Josi Smit’s exhibition We Should Be Dancing, shown this past summer at London’s Forest City Gallery, gives viewers a peek into the colour-filled, disco-centred youth of her mother and their identities as mother and daughter. The exhibition is the artist’s first solo show, among numerous group and partnered exhibitions throughout her career. As a maker, Smit is primarily focused on nostalgia and desire, with this body of work serving as a vivid and passionate addition to her portfolio. We Should Be Dancing presents viewers with a nostalgic yet pointed exploration of young adulthood and the function of the archival image in the process of coming of age, for both Smit and her Maman.
Entering the space, the viewer’s attention is pulled around the room between lightboxes, colourful video, and striking caftans. Immediately, the pieces feel in conversation with each other, each carefully placed work calling to another in darting patterns. The gallery space is intimate, making the negative space between each work feel silently animated; each piece pulls attention toward itself and sends it across the room to the next one in harmony. Driving this interaction are three small wooden lightboxes in the style of 70s televisions. The TVs function as a triptych, each showing an image of Smit’s Maman from the family archive. The images are airy and filled with movement, featuring only Smit’s Maman. These photos have clearly been taken by a friend amongst the excitement and anticipation of a night out when the energy is building and possibilities are endless.
The dreaminess and effortless fun of the images compel the viewer to long for those carefree and shameless moments the disco scene of the 70s provided. Emphasized by the mirror-topped side tables on which the televisions sit, the triptych is grounded in the home and nostalgia for the atmosphere of disco rather than the disco itself. It is clear that free-spirited disco values were present in the home as Smit was growing up, even though she was not a participant. The feeling of longing for the past is continuously grounded in family and something shared. It is not the disco floor Smit implores the viewer to long for but the elaborate and tangled bond between a mother and a daughter.
Furthering this meditation on the mother-daughter relationship and coming of age, directly next to two of the televisions hangs Desire will take you through the day (oncidium shadow dream 2023/1977), two large-scale semi-transparent images, one of the artist (left) and one of the artist’s mother (right). The image on the right originates from a found photograph of Smit’s mother with her back to the camera in a bedroom wearing an open-back black and gold bodysuit. The image to its left is a replication of that photograph by the artist. The left image is a self portrait, staged to mimic the archival one. Smit wears the same bodysuit as her mother and assumes the same stance. Smit’s decision to pair these archival photos with images of herself identifies both the act of getting ready to go out and the act of looking through images from her mother’s youth as rites of passage into womanhood. In mimicking the action of her mother the two women come of age together. The artist is meeting her mother as a young woman, someone who is like herself in addition to being someone she wishes to emulate. It is magnificent and singular. The pull to be like her mother and the care to understand her is palpable in Smit’s diptych.
Moving through the gallery it is impossible to pull attention away from the brilliant spinning caftans hanging from the ceiling. Attached via a gold chain link and propped by stylish gold hangers, five caftans ranging in colour from deep orange to effervescent blue spin slowly. The fabric is a polyester blend, a textile common in disco fashion and printed in vibrant colour. Turning slowly on disco ball motors, these soft sculptures illuminate the space and bring physical movement to the stills presented in the televisions and wall diptych. The garments hang at eye level, ghostly dancers inviting the viewer to join them. They wait ready to be thrown on at a moment’s notice by anyone game to join the party. Rather than a more structured or explicitly gendered item of clothing, these caftans encapsulate the convictions of disco: sequins and extravagance for all, freedom and self expression for all. Smit’s caftans are not only a direct reference to a popular style in the disco culture but also made so that any kind of viewer may envision themself dancing the night away alongside Smit and her Maman in one of these ensembles.
Rounding out the room and directly across from the mother-daughter diptych is the final piece in the exhibition. Projected onto the wall is Smit’s video work, Dancing dancing, our feet keep dancing dancing dancing through the night until morning light shines on us (a rumor has it that it’s getting late). In a grid of colourful squares a single silhouette dances, occasionally cutting from square to square. Underneath the figure, subtitles for an unheard song appear. By far the most noticeably absent aspect of disco culture within the gallery is music. The gallery space remains as silent as ever despite the dancers in all their forms throughout the exhibition. As the silence grows, the work becomes more haunting. Had there been music the work would feel at hand, while the quiet atmosphere highlights that these are memories and reflections, something that once was and now cannot be recalled in fine detail. The quiet of the gallery reminds the viewer that the artist is reflecting and imagining the life of her mother before. The visual cues of disco are all around but the driving force is the artist’s connection to her mother. Rather than being whisked away by disco classics and the fleeting evenings of youth, immersion in silence grounds the exhibition in reflection and memory.
Using the visual language of disco culture, Smit creates a heartfelt and intimate reflection on the experience of coming of age as a young woman. Her use of the archival image and references to familiarities of the era creates an ambiguous time and reflective space wherein she and her mother come of age together. We Should Be Dancing is a considered and extraordinary look at the complex nature of being a daughter, becoming a mother, and what it is to understand one’s mother as a woman.
Kenna Robinson is an emerging artist and writer based in Toronto. She is currently in her third year at Toronto Metropolitan University where she studies photograph
Kenna is part of Centred’s Emerging Visual Arts Writers Mentorship Program. She was mentored by John Nyman in the writing of this review. Centred is grateful to the London Arts Council for the generous support of this mentorship project.
Images courtesy of author