They seem to operate in the area that blurs the boundaries between art and craft while, at the same time, giving space to artists from Africa, Asia, and South America. Not so much to redress a historical imbalance but because they're often bloody good artists.
The theme of Transvangarde (it's in its 35th year but was something I'd never heard of before) is migration, never not a hot topic. All artists showing have migrated from one country to another - as many artists - and many more non-artists do. Other than that there's not necessarily a lot that lumps the artists together so, whilst admiring the noble idea behind the curation, when arriving at the gallery there's little to do but to assess each work on its own merits. There's a few books on a shelf near the door you can turn to for reference but there's very little in the way of information otherwise. The October Gallery is such an informal joint that it seems the best way to find out about the art and those that made it is simply just ask somebody. I've been there twice and on both occasions have fallen easily into conversation with staff members or volunteers (a line that, here, seems to be just as blurred as that between art and craft).
The work that jumped out at me most was Alexis Peskine's Power. Made of gold leaf, coffee, water, and wood, and, most noticeably, nails it's an astonishingly powerful piece. On a very basic level it looks like a greatly enlarged version of one of those executive toys you press your face into to leave a slightly uncanny likeness of yourself. In a way it is that - but it's more than that too. The power of the title doesn't infer, to me, a physical power but a mental one. The type that's needed to survive in a country where some of the locals don't seem to want you there.
Peskine's a late thirties French artist who works in the US. One grandfather, Boris, a Jewish engineer survived a concentration camp and another, Antonio, was an Afro Brazilian carpenter who grew up in inner city Salvador, Brazil. His mixed heritage and his own experience have clearly informed both his art and his way of making it. The recent Michael Armitage show at the South London Gallery, as well as conversations about it with my flatmate Misa, made me realise that the materials an artwork is made from can tell just as much of a story as the art itself. It was good to be able to make good on that new knowledge so quickly.
Alexis Peskine - Power (2017)
Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga - Reve Brise (2017)
Two of my other favourite pieces at Transvangarde were Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga's Reve Brise and Sokari Douglas Camp's Pistachio Girls. Ilunga, a Congolese artist still in his twenties, has used more traditional methods than either Peskine or Camp, but what he's done with them are equally eye catching. Much like Morocco's Hassan Hajjaj he's combined traditional African elements (here the dress of the Mangbetu people) with more typical Western art techniques to find a surprisingly easy truce between the two. The picture may be sad but the art is anything but.
The Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp has combined steel and actual pistachio tins to create this pair of dancing 'Pistachio Girls'. Like Ilunga she's taken inspiration from her African heritage (in Camp's case, Kalabari) and this work seems to look back, lovingly, from her home in London to the Niger Delta where she grew up. It's been quite a journey and Camp nearly ended up providng an anti-war installation for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth before being honoured with a CBE two years later in 2005.
Alongside Camp, Ilunga, and Peskine the photography of Ghana's James Barnor comes out a little wanting. A Google image search suggests that he's capable of much better, think along the lines of Malick Sidibe, so here's hoping that someone somewhere, Somerset House would be an obvious choice, find time in their schedules to dedicate a show to a fuller assessment of his oeuvre.
Sokari Douglas Camp - Pistachio Girls (2017)
James Barnor - Erlin Ibreck at Trafalgar Square, ed 1/10 (1966/67)
El Anatsui - Avocado Coconut Egg (ACE) (2016)
El Anatsui (another Ghanaian though one who has mostly worked in Nigeria thus nicely providing a bridge between James Barnor and Sokari Douglas Camp) is noted for making art from bottle tops. That's not how he's rocking Transvangarde though. Here he's using aluminium and copper wire (and, in a coda to the show I'd have missed had I not opted to go for a security wee before heading off to the Bridget Riley exhibition in Mayfair, chopped wood) to make impressive, yet politically impenetrable, works. To be frank I've work to do before I can get my head round what motivates El Anatsui and what so many see in his work.
If El Anatsui is one of the more familiar names here then Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is probably the most infamous. As chief mischief maker and frontman of both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV he's an almost legendary figure in the history of both post-punk and industrial music. Despite there always being an element of visual art to those acts I'm not sure I've seen any of Gen's actual artwork before (though I did once check out some of Cosey Fanni Tutti's explorations of pornography as art in the name of, cough, research) and looking at Snoflakes DNA from 2008 it doesn't look like I'm missing out. It's fun to think of Michelangelo pasting this on the Sistine Chapel ceiling but, really, when you're the man responsible for both Hamburger Lady and Godstar some naked women floating in the clouds doesn't really cut it.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge - Snoflakes DNA (Clouds) AP1 (2008)
Romuald Hazoume - Noosa (2016)
I actually preferred Romuald Hazoume's Noosa - and that's just a petrol can with a couple of brushes sticking out of it affixed to the wall. Hazoume's from Benin and this, compared to a lot of his work, is a very small scale piece. The mopeds, vases, and upturned boats that feature recurrently throughout the rest of his work suggest he's an artist, even more so than James Barnor, who is crying out for a bigger show in London. Inequality, black market labour, and modern day slavery are his themes and these are important themes for the times we're living in that, sadly, look likely to only become more vital in the forthcoming years. I think, and I hope, Hazoume is an artist we'll be seeing a lot more of.
You can't say that for Brion Gysin - because he died over thirty years ago. Gysin was born in Taplow, Buckinghamshire in 1916 and is probably best known for inventing the cut-up technique that his friend William S Burroughs used. Before that, however, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and exhibited with Picasso, Duchamp, Magritte, Man Ray, Ernst, Dali, de Chirico, Arp, Miro, Tanguy, Bellmer, and Brauner. He mixed with the big names of the last century, that's for sure, and if his art is not as immediately impressive as some of those names it's got a quiet confidence that has stood the test of time very well and holds its own in a room surrounded by more contemporary artists and their sometimes grand, if thankfully not grandiloquent, gestures.
Brion Gysin - Black Dancers (1968)
Tian Wei - Gaze (2017)
Not that you could accuse either Tian Wei or Sylvie Franquet of the grand gesture. Quite the opposite. Xi'an born Wei seems to be playing on Chinese calligraphy as well as that country's love of all things gold (see China's love of the gold iPhone, something generally viewed as tacky here) but closer inspection shows his works actually spell out simple English words. It's not as neat a trick as it likes to think it is but it's aesthetically pleasing.
Franquet's very different style is also easy on the eye. As much a celebration of traditional 'women's' work as it is a celebration of migration or internationalism. Golnaz Fathi, on the other hand, has moved into traditional 'men's' work. The Tehran born artist is one of only a few women trained to the highest level of discipline in Persian calligraphy. It's a pity the curators have decided to place her work behind a kitchen sink and two thirds up quite a high wall.
Sylvie Franquet - Rapture Means Being Taken Into The Clouds (2014)
Golnaz Fathi - Untitled (25) (2013)
Alexis Peskine - Timbuktu (2017)
Fathi and Govinda Sah 'Azad' are far from the stars of the show but their quiet introspective additions provide the space for the louder works, not everything can shout. 'Azad' (Lion Heart), as he's been dubbed, was born in Rajbiraj in Nepal in 1974 and worked as a sign board painter in Delhi in his teenage years. The two works he's exhibiting here are pretty abstractions that flesh out the show rather than add anything particularly new to it.
Govinda Sah 'Azad' - Nothing/All/Matter (2016)
Govinda Sah 'Azad' - Cloudy Sky (2017)
At least, unlike Fathi and Kenji Yoshida, he's not had his work put somewhere you can't see it properly. The October Gallery is a charming place and it's its ramshackle nature that provides plenty of that charm but surely they could hang a work somewhere you can see it without having to move a table and chairs out of the way!?
The Japanese artist is listed on Wikipedia as having died in 2003 and his Inochi to Helwa is dated one year after that so if it's not the most impressive work to look at in the show (and it isn't) its creation story is one that surely deserves retelling.
If you've got a spare $38,000 it's yours too. Some, many, of these works are for sale and they range from James Barner's photos at £1,600 right up to Peskine's modern masterpiece at $75,000 (and likely to rise I'd wager). Why some are marked out in dollars and others in pounds who knows. But it's hardly the most fascinating thing about a small, but surprisingly accomplished, show that tells us, in no uncertain terms, that great art is great art no matter where it comes from. Or, for that matter, where it goes.
Kenji Yoshida - Inochi to Helwa (Life and Peace) (2004)
El Anatsui - Monument (1996)