Karen McLean: BLUE POWER // Ar'n't I a Woman!

20th May – 12th June 2021
Thurs – Sat 11-5pm

Exhibition Essay by Candice Nembhard: please click here 

Exhibition Essay by Gill Perry: please click here

Interview with Karen McLean for Make it in Brixton: please click here

Interview with Karen McLean for Black Blossoms Journal by Tammi Bello: please click here

Interview with Karen McLean by Oriana Fox: please click here 

Art Fictions Episode ‘Bold Resilience and Rightful Restoration’ Guest Artist Karen McLean: please click here

Block 336 presents two major installations by Birmingham-based, Trinidadian artist Karen McLean: BLUE POWER and Ar’n’t I a Woman!, bringing together two years worth of work. Informed by the artist’s experience of growing up in the Caribbean in the 1960s, McLean’s powerful sculptural work explores the symbolic and historical weight of materials and interrogates their relationship to Britain’s colonial legacy. 

The choice of materials and creative processes is critical throughout all of McLean’s work. In Ar’n’t I a Woman! the hessian sacking not only references the trade of capital wares but also acts as a metaphor for the womb and its commodification, as the site of the production of children born into slavery. In BLUE POWER, bars of blue carbolic soap are held within the eighty crosses in the installation, incorporating the cleaning agent commonly used in the Caribbean, which is also believed to ward off bad omens. 

The first work presented, Ar’n’t I a Woman!, platforms the lost histories of enslaved* Black women and speaks about their bodies as sites of oppression and resistance. The work’s title references Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ speech, delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention held in Ohio. Truth continued to speak out for the rights of African Americans and women during and after the Civil War. McLean’s work follows Truth, creating space for enslaved women, honouring their resilience and restoring the respect and humanity they were robbed of. 

A corridor of hand-sewn hessian sacks is presented, featuring striking, graphic depictions of the uterus repeated across its surface. Using their knowledge of abortifacient plants, enslaved women would terminate pregnancies as a way of taking control of their own reproduction, preventing their unborn child from being born into slavery. McLean’s work speaks about the radical as well as everyday acts of resistance. The names of enslaved women are stitched across the piece, with McLean reestablishing them with the prefix ‘Miss’, a term originally reserved for white women only. 

The images on the sacking were created by screen printing and branding; the branding utilised in particular as a way of accessing and reclaiming some of the violence and trauma that the work references. The stitching together of the hessian alludes to African-American quilt making traditions, embodying the knowledge of a craft that has been passed on through generations of women, whilst evoking notions of reparation and care. 3D printed models of Anansi, the West African trickster spider that has become symbolic of the struggles of enslaved Africans, crawl over the work. Gold plated beaded chains and cowrie shells adorn the hanging sculptures in the middle room that have been branded on one side and screen printed on the other. Ar’n’t I a Woman! is made in solidarity with the women it honours, telling their stories and foregrounding their strength. 

BLUE POWER, presented in the main gallery space, is a significant expansion of a work first presented at ORT Gallery, Birmingham in 2018. The large-scale installation references the folklore, superstition and syncretic religious practices invoked in the Caribbean for the purposes of protection against ‘evil’, such as the islands’ growing murder rates, which are underpinned by the sustained inequalities in Caribbean societies. Eighty wooden crosses are displayed in the midst of twelve thousand origami boats, each one individually made and hand-folded by the artist and her assistants, and installed by local young people. The boats not only reference displacement and migration but also the thousands of enforced voyages of the transatlantic slave trade. Each cross is filled with bars of ‘Blue Power’, carbolic soap, the work’s namesake, traditionally used to clean clothes as well as being hung over doors to rid people and places of bad spirits. 

Memorial-like and monumental in its installation, the work references the lost lives of young Caribbean men, to the drug trade in particular. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, BLUE POWER takes on new layers of meaning. This work highlights the historic and systemic issues which continue to globally disadvantage Black people and put them at risk. The installation reflects on the imperative of finding new solutions to colonialism’s long lasting impact. The exhibition includes a newly commissioned text by writer, poet, artist and creative producer Candice Nembhard and a text by Professor Gill Perry, as well as two artist talks that are open to the public. 

Block 336 thanks Arts Council England, Lambeth Council, We Are 336, Walsall Council, New Art Gallery Walsall, STEAMhouse and Brixton Brewery for their kind support.

*The verb ‘enslaved’ is used here rather than the noun ‘slave’, following Professor Deborah Gray White who states that ‘enslaved’ says more about what happened to Black people rather than unwittingly describing the sum total of who they were. She describes how ‘enslaved’ forces us to think about the fact Black men and women were Africans or African Americans before they were forced into slavery and had a new – and denigrating – identity assigned to them.

View the list of works here

Karen McLean’s multidisciplinary practice is informed by her experience of growing up in the Caribbean during the 1960s. Through a variety of media, she explores themes of displacement, identity, capitalism and ethics, home, ideologies, modernism and globalisation. McLean has shown work at ORT Gallery, Birmingham; Lewisham Arthouse, London; BNP Architects, Birmingham and more.