with Emily Butler
‘I really love the films that I unpick, and I see this as critical affection – through recasting and restaging the protagonists that I work with. They come back, they have a voice, they are politically astute, and they have agency.’
Listen to the full interview here:
My name is Michelle Williams Gamaker, and I’m an artist working in moving image. I’ve been delving into my love of cinema, specifically 1930s and 40s Hollywood and British studio productions. As a young teenager, I watched televised cinema classics and I tried to find myself in these stories. In hindsight, this was an impossible task and at best I could only find myself in marginalised characters. I decided to respond with what I would call a critical affection. I really loved the films that I tried to unpick, and most notably, Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 Black Narcissus, and I see this as critical affection. I recast and restage the brown protagonists that I work with and they are also fictional activists to me. They come back, they have a voice, they are politically astute, and they have agency.
What are you showing in The London Open 2022?
I’ll be showing my film, The Bang Straws (2021). The film explores the casting discrimination of a Chinese-American actress called Anna May Wong, who wanted to play the role of O-Lan, the farmer’s wife in Sidney Franklin’s 1937 film, The Good Earth. Unfortunately, because of something called the Hays Code, which effectively meant that no actor of colour could star alongside a white lead in a romantic role, she was denied that and offered a much lesser role as a sex worker, which she refused.
This work tracks how Anna May Wong, who was an iconic figure, was discriminated against in the casting process. Can you tell us how you devised the text? Is it drawn on archival material, or is this scripted?
The way I tend to work when I’m scripting is I first try to get very close to the source materials, so that obviously means watching the original film, The Good Earth. I did a lot of research into Anna May Wong’s film career and I also spent time working with my performer, Dahong Wang, who had a history, like O-Lan, of her family having an agricultural past, just as I have in my family. Together we tried to navigate both the kind of space that the character of the farmer’s wife O-Lan, which Anna May wanted to play, with the idea of the land. The questions I’m dealing with are who has the right to perform and who can be a film star? I also wanted to negotiate some of the experiences Dahong had as a student in London experiencing racism institutionally and on the street. I also wanted to relate to the materiality and special effects of The Good Earth, which is an incredible epic production, staging a constructed version of rural China by shooting on a ranch in LA.
There’s scene during a storm. Holding what look like wheat grasses, ‘bang the straws, bang the straws’ is repeated, which is where the title presumably comes from. Can you tell us about the significance of the title?
The term the bang straws is not in use anymore. It’s a somewhat redundant term for labourers who used to thresh the grain in a farming context. I came across this because I was thinking about the straw. The actress who was given the role was a German-American-Austrian actress called Luise Rainer. And there’s this incredible storm sequence where she’s collecting wheat, and she gets covered from head to toe in the straw. At this point, for me, this was just great visual metaphor for something that I’m exploring in my work, which is a question of gender and race representation. Who gets who gets to play and star in films? And as a result, who gets to make them? So, I was thinking also of myself. It seems that even Luise Rainer’s body was swapped out for a stuntman too in that sequence. I wanted so much to create the storm sequence. Essentially, the moment where Dahong is holding the wheat grasses is hopefully moment of empowerment. I couldn’t create the complete engulfing of her body, but I also realised that I didn’t want to. Dahong described the suit that was made for the shoot as her sanctuary. She felt quite protected within it, and even though in the film you’ll see that she eventually slumps to the ground. I’d like to keep that quite ambiguous about why she falls, it’s not that she’s overpowered by the wind, but suggests that there is an exhaustion with the system she finds herself performing within.
Work in the exhibition:
The Bang Straws, 2021
Michelle Williams Gamaker (b. 1979, London, UK)
2012 PhD Fine Art, Goldsmiths, University of London
2006 MA Visual Anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London
2003 De Ateliers, Amsterdam
2001 BA Fine Art (First Class Hons), Middlesex University
1998 BTEC Diploma Art & Design, Middlesex University
Selected exhibitions: Exploratory Drawings, Maximillian William, London (2022); I Multiply Each Day, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland (2021); The Silver Wave, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter x (solo) (2020); Film London Jarman Award Tour: Aemi, Dublin, The MAC, Belfast, Whitechapel Weekend Film, Towner Eastbourne, g39, Cardiff, B3, Frankfurt, Spike Island, Nottingham Contemporary, LUX Scotland (2020); Distant Relative Tintype, London (solo) (2019); Women, Power, Protest, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (2018); Emma and Edvard, Love in the Time of Loneliness (with Mieke Bal) Munch Museet, Oslo (2017); The Importance of Being a (Moving) Image, The National Gallery, Prague (2015)
What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?
This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.
Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.
The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.
The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.
The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.
Gallery 1, Downstairs
The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.
Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.
Gallery 9, Upstairs
This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free 2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.
Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.
Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?
Gallery 8, Upstairs
The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.
Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.
On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.
The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.
Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.
See the full list of works here.
An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.
Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.