In a London taxi, I listened with one ear as my driver, who was from Congo, assured me that Ebola was invented in US government laboratories. ‘They want to get rid of all of us,’ he said, matter-of-factly. On the radio, an announcer droned on about an alarming epidemic of knife crime across the city. One caller blamed immigrant parents for failing to discipline their children because ‘they lack discipline themselves’. I flashed back to a moment eight years ago, in which another caller, on another radio show, offered the same nugget of wisdom as riots shook London and other cities. The subtext both times, not even thinly veiled, was that foreigners are a blight, an intrinsic threat to peace and public order. This time around, the spectre of Brexit loomed.
In the US, where I live, President Donald Trump has suggested that four Democratic congresswomen who are at odds with his policies should ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came’. The fact that only one of the four, Ilhan Omar, was actually born outside the US, in Somalia, is no matter to this president, who views facts as niggling details. Roadblocks at odds with his magical thinking.
At the southern border of the US, men, women and children desperate to grasp a better life have been teargassed with canisters sold by a company that is owned by a board member at a prominent American museum. It can be said that the gassed are being told, in no ambiguous terms, to go back to where they came from. One artist pulls out of a signal museum exhibition in protest. Many others sign a letter expressing indignation. The museum trustee, meanwhile, holds his ground and decries the ‘politicization of every aspect of public life’. Following a string of protests, one especially poignant letter by three public intellectuals and the subsequent pulling out of several more artists, he finally capitulates and resigns after a months-long campaign. Still, his message of Art for Art’s sake lingers. An art evacuated of stakes.
All of this reverberated as I walked through Frank Bowling’s first major retrospective at Tate Britain. Bowling, an octogenarian Englishman of Guyanese origin, lived in that former British colony until the age of 19. London has been his home since, but so, too, has New York, where he spent an extended season in the 1960s and ’70s. Bowling’s canvases are marked by hallucinogenic washes of paint in the abstract-expressionist idiom, inspired reworkings of colour field painting. Fuchsia, maroon, orange, pink and green ooze, trickle, seep. There is no zone of pure colour. Colour begets colour begets cacophony of colour.
Bowling’s own zigzag peregrinations – from colony to metropole to metropole – are not unfamiliar, thanks to the pressures of war, capital and other things. Standing in front of his recent painting El Dorado with My Shirt Collar (2019), its title a riff on the gold-filled city of lore that first drew loot-hungry European explorers to South America, my eyes settle on a strip of black fabric. I Google ‘Bowling’ and find an image of a dandy, resplendent in elder age. I Google more and learn that his mother was a dressmaker. This seems fitting. His paintings are stitched together from mishmash constituent parts.
At Tate Britain, one room in particular made me gasp. It was home to Bowling’s ‘map paintings’: large, chromatically intense canvases made in the late 1960s in New York, marked by stencil traces of continents – Australia, South America, Africa. Notably, there is no Northern Hemisphere. Moody eruptions of pigment evoke the liquid geography of the sea, but also hint toward a murky expanse riven with secrets and dislocations. One painting is titled Middle Passage (1970), after the journey taken by slave ships from West Africa to the West Indies. Its stencilling is hazy, indistinct, hard to place or identify. It’s an ambiguity, I suspect, that is purposeful.
‘Go back to where you came from.’ What does that mean for any of us? What would it mean for Bowling, whose cosmopolitanism is writ large in his art? Does it mean Africa, where his ancestors hailed from? Guyana, where they were probably once vassals? New York City? Or Pimlico, where he has lived longer than anywhere else on earth? The paint dribbles in every direction.
Main image: Frank Bowling, ‘Frank Bowling’, 2019, installation view, Tate Britain, London; photograph: Tate Photography, Matt Greenwood
First published in Issue 206