Since its opening in 2013 The Tetley has filled a unique niche within the Leeds art scene. It evolved out of the artist-led Project Space Leeds and now operates on a scale that defies this classification, offering a significant public platform for emerging artists to create work on an expansive scale. Leeds-native and recent Yale School of Art graduate Joseph Buckley is the artist currently being given this professional boost with ‘Brotherhood Tapestry’, his first solo exhibition in a public gallery in the UK. While there are numerous small pieces throughout the show, it is structured around three large new works, each dominating an individual room within The Tetley’s gallery space: the titular Brotherhood Tapestry (all works 2017), Psychic Armour for Black Northerners and Better Clone Sons.
Hung across three walls of the first room, Brotherhood Tapestry shows Buckley alongside some of his black peers from Yale; their photos line up to create, as the artist describes, a ‘conga line of betrayal’, each holding a matching pose where they simultaneously stab the person in front and are themselves stabbed in the back. The relative under-representation of black and other ethnic minority students within elite academic institutions is an ongoing issue in the UK as well as in the US, as both nations deal with continuing discrimination and historical ties to the slave trade. This was illustrated earlier this year at Yale when, after a long-running campaign from students, alumni and faculty members, the university announced that a college named for John C. Calhoun, former US Vice President and an ardent supporter of slavery, was to be renamed. Buckley’s piece seems to address the idea that his and his peers’ attendance at such a school is a betrayal of their blackness or, perhaps more directly, that securing a place as a rarefied student-of-colour involves stabbing others in the back.
Psychic Armour for Black Northerners continues Buckley’s interest in the way that his blackness conflicts with other aspects of his identity: in this case, as someone from the north of England. In England, the stereotypical northerner is inevitably white, so it is not surprising that Buckley makes manifest the mental defences that black northerners construct to protect their identities from cultural homogenization. The work itself takes the form of a wall of concrete blocks topped by a row of three armoured heads, draped in red raincoats, with the medieval design of the helmets informed by research Buckley undertook at Leeds’ Royal Armouries. As sculpture it is a work of brute force: a seven-foot-tall concrete wall that blocks the viewer’s access to half the room. The addition of the raincoats is a subtler touch, adding a protective layer against the notoriously rainy northern climate.
Better Clone Sons is again informed by Buckley’s research at the Royal Armouries, with a trio of armoured figures mounted on the gallery wall. Their slightly skewed proportions, milky-white silicone skin and faint tufts of eyebrow hair make for an uncanny presence. However, this piece appears to lack the social context of the other two commissions, which is palpable in their titles, accompanying texts and the works themselves; or, if such context is there, neither the artist nor the gallery articulate it for the viewer. Buckley, of course, has no obligation to exclusively make socially informed work, but the more enigmatic Better Clone Sons is left feeling as though it’s excluded from the broader narrative that the artist presents.
Main image: Joseph Buckley, Brotherhood Tapestry, 2017, digitally printed vinyl banner, 1.5 × 11.9 m
First published in Issue 191