Tavares Strachan: There Is Light Somewhere; Megan Rooney: Echoes and Hours – review

<span>Intergalactic Palace, 2024, and Ruin of a Giant (King Tubby), 2024, from Tavares Strachan: There Is Light Somewhere at the Hayward Gallery.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery</span>
Intergalactic Palace, 2024, and Ruin of a Giant (King Tubby), 2024, from Tavares Strachan: There Is Light Somewhere at the Hayward Gallery.Photograph: Courtesy the artist and the Hayward Gallery

Deep in the heart of this enthralling exhibition – with its monumental bronze heads and soaring neon figures, its dead heroes praised in clay and gold, its thrumming son et lumière tributes to the legends of Black music and history – is a whisper of a work, so quiet you might almost miss it. Floating in a glass tank, as if in mid-air, is the ghost of a female figure.

Or at least, the spreading branches of a nervous system have been cast in fine glass – delicate traces of a once living being. She is Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), an African American woman whose cells were illegally harvested by white doctors during cancer treatment without her knowledge or consent. HeLa Cells have been vital to medical research ever since, everlasting in their impact even as Lacks herself was ignored in life and death. But here she comes again, in this ethereal epitaph: visible only from certain angles, materialising only for those who take the time to look.

Tavares Strachan, born in the Bahamas in 1979, and now based in New York, is the great artist of lost figures and unmoored stories. Here is his glowingly beautiful tribute to the first African American astronaut in the US space programme, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, a radiant spaceman momentarily suspended above Earth, perhaps flying, perhaps falling, described in lifesize neon so that he seems both sculpture and drawing.

Here are his many tributes to Matthew Henson, who may have been the first Black explorer to reach the North Pole on the Robert Peary expedition of 1908-9. Henson appears as a ceramic figure, somewhere between ancient Egyptian priest and terracotta warrior, an American football balanced on his head, from which rises a golden spear. He passes in and out of Strachan’s teeming 2D collages, with sled and huskies; he materialises in frosted acrylic on a lightbox, disappearing into the whiteness.

Strachan moves between all these different media like a spaceman himself. (Not incidentally, he has trekked to the Arctic, and trained as a cosmonaut at Russia’s Star City.) There are moments in the Hayward show – his first major museum survey anywhere – where he hits upon the perfect memorial form with the epigrammatic insights of a poet.

If you have never heard of the Nasa computer scientist Annie Easley, for instance, Strachan’s portrait of her is an affirmation and an explanation. Easley appears at the centre of a collage as a lifesize photograph, but also as a silhouette. She is at once herself and a shadow: a dark figure, blotted out (it is implied) by her colour and the racism of her colleagues. All you can see of her is through some tiny circular cutouts; the reverse, you might say, of black holes.

That collage is topped with a shelf of books by WEB Dubois, whose celebrated coinage – double consciousness, the experience of living physically within, but existing mentally outside, a racist society – gives Strachan his title. His art, like his mind, is encyclopedic. Indeed a central gallery is lined floor to ceiling with pages from his Encyclopedia of Invisibility, which interleaves previously untold histories, written by Strachan and others, with conventional entries from the Britannica.

Here is Jamaica Kincaid alongside the Kincora boys home tragedy; Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers and philosophers’ arguments for and against the ontological status of hallucination. People (and images) who have vanished come forward again, while the dominant recede, though still with sporadic power to obscure as overlaid shadows. You could be absorbed all day.

Strachan returns to the idea with portrait heads concealed behind African masks – Mary Seacole, James Baldwin, Derek Walcott. How do we see through the thickets of history and culture? A head of the Libyan-born Roman emperor Septimius Severus opens like a clam to reveal a bust of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko; Nina Simone appears, likewise, inside a Queen of Sheba. Which, here, are the true queen and emperor?

Strachan’s vision is ceaselessly expansive, running all the way from the intimate and lyrical to museum-scale installations. These can be excessive, even bombastic. The enormous bronze heads of Marcus Garvey and King Tubby, dub pioneer, feel as manufactured as they must be by a studio team. And while the large-scale model of Garvey’s SS Yarmouth points towards Africa on a wind-riffled roof-pond outside – the ship was meant to trade between America, the Caribbean and Africa, in an all-Black entereprise – it never makes it from outsize toy into marooned metaphor.

But cram into the vast hut, thatched with grass, based on Ugandan ceremonial architecture, and instead of a monarch you find a golden DJ’s desk. Lights flicker like stars, as if in response to your (strangely reverberating) tread. In a soundtrack of cries and whispers, music and words, you may catch Obama, John Coltrane or reggae. Or you may feel encouraged to join in, by the presence of a performer breaking into live song: as if art had no barriers and everyone was connected with everything now and forever in Strachan’s great time-collapsing chorus.

The painter Megan Rooney (South African-born, in 1985, but London-based) has taken the art of mural into the realm of performance. Her latest work, at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, is a multi-hued abstraction that sends your eyes right up to the ceiling in neck-tilting amazement. For three weeks, Rooney has painted directly on to these high walls, rising up and down with a cherrypicker as her bodily extension, moving the paint through a choreography of washes, scumbles, swathes, lariats and drips, spinning out skeins of magnificent colour.

There are no horizons, no figures, yet each wall springs with incident: a darkening gyre, an overcast atmosphere, a sudden expansion into light. You are up close, wallowing in a Monet lilac, or standing back for a Van Gogh yellow. The abstractions of Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, the blue of Yves Klein and Paul Thek: art history blossoms everywhere. But what is so singular is the sense of time and motion, of Rooney moving by the minute across these four walls.

Paintings on a smaller scale – the artist’s height and arm span – fill two more galleries. They are all climate, light and season. Autumn settles in; dusk goes off in Whistlerian fireworks. Space, depth and time all register, not least because Rooney often sands the surface to expose what went before. Stand before them and you feel their pull, and something of the vivid energy condensed in their making, most especially with the mural. The experience is both physical and heady: look up, look close, feel your eyes widen, or lie down, beguiled by it all, on the floor.

Star ratings (out of five)
Tavares Strachan
Megan Rooney

Tavares Strachan: There Is Light Somewhere is at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 1 September

Megan Rooney: Echoes and Hours is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, until 6 October