Foreign Bodies, Common Ground
Ellie Skelton | 27 March 2017

Upon entering the large ‘Wellcome’ door and wiping the splattered dregs of English rain grubbily off the shoe soles, the light from the tall statue of windows hits with a kind of tentative velocity… a café amidst with serene, unknown characters compose the ground floor quietly nonchalant… ample is the grotesque, yet delicately selected gift arrangement and polite guide, directing the damp visitors to the exhibition: “Take these stairs and just keep going.”


They climb, one by one, notwithstanding the widely coasted stairway, reflecting on drizzled hair and blackened eyes in the rising mirrors as they go. Reaching the top, the entry to “Foreign Bodies, Common Ground” is taken with compressed breath from fainted, subtle hearts. An eerie mood has transcended upon the strangers as they shuffle one by one beside a white screen as if on an awkward visit to the dentist and yet, entering the exhibition, tired trepidations are forgotten… the flowing amber light that dances suffices all.


The exhibition, retelling six artist’s trip to Asia, displays the creative response’s of each triggered by the examination of cultural medicine and disease. It is alluring and encapsulating as a reviewed entirety however, to the eye of one stranger, the exposed work of every artist serves to be truly inspiring when it stands alone and I become only too easily immersed by the life and culture projected by each collection. A startling vitality found in the heroically tribal finger paintings of Malawian artist Elson Kambalu performs the beginning of the exhibition, exploring various approaches to rural and urban medicine depicted through earthy tones and a somewhat native ‘chalk like’ effect. Nevertheless a brutally contemporized take on what “research” involves shifts the innate vision to a seemingly ‘white coats’ image; quite rightly, Kambalu’s muddy interpretation of medical processes considers a foreign view and thus confliction obliges.


Around the bend the visitors tread, pattered feet and absorbed. A small, dark room with two screens at a right angle becomes the second artist to witness… a video playing loops of Vietnamese women peacefully gathering chicken feathers represents Lêna Bùi’s reflection on ritual interaction and the way in which beliefs impact behaviour. Specifically, the looping video considers zoonosis research in rural farms, where animal and human interaction poses high influenza risks. Perhaps a grotesque context for a charmed video yet, whilst watching, a convinced peace echoes from the moving screen and what was once an exploration into disease becomes reconciliation, arresting tolerance, some kind of undisturbed surrender between life and death.


So from Ho Chi Ming to Cape Town the visitors walk, feet drying, heads raised but silent still. Zwelethu Mthethwa’s photographs are next to capture their attention, an artist renowned to offer unique views on life after the apartheid. A photograph of a young woman holding a sign “I practice yoga” omits perhaps the clearest feelings of compassion. She stands in a tree pose wearing black clothing; a belt of red around her waist. Amidst an Africa hut and crumpled broken bucket, her expression is unreadable. Through Mthethwa’s endeavor to put a human face to scientific data he ventures to understand the person behind the controlled experiments and technical truths, getting to know and then expressing their interests to the point that any medical exploration is adrift. This is accomplished with the young woman who practices yoga.


After the exhibition the visitors made their own ways home, and, in that drizzling London town, many spirits were raised by the life than consumed in only a few small rooms. For me, the three artists aforementioned, although amongst several to undertake the challenge, were most successful in their intimate examination of what is means to be human.

James Routledge 2016