Field Work gathers the work of eight contemporary artists who have anchored their practice in a deep examination of the mechanics of history. Through their work, they find themselves looking back, both at their own past and at 'the past' in general, engaging in storytelling, or perhaps more specifically, in history-telling. The works selected for this exhibition often rely on retrospective, historiographical strategies, acts of excavation, collection or preservation, and a manifest interest in archaeological methodologies. Through the recovery and analysis of material effects such as the archive and the document, and immaterial effects such as the testimony, Field Work will present a chronicle of the artists' own readings.
Theo Eshetu's South, (from the photographic compositional essay The Mystery of History and My Story in His Story, 2015) takes as its starting point the photographic archive of former President of Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito, found in the Museum of Yugoslav History. Eshetu's grandfather was the Ethiopian Ambassador in Belgrade between 1966 and 1970, and so Eshetu's exploration of this museum archive is also a personal endeavour. As he looks for biographical clues and fragments of forgotten family history, Eshetu offers an oblique look at Cold War politics and the history of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Katia Kameli's L’Oeil Se Noie (2016) also invites unexpected connections through the personal appropriation of the photographic archive. The viewer is immersed in the history of Algeria through the photographic collection of a street stall in Algiers, where Mr Azzoug and his son have been selling postcards and reproductions of archival photographs for the last 30 years. Their eclectic archive, which includes images dating from the 1800s to the 1980s, proposes a chaotic iconography of the colonial and post-colonial period in Algeria and throws established historical narratives into question.
Speculation opened up by the re-appropriation of official documents is a source of inspiration for Robel Temesgen. In his ongoing work Another Old News, Temesgen gathers subjective accounts of old news stories before compiling them into hand-drawn newspapers. The work comments on the role of the written archive in formalising recent history, and the epistemic gaps between interpretations, personal recollections and official narratives.
Questions around the object as a repository for memory are present throughout the exhibition. Abraham Oghobase's Ken's Smoking Pipe (2016) is drawn from scans of the Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa's collection of smoking pipes found in his office in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The work addresses the (im-)materiality of photography, and questions the role of the object as a repository for memory.
Rita Alaoui's Objets Trouvés is an ongoing excavation project that the artist embarked on in 2014 and has since led to multiple works. Mimicking anthropological methods, Alaoui collects specimens such as fragments of decaying bones, wood, and organic and mineral residues that she finds while foraging in the beaches and forests surrounding Casablanca. Drawn after magnification, these remnants of bygone eras become small worlds in themselves, bearing testimony to the passage of time.
The notion of vestige, and of what is left behind, is also central to the work of Thierry Oussou. Oussou is currently working on a mock archaeological field-study realised in collaboration with students from the Department of Archaeology of the University of Allada, Benin. Set against a black paper background, Oussou's calligraphic and loosely gestural drawings borrow signs inspired by proto-languages and pre-historical symbols, lifted from history books and the internet, in an act of preservation of the written form.
Youssef Limoud's series of sculptures Ruins speaks of the material continuity between past and present through the relationship between time, architecture and landscape. The sculptures engage with a long tradition, dating back to the 18th century, of artists exploring themes of history and decay through the ruin. Yet it is the pervasiveness of contemporary representations of demolished structures, in particular in relation to the current conflict in the Middle East, that compelled the artist to produce the works. The sculptures evoke a compounded notion of time, in which the past (representing destruction) and the future (what will remain) collide.
A non-linear notion of time is also at play in Kitso Lynn Lelliott's video I was her and she was me and those we might become (2016). The work, which engages with socio-cultural formations that took shape over the Atlantic during the African slave trade, resonates with a conception of deep time: several timelines that overlap and contest but are ultimately intertwined in multiple histories. Lelliott highlights the impossibility of combining multiple accounts and experiences into one single and fixed story, and instead follows the meanderings of plural, layered narratives: in harmony, in dissonance, in growing apart and coming together.
In a global culture of acceleration, the work of these artists stands against the forward march of monolithic Hegelian master narratives. Crucial to the investigative acts of reconstructing and recovering, they delve into archives and historical collections to seek out the facts and fictions of the past that have mostly been discarded by the canon. Collectively, these artists address the current crises of both historiography as an intellectual discipline and history as an academic field of enquiry.