As Soon as the Sun Sets
Curated by Nicholas Stavri
28 September - 1 November, 2023
The title of this exhibition, ‘As Soon as the Sun Sets’ serves as a reflection of Melania Toma’s time in Mexico following a residency at Casa Wabi, Oaxaca. Many who visit this place are captivated by its nature and history, and as a result, Oaxaca has become a site of cultural exchange, for ideas, spirits and stories of the ancient world reimagined in the modern era. Toma’s own experience of this curious landscape is reflected in this series of new paintings, inviting viewers to embark on a journey that draws so many parallels to its history and spirituality. By doing so, we discover a narrative that encapsulates the essence of Toma's creative process - a journey from meditation to manifestation.
Drawing inspiration from the interplay between the relentless Mexican sun, and its effect on the largely organic sculptures that she produced there, Toma's recent body of work explores language and our inherent limitations in engaging with the natural world. Driven by a desire to bridge this gap, Toma embarks on a visual and semantic inquiry that navigates the interactions between constructing and deconstructing our understanding of the real.
Toma’s residency was an opportunity for her to manifest her connection to the ecosystemic landscape of the Oaxacan coast into Totem-like sculptures. The conversations between her work and her newly discovered environment established an idea that nature could create a new language that exists beyond its physical form. An affinity emerged between her work and this new landscape, one that considers nature ‘prey' to the harshness of the sun.
Embarking on a pilgrimage into the unknown, in search of new meanings about humanity and nature, Toma sourced organic materials, rocks and a large disused fishing rope, to build the sculptures that she would later refer to as ‘totems’, a word derived from the Algonquian language to mean ‘kinship group’. This reflected Toma’s experience, her kinship with nature, and her awareness of the spiritual relationships between all matter. The concept of ‘kinship’ explored in the artist’s totems, takes inspiration from Donna J. Haraway’s notion of sympoiesis which examines the different types of cohabitation beyond individualism to relationships, connections with relatives, human and nonhuman others. The idea that kinship reflects sympoiesis, where everything exists at the same time and in the same place, paralleled the existence of Toma at that moment, connecting her to the surrounding elements.
During these walks, and her meditations under the sun, Toma observed how the materials that were collected and totemised, were transformed, not only on a material level but in a transcendent sense, communicating with her in a new language. The shapes and symbols left behind by the pressure of the sun’s rays formed an alphabet or key, willing her to feel its metamorphic energy, reminding her that everything is interconnected and in a continuous state of flux. Toma witnessed her totemic structures transform, burn, rot, and disintegrate, exposing new elements, symbols, letters, and the new language for her to unlock.
Wanting to create something that is permanent and yet changeable like the Oaxacan cultures and landscapes she had come to experience, the totems that she had made from a combination of natural and unnatural materials were different in their constructs, and yet found a way to complement each other in that moment. Their similarities became evident when they began to deconstruct and change under the unforgiving rays of the Mexican sun. Seemingly different in substance, their strengths and weaknesses were subject to the volatile orchestra of nature. In many ways, Toma's sculptures represent the theories of American philosopher John Dewey, who proposed the idea of opposing dualism between being and experience. The sun's depletion of the totems seemed to evidence his idea that there is no static being and no unchanging nature. Toma's awareness of the connections between matter and nature reflect his thinking that the human mind is part of nature and therefore human experiences are the result of a variety of interacting processes.
In the paintings on show in this exhibition, we are invited to observe Toma's experiences during her time in residency and rediscover the new symbols and language that she had uncovered through the natural depreciation of her sculptures in Mexico. The textile element and objects present in her totemic sculptures now provide an axis with which to view her wider practice.
This solo exhibition brings together previously unseen paintings and wall-based sculptures made in response to the Casa Wabi residency. The paintings are bright, powerful and invoke feelings of long summer days, in which oranges, yellows and whites are predominant with colours that are made directly from the ashes of burnt sculptures mixed with new pigments. It is a series of paintings that recount this transition, continuing the idea that nature is not changeless and nor are our experiences with it. The elements of fire and the life-giving glow of the sun that she had experienced in Mexico allow her to lean deeper into her work and create paintings directly linked to nature’s transformative energy. Through the tactile nature of her paintings, Melania Toma explores the interconnected worlds that inspired her, spanning past and present, human, and non-human, material and spiritual, as she seeks to rediscover her own primal energy.
The collection of paintings chosen for this solo exhibition illustrate the rhythm of the sun in the journey that Toma had come to experience in her residency, through a series of icons and symbols. The flowers are representative of the Oaxacan sun that gradually changes as the new stages of the day are introduced, beginning with the first painting portraying sunrise, moving into the peak of the day to the evening and back around again to dawn. The most significant painting of the exhibition ‘As Soon as the Sun sets’, depicts golden hour, when the sun is setting, making space for the moon to prevail.
Melania Toma is an Italian multi-disciplinary artist living and working in London. At the heart of her practice lies the exploration of the narrative of subjectivity – intersubjective we, within historically situated traversing webs of gender, power hierarchies, and ecological degradation. Toma has exhibited in several notable exhibitions since graduating with her Master’s degree in Fine Art, Chelsea College of Arts (UAL) in London, 2020. Some of her most recent exhibitions include the ‘London Design Biennale 2023’, ‘AiR’ (Casa Wabi, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, 2023), ‘From the Rattle’ (FOLD Gallery, London, 2023), SZN: Summer, SEASON, for Nocturnal Creatures (Whitechapel Gallery, 2022), ‘Pigeon Park 2’ (Manor Place, London, 2022).