting the original piece's detail, presents a nozzle (from a fuel dispenser) at one extremity. This seems to be yet another reference, as the oil barrels are, to the situation of the Niger Delta, area in which the artist was born and which is still facing major problems relating to oil companies' operations.
An additional reflection upon the artist's culture of origin is a set of six figurines each dressed with different typical African clothing, Walworth Ladies. Lastly, the exhibition is completed by two pieces, both apparently inspired by the figure of Mercury in Botticelli's work. Both Prick Gun and Posing with a Gun portray a macho attitude as the artist explains, which she clearly (given the title) criticizes.
Considering all of these aspects, does one actually need to be familiar with Botticelli's Primavera to be able to appreciate Douglas Camp's Primavera exhibition? Truthfully, Douglas Camp did draw inspiration from the piece and anyone who is familiar with it can see the correlation between the two. It is also evident, however, that her works present several elements that are unique to her style and discourse, highlighting aspects of her personal story as well as causes she is dedicated to. The rendering of Kalabari and other African style dresses clearly has an importance for her in terms of her own heritage, yet they also constitute the chance to discuss about standards or beauty and how the fashion industry has long had and, to an extent, still has Western standards. It is still uncommon for a woman to choose steel sculpture as her favorite medium of artistic expression. This is, yet again, an added layer of understanding that one can appreciate while observing her work. When introducing referencing to the oil industry, she introduces an element of environmental and humanitarian awareness and commentary into her art. Violence, as has been mentioned, is also a theme treated in the exhibition. While she talks, she mentions the fact that in her artistic practice she is moved and inspired by a continuous conversation within herself.
This is the power of her pieces, they can spark a conversation within the viewer and among different viewers. There is such a multitude of layers of understanding, of interpretation of her pieces, that one could appreciate them and reflect upon them, whatever their knowledge (or lack thereof) of Italian Renaissance Art History might be. Douglas Camp seems to unite elements of her personal experience with aspects of nowadays' sociopolitical reality, utilizing at the same time inspiration from her exposure to Italian art, and bringing everything together in her astonishingly masterful metallic sculptures to start a conversation. She makes the viewer aware of issues they might or might not already know about, usually without directly commenting on them, but allowing him or her to inform themselves and formulate their own opinion. She amazes the public by delicately yet firmly sparking a conversation, her work is a catalyst for discussion and, possibly, change.
All images courtesy of Giovanna Violi, MA