Rachel Gadsden's commission 'Unlimited Global Alchemy' was part of the Southbank Centre's Unlimited festival. Nicole Fordham Hodges was moved by the paintings' dance of 'fragility and hope'.
'Unlimited Global Alchemy' was born of a chance encounter between Gadsden and a body-map painting by Nondumiso Hlwela. Gadsden identified so strongly with the painting's 'fragility and hope' that she began a search to track down its artist.
Her search led her to the artist-activist Bambanini (Unity) group in South Africa, artists living with HIV, who ' fight openly for life in the face of social taboos.' Her six week residency in Khayelitsha township led to this moving, living body of artwork.
'I found you' ( mixed media on stretched velvet) maps the journey to find Nondomiso as well as mapping Gadsden's own health journey. It includes Gadsden depicted as a wise big-eyed girl,a representation of her lungs, a plan of a hospital, the names of drugs. It includes inner and outer, other and self, physical and spiritual. This painting expands to contain all the artist has to give. It's like an expressive dance. As Gadsden stitches on the painting in red thread: 'my vision gets bigger and bigger.'
Gadsden repeats anatomical gestures which swirl off into sweeping movements: something beyond. Open, meditative hand gestures, for example. They talk of our common physicality and its beauty. They also seems to speak of an artists practice: a grace in repetition which moves off into inspiration. Gadsden repeats the circles of knees, often stitching over them in red: a circle of life and vitality repeated in the red ribbon of HIV.
The stitched names of the Bambanini in the title painting 'Unlimited Global Alchemy' are permanent marks of identity: the painting is dedicated to Nomonde Khundayi, a member of the group who passed away. Is it her face looking directly out of the painting, not in defiance but in direct unashamed humanity? Other figures are in the entanglement of relationship, legs and feet pushing forward in unity. Again red circles stitched around knees mirror the red ribbon which is leaking red. Red drips around figures, vital and fresh: hope in fragility.
Gadsden's portraits of the Bambanini group have a melting-ness of stroke and feature. Drips of paint show faces captured in the process of Being. They seem to be made of feelings. They are granted the space to be fragile. Touches of gold in the hair hint at the value of the human. The portraits have a gently direct gaze. They are facing up to something and the viewer is asked to face up to it too.
As Gadsden says: 'What we fear is our own fragility, or disability; and yet any of us who live a long life will have some form of disability towards the end; we all become more fragile.'
In a small group of paintings entitled ' Series' Gadsden captures the pattern of our bodies' movements. In 'Strong Man of Khayelitsha I ' the long powerful limbs are echoed with expressive sweeps of red. The red swirl encircling 'Adowa I' echoes the circles in our joints and moves the idea outwards towards our invisible circle of influence. We spread ourselves outwards with our being – with our art and our creations on earth – this is our strength and vitality.
This collection is an inspirational call to the artist in all of us, from people who know that our time on earth is precious and limited. As Gadsden writes: ' I have an opportunity and lifetime ambition to create a body of work that says what I really want to say.' Or in the words of Noloyiso Balintulo on her self-portrait: ' Let's show others how healthy and capable we are.'
For further details about Unlimited Global Alchemy please go to www.unlimitedglobalalchemy.com/home