20 March–1 May 2022
Helena Hugo’s latest exhibition ‘Morph’ offers a fragmented portrait of a fractured period of time, both in the artist’s life and that of the planet. But it is also a time of transformation, as fragments of the personal and political past rearrange themselves into new constellations of power.
‘Morph’ comprises a collection of figurative pastel and charcoal drawings, relief prints and mixed-media artworks that are unified by their diversity and the delicate empathy that is key to Hugo’s work. All the works were made in the course of the pandemic period, during which new frameworks began to emerge, both in terms of representation and broader reality, including, for example, the heightened presence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of the movement for trans rights, and increased recognition of both animal sentience and the impact of biodiversity loss.
But while the works reflect the political and cultural shifts and schisms of the pandemic and the period that immediately preceded it, the show is essentially an interior journey for Hugo – although the point of separation between the self and the world is one that is itself in a state of shift. It is, says Hugo, the first time that she has made a show about herself (previous exhibitions explored, for example, the environmental impact of our urge to leave a legacy, the pseudoscience of physiognomy, and our relationship to work).
In her artist statement, Hugo quotes Ovid’s Metamorphosis: “I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities.” In the poem, Daphne, the mythological nymph of Arcadia, becomes a universal symbol of imperial power through victory – but not her own. She is transformed into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo’s advances, but loses her sense of self and her autonomy. She is henceforth paraded as a symbol of Apollo’s victory and her name is not mentioned in the poem again.
“It all began with an incident in 2019, where my face was rearranged and I was almost killed by a burglar at my house/studio,” says Hugo. “Lots of people saw it as a gender-motivated crime. But I disagree. I was just in the guy’s way and, a month later, a young male was killed, in his own home, just a few blocks from my house.” Hugo subsequently began to notice many other incidents of violence against men. She decided to begin with a series of vulnerable men, because, as she says, “these kinds of violent acts can happen to them too” and, at the same time, encourage women, “who can and should protect themselves”.
The exhibition includes these vulnerable male nudes, as well as other nudes, portraits of women, a series of plant and animal drawings, and abstract de-constructed works. The portrait drawings are for the most part depictions of Daphne, a weak and tragic figure whose transformation gave her transgressor an even stronger hold over her. Yet, at the same time, the body of work celebrates the strength of women.
‘Morph’ investigates the ambiguous and changeable nature of power. It considers our perceptions of power over and in relation to the other, whether it be another person, an animal, or the environment itself. The show also explores the temporality of power and how it can shift or invert, depending on random and unstable circumstances.
Listening to Helena talk about her personal experience and the transformation it has engendered, both in her life and her work, it’s clear that the process is still ongoing. As the changing nature of power and representation, transformation is something that is never complete but always part of a broader process that takes place in a wider and uncertain world.