Waitless Beyond Blue: Hilda Kortei

5 August - 4 September 2021

Cob Gallery is proud to present Hilda Kortei’s debut solo exhibition, ‘Waitless Beyond Blue’: a powerful statement of arrival from an exciting young artist.


Painting primarily on unstretched, unprepared calico, Kortei’s abstract imagery is grounded in a subversive resistance to conventional ideas of finality and value. The ‘work’, she contends, isn’t some perfect finished artefact with all loose ends carefully tied up. Instead, it’s the process itself; an ongoing process of coming into being, of chaos and clarity. What is beautiful? What is ugly? If the objects and artworks that surround us tend to obscure their path into existence, discarding the traces of creation like a chrysalis, here we see this convention provocatively reversed.


Kortei’s project emerges from two understandings of ‘recreation’: both the playful splashing of colour across a surface, and the haunted reassembly of existing forms and precedents into something new. These twin processes are bound up with an idea of Blackness, Black identity, as an unfinished project of unmaking and remaking that often takes place within the realm of the popular: in music, in city streets, in shared experience. But if these kinds of recreation are often joyous, Kortei’s work points to how they are also underscored by a deep abyss beneath. Just as the title of the exhibition refers us to water as a healing, embracing substance of weightlessness and pleasure, source of life and nourishment, so it also suggests tragedy and desolation; the threshold of the water’s surface becomes the finest of lines between two conditions, the visible and the obscure. The assemblage and montage of colours, shapes and materials takes place on a surface atop unknowable, vertiginous depths. A body at peace in calm suspension is also reconnecting spiritually with a past that defies representation.


Kortei’s work in this exhibition draws on a rich array of sources: the play of light and shadow in Roy DeCarava’s Harlem photographs; the sculpture of David Hammons; the writings of Christina Sharpe and Toni Morrison. Newspaper reports about the death in 2019 of an ancient and royal Nigerian tortoise are read by Kortei as prompts to reflect on the magic of storytelling. As truth and fabrication are entangled, so the elements of play and improvisation within the ritualistic are revealed. Kortei’s close engagement with the traditions of jazz and skat are markers of this way of thinking. Like the modes of improvisation associated with these forms, her method is intuitive. Structured around rhythm and repetition, it’s rooted in specific moments and conjunctions, particular energies and emotions. Reality and representation are mutually determined; shapes, symbols and colours follow their own developing logics in each individual work. 


Reference to these traditions also helps explain the gnomic phrasing of ‘Waitless Beyond Blue’: if the ‘waitless’ of the exhibition’s title points partly to time passing, to the tedium of waiting for change in the ongoing struggle for Black freedom, so the very principal of its apparently ungrammatical quality is key to Kortei’s work. Just as language and meaning are broken apart in skat, only to be newly reconnected in ways that suggest both the absence of meaning and its excess, so Kortei’s imagery seeks to break apart, reframe, reconfigure; not to have the last word, but to add its distinctive energies to a deeper current.