The Ghost Among Us

Omar Victor Diop, Dutty Boukman, 1791, from the series Liberty, 2017

The violent reality of our colonial past is all too often swept aside – a denial that does little to heal the lingering wounds it first inflicted. Highlighting work by a number of contemporary artists, writer and curator Karin Bareman demonstrates how photography might be used to deconstruct colonial narratives, confront traumatic legacies and offer a voice to the ghosts of history.

Kevin Osepa, Stills from Con los santos no se juega, 2018

The trouble with ghosts is that they always come back to haunt us. They insist on being heard, seen, acknowl­edged. They return to demand justice, to remind us of our broken promises, our neglected duties and our unfulfilled responsibilities. To feel haunted by our past is not a pleasant experience. It is, however, an unavoidable one. In the case of the West’s colonial history, we should feel haunted. After all, the spec­tre of coloniality, and of its twin brother slavery, is entirely of our own making. For 400 years the West ruled the waves, conquered the globe, divided its spoils, disrupted local cultures, suppressed specific customs, and displaced millions of people, many of whom were entered forcibly into slavery. The consequences of coloniality reverberate across the world to this day, be it politically, social­ly, culturally or economically. And yet, the dark truths of coloniality remain relatively unaddressed within a Western context. So how can the ghosts of the colonial past be exorcised?

Vasco Araujo, Ethos #1, 2016

For starters, it helps to question the existing visual representation of colo­nial history, to interrogate its accuracy and veracity, and to clarify its use as a propaganda tool. Portuguese visual artist Vasco Araújo has produced many rich and complex works to this end. One such example is Ethos #1, an ornate solid wooden table embedded with reproductions of archival pictures and nineteenth­-century paintings. The photographic portraits depict key players at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, during which Africa was effectively divided between various European colonial po­wers. The principle of effective occupation was further established as the acceptable ground for colonial ex­pansion. The paintings show sup­posedly fierce battles between the colonial armies and the indigenous populations to achieve that goal. In reality, however, the superior firepower of European soldiers often quickly overwhelmed any local resistance. The embedding of the photographs in the table top hints at the colonial powers settling in for the long term. The table itself, of course, is highly symbolic of who has been allowed a seat – and thus a stake – in the decision making process.

Sammy Baloji, Stills from Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode 1, 2017

Sammy Baloji, Stills from Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode 1, 2017

Tracing the eco­nomic exploitation of the colonial past via the decline of the post­colonial present to the neo­colonial future of global capitalism plays a key role in Congolese artist Sammy Baloji’s oeuvre. In many of his photo­graphic works he explores architecture, industry and the urban environment, as well as the position of the human body within these spaces. In Baloji’s most recent film, Tales of the Copper Cross Garden: Episode 1, exhibited as part of documenta 14, the artist casts his eye over the fiery furnaces of a Gécamines copper processing plant. He marries these visuals with an archival recording of hymns by the Singers of the CopperCross of Elisabethville – present­ day Lubumbashi. Throughout the film, Baloji asserts that the Church’s mission shaped the indigenous population into a resigned but disciplined colonial workforce, an influence which continues to this day. Baloji hammers the message home by letting his camera linger on the worn machinery and the mind­-numbing drudgery of the tasks performed by the labourers.

Kevin Osepa, Stills from Con los santos no se juega, 2018

Kevin Osepa, Stills from Con los santos no se juega, 2018

Appealing to the ghosts directly is an approach promulgated by artists such as Kevin Osepa and Nicola Lo Calzo. Curaçao an photographer Osepa came to prominence last year with his gradu­ation project, Mester Blousé. Through a series of conceptually staged portraits and still lifes in which the colour blue took centre stage, he explored Brua: an Afro­Caribbean form of religion or spirituality once suppressed by Dutch colonial authorities and still consid­ered somewhat taboo. Alongside Mester Blousé, Osepa explored the same topic in a visually arresting and haunting short film entitled, Con los santos no se juega (you don’t play with the saints). In the film, the protago­nist tries to ascertain whether he is the victim of the evil eye, and how he could possibly cajole the spirits to protect him against this curse.

Nicola Lo Calzo, Images from the series Tchamba, 2017

Nicola Lo Calzo, Images from the series Tchamba, 2017

In one installation of The CHAM Project, an ongoing investigation into the memories of slavery in Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas, Italian photographer Nicola Lo Calzo also invokes the spirits. His images study Tchamba vodun, a reli­gion practiced in a region encompassing parts ofGhana, Togo and Benin. Tchamba is the name of one of the most danger­ous and powerful spirits around. It is the revenant of those that entered into slavery in West Africa, as well as those sold onwards via the Middle Passage to the Americas.The Tchamba spirit comes back to haunt the living having passed away as a slave, and having therefore been denied proper funeral rites.

Using documentary images alongside still lifes and more formal portraits, complemented by elaborate captions and in­-depth contextual informa­tion, Lo Calzo tries to capture a complex and intangible phenomenon. More importantly, he highlights the trauma of slavery still felt in Africa, an aspect that usually goes unacknowledged within the received history of the transatlantic slave trade. Additionally, Lo Calzo’s longitudinal and multilayered approach is emblematic of how incredibly complex issues can be addressed successfully through photography.

Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee, Inconspicuous spray of blossoms, from the series We've got the sun under our skin, 2019

A particularly dubious role in the sustaining of coloniality is played by travelogues, colonial novels and ethno­graphic accounts. Singapore ­born and London ­based artist Elizabeth GabrielleLee reworks this legacy in her series,We’ve got the sun under our skin. In this body of work, Lee juxtaposes extracts of colonial writing from the StraitsSettlements with images she created inBritain. Honing in on particularly con­tentious and pompous statements, Lee shows how both the indigenous females and the Malay landscapes are homog­enised, mystified, sexualised and objec­tified. Ingeniously, her work goes on to show how easy it is to photographically produce a confirmatory image. Through their mimicry, the resulting pictures effectively subvert the ethnographic gaze found in such writing.

Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Inheritance, 2019

Whilst Lee interrogates the detrimental claims made in colonial litera­ture and ethnography, Jasmine Togo-Brisby battles with the disci­pline of history. More specifically, she fights against disavowal, a form of systematic forgetting coined by cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Togo­-Brisby is a fourth generation South Sea Islander, whose ancestors hailed from Vanuatu. They were kidnapped by slavers operating in the South Pacific and put to work on Australian sugarcane plantations. Some 55,000 to 62,500 people were taken in this way from the early 1860s to the turn of the century. This practice was called blackbirding, a term that travelled to the Pacific from the transatlantic slave trade.

Togo­-Brisby’s use of the wet collodion process is a canny reference to the prevailing photographic method at the time blackbirding was rife. The long exposure time necessitated by the use of wet plates confers a dignity upon her sitters previously denied to their ancestors. Their solemn gaze demands affirmation of their rights to existence. The ships, blackbirds, skulls and plantation backdrops within the frame are obvious symbols of the trauma generated by this largely forgotten form of slavery.

Ivan Forde, Buxton Village Movement 1840, from the series Invocation, 2018

Two further projects delving into forms of resistance against colonial­ism are Invocation by the Guyanese­ born, Harlem ­raised artist Ivan Forde, and Liberty: Universal Chronology of Black Protest by Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop. The latter stages stylised and colourful self ­portraits which reimagi­ne historical turning points – as well as lesser­ known events and figures of black resistance – throughout the ages. This includes a portrait of Dutty Boukman, one of the leaders in the slave revolt that sparked the Haitian revolution, and a double portrait of Queen Nanny and her brother Quao, major figures within the Maroon resistance in eighteenth ­century Jamaica.

Forde stays closer to home in exploring the establishment of Buxton, Guyana in 1840. The town was founded by the collective purchase of land by a group of former slaves after the enactment of emancipation in 1838. Informed by interviews with the town’s inhabitants, including his great aunt, Forde has created an immersive body of work. It encompasses etchings, silkscreen prints and posters, cyanotypes, poetry and sculpture, all aiming to invoke a mytholo­gical past, produce an epic narrative, and to cast the village of Buxton into the role of the hero. Like Togo-­Brisby, Forde’s work also references early photographic history. Invented by John Herschel in 1842, the birth of the cyanotype coin­cides almost precisely with the foundations of one of the first self ­governed free black societies in Guyana.

The examples outlined here represent only a small handful of projects concerned with decoloniality to have been produced in recent years, with the artists chosen for their predilection for photography and film. Others interested in decoloniality work with sculpture, installation, performance, literature and theatre. But even this very limited survey shows that there is a genuine diversity and ingenuity of approaches towards an inevitably sensitive and ever complex topic. These practitioners each chal­lenge received history in their own way by offering alternative narratives. More importantly, far from exorcising colonial ghosts for the sake of western viewers, the works here respect and revere the spirits, return them to their rightful place and offer them the humanity they were denied at the time of their creation.

Karin Bareman's The Ghosts Among Us was first published in Unseen Magazine #7. Order a copy of your own here.

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