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Babel Reviews

Contextual panels displayed as part of the 2013 Babel Exhibition at the Rotunda, University of Birmingham

Anna Young - Curator - Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham, September 2013

BABEL is an ongoing series of collages, paintings, digital prints, cards, books, boxes and installations, all derived from Stewart Brown’s experiments with ‘visual language’.  This new iteration of the series is displayed alongside the influences and inspirations the artist has encountered during his time as an academic at the University of Birmingham and his travels through West Africa and the Caribbean.

The original concept of Babel comes from the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel “because God there confounded the language of all the Earth”.  The word Babel is derived from the Hebrew word balal, meaning to mix or confuse.  Contemporary theorists have interpreted the Tower of Babel story as a warning against cultural and linguistic homogeneity, with the destruction of a unified Babel creating the cradle of civilization in all its diversity.  Brown’s BABEL can be seen as a celebration of multiple cultural influences and experiments with text – Western concrete poetry and artists such as Tom Phillips, Koranic decoration in Arabic script, Chinese calligraphy and African printed cloth.

The work included in this exhibition demonstrates the wide ‘vocabulary’ of Brown’s visual language and new directions in his practice.  Some are filled with movement, for example The master invited him.The worker said no where undulating coloured waves of the artist’s publishing address are awash in a sea of black and white text.  Others show the breadth of his work, such as Anna’s challenge where small panels comprised of techniques used in other work are collaged together.  In the Language there you have me series, Brown uses layer upon layer of text in multiple languages: English, Arabic, Greek, Mandarin.  These serve to render each other illegible, perfectly encapsulating the idea of Babel as dissonance in communication.

Brown’s life as an academic immerses him in the written word, in particular in African and Caribbean poetry and fiction.  His fascination with the written word and the ways in which it is used and abused in modern life is clear, whilst he states that BABEL ‘is essentially a playful, whimsical, ironic response to the various pleasures and pressures of a life devoted, one way and another, to the text’.  BABEL is a cacophony of colour and language that overwhelms, disorients and excites, whilst creating new textual and visual meaning out of the breakdown of prior messages.

Chloe Lund, Curatorial Assistant - Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham, September 2013

Stewart Brown’s academic work aims to draw meaning from text; Babel demonstrates his creative determination to obfuscate it. The desire to recast word as pattern may stem from the sensation of being unable to access the meaning of a text written in a different language, which is common in this multi-cultural city. Brown cites the illuminated manuscripts of ancient Arabic and Chinese cultures, whose beauty can be appreciated without understanding the text, as a source of inspiration. The Mingana Collection, housed in the Cadbury Research Library, contains many fine examples of these.

Brown is also inspired by artists, poets and writers who have explored the relationship between the graphic notation of a language and its expected meaning. A Humument is Tom Phillips’ intervention into a found novel, screenprinted pages of which are on display in the Cadbury Research Library. Phillips obliterated vast areas of the text with colour, pattern and line, leaving a disjointed narrative of stray words. In the same way, Brown commandeers the textual detritus of everyday life and jumbles it into something that is beautiful and meaningless, rather than informative and literal.

The influence of other cultures is foremost in the work of this well-travelled artist. The way that brightly coloured layers of text and pattern have been compiled, overlaid and stuck together, for example, encapsulates the aesthetic of African carnivals and costume. Similarly, the bold repetition of abstracted forms over a surface recalls ‘dutch wax’ fabrics and kente cloth. Examples of these can be seen from the comfort of our own campus, thanks to the Danford Collection of West African Art and Artefacts.

The aesthetic culture of the UK offers just as colourful a source of inspiration, particularly in terms of our heritage in the visual arts. Mosaics of colour separated by line in Brown’s work seem to recall stained glass windows, such as those dominating our Great Hall. Brown also acknowledges the influence of British artist Peter Lanyon. Lanyon’s landscapes, including our own Arts Faculty Mural, involve abstracting his visual surroundings into a dynamic composition of colour and shape - a process comparable to Stewart Brown’s dynamic abstraction of language. 

Review of 'Elsewhere' found online, June 2012- "The beauty of it lies in the way it makes you look at your everyday life through new eyes."

As part of the Guyana Prize for Literature 2010 awards activities at the beginning of this month, items from a series of prints done by one of the judges, Stewart Brown, were exhibited at Castellani House.  The small prints were taken from a series entitled Babel that Brown had exhibited in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 in various places including Barbados, Jamaica, the United Kingdom and Africa. Given the title of the series, the prints formed an interesting complement to the Guyana Prize week of activities.
The word ‘Babel‘ suggests confusion of sound, a situation in which language, the primary means of human communication, becomes so diverse and multiplex that communication is thwarted rather than enhanced, and dissonance rather than solidarity results. The original concept of Babel comes from the Bible, but the age in which we live – the age in which technology is being used not only to allow each person to access a multiplicity of channels of communication, but also to become the creator of his or her own flows of information – gives a whole new resonance to the concept.
Brown reflects this relentless torrent of information – the “printed textual detritus that inundates our lives, much of it uninvited” as he puts it – in the series.  Using elements of language – words, numbers, printed pages and fragments – he images a breakdown of communication. Babel suggests a distance between the streams of information and the human recipient.  Information takes on a life of its own – one can imagine tens of trillions of bits and bytes of information streaming around the globe and filling up ‘empty‘ space, but with the human person not actually connected with much of that flow. Babel is therefore an ironic comment, that the age of communication also overwhelms connection.
But the series also reflects Brown’s fascination with the graphic forms used to externalise language. The pieces, which are small – the size of a novel – are densely crowded with letters and words. Different pieces give different takes on the graphics of language – in some cases Brown plays around with individual letters, repeating them, magnifying them, arranging them against the backdrop of crowds of other letters. In other pieces, the letters are crowded and marshalled into ranks and files. In others, they form patterns which look like aerial views of cities. In a few pieces, the shapes of the letters break down and only the colour leaking through the spaces between them gives some hint of the form. In all the pieces, barely-recognised words, letters, numbers emerge and merge, creating new messages out of the breakdown of many messages.
A third aspect of the work lies in the production of messages. Brown says that “Babel is an ongoing series of collages, paintings, digital prints, artist’s cards, boxes and installations.”  The pieces on show at Castellani are prints of those paintings, collages and prints that Brown had done, but he notes that they are not to be seen as copies of the original work. Instead, he says, “…the several processes of scanning, editing, cropping, colouring and printing change those images in ways that are particularly significant in the context of this Babel project, remaking them as printed text-derived artworks in their own right.” Technology is therefore an implicit part of the process of creating the artwork, in the same way that brushes and brushstrokes are integral but usually unheralded elements in the success of a painting. Also, in the  same way that the technologies of writing, then printing, then digitising have amplified language to the point where it overwhelms its function (information overload), the means of technology are being used to create new ways of seeing, interfacing, understanding (calligraphic beauty created not only by hand but by technology).
Babel exists between such poles. It focuses the technologies of communication – the means of giving form to the sounds of language, of externalising, recording, reproducing, conveying language. But it also reflects the human involvement in language, including the changes that language itself goes through as different persons and communities appropriate it to create their own meanings. In this last sense, Babel has a positive resonance, as the criss-cross of communication re-energises and fertilises language.
At the same time, there is a fascination with the world in which one is swamped by language. As Brown says in his notes to the exhibition, “Babel is essentially a playful, whimsical, ironic response to the various pleasures and pressures of a life devoted, one way or another, to the text.”

The prints on show at Castellani will be donated to libraries in Guyana.

Peter Finch, originally in the South Wales Echo, April 2010:

"Stewart Brown has for the past thirty years been making the word visible. He paints and collages it in a kind of post-concrete, non-digital mêlée of colour and bending font. His masterwork, a seemingly endless series of morphing letterforms and wailing colour is called Babel. Pretty appropriately, I’d say. “Beautiful, unsayable, meaningless, profound” is how he describes it. Babel comes in large canvas form, on gallery walls and in frames. It also comes loose in book shaped boxes. Lovingly presented and a total delight to open. Investigate Catalyst Press on the web. Buy Babel as card or as box. Expect to be dazzled."

The Babel project and exhibitions have been noticed on the following websites:

Visual Poetry:              

Repeating Islands: 

Created in Birmingham: