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Bird in Hand

Ellen Gallagher’s new exhibition, Coral Cities, has just opened at Tate Liverpool and features a series of drawings, collectively titled Watery Ecstatic, and a number of 16mm films. Gallagher explores the idea of a black Atlantis: she imagines all the drowned people, thrown overboard, lost at sea, somehow still underwater. The descendants of enslaved Africans, they now populate the twilight zone of the sea. They’ve become almost a marine species, half human, half fish.

They are a fantasy created out of a historical reality. They are the descendants of those who were thrown off the slave ship Zong; perhaps the ones who were tossed into the sea because they had the flux or dysentery, or because they were rebellious or even sulky…

Ellen Gallagher has said: “Some losses are irretrievable.” Yet, through her art, she is attempting to go down to the ocean bed and retrieve the lost, like a deep-sea diver trawling the ocean floor for survivors. “I’m interested in reactivating the static,” Gallagher says. Her sea dwellers are of that time, but also of this time; the paintings make you think what would have become of the people. Gallagher, in creating them – to borrow a line from Toni Morrison’s Beloved – has “understood the source of the outrage as well as the source of light”…

Her work is like jazz on a huge canvas. She paints riffs, repetitions and refrains. Trauma is presented in patterns, repeated cycles, virus-shapes. Freud described anxiety as, on the one hand, an expectation of a trauma and, on the other, a repetition of it in a mitigated form. Gallagher’s paintings are mitigated forms. She has always been concerned with what is seen and what is not seen; fascinated by what is framed and what is outside the frame. Including even herself. “What I like about painting is that you have this theatre where you are not there,” she has said. “The audience for painting rolls in whenever they like. It’s a different relationship to time”…

The work is slow and labour-intensive. “Hard to find a day where you can say you have achieved a lot,” Gallagher says. “All I’ve done today is draw one ear of a hamster.” But then she enjoys the pressure of working against the clock, right up to the deadline. She is a true artist, an original thinker – perceptive, witty and very modern (one of her paintings is called Bling Bling). Coral Cities will make your soul sing. Gallagher’s work is a whole, densely imagined world.

Guardian Unlimited