The designer brings together work from her biggest inspirations, such as photographers Liz Johnson Artur and Rotimi Fani-Kayode, as well as British artist Sampha.

When curator Hans Ulrich Obrist first met Grace Wales Bonner in 2014, he knew it was going to be a longstanding relationship. Arranged by the fashion journalist Charlie Porter, the meeting between the Serpentine Galleries artistic director and the 28-year-old menswear designer paved the way for Wales Bonner’s talk at the Serpentine’s Transformation Marathon in 2015, and now, for her first major exhibition.

Set in the heart of London’s Hyde Park, A Time for New Dreams is an exploration of contemporary shrines; merging black mysticism and rituals to showcase the bedrock of research that underpins all of Wales Bonner’s work. “Research brings disciplines together,” explains Obrist. Far from sterile, each interrogation is displayed as a shine, cementing the theme of the show.  “It’s essentially magical realism,” Obrist adds. “Or Neo-Voodoo.”

Wales Bonner describes each shrine as a place for reflection and meditation. “They’re like a portal into another dimension,” she says. Drawing from her rich personal heritage—Wales Bonner was born into a British-Jamaican family in southeast London—each work acts as a component of her DNA. “[My parents are] important intellectuals and writers who have helped my own thinking,” she explains. “This space is an important intellect on where I’m from, and an understanding of my own histories.” In one corner sits Wale Bonner’s own shrine. Equally infused with intellectualism and materiality, it pays homage to James Hampton—an outside artist who worked as a janitor while constructing large-scale religious art from scavenged materials. This meta-nod towards the godfather of shrines is also a porthole into Wales Bonner’s personal values.

Grace Wales Bonner’s first major exhibition merges black mysticism and rituals
Grace Wales Bonner’s first major exhibition merges black mysticism and rituals

Left: Grace Wales Bonner, SS19, Photograph by Harley Weir. Right: Salagram Sharma in Malik SS16, Udaipur. Photograph by Harley Weir.

Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2014, Wales Bonner has been an unstoppable force of creativity. She was crowned Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards in 2015, is the youngest designer to have showcase her work at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and has lectured at Parsons. Not only does she redefine notions of black male identity through her collections, but she’s also positioned herself as an academic and powerful thinker.

Despite her young age, Wales Bonner’s work never feels precocious. “Research grounds everything I do,” she says. “It often starts with literature.” The name of Wales Bonner’s first exhibition is taken from a collection of essays by Ben Okri. A long-time admirer of the Nigerian poet and novelist, Wales Bonner has incorporated many of Okri’s ideal and philosophies into the show. “Grace wanted to work with writers from the beginning,” adds Obrist.

A Time for New Dreams also saw Wales Bonner look to works by Black Audio Film Collective, Ghanaian-Russian photographer Liz Johnson Artur, Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, and Eric N. Mack’s characteristic cataclysm of art and fashion. “I shared visual research with all the collaborators,” Wales Bonner states. “I wanted to have no hierarchy between writers and artists—each has their own space and voice.”

Grace Wales Bonner’s first major exhibition merges black mysticism and rituals
Grace Wales Bonner’s first major exhibition merges black mysticism and rituals

Left: Malik VI. Right: Grace Wales Bonner, Ebonics meet the wrestlers, Photograph by Harley Weir.

Music and sound, too, play an important part in the designer’s creative process. Her long list of collaborators includes the British artist Sampha, who Wales Bonner worked with in 2017 to create Sky Light—a  zine inspired by a trip the two took to Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Serpentine show will be followed by a series of happenings—gong meditations, performances, choreographies, and talks—scheduled to take place in the exhibition space. “I want the exhibition to become a community space,” Wales Bonner explains, “Where people from different walks of life can congregate and discuss their values, ideals and importance to the lives.”

Despite the heavy prominence of other people’s work, the exhibition is very much rooted in Wales Bonner’s own practice. A Time for New Dreams functions as a segway into the designer’s upcoming Fall/Winter 2019 collection, Mumbo Jumbo, which will be shown in the Serpentine next month.

Grace Wales Bonner: A Time For New Dreams” is on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery until February 16, 2019.

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