Unyimeabasi Udoh talks about their new artwork for St James’s

Artist and 2022-23 Royal Academy Starr Fellow Unyimeabasi Udoh talks with Revd Dr Ayla Lepine, Associate Rector of St James’s Piccadilly, about Untitled (Altar Piece), which will be installed in the chapel from 18 March until 8 April, across Passiontide, Holy Week and Easter.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask
Artist Unyimeabasi Udoh

AL: What did you think of the idea of having your work exhibited in a chapel, within a place of worship?

UU: It’s really exciting. I was talking to a friend the other day about this opportunity and about this installation, and they were saying that contemporary art in churches and religious places in general is their favorite thing, just because it makes you reflect on the space and on the work in a new way. It’s a very thoughtful location, so viewers are already primed to engage with artwork in a new and perhaps unexpected way.

We realized over the course of that conversation that actually all churches were and are places for contemporary art, because the art that’s in them was contemporary when it was made. Some of these sacred places are very old now, and so we don’t think of a lot of older artwork as groundbreaking. But some of it – including altarpieces, frescoes, etc – was really controversial when it were first installed.

AL: Yes, exactly. Everything was new once! Untitled (Altar Piece) is part of a series of garlands. You told me that you made one a while ago that says ‘A Clean Break’, for example. What do garlands mean for you?

UU:   A party garland usually says something like ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Congratulations’. But I’m really interested in unsettling the correspondence between the form and the content. The text I choose is not what people would expect to find on a garland, but it isn’t quite a parody.

All of the garlands are called ‘Untitled’ with a subtitle in parentheses, and sometimes that subtitle is the title of the same text that appears in the garland, and sometimes it’s another text. This one is appearing in a chapel, behind the altar, and so I wanted to acknowledge that: Untitled (Altar Piece). The word ‘Departures’ evokes something kind of light, ephemeral, and transitory. Here, and then gone.

AL: That makes me think about the materials too. I know that you chose a special kind of paper for the St James’s garland. Why did you choose it?

UU: It’s a Japanese double embossed paper, so it’s almost perforated. It’s very fine, but also surprisingly strong. And it has a lace effect, which felt apt. It has links with altar cloths and linens.

AL: Linens and altar cloths remind me of Christ’s own burial cloths. With Passiontide and Holy Week approaching, we are going to be contemplating and entering into the story of Christ’s crucifixion – an ultimate departure. I wonder where you see resonances between this intriguing word, ‘Departures’ and what takes place at this time of year in church?

UU: Yes, this sense of leaving is important: Jesus leaving the mortal plane, and then also leaving the tomb later. The piece will arrive at Passiontide, and ‘Departures’ – the artwork – will leave the church after Easter, echoing Christ’s movements.

AL: Multiple departures, and multiple arrivals. Life and death and life again.

UU: When I think of departures and arrivals, I also think about airport terminals. There’s something exciting about the departure when you’re the one departing. As you go, there’s a sense of possibility; maybe you get a send-off. As somebody who has moved abroad from where my family is, there’s also a sense of saying goodbye. You enter the departures terminal, and not everyone can go with you, whereas everyone can enter the arrivals terminal and wait for those who are arriving.

Many religions, Christianity included, prepare people for the ultimate departure of death. But at the same time, most people, no matter their level of devotion and faith, don’t want to die. They’re not hastening that departure.

AL: And Passiontide reminds us that the reality of death isn’t just for human beings, or for religious figures. It’s for us all, and for the planet. The cycles of life and death through the whole of creation, and that makes me think about the paper of the garland itself, that it too will have some kind of afterlife where eventually, it too will depart, and return to the earth, and become part of the continuous cycle of energy. That Japanese paper – it once was a tree that departed as a tree and has now arrived as a garland in a chapel.

UU: I use a lot of plastic in my other work, so it’s nice to know that not everything I produce will be here forever. This piece will depart naturally somehow.

AL: At St James’s we’re exploring a programme called Conversations Under Trees, focusing on the concept of what can hapen when people gather under the dappled canopy spaces of trees – physically and metaphorically – to meet for conversations that might open up new kinds of imagination and build relationships in surprising ways, to get out of our comfort zones. There’s a kinship between humanity and nature – maybe we can tap into that in a new way. There is lament for the planet, and also fresh promise in the cycles of life that surround us. What do you think about ‘Departures’ in relation to this wider cycle? Death is a fact, but it is not the end of the story.

UU: That’s a beautiful way of looking at things. With this garland and my garlands in general, there’s also a sense of levity. To look at death in relation to a garland, something you’d expect to see at a party, reminds us that it’s good not to take ourselves too seriously. Solemnity or fear don’t have to be the only approaches to death; we can see it as absurd, or bittersweet.

AL: The chapel is a place where people gather every day for prayers, for silent contemplation, for the Eucharist too. They bring themselves, as they are, into that simple space every day. I’m certain that your piece is going to interact with people’s imaginations and can be an opportunity for meditation too. Artists and architects have been making work and offering their imaginative creativity at St James’s for over 300 years. Your work is part of this too.

UU:  It’s nice to be part of that conversation.