1 June 2021

Our critic's choice of London Gallery Weekend shows: South by Louise Buck for The Art Newspaper

Meet Jade Montserrat, the Black artist who took on the British art establishment

As her first major solo show opens at Bosse & Baum during London Gallery Weekend, we speak to the artist about her art, her activism and what it was like growing up in rural Yorkshire by Cristina Ruiz.

In December 2017, the artist Jade Montserrat posted a picture on her Instagram account, a selfie sent to her by her former patron Anthony d’Offay, one of the most high-profile figures in the British art world. Nearly ten years earlier, d’Offay had part-sold and part-gifted an extraordinary collection of contemporary art to Tate in London and the National Galleries of Scotland.

For this largesse, d’Offay was hailed as an extraordinarily generous benefactor. But the image posted by Monsterrat, which showed the retired dealer and collector peering into a mirror while holding a golliwog, led to allegations that there was another side to his character.

After Montserrat published the golliwog image, three other women who had worked for d’Offay came forward with accusations of sexual harassment which were published in the Observer newspaper in January 2018. Their accusations are strongly denied by d’Offay, who said he was “appalled” that they were being levelled against him.

The controversy which ensued eventually led to Tate severing its ties with the art patron over two-and-a-half years later; returning to him works of art which he had loaned to the institution and removing his name from the museum. This followed pressure from activist groups such as Industria who took up Montserrat’s cause and called for Tate to apologise to her for not responding to her repeated attempts to engage the gallery in dialogue about d’Offay.

“It has been an incredibly stressful time,” Montserrat says of the past few years. After all, it takes a brave emerging artist to take on publicly not just d’Offay but also Tate, one of the most influential museums in the world. But if Montserrat started her fight alone and isolated, through her activism and her art she has found a community of like-minded peers. “Now, I’m working with people who recognise one another’s strengths…it’s not about anyone exploiting anyone else; it feels like there’s always room for growth which is the opposite of what I initially experienced in the art world,” she says.

Most recently, solidarity for Montserrat has come from the artist collective Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) who published a statement just days after being nominated by Tate for the Turner Prize. In this, they highlight Montserrat’s experiences with the museum, among other issues. “How can a BPOC queer collective of artists and cultural workers be nominated for the [prize] whilst Black women artists continue to be silenced?”, they asked.

Montserrat was “moved” by and “grateful” for B.O.S.S’s statement. “Their demonstration of collectivity in this widest sense has energised my spirit. I trust it signals to others that supporting one another is what it’s about. This is what it looks like and brings comfort to others who feel alone in complaint, we are in it together…Thank you,” she wrote on Instagram when reposting the group’s statement.

Looking forward

Now, Montserrat is looking forward to her first solo show in a commercial gallery, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens, which opens on 5 June at Bosse & Baum in Peckham, as part of London Gallery Weekend. On display are around 30 watercolours and works on paper priced under £3,500, including depictions of nature which explore “our connection to the earth,” Montserrat says, as well as works on paper from a series she has made based on a photograph of her own torso. Each torso has been embellished by Montserrat, some with intricate African hairstyles, recalling the idea of enslaved women braiding native seeds into their hair before being forced onto transatlantic slave ships, others with decorations reminiscent of the gilded tunics of Catholic saints, “my mum is a lapsed Catholic,” she explains, and Montserrat herself was christened as a Catholic.

The exhibition takes its title from a 1972 essay by the American novelist Alice Walker in which she recounts the journey to the Southern United States of the poet Jean Toomer in the 1920s and his recollections of the Black women he met there, “so abused and mutilated in body, so dimmed and confused by pain, that they considered themselves unworthy even of hope…toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them, except as ‘the mule of the world.’” Montserrat has grappled with the meaning and implications of this essay “for years”, she says.

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Bosse & Baum