The Feast Wagon features Lubaina Himid & Susan Walsh, Simeon Barclay and Delaine Le Bas
7 October 2015 – 10 January 2016
I’m incredibly proud that this visually rich and rewarding exhibition is one of the last projects I co-curated at The Tetley, alongside Zoë Sawyer and Leeds-based researcher Irfan Shah.
The project began in conversation with Irfan, whose meticulous research into Louis Le Prince (begun for The First Film, the 2015 documentary directed by David Wilkinson) had led him to John Robinson Whitley, Le Prince’s brother-in-law and the Yorkshireman responsible for bringing Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West Show’ to England for the first time in 1887. Robinson, an industrialist whose factory stood just yards from the Tetley Brewery site on Hunslet Road in south Leeds, created ‘The American Exhibition of the Arts, Inventions, Manufactures, Products and Resources of the United States,’ staged on a patch of central London wasteland. This was the nascent showground later known as Earl’s Court.
At the heart of the ‘American Exhibition’ lay the Wild West Show, which made an early pin-up of its architect William F. Cody, the self-styled ‘Buffalo Bill’. Irfan’s research delves into this fascinating late Victorian environment where Indians and cowboys rubbed shoulders with the English monarchy and the country’s political and cultural elite.
My interest in this little-known story and the entrepreneurial figure of John Whitley lay in how we could use this story of cultural exchange to think through movement as an agent of change, and to add to the discourse around the arrival of British Art Show 8 in Leeds this October. The British Art Show definitely travels from London to the regions: it originates with the Hayward Gallery in London, and its curators and many of the artists are based in the capital. Its tour of the regions is not unlike the Wild West Show’s tour of England and Europe following its London premiere in 1887. But Robinson’s story encapsulates some neat reversals, bringing American culture with him from New York (where he first encountered Cody) to London via Yorkshire. His invention of the large-scale spectaculars at Earl’s Court instigated a model of mass entertainment as education that still echoes today, and fixed an image of the American west in the popular imagination that lingered almost to the end of the 20th Century. Completing the circle, Leeds Art Gallery opened in 1888, raised by subscription in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the previous year, the year she herself attended the Wild West Show. Leeds Art Gallery is, of course, the host for the opening of British Art Show 8 in a few days’ time. How important are ideas of nationhood in considering contemporary art, and what is ‘British’ anyway, are just some of the questions its presence will raise.
The to and fro of these exchanges (between London and the regions, between high- and low-brow culture, between nations) lies at the heart of The Feast Wagon project. Movement and exchange carry the potential for reinvention and advancement, by individuals as well as groups and entire societies. Those who would seek to close our boundaries to Syrian migrants fleeing across Europe are blind to the fact that exchange between cultures has always been fundamental to the development of human society.
The participating artists were asked to respond to this cacophony of historical detail with its endlessly circular spin-off stories, fascinating coincidences and larger-than-life personalities. Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh immediately found a link to an earlier aborted project sparked by their interest in Le Prince’s 1888 footage of carts crossing Leeds Bridge. Their installation of DIY carts painted with ‘exotic’ beasts in The Tetley’s atrium both suggests the possibility of individual choice, and simultaneously invites collective agency – visitors may animate and move some of the carts to create new relationships and configurations. Roma artist Delaine Le Bas has found a way in through her ongoing project looking at how the figure of the ‘gypsy’ is imagined, defiled and despised in popular culture; and Simeon Barclay has found resonance in the self-mythologising of both William F. Cody and John Robinson Whitley as early examples of how burgeoning pop cultural forms (mass entertainment, advertising, pulp fiction) could be deployed to fashion the ‘celebrity’. He cleverly links these to male icons of more recent times including Albert Finney, Bryan Ferry and Eric Cantona.
The resulting commissions employ large-scale sculptural installation, collage and text works throughout The Tetley’s gallery spaces and outside on the Brewery Green, and Susan Walsh’s double-ended cart collages will also be seen in expanded form across a series of billboard sites linking the north and south of the city throughout the exhibition.
All are welcome at the launch of The Feast Wagon at The Tetley on Thursday 8th October from 4-6pm.