Cutting edge: contemporary collage

Javier Rodriguez

Javier Rodriguez - contemporary collage artists

Aiming to highlight the "fragile and transient aspects of human existence", London-based Venezuelan artist Javier Rodriguez (b.1975) frequently utilises materials with a distinctly antique aesthetic: 18th and 19th century engravings, printed ephemera, or period reproductions of classic paintings.

Javier Rodriguez

Among the most striking of his works, the reconstituted portraits and figure studies shown here appear to shift between mediums, identities and temporalities, resulting in images that are compellingly spectral and uncertain in nature.

Emulating historic portraiture, a void surrounds each subject, the (literal) absence of background detail providing a space onto which our own imaginings can be projected.

Rodriguez's figures are inscrutable collaged identities: fractured, veiled, or partially incorporeal, their phantasmagorical essence threatens to mutate further into darkness.

This indeterminacy is echoed not only by the collage medium and its amalgamation of disparate sources, but also by Rodriguez's chosen materials.

Javier Rodriguez, contemporary art collage

Often printed facsimiles of paintings, they are copies of the past, from the past; transpositions of one medium to another.

The processes of fracture, slippage and redefinition inherent in the endless recirculation of art and image equally apply to the retelling of history.

Rodriguez's impossible portraits personify the ultimate unknowability of the distant past through composite ghosts of the lives that populated it.

Javier Rodriguez - contemporary collage artists



Godfried Donkor

Godfried Donkor - contemporary collage

Godfried Donkor - collage now

In the series of Black Madonnas (left) by London-based Ghanian Godfried Donkor (b. 1964), Trinidadian glamour models emerge like resplendent deities from the holds of finely engraved ships.

It's easy to view the scene as a fantastical set-piece - a take, perhaps, on the famously exuberant revels of the Trinidad Carnival - until it becomes clear that the vessels depicted are slave ships, built for the purpose of ferrying human cargo across the seas.

Set against a backdrop of pages from the Financial Times, Donkor's disarmingly simple compositions become sombre meditations driven by themes of commerce and trade.

Clearly referencing the slave trade itself, a barbaric but lucrative industry providing forced labour for further highly profitable ventures, the exact role of Donkor's madonnas is far more ambiguous.

On the one hand symbolic of the rich multiculturalism colonisation would eventually yield, their presence is complicated by connection with the (rather unsaintly) glamour industry.

Perpetuating women's particular thrall to perceptions of nubility and beauty as their most precious assets, the modelling, beauty and fashion industries can easily be construed as yet another form of enslavement.

Godfried Donkor - contemporary collage artists

This concern with notions of profit, loss and deictic shifts in the word 'trade' underpins much of Donkor's work, probing a vocabulary couched in the cold rationality of economics for moral metaphor and its historic relationship with colonialism, slavery and the cultural ramifications of both.

His series of carefully chosen world flags, for example, are again constructed from collaged copies of the Financial Times, depriving each of its specific colours and emphasising the centrality of economics to national interests (article top).

Accompanied by a Jolly Roger, the infamous emblem of piracy contrasts strikingly with the assumed integrity of statehood, serving, too, as a reminder of the true nature of much of the legitimised maritime commerce disrupted by 'lawless' pirate activity.

This not only included the shipping of slaves discussed above, but extended to plunder, pillage and transportation of colonial resources, many of which, such as cotton or sugar, also depended on slave labour for their production.

Godfried Donkor

Donkor is equally fascinated by sports - particularly boxing which, in England, took on unique characteristics echoing many of the issues explored in the artist's work.

Hugely popular during much of the 18th century and 19th centuries, boxing was practised across social classes: a 'gentlemanly sport' taught at the great public schools (Lord Byron, in particular, was well-known for his enthusiasm, a fact Donkor has alluded to) yet was equally popular among England's workers.

Historically represented by various ethnicities (above, left), success at prize-fighting offered a gateway to fame, fortune and superior social standing, despite prevailing restrictions of class, birth and race.

For Donkor, the history of pugilism provides a more accurate reflection of early British multiculturalism - particularly the relatively pronounced presence of African and Caribbean peoples - than is widely known or represented.

And as a sport in which 'trading blows' forms the basis of a rare meritocracy (for men, at least), boxing stands in stark contrast to the other economies and trades Donkor reflects upon.

This fragile equality would become a distinctive feature of sport in the US, where, despite endemic racism well into the 20th century, many black sportsmen (and, more rarely, women, who also had to contend with gender prejudice) made an enduring impact on their chosen disciplines.


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