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EXHIBITION Organic eye-openers

Drawing on elements such as seeds, pods and fruit stones, VERONICA RYAN'S works subtly reflect environmental and sociopolitical concerns, says Michal Boncza

Veronica Ryan: Along a Spectrum
Spike Island, Bristol

VERONICA RYAN is an outsider by circumstance as much as by choice. Born in Montserrat, she came to Britain as a child as part of the Windrush exodus.

When at the Bath Academy of Art, Ryan was the only black student for the first two years of her course. In a new environment, she would be noticed first and foremost for the colour of her skin and this would cause her considerable anxiety.

As she does now, she understood then that separateness is both sovereignty and independence and has resolutely resisted being pigeonholed.

Ryan’s visual sensibilities and the aesthetic idiom adopted for the free exhibition Along a Spectrum is a distillation of memories and contemporary experiences, as well as inherited narratives such as the history and culture of the Caribs of Alliouagana, the name of Montserrat before the calamitous arrival of Europeans.

Her work is vested with protective, talismanic or votive “wishes” — groups of soursop skins and cocoa pods cast in clay and glazed with volcanic ash from Alliouagana, mango seeds tenderly sown into protective cloth and held in a plastic net, replicating market-trade practice, or avocado stones gently tied into fabric, mimicking an inbound ocean tide.

She would have seen all of these as a child at Hackney’s Ridley Road Market, where she travelled by bus with her mum every week to meet her friends and to browse and buy fabric and threads as well as food supplies. “It wasn’t part of the male culture; it was where the women would spend time,” she said pointedly in a recent interview.

There is a tangible craft in her endeavours — she has taken cues from Cornish fishermen, whose net repairing techniques have informed the crocheted and knitted pieces and knots she uses. These “re-packagings,” loosely termed “sculptural assemblages,” do not offer complex allegory.

Instead, they summon the realities of a symbiotic integration of objects into everyday life, inspired by traditional practice of communities in Africa and the ancient Caribbean, which did not have a word for “art.”

In a pandemicised world turned upside down, where the truth —  or lack of it — is but another market commodity, Ryan’s work is a gentle invitation to pause, savour and reflect. Minimalist in form, it is non-confrontational in respecting boundaries, yet its familiar components deliver a subtle subliminal message.

She treasures the raw ingredients she incorporates in her work —  the seeds’ naturally elegant forms are not just symbolic representations of life in need of urgent protection, they simultaneously encapsulate human survival.

She elevates the ordinary to subtly scrutinise environmental and sociopolitical concerns through personal narratives, history and notions of displacement in what is thoughtful and immensely rewarding work.

Along a Spectrum runs until September 5, details: spikeisland.org.uk. Veronica Ryan’s Windrush Memorial commission for Hackney Council and Create London is due to be unveiled in October.

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