Gold Maria Akanbi

OUTPUT, until 27th September, free

So here’s the thing. I really enjoyed this show, but I’ve spent the last two days drafting through whether it was actually as good as my first instincts were inclined to believe. One reason I was wary is because this show is aesthetically very abundant, and I tend to gravitate towards liking that instinctively. And especially because the feeling is exacerbated by this being OUTPUT, which can sometimes feel like a particularly sparse space. Whereas the lots-ness of Gold Maria Akanbi’s show hit as soon as I stepped across the threshold. All those synapses in my brain that respond to abundant, colourful things started firing.

But abundance doesn’t count for much if there’s no substance behind it. This is the source of my hesitation. That question about whether this is good is because I’ve seen iterations of this style in the past that are actually quite empty. Where the idea is to draw on the wall and yes the colour and pattern and style is nice but…does it mean anything much? And also, there’s words interwoven across the patterns and portraits. You have to be careful with words. They have to be chosen carefully or else I too often find them too try-hard, like they’re reaching for a profundity which isn’t actually there.

Despite starting with all of these reservations, I can say that I like what Akanbi has achieved.

I would start with the patterns – but should I actually start with the words instead? For their relationship is symbiotic. The art – the gorgeous, intricate visual details – pulls you on a journey around the walls, like you’re following an intricate game of snakes and ladders. Woven up, down, around the walls are short phrases and single words that become a poem. It’s an impressionistic insight into Akanbi’s thoughts and emotions, containing a sense of yearning and dreams. And because there’s space between the words, and it’s not just big blocks of text, you have space to make your own connections. Some people will probably still find it cheesy or ill-defined, and that’s OK, they can do them. Personally I like having agency to work it out.

Don’t mistake me here, though – this isn’t about us. The yearning is based upon Akanbi’s existence and desires. The flow of the patterns is interspersed with stand-alone works, which in this display context feel like essential interludes and punctuations. Each piece has its own self-contained story which is essential to the whole. Some bring reflections on racial identity, telling tales the inter-generational damage and trauma, but also of drawings strength from tradition and ancestry. These are the incidents and images which have defined the path this story takes. Don’t focus on them at the expense of the entire rest of the work, but do stop to reflect on your way.

There’s also the works where the patterns are pressed into concentrated spaces. These are particularly important on the “pink side”, about which I haven’t spoken yet. The leading patterns I’ve described to date only go around half the space, before both the colour and mood changes. If the thoughts before had been like a stream of occasionally punctuated consciousness, the “pink side” feels like a space where there’s more order, like answers or resolutions have been found. The cause of this change is labelled: ‘orgasmic release’. Though – and not wanting to deny that there’s a sexual quality to this, because of course there is – this term also seems to mean experiences adjacent to this obvious meaning, too. She spells as much out on two cloth banners which take up one wall, telling us of revelations both sexual and mundane. I think I know what she means: those moments which happen on rare occasion when the world makes sense and you feel absolute clarity about everything, just for a fleeting moment. Do you know what I mean?

I worry that I’ve made this show sound very narrative, whereas in practice it both is and isn’t. When I was there I read the banners very early on, then skipped back and forth between the walls. After a while of doing this I had this feeling like I have when I skip to the end of the book so find out how it ends. Doing that isn’t necessarily bad, because it takes away an impatience and a tension and then you can appreciate how the story is unfolds rather than wanting to rush through. The journey as well as the destination, you could say. That’s how I feel this works – like you can easily find out where it’s going, so you can enjoy how it gets there.

And on that journey the visual element is so crucial. That abundance I liked so much is necessary to pull you in, to get you looking closely, guiding you but absorbing you in its own right. These gorgeous visuals are then backed up with the substance I need, a story of desires and self-definitions which floats between being concrete and leaving space to wander and think for yourself. It was a lovely exhibition to spend time with and find empathy for.

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