IN THE STUDIO / Forbidden fruits: Frances Richardson

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The Independent Culture
Frances Richardson's work demands fresh eyes. We come to these large, sensual wood carvings conditioned by a sculptural heritage of minimalist and conceptualist perfection. The artist, however, has arrived here from a very different starting point. She might work in a tiny Vauxhall studio, but in spirit she is deep in the African bush. It is now three years since Richardson, inspired by a glimpse of a carved drum at a folk concert, travelled to Nigeria on a Commonwealth bursary to study carving. Initially she was disappointed. Aware that she was only being allowed to copy 'tourist' pieces, she decided to return home. A chance encounter, however, with master carver Segun Faleye led to his teaching her how to create the genuine article.

Richardson learnt the traditional Yoruba style of carving. 'We went out into the bush and made sacrifices,' she says. It was the first time that the secrets of the carving 'family' had been passed on to a white person. At college she had specialised in Romanesque art and the move from one archaic artform to another seemed natural. In both cases, too, she was dealing with narrative: 'I liked the discipline of having to tell a story. It was closer to ritual meaning than we are in the West.'

She began by carving the masks and drums which still decorate a wall of her studio. 'Segun told me to do what I wanted. So, with the story of Oya, for instance, I made up the composition. He said it was wonderful. He'd never seen the Oya story done in that style before.' Pushing the boundaries of a rigid tradition, Richardson found herself able to adapt the Nigerian motifs to suit what she was defining as her own purposes. 'I had been admitted into someone else's culture. But there was no point in just copying it. You have to learn to sing your own song. The main thing I learnt was how to be myself.' Although she felt at home in Africa, after a year she knew she had to return to England: 'I went into culture shock.'

The result is an extraordinary series of sculptures in which Richardson has travelled from figurative to abstract. She has found a new objectivity: 'I became instinctive. I was able to explore the wood itself.' Carving from whole trunks and branches she came to see the wood as containing two elements: 'circles and lines, masculine and feminine'. Translated into sculpture in its most obvious form this became the transitional piece Sex Bomb, a phallus incised with a deep, red vulval gash. This fascination with sexual duality has persisted. In Hades' Balls, Persephone's Pomegranate, Richardson offers a knowing comment on the tradition of mythical and natural androgyny, with a section through a wooden ball which is at once fruit and gonad.

Behind this preoccupation lies the artist's understanding that her own culture and that of the Africa she still, in a way, regards as home are united by universal concerns with creation and regeneration. 'Before I went to Africa the country and its art were merely a curiosity. It was only while I was living there that I realised that our concerns were very similar.' While there is nothing new about a western artist borrowing from African art, Richardson believes that her approach is essentially different from the connoisseurship of Matisse and Picasso. For a year she actually became an African artist: 'There are things I still can't talk about: they're so secret. I've been granted the ability to see through the barrier between different cultures. As long as we, in the West, maintain post-colonial superiority, the artists who taught me will keep their knowledge deep, dark and mysterious. Of course that suits most of us very well. But I want to get beyond that. I need to create something that's real.'

Rebecca Hossack Sculpture Garden, St James's Church, Piccadilly, W1 (071-434 4401). To 1 Oct.

(Photograph omitted)