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Babel: a preamble


                                                'I live in Letterland, an illuminated Babel,

                                             beautiful, unsayable, meaningless, profound.'

Babel Tower (Prototype) 2009

BABEL is an ongoing series of collages, paintings, digital prints, artist's cards, books, boxes and installations, all derived from experiments with ‘visual language’. There are long traditions in Islamic, African, Oriental and European art of artists and poets experimenting with the visual elements of letter forms and printed text - from Egyptian hieroglyphs, through Celtic illuminated manuscripts and Chinese calligraphy, to Koranic decorations in Arabic script and contemporary experiments in ‘concrete poetry’ and cyber texts. Many contemporary visual artists have been fascinated by the aesthetic dynamics of the painted word, the play between ways of meaning and understanding that the crossover of literary and visual 'ways of saying' can produce. To list just a few whose work I have found particularly instructive in different ways; Tom Phillips, Ian Hamilton-Finlay, Bob Cobbing, and looking further afield the Chinese artist Xu Bing, the Ghanaian Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah and the Australian Rosalie Gascoigne. There are whole university departments now exploring the philosophical and artistic nuances of visual poetics and the relationships of language, graphic systems and the written word. The BABEL images relate to those traditions and discussions in various ways, exploring the liminal space between written or printed text and the painted image, asking questions about how we ‘read’ such images, about the relationships between the symbols recognised in these images as linguistic code that carries – or at least implies - particular kinds of utterance and meaning but which in this ‘visual’ context may take on quite other associations, resonances and, not least, colours. BABEL engages with those echoes and shadows, and I am interested in the intellectual, aesthetic and perceptual issues the images – individually and collectively – raise. But while the project is a serious endeavour, to frame it in such terms makes it sound too pompous. 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 Boxes and cards

       And there are other, less wordly, less academic, echoes and shadows that seem to me now to have influenced these BABEL images, however obliquely - carnival and masquerade; 'Dutch wax' textiles in Nigerian cloth markets; Pitchy-Patchy and Jon Kanoo and Obby Oss and Sallah parades; brightly painted Tro-Tros and decorated mud wall Hausa houses; stained glass windows and Peter Lanyon; Fante flags and Union banners; Rothko, Howard Hodgkin and Bridget Riley; West Indian cricket crowds; Kente cloth and American quilts and Fulani blankets and Welsh rag rugs; Alan Davie and Aubrey Williams; El Anatsui and Eduardo Paolozzi... 

        Some of the BABEL images are evolved from the printed textual detritus that inundates all our lives, much of it uninvited – advertising flyers, faxes, free newspapers, e-mail spam etc. – and quite a lot of it unintentional too, via computer and printer generated texts. BABEL also employs found texts, sometimes literally found, having been lost or abandoned by their previous keeper – notable among these a copy of Marx’s Capital found, with its covers torn off, in a builder’s skip. Then there are the masses of 'unnecessary' texts that a place like a university produces every day - minutes and memoranda and drafts and discussion documents. And in a multi-cultural city like Birmingham, alongside the restaurant signage and advertisments in 'foreign' scripts are council and school and hospital documents that come written in eight different languages, so that one feels sometimes that we are drowning in texts of one kind and another. For the BABEL project this textual material is worked in various ways: recycled, juxtaposed, overlaid, cut through, coloured, painted, rearranged, printed, copied and recopied to construct these images which become, I hope, 'beautiful, unsayable, meaningless, profound.'

Babel: 'Squares'  Wallwork No.1 (50cm x 50cm mixed media)

‘Beautiful, unsayable, meaningless, profound', that line is taken from my poem 'Letterland', written around 1990 at the time my two children were learning to read and write. (Letterland was a popular reading scheme at the time.) The poem plays with the ways that words help us to understand the world and indeed to understand ourselves. 'Letterland' forms the bridge between the literary and the visual aspects of this BABEL project. Both as a writer and a critic I have been interested in the ways other writers have negotiated the boundaries of standard English. West Indian writers have experimented with the capacity of English orthography to reflect the ways people actually speak, in creolised versions of English that were born out of the linguistic confrontation of the slave coasts of West Africa and the plantations of the Caribbean. In this regard the work of the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite has been especially significant, in particular his later work, the "writing in light" formatted in his "Sycorax video style" on his AppleMac computer. His engagement with  the historically oppressive language of colonisation, not least as it is represented as text, has proved both a challenge and an inspiration. The other literary figure whose work has affected the evolution of the BABEL project, however tangentally, is the Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare. I have written several essays on the complex relationship in his work between his mother tongue, Yoruba, and the English language of his poetry. The idea of one language informing, inflecting and 'showing through' the other in various ways, 'colouring' our understanding, is part of what the BABEL project is all about.



The BABEL images exist in several states and formats - as one-off painted and constructed 'artworks', or treated in various additional ways as limited edition digital inkjet prints and printed artist’s cards. The digital prints, artist's cards and Babel Boxes are perhaps the the logical final versions of the project, the end result of the recycling process from printed source to remade, re-printed multiple art work. The cards and prints are not 'reproductions' of 'original art works' - although versions of these images exist as one-off paintings and collages  - rather the several processes of scanning, editing, croping, 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 art works in their own right. Volumes 1 - 5 of BABEL are the first in a planned series of volumes, culminating in a sort of ‘Encyclopaedia of Babel’ some years down the line. (See the 'Babel Tower', above.)


A Digital Print
The Babel artist's cards measure 216x138mm and are printed by the 4-colour CMYK process on premium 80lb card stock.
The cards are published in editions of 100 copies, signed on the reverse by the artist..
The text on the reverse of the cards, giving details of title and edition etc. will suggest a 'landscape' viewing of the image (as they appear in the galleries below) but of course there is no definitive top or bottom to the images and no 'correct' way to display or read them.
The digital prints are in editions of 25, printed by six colour Epson inkjet on 167 g/m, matte A4 paper, signed and numbered in pencil by the artist. The image sizes vary slightly but are approx. 110 x 130 mm. (The size of a panel of text in a conventionally printed book.) Despite my comment above that their is no definitive 'correct' way to display or read these images, the position of the signature and edition details on the print do suggest the way the artist 'sees' the finished image and has worked on it.

Babel Galleries:
   Volume 1
    Volume 2
    Volume 3
    Volume 4