Grace Before Jones: An Introduction by Cedric Fauq, Curator

Richard Bernstein, Grace Jones Mask for Warm Leatherette, 1980. The Estate of Richard Bernstein.
Richard Bernstein, Grace Jones Mask for Warm Leatherette, 1980. The Estate of Richard Bernstein.

"One spotlight on your face. That’s all you need to generate mystery".
- Grace Jones, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, 2015.

It might seem surprising that a contemporary art centre is dedicating an exhibition to Grace Jones (or, as I like to say, "through and around Grace"). But contemporary art often takes you to strange places. When the idea first emerged, almost two years ago, it was just an intuition. But we quickly came to realise that something meaningful could be done, in that specific and sometimes too rigid format of the exhibition.

Grace is the embodiment of many topics that Nottingham Contemporary has been exploring in recent years: black image-making; gender and performance; and the production of popular culture. Her career has many facets--music, but also fashion, design and cinema--and she collaborated with some of the best-known artists of the postwar period: Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe, to name but a few.

These arguments convinced us that an exhibition on Grace Jones could work (oddly enough, no one had staged such a project before).

But as the curator of the project, together with Olivia Aherne, I rapidly faced many questions: should it act as a biography? Could such an exhibition include everything audiences would expect from a presentation of this kind? Did we want people to leave the exhibition knowing more about Grace? At one point, I even wondered whether a more interesting challenge would be to include no images of Grace Jones at all. That idea, of both showing and withholding, would go on to shape our research and selection.

You will encounter many pictures of Grace Jones covering her face, playing hide-and-seek, not fully revealing herself. Grace plays with the camera in a singular way, always looking for the lens while at the same time escaping or confronting it. In her memoir, she describes a photograph taken by Anthony Barboza, used as the poster image for this exhibition: "Tony took a lovely, unsparing and very peaceful close-up of my face, lips slightly parted in either defiance or invitation [...] It was one of the first-- if not the first--professional photographs taken of me, a moment of birth. I am not looking behind. I am looking straight ahead."

One of the most fascinating things about Grace is the way in which she made, at the end of the 1970s, a dramatic shift from disco to dub. We often forget that Grace Jones was, first of all, a disco queen. While this is made clear throughout the exhibition, we also wanted to draw a line between the glitter and feathers of her disco period and what came after, in the 1980s and early 90s.

This is conveyed by the DIY treatment of the spaces and the exhibition design, devised with local architect Borja Vélez. The exhibition makes use of theatre flats as dividers and walls. From the beginning of the project, we were interested in the idea of the "backstage" as a threshold space. Several videos and photographs show Grace in backstage situations or in the recording studio. Ultimately, the whole exhibition is intended to act like a kind of studio, a place where things are trialled and rehearsed, a place that allows for failure and experiment.

So that is why the show is subtitled "Camera, Disco, Studio". But why "Grace Before Jones"? There are many ways to answer that question: since Grace isn’t Grace’s original name; since "grace" also means effortless elegance; or since an exhibition of this kind can never be complete--it is continually shifting. Grace Before Jones does not attempt a fully-fledged overview of Grace Joness’ career (how could it, when her career is still very much evolving?).

Because of this, we couldn’t put an end to the exhibition, so you may leave with a feeling of unfinished business, or of the lights coming up before the night is over. In various ways, the exhibition extends beyond Grace Jones herself: some pieces jump back to earlier figures; others only have intuitive relationships to her; while many were made with and for her, by a community of creatives decimated by the AIDS crisis (one of the final moments of the exhibition).

While Grace Before Jones does not follow a conventional chronology, it does open with the first professional photograph of Grace (taken by Anthony Barboza) and ends with one of her leaving Andy Warhol’s funeral (by Catherine McGann). This booklet develops upon the exhibition’s themes and two galleries-- "Right Light" and "Night Sight"--to give context, anecdotes and some historical anchors.

We hope you enjoy the show!

- Cédric Fauq