Matthew Arthur Williams review – essential explosion of working class clichés

This show immediately puts you face to face with the artist. The portrait, which hangs on a grass-green wall, shows Matthew Arthur Williams naked and bent over with his elbows on his knees and his arms intertwined in front of his chest. The trigger is in his hands as he watches us. The image is suspended to the point of capturing and also of being captured: a completely gripping moment.

Williams is a Glasgow-based photographer, visual and sound artist and DJ who works through these media to bring out ideas about collaboration, representation, family, love and resistance. In Soon Come, her first major solo exhibition in the UK, Williams delves into her personal and ancestral past to explore home, work and time.

The themes of the exhibition revolve around this title, Soon Come, an expression used in the West Indies to recognize that you will return, apart from a commitment to the specifics of time. It encourages a slowing down, a confidence that at some point you will come back. This notion of slowness is reproduced in William’s production, using mainly analog techniques. In his black and white photography and his 16 mm film, we always feel his attention.

Moving from the Williams portrait to the first gallery space, a low square plinth takes up most of the floor. Flattened beneath his glass are images of the crumbling pottery chimneys of Stoke-on-Trent, medals from his grandfather’s bus service and rows of terraced houses. We look down, encircling these landscapes from above, scaled skewed because the image of a small pin badge takes up as much space as the potbellied chimneys. A comment perhaps on the scale of these industrial sites and the monumental amount of unseen labor required to keep them running.

Photographs from William’s archive are framed on the surrounding walls: close-up crops of larger images of Jamaica and Stoke, the artist’s ancestral homes. In one, we see a grave, open, surrounded by polished shoes and formal coats, the coffin-shaped hole seeming endless. Overlooking this room are two portraits, one of Williams’ aunt and one of his uncle. Hanging from opposite walls, they look in opposite directions. We meet them in the middle.

The sound drifts through the door at the back of the space, leading us into the second gallery, vast and dimly lit. Two screens face each other, watched back and forth like a tennis match, as William’s film of his family’s journey is told through stories from Jamaica to the UK, where they sought work .

The film is a collage of archival documents, performances and found footage. In one scene, a bird of prey soars above the industrial landscape of Stoke, echoing the previous piece. In another, hands grasp and revolve around arms, a point of connection and unity in a scene of flow. As the film draws to a close, Chosen Few’s People Make the World Go Round echo through the gallery. The accompanying shot, a bright orange sun scorching at the end of the day, casts a golden glow over the space, illuminating the showcases suspended from the ceiling at the far end of the gallery. These bright yellow cases contain other artifacts from William’s archives: his grandfather’s metal medallions and other engravings, including one depicting a wall adorned with the graffiti: “Hustler”.

Throughout, Williams shines a light on the often-overlooked side of Britain’s working class: how when we historically think of miners, earth-moving machinery and factory workers, we tend to think of white people, those who live in terraced streets who work daily. Rarely mentioned is the importance of the work done by immigrant communities during this time, those people who were welcomed into our belching factories but never recognized for their contributions that helped the country grow.

Some Come is both essential and compelling. As we leave, we see one last self-portrait of Williams, this time not looking at us but out of frame in the gallery, toward his personal inner landscape, as if he would always return to that place we are now moving away from. He leaves us with the thought that the house is, all at once, the place where we are, the place where we are born and the place we make – and no one has the right to dispute this.

• Matthew Arthur Williams: Soon Come is at Dundee Contemporary Arts until March 26th.

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