Ben Jones: In the Spirit, In the Flesh (2011)
Ben Jones: In the Spirit, In the Flesh
… Ben Jones makes beautiful, often highly decorative wall-based pieces and installations, that often have male figures or male faces as their central element. I use the word beautiful advisedly, because it tends to be a word society withholds – and indeed on occasion, we ourselves withhold from Black males. (Stereo) typical images of the Black male do not, as a matter of course, reflect notions of beauty. As such, Ben Jones' work exists as a profound gesture of rehumanising that which has been demonised, and presenting complex, layered imagery that seeks to evoke celebratory and life-affirming sensibilities. The figures in Ben Jones' work resonate with exuberance, aspiration, and triumph, in ways that few other artists attempt, let alone achieve. And yet, his work simultaneously reaches deep into African history and culture, in the most singular of ways. As such, we can perceive, and indeed track, a grand majestic historical sweep within Ben Jones' work; a sweep that stretches from the earliest stirrings and manifestations of Yoruba culture, through to the hopes, dreams, aspirations and experiences of present-day generations of African-American peoples and those in other parts of the African diaspora.
It is through his use of symbols such as the Ankh and the two-headed axe that is the symbol of the mighty Yoruba deity Shango, that Ben Jones most graphically evokes his connection to Africa and the spirits of his ancestors. In one of his recent pieces, both of these symbols are amongst those used to decorate a patterned work that repeats other images and symbols, most noticeably, the visage of Malcolm X. Slain though he is, Ben Jones resurrects and evokes Malcolm X in a work that is joyful, celebratory, affirming and instructive. The Ankh, for millennia regarded as the key of life, was the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol equating to the notion of eternal life. Other symbols proliferate within the work. Pairs of eyes resonate with references to the wheel of Ashoka and most challenging perhaps, love hearts are included in the blended mix of images. This is deeply moving work that not only presents us with a wonderful panorama of the beauty of diaspora, but also bravely seeks to draw the still-powerful image of Malcolm X closer to explicit feelings of love and affection…
… Ben Jones has, within his practice, a declared respect and love for African cultures, in a wide variety of manifestations. Not just those aspects that can be traced back to continental Africa, but those with much more recent manifestations, within the diaspora. Notable in this regard is his work from the mid 1990s which uses shapes that are clearly evocative of purpose-made hand-held fans traditionally used by members of the congregation of African-American churches during hot spells. The saintly portrait of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King sometimes adorned these fans. But in Shango/Chango Fans, Ben Jones uses images of regular Black males as the central icon of his fans, to be embellished, decorated and beautified with a wonderful range of brightly coloured mark making. Then, as now, the artist invites us, compels us even, to see these often-maligned men as fitting embodiments and recipients of our love and affection.
The full version of the above text appears in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition 'The Art of Ben Jones: Evolution, Revolution', Rich Mix Centre for the Arts, London, 13 January – 24 February 2011
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