Talk of the Town: Rita Keegan artist and archivist

A famed Lambeth-based artist and archivist is back with her first exhibition in 15 years, writes Peter Lane.

Unseen since 2006, the firebrand black feminist Rita Keegan from arty enclave Bonnington Square in Vauxhall  was  a  key  figure  in  the  Black  Arts Movement.

But now, Keegan is going through a renaissance starting with a new exhibition at the South London Gallery.

The exhibition Somewhere between There and Here takes a critical look at how black history is recorded through her own family’s past.

Cherry-picking from Keegan’s five decades of work, paintings, prints, historical artefacts and sculptures come together in new and reimagined works across the three floors of the South London Gallery’s Fire Building.

On the ground floor, making use of an inherited family photo album dating back to 1880, Keegan intersperses images of her prim Victorian family with manacled slaves, centred around a looming robed figure.

The piece, Social Fabric, tells the story of Keegan’s family history from its genesis while highlighting the difference between textbook black history and her own knowledge of it.

Keegan said: “It was looking at the anniversary of Columbus and his discovery of the New World.

“And as I was taking apart the concept I realised that I, as a person, could not exist without that historical intervention, because there’s a Native American.

“I could not exist without that intervention. So I took that history as my history.

“But there is that other side of it too. There is the proposed history, and then there’s another history.

History is written by the conquerors.”

Walking around the blend of images in front of the spectral figure, surrounded by screens you get the sensation there are limitless angles and possibilities to view her work.

As Keegan coyly notes in an audio recording that accompanies the piece: “It gives you surprises. It’s not always easy to get surprises.”

One floor up, family portraits concealing hints of her ancestors past hang next to collages made using only a photocopier  at  Brixton-based  art  group  CopyArt,  a  group she co-founded in 1984.

The final gallery offers a glimpse into the Rita Keegan Archive including paintings from her cousin, the British painter Keith Simon, and a short documentary by the ‘family historian’.

Keegan, originally from the Bronx, moved to London in 1980.

While living in Brixton, she was involved in the black civil rights movement and was pivotal in the formation of the Brixton Art Gallery, curating their first show by collective Black Women Artist, Mirror Reflecting Darkly, also the name of Keegan’s most recent book.

Since the 1990s Keegan has dedicated her time to collating and organising an archive of her life spanning the black arts movement and Soho nightlife.

Housed at the Goldsmiths library, it exists as a time capsule of an era as seen through the lens of Rita Keegan.

Somewhere between There and Here is free at the South London Gallery Fire Station until November 28.


Pictured: Rita Keegan, Lambeth-based artist and archivist



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