Jem Perucchini's Rebirth of a Nation, Art on The Underground
- Friday dispatch
- Read Time: 3 minutes
Rebirth of a Nation, 2023
Art On The Underground
November 2023 – November 2024
In the midst of rainy winter days in London, where daylight is scarce and temperatures have dropped, a surprising sight awaits commuters at the entrance of Brixton Underground Station. A monumental image depicting four figures and the sun rising in all its glory, as if it were the height of summer, catches the passengers off guard. This unexpected burst of warmth and brightness amidst the winter gloom adds a touch of wonder and joy to their daily routine.
Artist Jem Perucchini, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Italy, is the author of this large mural that spans the entrance above the steps leading down to the station. It is the latest commission from Art on the Underground, the public art project that commissions artistic interventions in urban transport, inserting contemporary art into the daily lives of passengers on London Transport. Just as the religious frescoes produced in the Early Renaissance played a central role in the everyday fabric of life, Jem Perucchini tests the capacity of contemporary images to produce changes and transform, through aesthetic experience, those who observe them.
The effect of the new mural in Brixton is to suggest the passenger is entering a church. This visual experience brings art history to mind, but it also comes accompanied by a series of urban sensory stimuli, including the sound of traffic on Brixton Road, voices of passersby, loud music, as well as cooking smells from the the food stalls in the market nearby. In this unexpected encounter, the past and the sacred enter into communion with the secular and contemporary.
The image is composed of four characters. In the centre, two almost identical young black women are shown. They call to mind images of the Virgin Mary, one of them holding an orb with her left hand. These figures are accompanied by two masculine characters holding spears, shown like guardians who seem to be escorting them. The clothes they are all wearing are colourful and full of geometric patterns and decorations, referencing traditional textiles from West Africa and Ethiopia but also the designs and shapes of the attire in Renaissance religious paintings. The sun, in the background is imposing, the geometry of its vibrant rays, deep orange and gold, recalling the cruciform halo of a Christ Pantocrator. The figures of the young women are in fact two parallel versions of the same person. She is embodying, in two mirroring bodies, her own past and future, suggesting an allegory of time and the potentiality, embodied and spiritual, of human beings.
The image is rich in symbolism. The orb and wands, elements that recur in Perucchini’s paintings, carry not only religious meaning, but also connect to the iconography of the Tarot. The suit of wands in the Tarot deck is associated with the element of fire, connecting to the light and warmth of the glorious sun. Wands are symbols of potentialities and ideas, they also symbolize human willpower and creative potential. The orb is a representation of a sovereign's power. It is a symbol of the cosmos, or the universe as a harmonious whole.
In addition to symbolic meanings, Perucchini’s painting has political purposes. Its title alludes to the controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation by American director D W Griffith, widely denounced for its racist portrayal of African Americans. Perucchini’s mural is titled Rebirth of a Nation and makes manifest the potentiality of images to alter beliefs and narratives, to change the dark days of the winter into the light of the summer while acting as a political tool to alter present and future lives.
Curator of Programmes