Hoodoo Voodoo

Grace Wales Bonner explores heritage, shrine and ritual with her new Serpentine exhibition
Art | 21 January 2019
Text Finn Blythe

First in Serpentine’s new program of interdisciplinary projects, offering a cross-section of music, fashion, architecture and design for a series of annual short duration projects, Grace Wales Bonner presents, A Time For New Dreams, a holistic exploration of the shrine, mysticism and ritual.

By employing a range of different media, from literature and music to fabric and cultural relics, the exhibition is not just an extension of her work on the runway (her FW19 show next month, Mumbo Jumbo, will be the exhibition’s denouement) but an opportunity to celebrate her own Jamaican heritage.


A profoundly intellectual designer, Bonner’s practice since graduating from St Martins in 2014 (where her final year Afrique collection won the L’Oreal Professional Talent Prize) is deeply concerned with identity and personhood. From her SS16 lookbook, centered on the extraordinary story of Ethiopian slave-turned-ruler Malik Ambar, to her Ebonics collection, questioning the portrayal of black people in 19th-century painting, her collections offer introspective studies on representation and personal histories.

As the first Serpentine exhibition created by a fashion designer, few are better suited than Bonner, whose colourful signature of cross-pollinating cultural references are here materialised in the form of individual shrines dispersed throughout the Sackler gallery representing, in the designer’s words, “portals to another dimension”.

Grace Wales Bonner, The love in which I wash, Photograph by Harley Weir

Taking its title from Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri’s collection of essays, the exhibition explores both the material value of shrines throughout black history and their metaphysical importance as spiritual thresholds to alternate, imagined realities.

The portrayal of spirituality is here predicated on the work of American historian Robert Farris Thompson, whose ethnographic text on the comparative study of Afro-Atlantic altars is the basis for Bonner’s own investigation into the meaning of shrines. Thompson’s dual definition of ritual as both fixed and moving is mirrored through an inter-disciplinary blend of material and immaterial, collective participation and individual enlightenment.

A live workshop by Philadelphia-born musician and mystic Laraaji highlights the performative and communal value of ritual – something Bonner is keen to extend throughout the exhibition’s run with a live program that includes a reading by playwright and Klein as well as number of ritual movements by performance artist Michael John-Harper, taking place during the final days of the exhibition.

Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams runs at Serpentine Gallery until 16th February.

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