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Neither Reality Nor Memory: Aida Amoako On Black Artists' Use Of Found Materials
Aida Amoako , April 1st, 2023 09:32

With the publication of her new book As We See It, about the groundbreaking work of a new wave of Black artists, Aida Amoako takes a close look at three artists taking collage and appropriation in a whole new direction

Délio Jasse, Pontus, 2012 © Délio Jasse. Courtesy the artist and Tiwani Contemporary

In his ongoing series As We Recede, Lagos and Berlin-based multidisciplinary artist Emeka Okereke presents a photograph of a photograph. The black-and-white image of a young woman dressed in a patterned dress, gele and holding a smart black handbag, stands out against the yellowing page of an old photo album. It’s an exhibit at the National War Museum in Umuahia, Nigeria, which aims to preserve among other things, stories and artefacts from the Nigerian-Biafran war that took place between 1967 and 1970.

In 2016, Okereke together with nine other Nigerian artists making up the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Association, took an epic forty-five-day trip across Nigeria visiting museums, public archives, and memorials, talking to writers, historians and survivors, looking to communicate the multiplicity of remembrance and public history in this former British colony. Okereke’s image of an image is a memorialisation of the act of memorialisation. The artist’s own philosophy has often focused on the idea of “re-imaging”. Where reimagining means to conceptualise something differently, re-imaging means specifically to create a new image of something. In light of this, the image of the image of Mrs Effiong pulls this snap into the realm of art invoking a reflection on the processes of personal and public memory that created this historical document out of a vernacular photograph.

While researching and writing my book As We See It, which explores Black points of view on visual art and the idea of Blackness itself, I was struck by the refreshing use of found materials to interrogate notions of collective memory and the overbearing nature of Western perspectives. Found photographs and documents form the basis of several of Delio Jassé’s works, for instance. The Angola-born, Milan-based artist creates dramatic screenprints with which he explores the tensions and contradictions evoked in the memorialisation of colonial-rule of African nations like Angola and Mozambique. His 2016 and 2018 series The Lost Chapter, Nampula, 1963 and Nova Lisboa, respectively, use archive photographs of colonial era Huambo, Angola (which was then called New Lisbon), and Nambula, Mozambique. The white middle-class figures the photos depict in their well-tailored jackets, the children in pristine dress and Sunday School shoes, their gleaming cars, all evoke a mythic Americana-style nostalgia that Jassé interrupts with reminders of the colonial violence that afforded them that fantasy and excluded the majority Black populations of these countries.

Despite pulling from archives for his art, Jassé has described his work, which has, for example, superimposed images of immigration documents and bureaucratic stamps, as situated in a space that is “neither completely real nor completely fictitious, neither reality nor memory”. The bold calling to his process of cyanotypes, screenprints and overlays embodies his ideas about cultural, collective and personal memory. Jassé was himself an undocumented immigrant for years when he moved to Portugal from Angola aged just eighteen. Serie Black Portrait transforms found passport photographs depicting smartly-dressed men into gelatin prints almost resembling cameo portraits. Signatures and the dotted lines on which they were scribbled. The work is a protest against attempts to reduce notions of identity solely to what an official document alone can convey.

Délio Jasse, Serie Black Portrait, 2018 © Délio Jasse. Courtesy the artist and Jahmek Contemporary

In 2014, #Bringbackourgirls became a social media trend and a call to action after 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their village in Chibok, southern Nigeria by Islamist terror group Boko Haram. Abuja-based artist, photographer and journalism graduate Rahima Gambo’s distinctive method of visual storytelling creates an immersive experience of the lingering trauma haunting communities threatened by the group. Education is Forbidden, a series the artist created between 2015 and 2016, combines found illustrations taken from science textbooks with her own documentary photography, writing and film to depict the lives of schoolchildren in north-eastern Nigeria as they try to get an education amidst the rise of Boko Haram. In one image, Rukkua and Hadizai, two schoolgirls sitting in a tree are juxtaposed with a dot-to-dot outline of a bird. Like Jasse, Gambo’s mix of materials, including found visual imagery, not only evoke a sense of historicity but call attention to the materiality of the objects in question and then invite projections and reflections on the lives of those who encountered these objects, the children who might have flipped the pages of those books, who might have completed the dot-to-dot left poignantly unfinished.

Vernacular photographs and the found illustrations here are images created with innocence and earnestness, from a desire to capture, to document for posterity in the former, and the desire to educate and entertain in the latter. The way these three artists use and transform these materials speaks to the rituals we use to memorialise the everyday in the context of huge socio-political events like the colonisation of a country, the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls, a years-long and bloody civil war. These objects move from personal memento to historical artefact to art without shedding their previous states but rather accumulating new significance and context. Their ordinariness, their banality becomes fetishised for the intimate insight they give into the people they depicted or who used them but also elevated. As with the other artists highlighted in As We See It, the work seeks to afford the people depicted, the people the works are about (ie. Black people), the fullness of their humanity. In context, the use of vernacular photography and found art, the digging into the personal archive, provides a lens to look at these events which aren’t those of the news item or the historical archive despite borrowing from these places.

As We See It by Aida Amoako is published by Orion