Art stars of tomorrow? Four of my favourite artists from the Slade School degree show in London

Slade to Zaria

Slade to Zaria—which refers to the prominent art schools in London and Nigeria—is a contemporary art column by Chibundu Onuzo, a novelist and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. 

Almost a year has passed since I last wrote this column. In that time, I got married, moved house and spent a lot of time on Facebook Marketplace buying furniture. I’ve also looked at a lot of art, but for some reason I have not felt compelled to write about what I’ve seen.

Maybe it’s because so many exhibitions these days come with lengthy texts and press briefings. The significance of the artist, the importance of their work, the stature of the curator, all of it is documented in intelligent prose. Should you need help forming an opinion, here’s an interview with the artist, or even better, here’s what someone was willing to pay at auction for their work. If it was over a million dollars, then the work must be good. Case closed.

Last week, I went to an exhibition, and for the first time in months, I had absolutely no idea who would be showing. If you Googled most of the artists, very little would come up. No reviews, no gushing profiles, no inclusions in “important collections”, nothing to influence my perception of the work but the work itself.

When I walked into the exhibition, there were no artist statements, no curatorial statements, no statements at all. There was just the name of the artist and the title of the work. Make of it what you will.

Reader, if you haven’t guessed where I was yet, last week I attended London’s Slade School of Fine Art MA/MFA degree show (10-18 June). I saw a lot of art. Room after room of art. Paintings, sculptures, sound installations, all testament to the breadth and versatility of the graduating class.

Some things I liked, some things I didn’t like, some things I was indifferent to. Some things excited me, some things baffled me and some things I forgot a few seconds after I saw them. As I wandered from room to room, it was a reminder of the subjective nature of art. It’s worth looking at if it’s worth looking at to me. There is no good taste that I’m aspiring to. There is simply my taste.

Here are four of my favourite artists out of all the work I saw. They may go on to be the art stars of the future. They may be working in fashion or tech or product design in the next four years. Who knows?

First up is Antonia Caicedo Holguín, whose oil-on-canvas painting, The Disappearance of the Sun, is a showstopper. The palette is a dreamy blue green, the brushstrokes are romantic, and the scene is pastoral. In the foreground, a couple dances, heads turned from the viewer. In the background, a woman brushes her hair, someone checks their phone and at the edge of the painting, a figure with their eyes closed listens to music coursing out of large headphones. Why have all these people been assembled on this canvas? And why are they so wrapped up in their lives, ignoring the beauty all around them? Perhaps a comment on the modern condition.

Antonia Caicedo Holguín, The Disappearance of the Sun (2023)

Next is Hannah Uzor, whose painting All that Remains is equally arresting. A little girl sits on a grassy bank, her face pulled down in mourning. She could be grieving the state of the world or perhaps just mourning a lost toy. There’s a lot of brown in the painting—the brown of the girl’s skin, the brown of the earth, the bluish brown of an apocalyptic sky with skeleton trees in the background. There is a dreamlike quality to the piece. It’s not a nightmare but it’s not a pleasant dream either.

Hannah Uzor, All that Remains (2023) © the artist

Downstairs in the basement, I chanced upon the work of Ty Locke. In one piece, a surreal lampshade bathed in purple light appears to be floating in thin air. Its tassels spool to the ground and spread out across the floor like millipede legs. It’s arresting, it’s odd, it’s Salvador Dalí in 3D and I can’t stop looking at it. It reminds me of lockdown, being incarcerated with the everyday objects in our homes, staring at them until they transformed into magical, menacing objects.

Ty Locke, Tassled Lamp (2023) © the artist

And last, Lydia Merrett. All her paintings on display are of women in motion. Not wonder-women, not stylised, unachievable ideals of women but strong women nevertheless. One figure is mid-cartwheel while another dives off a board. The stand-out piece for me is titled After Glow. Three women run in a line, arms beating back air. Their faces are blurred, stern and spare. There is nothing pretty about their expressions. There is no male gaze here. And yet they are suffused in a sunrise hue, golden and glowing. They are running and they are free.

Lydia Merrett, Afterglow (2023) © the artist 

There are a lot of big names exhibiting in London this summer, and like my fellow art lovers I will troop to the gallery openings and museum shows. I’ll attend the artist talks and buy the catalogue if there is one. But it was a pleasure to glimpse these young artists before a few of them are packaged and curated for the “art world”, that strange, tilting planet. 

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