For barrister-turned-gallerist Emma Menell, the route from one career to another has been unconventional yet, paradoxically, completely logical. Raised in South Africa, her career in law went hand-in-hand with activism as she took the helm of the South African Journal on Human Rights, before choosing London to launch Tyburn, her first gallery.
Uniquely for London, the gallery seeks to promote young and established artists from emerging countries, with the owner citing the city’s infrastructure and status as a centre for global contemporary art as critical factors. Factoring in Menell’s own experience and curatorial advisor Kim Stern’s expertise in the continent, the gallery has used Africa as a jumping off point for its inaugural exhibition 'Broken English'.
The exhibition investigates the categorisation and very concept of cultural identity in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, working with a well-travelled range of artists who have referenced their own cross-cultural experiences to question traditional notions of nationality as other continents and cultures have dominated the global cultural narrative through tradition and social media.
The artists – several commissioned specifically for the show – have worked across performance, video and photography, often using explorations into alter egos, myth, misinterpretation and storytelling to convey their message. Angolan-born photographer Edson Chagas’ series Oikonomos displays the artist with a mass-produced shopping bag over his head, a performative act exemplifying the erosion of personal identity by global consumerism. Meanwhile, Tunisian artist Mouna Karray’s powerful series Noir deals with issues of confinement, wrapping herself in a white sheet with only her hand visible to release a shutter. A metaphor for imprisonment, her act demonstrates the power individuals still possess to act under duress.
Menell has been plain in seeking to raise the profile of contemporary African artists to stand alongside their international peers. ‘My experience of art and artists across Africa led me to want to promote a deeper critical understanding of the work’, she explains. ‘The artists with whom we are working are increasingly visible in the institutional circuits of museums and biennales, but have lacked representation in London. The intention is for the place to intersect with the works to affect the meaning, so that England itself becomes a central protagonist to the issues discussed.’