Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio – A Beautiful Bop of an Exhibition

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Label Features Editor Hannah takes us on a trip to Nottingham Contemporary’s current exhibition dedicated to the life and career of cultural icon, Grace Jones.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Loughborough, but two and a half weeks in, I decided it was time to venture out of the iconic market town bubble, to take a trip to neighbouring Nottingham. A little disclaimer – this was before Nottingham’s tighter COVID-19 restrictions came into place – measures at which I am in no way surprised. I witnessed little to no social distancing in the city centre, with predominantly older adults and secondary school-age students rebelling against mask-wearing rules. Am I bitter that students continue to receive most of the blame? Perhaps…

Anyway, onto the actual point of this feature – my review of Nottingham Contemporary’s exhibition that is dedicated to fashion and vocal icon, Grace Jones; a fantastic outing to bring in Black History month in power and style. I wasn’t going to add this, but before I express my enjoyment and appreciation of the exhibition, I feel as if I should talk about some things my boyfriend and I witnessed as we walked to the gallery. There were two protests taking place, directly opposite each other, either side of the big square near Nottingham city centre. One was a ‘coronavirus sceptics’  gathering, rebelling against the concept of masks (they call it a concept, I call it basic safety), and one was a Black Lives Matter protest. Whilst the former had at least 200 people there – very much not socially distanced, the latter was much smaller and appeared safer. This made me uncomfortable and frustrated in light of how much emphasis there has been in the news on the safety issues of BLM protests across the world over the last few months. – Once again, however, I’m sure you’re over my bitter feelings, so finally, back to the focus of the feature…the art of Grace Jones.

I just want to begin by saying how wonderfully curated the whole exhibition was. From grand gestures, like the atmospheric lighting and music of one room, to the little touches like the elegant silver music stands used as tools to display 70s glitz and glamour (see photo of Luxury sequin low back dress, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Balice Hertling, Paris, below). The exhibition’s curators Cédric Fauq and Olivia Aherne admitted they were surprised that no such exhibition focusing on Grace hadn’t been curated prior. Fauq said that he faced many questions in the creation of the project; should it be a biography? Could an exhibition of this nature include everything it needed to? Was the primary aim of the exhibition for people to leave knowing more about Grace? He said that he was drawn towards the challenge of including no images of Grace at all – this became an integral and central symbol of the project, using ‘shadowing and withholding to shape research and selection going forward. Whilst the curators wished to remind us that Grace Jones was first and foremost a disco queen, they were also keen to ‘draw a line between the glitter and feathers of her disco period and what came after, in the 1980s and early 90s.’

The Name:

Fauq wished for the name of the exhibition Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio to capture multiple things.

‘Since Grace isn’t Grace’s original name; since “grace” also means effortless elegance; or since an exhibition of this kind can never be complete – it is continually shifting.’

The exhibition is not a full overview, but rather, reflects the fact that Grace Jones’s career is still very much evolving.

‘DIY treatment of spaces and exhibition design, devised with local architect Borja Vélez’ reflect the above, in the way that the exhibition is styled to feel as if we are ‘backstage’. Grace is seen in backstage contexts and the recording studio. We are led to feel as if we are in a space ‘where things are trialled and rehearsed, a place that allows for failure and experiment.’

A-chronology:

The curators were clear that there was no conventional chronology to the exhibition, but rather, thematic and symbolic experiences that may leave you ‘with a feeling of unfinished business, or of lights coming up before the night is over.’ In ways, they say that the exhibition ‘extends beyond Grace Jones herself’, exploring early figures, intuitive relationships, and those ‘made with and for her, by a community of creatives decimated by the AIDS crisis’.

Anecdotes & Entrances:

The exhibition opens with an early photo of Grace that does not have an attributed source:

‘It emphasises her ties to Jamaica, where she was born and grew up until her teenage years…her necklace is a disturbing element, in that it almost resembles a collar. Could we say that, just as this photograph “captures” a young Grace Jones, she was also in the process of being freed from the camera’s lens?’

We are told of an anecdote of Grace’s about the time she was arrested for disorderly conduct. She talks of the police’s attempts to take her mug shot at the station. She said the camera never worked when, and only when, she was in front of it.

‘Perhaps I was too demonic.’

The exhibition is organised into two parts; ‘Right Light’ and ‘Night Sight’. The curation of the exhibition explores racial concepts, our ‘colonised gaze’, and our colonial consumption of the arts. I was absolutely here for the groovy vibe of ‘Night Sight’, which was made further nostalgic by the lack of any party night scene in our current climate.

Grace and ‘Ultrablackness’

The concept of ultrablackness was integral to much of the exhibition, with an explicit reflection on Grace’s negotiation and experimentation with the colour of her skin. The ‘unruly chronology of the ultrablack in Grace’ collates material from her life, questioning ‘the idea of the ultrablack (a black beyond blackness).’

In one photograph we see Grace with a white face, and in others, she has editorially explored and brought to prominence darker skin tones. We see some material from the Black Beauty Agency in New York where Grace started modelling, only to be told she was ‘really black’, but that her features didn’t fit in the right way. The exhibition’s curators note the ‘political implications of such versatility with her skin tone, that she went on to project throughout her career. They add an excerpt from her memoir into the guide: “I didn’t want to be thought of as ‘black’ and certainly not ‘negro’, because I instinctively felt that was a box I would be put in that would control me…I wanted to be invisible, unmarked, too elusive to be domesticated.”

Progressive and free-spirited, Grace Jones is an icon. To the global black community, to women everywhere who feel as if they are constantly put into a box, to creatives and artists across the world. To everybody.

Some of my exhibition favourites: From top to bottom – Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (OX5A0752), 2019; Ming Smith, Grace Jones at Studio 54, 1978; Jean-Paul Goude GRACE REVISED AND UPDATED. CUT-UP EKTA, 1978.

 

 

Header designed by Christos Alamaniotis.

 

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Label Features Editor 2020-21

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