A spin of the bottle away from the overspill revelry of Deansgate Locks in university freshers’ week, Castlefield Gallery takes one step back from the litter of drinks promotions and homesickness to afford a less frenetic space from which two artists, each with their own particular vantage point, can sift through the contradictions of where a stop-start decade has brought both them and us.

Ivy Kalungi’s perspective is woven from the strands of a heritage that is part Ugandan and part Irish, and, interleaved with the emerging richness of that double helix, from the weight of the complicating threads that tie her to what is expected from a woman in each of her twin cultures. She finds her sanctuary in the black beauty salons of her native Belfast, community centres in all but name, where women can talk among women, and the only scrutiny they’re held up to is their own.

That these standards can be exacting in themselves is economically suggested by the heights at which her Heads sculptures are mounted. The very loftiest of these is at so vertiginous a distance from ground level that it is completely out of reach, a summit of beauty that can never be attained. Seen in conjunction with these plinths, on which the idealised heads of the hairdresser’s display are mounted next to a range of black women’s grooming products, it’s possible to interpret her Expressions – a trapeze of flaming red hairpieces – as a kind of rope ladder, a means by which the ascent might be attempted. If so, the route is a precarious one.

Matthew Bamber‘s eye, meanwhile, looks both into and out from a culture in which decadence is no longer so much fetishised as normalised. As though to literalise this, one of his ground floor prints, Surveillance, a black full stop of an iris punched through a pupil of blue movie ambiguity, evokes the internalised eye of our times, the filter through which the like-coloured pencil of self-censorship circumscribes the parameters of acceptable individuality.

His centrepiece – one might almost say his altarpiece – is a new work, The Unswept Floor, a homage in painted vinyl and MDF to the mosaic whose name it Anglicises, the Asarotos Oikos, currently displayed in the Vatican. Whereas the original depicted the remains of a Bacchanal, strewn carelessly across the floor of a banqueting hall, in Bamber’s reinterpretation the exterior is littered with the Sunday morning detritus of a city centre pavement, an excess of the abandoned inessential on a backdrop of tarnished copper. Within those paving stones, a second square of marbled blue is decorated with found images that evoke more lasting qualities, some resembling details from anatomical textbooks or classical illustration, their flaws unpolished by Bamber, going against the filter’s grain. Finally, imbuing both with an almost occult power, is the inner circle, an intense humming of evil, in which headshots of despots are grafted with intentional crudity onto the bodies of a dark bestiary, as though in preparation for a Black Mass or something more final, an end of days.

It’s a piece which absolutely commands the white space in which it’s exhibited, and which draws you back, like a moth whose instincts have been reversed, to its absence of light.

Ultimately, both Bamber – from a queer perspective – and Kalungi – from a black one – raise questions about the porousness of culture, and the semipermeable membrane in which ideas about style and identity filter forth and occasionally back between those placed at the periphery by class, race or sexuality and the homogenising torrent of the mainstream. When does acceptance become appropriation? When does assimilation become dilution?

Pertinent questions to ask in freshers’ season, long after the drinks promotions have dried up and the pavements swept briefly clean.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Beth Clark


Matthew Bamber and Ivy Kalungi, Castlefield Gallery in Manchester until October 16, 2022. For more information, click here.