Bill Ming, Against the tide

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To mark Bill Ming’s solo exhibition at New Art Exchange in Nottingham, we’ve worked together on a book about his work and life. It is available from the gallery and through the artist’s website, and can also be downloaded as a PDF file here: but be aware that, with more than 70 colour photographs, the file is large (55MB). Below is an essay that I’ve written for the book. The photos above are from the launch last night.

Bill Ming: an appreciation

Bill Ming in his studio 2013 (photo: Bartosz Kali)
Bill Ming in his studio 2013 (photo: Bartosz Kali)

The challenge of difference

Ten men can be sitting at a table eating, you know, dining, and I can come and sit down where they’re dining. They’re dining; I’ve got a plate in front of me, but nothing is on it. Because all of us are sitting at the same table, are all of us diners? I’m not a diner until you let me dine. Then I become a diner. Just being at the table with others who are dining doesn’t make me a diner, and this is what you’ve got to get in your head here in this country.

Malcolm X, Chicago, 14 February 1965

Anyone who approaches Bill Ming’s work with open eyes, with an open heart and mind, will encounter a gifted, original and deeply serious artist. The work is unusual in today’s contemporary art scene for its ideas, aesthetics, techniques and, not least, its approachability. There are pieces, like Old School, with the boy sitting at his desk, or the Caribbean landscape of Antilles Reflections, that are immediately recognisable. The blues singer in the doorway of One Room Country Shack seems to hold an intriguing story. It is easy to respond to the colour, the figurative elements and the humour. There are many immediately appealing aspects to this work.

Keep looking, though, and layers emerge beneath the attractive surfaces. There are visual and intellectual connections within each piece, and with other works of art—his own and those of Western and non-Western artistic traditions; to history, faith and politics; to old films, songs and world myths; to fundamental human experiences of love, fear, loneliness, hope and suffering. All life is here, it seems, in all its colours and complexity. And, on each return the meanings of these sculptures and collages reform themselves, enriching and changing the encounter.

No. 9 Shed (Photo Eddie Rhead)
No. 9 Shed (Photo Eddie Rhead)

However, the qualities that make Bill Ming’s work both approachable and rewarding are not very fashionable in today’s art world. Accessibility, humour, political and moral complexity, visual appeal, respect for traditions, humble materials, lack of pretension and craft are all out of favour. Indeed, according to some theories, they are clear signs of ideological deviance. Such disrespect for critical norms risks a kind of artistic banishment, like the internal exile the Soviet Union used to inflict on dissidents.

Bill himself sees darker sides to the reception of his work, and it is true the European art world struggles with the distinctive experience of black artists from its former colonies. Their ethics and ideas, their sensibility and aesthetics, are often different. But they are not less sophisticated, less important or less valid. Indeed, their very difference should be welcomed as a vital and invigorating test of fixed ideas.

The undervalued qualities in Bill Ming’s work are intrinsic to its subversive nature and to the challenge it makes to dominant forces, inside and outside the art world. This is art that invites the viewer to think as well as feel, to decide as well as smile, and to ask some uncomfortable questions about the way the world is— and why.

First impressions

I met Bill Ming in 1982, when I visited a studio he had in an old canal-side warehouse that Newark District Council was renting to artists. My first sight of his work was in this big, chilly top-floor space: twisting, dancing figures, oddly flattened as if they had not been allowed the space to be fully themselves. There were also beautiful horses’ heads, chewing or kissing each other. I’d seen the horses that inspired them in a nearby field, and I felt I understood what the artist was doing. Those sculptures have lodged in my mind’s eye for three decades, though I can’t picture the work of any other artist I saw in that building.

Art doesn’t have to be approachable, of course. Some of what I have come to value most once seemed bizarre, hostile or just dull, and it has taken time and patience for my appreciation to grow. Bill’s work does reward time and patience—I still make discoveries in pieces I’ve known for 15 or 20 years—but it is often welcoming at first sight. It does not show off or say how much cleverer the artist is than the viewer. It says hello. Stop a minute. What are you thinking?

Some of that is surface: the carefully worked forms, the glowing yet subtle colours, the layers of texture. It is often beautiful, even when dealing in ugly realities. Sometimes it is representational. Blue skies, white shutters, pink walls. Palm trees. Faces; hands; animals. The sea. Fishes and boats. But even when it is not, the materials and the skill with which they have been worked root each piece in a serious present that eschews gimmicks. It looks good, so you want to keep looking at it.

It is often humorous, or strange. A grown man in a high chair. A woman on a delivery bicycle, with a boy in the basket. But the wit is never cruel and when there is irony, it is because the artist has seen it in the paradoxes of experience. It is not a protective, post- modern device to distance or alienate the viewer. Whatever else might be said about this work, it invites dialogue.

Defending the possibility of interpretation

Only DefendinTake an early piece like Only Defendin’. It looks straightforward enough: ten or eleven shields hanging at the height they would be if people were carrying them. But there are no people. Short chains are suspended above. There are some (clubs?) among the shields. At the front, ‘at first sight’, are a couple of shields that look African, or perhaps a European idea of African. Behind and around them are square, industrial-looking panels (canvasses?) and on each side a piece of golden corrugated metal, its corners cut.

Do they define the edge of an alley, blocked by this wall of shields, or are they improvised defences pulled from a fence? Who is being attacked and who is defending? Are the two Africans being chased or surrounded? Or are they leading? Whose backs are to the wall?

Are the chains weapons or restraints? Or do they suggest the strength in unity that people find when they stand their ground together, only defendin’?

For Bill, there is a specific experience behind this installation, which he made as student at Maidstone Art College: ‘It’s my ritual space. I had to defend myself, my right to be there as a student. I used the canvas as a way of absorbing information. The arms of the shields were made of sponge—again trying to absorb the information and yet still trying to defend myself.’

The work arises from his experience, as the only black student on his course, but beyond that it opens up a complex range of possibilities. There is the same richness of texture and openness to interpretation throughout Bill Ming’s work. It is attractive, in the sense of drawing you towards it. but having achieved that, it proves much more complex and elusive than it seemed. Hearing what Bill says about Only Defendin’ brings understanding, but it is only one way into work that always remains open to other meanings and questions a viewer may bring.

A modern humanism

The human figure is central to Bill Ming’s work. Over decades he has produced a series of thin, not quite life size figures, in diverse positions and situations. They are typically alone. Even when they are in pairs, as in Beached, or in groups, they seem isolated, as if the artist does not quite believe in the possibility of reaching beyond our selves.

Beached - detail (photo Bartosz Kali)
Beached – detail (photo Bartosz Kali)

The figures in Still Tryna Spoonfeed Us and Old School imply the absence of others. Each is a contemporary Everyman (and Everywoman) representing both itself and all of us. And yet, these sculptures are also deeply personal. They speak of lived moments and echo powerful feelings the artist has known and been marked by.

It is also significant—and challenging to a European art world whose ideas of human beauty were shaped by Classical Greece— that these figures are clearly not modelled on white Caucasians. Although their formal aesthetic is closer to Expressionism that Realism, it is evident that they are from the Global South: Africans, Americans or islanders perhaps. Their complex colouring evokes both the troubles that visualising race has brought the modern world and the pride that those oppressed by it have found in the very ideas used to stigmatise them. Unlike metal, this wood is soft and warm to the touch. It bruises and burns; it can be cut. It also glows with every colour of blackness.

Among my own favourites of the standing figures is a series that was first exhibited at Islington Art Factory in London in 1996. Mostly solitary, these lean figures were cut and scarred, their wounds sometimes stitched with rows of tiny nails that brought to mind the loading plans of 18th century slavers’ ships. Around their feet were pebbles, stones, sand. They stared ahead like ghosts, making no eye contact. They summoned up the Africans who had died on the Middle Passage of the Slave Trade and been flung overboard unceremoniously, as perished cargo. Britain has a fine memorial to the animals who have died in war, but there is still no national memorial to the millions of Africans forcibly taken across the Atlantic to slavery, torture and death by British businessmen.

Politics and morality

These histories and their contemporary consequences resonate throughout Bill Ming’s work, which is, in the best sense, profoundly moral. It’s worth making a distinction here between politics and morality. Where politics is concerned with current, transitory issues, morality looks further, to the unchanging laws that (should) guide human beings in their conduct and relationships. Politics decides how much the strong can get away with. Morality questions the legitimacy of their strength. Bill’s work does not shy away from politics but always approaches it from the deeper, more complex and more important perspective of morality and ethics.

One Room Country Shack (Photo Bartosz Kali)
One Room Country Shack (Photo Bartosz Kali)

At first sight, One Room Country Shack seems to represent a 1930s blues singer and his home. But look closer and you see a white face. Is this a white man, ‘blacking up’, despite the warning notice about the corrupting influence of ‘race music’? Or a black artist who has to disguise himself as white to get a hearing? Why is the sacred heart of Jesus on the wall behind him, alongside images of old blues singers and someone who might be a freed slave? This is unsettling art, full of ambiguities, not superficial posturing.

The people in Bill’s work are from the wrong side of the tracks. He has neither interest in nor sympathy for those who do well out of the way in which most societies are run. Instead his attention goes to those who are maimed in war, as in Bomb in a Baby Carriage.

It’s never Captain Ahab: it’s the sailors shipwrecked by his mad pursuit of Moby Dick. It’s not the famous figurehead; it’s the forgot- ten fallen. Is that a vulture who is occasionally seen perching on a drowning sailor’s paper hat, waiting for the end? Or an imperial eagle?

The sea is a principal theme in Bill Ming’s work: he was born on an island and first left it to work as a cook on a liner, feeding the floating hundreds. In his sculpture, the sea is a world of beauty, pleasure and discovery, but also of disorientation, displacement and exploitation. Bill has an abiding concern with international trade in commodities and the price paid by those who produce them or—in the case of slavery—those people who were themselves designated as goods. It is evoked in the seed corn spilled (or eaten) in the college piece, Sower n Seed/Yield, and in the coffee beans and used cartridges in his exhibition at the Bluecoat, during his tenure as Henry Moore Sculpture Fellow in Liverpool. Other realities of globalisation appear throughout the work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHands Across the Table is a key example where a family, a holy trinity of poverty, share a single fishbone for their meal. Visible from the window, the lovely blue sea has been emptied by a factory ship like a huge machine, a floating car or even Godzilla’s head. These hands stretch across the sea to take, not to give. On the wall is a reproduction of Trevor Nickolls’ painting, From Dreamtime 2 Machinetime (1981) whose composition is echoed in Hands Across the Table, as questions about the industrial exploitation of nature also echo between the two works.

But the piece also makes reference to the religious imagery that often connects Bill’s work with the European art of the past: a cup has been upset, its wine spilling across the table like a bloodstain. This poor meal is, in its way, another last supper, another sacrifice. It is the consequence of violence, oppression and injustice that is represented, not the more questionably dramatic act. The work’s allusions and emotional imagery offer no simplistic answers.

In dialogue with the tradition

The religious imagery in Hands Across the Table is just one aspect of how Bill Ming’s work situates itself within art’s complicated traditions. He draws inspiration from and refers to the classical Western canon, the black American artists he encountered as a young man, the diverse African and Native American artistic traditions he has discovered since and last, but by no means least, the hybridity of the Atlantic and Caribbean crossroads where all these ideas, practices and aesthetics meet.

Bomb in a baby carriage (Photo Bartosz Kali)
Bomb in a baby carriage (Photo Bartosz Kali)

In Bomb in a Baby Carriage, for instance, you might find echoes of the American installation artist, Edward Keinholz, African wood- carving, William Morris, the blues, Graham Greene and even Mary Poppins, in restless dialogue with a composition and ideas unique to the artist. There are good sides to globalisation, even if they don’t make the rich richer.

Bill Ming has suffered from some condescending and ignorant reactions to his work: ‘A black man carving wood figures? Ethnic craft at best—and you can get the real stuff cheaper from any market in Nairobi’. But his use of wood, among other materials, is a respectful acknowledgement of aesthetic and cultural practices often disregarded by the West except when ‘discovered’ by an accepted genius like Picasso. Bill makes wood speak for the peoples whose roots he acknowledges in his own identity, and adds to that tradition with an intercultural dialogue that could not have been made a moment earlier than now.

Bill’s work is also in an intriguing dialogue with itself. Sculptures that stay in his studio too long are liable to be reworked into some- thing else, or cut up altogether to become part of a new piece. I have a pencil drawing of some of the great blues singers (itself inspired by Paul Oliver’s The Story of the Blues book and LP) small reproductions of which appear in Bomb in A Baby Carriage and One Room Country Shack.

In some artists the whole body of their work becomes a coherent artwork in itself. Each piece is like a short story in a collection that traces a complete human life. There is exceptional consistency in Bill Ming’s art, from early college work to pieces he is making today, perhaps because his chance at being an artist came later than most and after varied and sometimes painful life experience. That is one reason why parts of an old sculpture can be successfully reworked into a new one. There is great diversity in Bill’s work, as well intellectual and aesthetic development, but it is always anchored in the artist’s singular and compelling vision.

It is for these reasons, among others, that I describe Bill Ming’s work as gifted, original and serious. It is deeply rewarding: funny, beautiful, humane, angry, clever, ambiguous, instructive—the list really could go on. He has not won the Turner Prize, but he sees that as a badge of honour. He has won the respect of thousands of people, of all cultures, colours and ages. That too is a badge of honour.

Available downloads

Wit Dese Hands by Bill Ming, including the artist’s reflections on his life and work, over 70 colour photographs and a piece by Andy McKay as well as this essay  (PDF file 55MB download).

Against the Tide: text and images of this essay (PDF 250kb download)


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