Shadow – River Goddess by Adanma Nwankwo – review

“As relevant as it is today, its message will be evergreen as our cities continue to evolve”.
Review by: Alex HL Taylor
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Published: Monday 10 June 2024, 9:00pm

Shadow ~ River Goddess by Adanma Nwankwo
Shadow ~ River Goddess by Adanma Nwankwo

‘Shadow  ~ River Goddess’ is a performance piece by artist Adanma Nwankwo, filmed in October 2023 in the City of London. Created in honour of the Walbrook River, Nwankwo reminds us how our forgotten histories can reshape our relationship between nature and progress.

The Walbook River was once a vital tributary of the Thames, providing transportation for the Roman settlement and serving as a natural power source during the medieval period. Yet, as London restructured, the Walbrook was re-routed and eventually built over in the 15th and 16th centuries. Embodying the spirit of the river, Nwankwo performs as Shadow, walking the river’s route through Bank.

‘Shadow’ is a recurring character in Nwankwo’s work, representing the connection between the body and ancestral wisdom. As we meet Shadow, she’s adorned in a short white dress with a flowing train.

Nwankwo explains, “Shadow originates from my ‘Shadow and Light’ series. Here, ‘Shadow’ represents the unconscious, dressed in white, whilst ‘Light’ represents the conscious, who I dress in black. The colours of the two characters are inversed, challenging the negative preconceptions we hold of the subconscious. The formation of the Walbrook River inspired the dress – the two tributaries run as the sleeves and meet at the back, recreating the cascading flow of the river.”

Videography from Hans Lam, Shadow’s visual presence is striking against the pale stone of Bank’s historic buildings. She walks slowly, barefoot, in a sea of Londoners mostly dressed in black. Yet, most passers-by barely notice her.

I love how unbothered Londoners are; we’ve seen it all, so nobody cares what you’re doing. But in this instance, the passivity speaks to Nwankwo’s point – can we care? Will we notice if we look? If we aren’t curious about our histories, the natural world, or our mistakes, we will of course repeat them.

I winced as I watched Shadow’s train drift over the concrete, picking up dirt and pollution. It quickly reminded me of the sad state of the current UK waterways. Nwankwo’s work feels increasingly poignant as the sewage scandals mount; it’s as much as the viewer can do to watch and hope the polluting ends.

Shadow moves through an area once central to the slave trade. With Bank still a symbol of capitalist supremacy, a Black female body claiming space still takes strength, her slow steps embodying the steadfastness of the river.

Right until Shadow meets a crossing, where she politely gathers her train and waits for a green man. I was initially amused by Shadow’s politeness – not quite the behaviour I expected from an unwavering symbol of nature.

But quickly, I was struck by the juxtaposition – once a proud river, now at the mercy of a human system. A contradictory system, I was reminded as pedestrians rushed past her. Maybe the irony speaks to how haphazardly we have replaced our natural spaces.

Shadow ~ River Goddess by Adanma Nwankwo
Shadow ~ River Goddess by Adanma Nwankwo

As Shadow traverses the city, she walks past the bronze water installation by Cristina Iglesias, ‘Forgotten Streams’. It’s a reminder that Nwankwo is not the only artist inspired to share the lost story of the Walbrook. In Shadow’s efforts to connect with the spirit of the river, she invites us to reconnect our own subconsciousness with the earth.

But as I tried to follow Shadow’s footsteps meditatively, my focus was frequently interrupted. As Nwankwo is filmed, the London buzz is heard unevenly around her, interjected with static interference. Flickers of the cameraperson’s hand come into view. Unintentional or not, I realised that the river could no longer offer a quiet space for reflection.

‘Shadow ~ River Goddess’ is a piece that is simple in concept but layered in meaning. It pulls into question the past, present, and future of how we connect ourselves to nature and urban spaces in line with our values. As relevant as it is today, its message will be evergreen as our cities continue to evolve.

‘Shadow ~ River Goddess’ is available to view here.