Walking into Gallery MOMO for the opening of their new show, Exceeding Return by artist Curtis Talwst Santiago, I’m greeted by a small perspex box mounted and spot-lit on the large white wall. It is the only thing on the wall and its magnetic power is undeniable. I’m drawn to it, but it’s only when my nose is millimetres from the box that I see what it encases.In the centre of a small jewellery box sits a tiny sculpture of a Zulu woman breastfeeding a baby, no bigger than a centimetre in height. The colours are exquisite and the detail immaculate, and just as I’m busy wondering how on earth something this minute could have been made, I’m aware of a face very close to mine, someone leans in just as I do. Necessary hellos are exchanged because of the close proximity, and before long we’ve introduced ourselves and the conversation begins to flow.
A few minutes later and I’ve moved through to another room in the gallery, looking at a miniature diorama of a number of tiny figures enjoying a moment at the beach, when the same situation arises with another onlooker, and before long another scintillating conversation has begun. Twice more the same events played out in almost the same way with different people. Whilst meeting new people in a gallery setting is not a foreign thing on opening nights, here the intimacy of the works almost demands it from the onlookers. Where much contemporary art is large in scale and often pushes the audience back, creating a sort of reverent intimidation, these works beckoned to you as only a close friend with a precious secret can.
Weaving together scenes from everyday life with the historic and traditional, Santiago manages to summon forgotten modes of storytelling. Speaking to the artist, he mentioned that the works are made to be held and passed around, carried with one as a story committed to memory might be. Addressing his own personal genealogy and ancestry with his ‘Ancestor Drawings’ and Nubian series of monochromatic black ring box dioramas, Santiago speaks to the historical through his present practice. In one such work in the Nubian series, Venus mimics the composition of Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, thereby inserting the black figure into the discourse of Renaissance art history, where historically the black body has been largely excluded.
It is not only the stories that Santiago tells which grab the viewers’ imagination, but the way he tells them. Clearly he is incredibly spatially astute, not only in utilising the tiny scale to draw the audience in, but with each work, demanding that it be approached in a new way. What are you doing? Just chilling with some friends invites you to look down on the jewellery box and into a library, whereas Nubian Origin Story According to the Artist uses the lid of the box to create a backdrop for the figure portrayed. The tight, intricate detail of the miniature sculptures is juxtaposed with the loose and expressive drawings and works on canvas, giving us viewers a window into the possibilities that lie with an artist as multifaceted as Curtis Talwst Santiago. An exciting and refreshing show, not only are we given incredible art, but new potential relationships. I must warn you that you will leave disappointed, but only because the world you return to is not as inviting as the one you just discovered.