A beautiful young man lounges on a zebra-skin sofa, reading books on performance theory and aesthetics. Lines of poetry cover the walls around him alongside gorgeous assemblages of flowers, photos of black bodies and a small collection of colourful, complex shrines.
No, it’s not a real life perfume ad. This is the aesthetic world of young English designer Grace Wales Bonner. She’s a unique voice in modern fashion, exploring ideas of identity and mysticism through her work, and she’s been given free rein to fill the Serpentine Sackler gallery with the objects, books, music and art that inspire her.
In the hands of most people, the result would be almost unbearably tedious. But something about this works.
The main themes are black identity and ritual mysticism. She’s got brilliant young American artist Eric N Mack to create swooping tent-like assemblages of mismatched fabrics, like patchwork quilts you can live in. She’s collected sculptures by David Hammons of hairy rocks and jars of flies and photos by Rotimi Fani-Kayode of nude black figures.
Shrines litter the space. Musician Laraaji’s is all orange and mystical, photographer Liz Johnson Artur’s is filled with images of tribal masks and chunks of wood. Wales Bonner’s own is covered in books by Ben Okri and art tomes about magical realism in West Africa.
Taking all this in, existing for a few moments in Wales Bonner’s universe, you start to figure out her visual life. It’s one full of beauty, black aesthetics and African history, of culture and art as forces to overwhelm and define you. It almost makes you want to run home and build your own shrine, to define your own aesthetic universe.
There’s no bigger contemporary insult than describing someone as a ‘creative’. It paints a picture of some aimless, privileged Shoreditch numpty with a collection of vintage beanies lecturing you about Sartre. But Grace Wales Bonner is a creative, a real one, no insult intended. Right here, she’s setting a precedent for what that means in 2019: she’s ignoring the boundaries between art and fashion and music and design, and just making. I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of those boundaries being so utterly decimated. And that’s pretty exciting.