Something Bigger

By Steph Jones

Religious, spiritual, or simply agnostic we can probably all agree there is something bigger ‘out there’ whether that be a god or a galaxy. A journey of self-discovery can come in many forms and will be different for each of us, some choose to explore their belief in higher powers through varying forms of creativity. From catholic displays of biblical tales in the form of fresco art and the embellished dress of the clergy to the Rastafarian Nyabinghi music used to reach states of heightened spirituality, creativity is a way of understanding our own identities, cultures, and heritage.  

American Installation artist Theaster Gates explores materiality and spirituality in his new exhibition ‘A Clay Sermon’. Looking at the spiritual legacies of clay, being those sculptures, vessels or the ground we walk on. Connecting his relationship with God and the church to his architectural past, Gates draws parallels between the craftmanship of clay by a potter and humanity by God.  

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The exhibition will show at Whitechapel Gallery in London displaying an overview of his clay works, from early hand thrown pieces to afro-mingei sculptures from recent years, each looking at the historical and cultural roots of the material. A film made during his residency at the Archie Bray Foundation is played upstairs followed by a combination of recent clay works upon hand-milled plinths. Other aspects of this project will be shown at the V&A and Serpentine pavilion all until the 9th January 2022. 

His longstanding fascination with materials and land development fused with his beliefs and cultural past, create a beautiful narrative in his work, always returning to stories of origin. Growing up in a black Baptist church, reflecting his heritage and religion in the art he makes has always been important. In his clay works, he uses the geological mineral as a medium to learn about the world, connecting with the earth directly and altering its shape, as people have done since the start of humanity.  

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Exploring something bigger through her faith and intersectional identity, Renli Su creates beautiful dream-like collections subtly inspired by her Buddhist upbringing as well as her love for historic British culture. Her garments are made in Shenzhen China using a combination of traditional craftsman’s techniques and new forms of fabric manipulation on organic textiles such as cotton, linen, wool and silk. Inspired heavily by historic tales, each collection takes you on a journey through a narrative, drawing parallels with pilgrimages and the peaceful nature of the Buddhist religion.

Founded in 2014 the London based label creates voluminous silhouettes for modern women looking to escape into a dreamy nostalgia through their wardrobe. Using natural tones, Renli Su garments create a feeling of romantic minimalism though not void of delicate details and hidden treasures. What shines through most about her work is the attention to detail and dedication to creating unique works of art which fit into the story she is building that season.  

Her Spring/Summer 21 collection follows the narrative of an 18th-century ballet named The Awakening of Flora. We are transported into an enchanted forest and introduced to an array of mystical characters from Ancient Greco-Roman mythology, Nymphs, Gods and Goddesses. Renli Su’s appreciation for nature comes through in blossom prints and bulb-like silhouettes referencing growth and the change of season initiated by Flora the Roman goddess of flowers, fertility and spring. Inspired also by the art of dance, the collection welcomes movability and although so closely linked with 18th-century costume, each piece could fit seamlessly into a contemporary wardrobe.

Renli Su SS21 lookbook –

Her curiosity in nature and the human spirit is derived from her upbringing in Fujian, China, with the influence of Tibetan Buddhism transferring a quiet and humble style into her work. Elements of her heritage appear throughout her work, for example, her Spring/ Summer 17 collection which follows the Chinese sea goddess Ma-tsu in protecting fishermen out at sea. Being surrounded by traditional crafts helps her feel close to home and with the influence of Buddhist craft, it was important to create her garments using organic materials and traditional processes.

Josiah Wise known by the stage name, serpentwithfeet has been on an interesting religious and spiritual journey throughout his life translating into the music he creates. growing up in a heavily religious household, his mother a choir director and his father, the owner of a Christian book shop, faith was a big aspect of his life. Reluctantly becoming part of the choir as a child he grew to love classical and gospel music with it building the foundations to his own sound.

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serpentwithfeet’s lastest album Deacon

Noticing the lack of diversity in the choir and classical genre during his training, he sought out a scene where black voices were dominant and overall celebrated. Spending time in the neo-soul scene in Paris and Philidelphia and training as a jazz vocalist; from goth to opera, Wise really has covered it all. This varied musical upbringing lead him to reinvent gospel in his own sound which he once named “pagan gospel” but has moved away from the term as his spirituality evolved.

On his first EP, Blisters produced by Bjork, his lyrics have duality, blurring the lines between the spiritual and sensual with lyrics such as “I offer myself to you, Don’t let me doubt you” on the song Flickering”. This theme continues into his first solo album, Soil, where his faith and romantic life become one, stating at one point that he “didn’t know the difference between a guy I was interested in and Jesus”. Cherubim, the sixth track on Soil is titled after the celestial creature with human and bird-like characteristics referenced in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic literature. The idea of Wise devoting himself to Something Bigger manifests in the lyrics “I get to be devoted to him” and “Every time I worship you”, whether this is a god or romantic partner is up to our interpretation.

As well as the symbolism within his lyrics, serpentwithfeet takes great inspiration from religion and spirituality in his visuals, pentagrams, rituals, demonic undertones, guilt gold churches, angelic figures and biblical references all beautifully curated to portray his worldly experience.

Beyond these creatives, we are on our own journeys to understand if there is something bigger in our lives. By looking at other peoples experiences, explored through their creativity, we can potentially begin to understand our own beliefs and write our own stories.

To find out more about Theaster Gates multi-venue exhibition in London visit https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/theaster-gates-a-clay-sermon/

If you enjoyed reading Something Bigger why not check out The Stem of the Story