Sheida Soleimani

Birds of Passage

Exhibition review by Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher visits the latest exhibition at Denny Gallery, New York, Sheida Soleimani: Birds of Passage, an ongoing collaborative project which sees the artist work with her parents Mâmân and Bâbâ – two Iranian pro-democracy activists and refugees – to translate their traumatic experiences of political exile leaving Iran in the 1980s via densely layered images that half-document, half-mythologise family lore.


Spring 2023: I am at Edel Assanti, London, where a hand-drawn map, embedded with photographs, covers every inch of the gallery’s walls as part of Sheida Soleimani’s ambitious series Ghostwriter. The interplay between image and sketch, combined with the map’s lack of perspective, creates a subtle sensation that the ground is moving beneath my feet. The feeling is overwhelming, unexpected and seemingly involuntary as the map pulls me in. It recalls the city-bending scene in Inception (2010) when Ariadne (played by Elliot Page) rebuilds the landscape of a Parisian street with her imagination without being bound by the laws of physics. Whilst Solemaini’s map in Ghostwriter is more rudimentary – the frenetic and urgent blue mark-making feels more akin to something you might scribble privately on the back of a napkin for a friend – it is nevertheless effective in creating a disorientating spatial sensation that defies gravity.

Experiential storytelling is the driving force of Ghostwriter. In the ongoing collaborative project, Soleimani works with her parents Mâmân and Bâbâ – two Iranian pro-democracy activists and refugees – to translate their traumatic experiences of political exile leaving Iran in the 1980s. The duo opposed both the Shah government and the Ayatollahs’ totalitarian regime. Bâbâ went into hiding as Iran began to tighten its response to political dissent before eventually fleeing on horseback. At the same time, Mâmân endured solitary confinement and worse before finally reconnecting with him in the US.

The map at Edel Assanti, drawn by Bâbâ, traces his escape route through Iran, coming over the Zagros mountains into Turkey. Situated within it are Soleimani’s photographic assemblages – densely layered images half-documenting, half-mythologising family lore—which act like map keys unlocking specific scenes and information about their stories. For Soleimani, the gallery is a portal, a theatre of ideas to engage with the complexity of surviving political exile.

Autumn 2023: I am at Denny Gallery, New York, standing in Soleimani’s latest iteration of Ghostwriter, Birds of Passage. On this occasion, the map doesn’t pull you in but instead drops you, like Google Street View, into Mâmân’s detailed sketch of Namazi Hospital in Shiraz, Iran. The location is significant. It’s not only the site in which the couple first met in 1975 and their place of work (Bâbâ was training to be a doctor and Mâmân a nurse), but was also a site of resistance during the revolution. As surveillance increased for activists, Mâmân and Bâbâ began holding dissenter meetings in the operating theatre to avoid detection.

Birds of Passage is the third installation in the Ghostwriter continuum. Each chapter jumps through time, weaving together emotional truths with larger socio-political issues in a labyrinthine journey. The first chapter, On the Wall, presented in Providence College Galleries in 2022, was set on a map of the courtyard of Mâmân’s childhood home, where Bâbâ went into hiding for many years. In contrast to the second chapter at Edel Asanti, which offered a macro view of her parents’ lives predominantly focused on Bâbâ’s escape, Soleimani utilises the smaller square footage at Denny Gallery to present a concise micro-chapter on her mother’s psychological experience at the hospital and later in solitary confinement before her escape in 1976.

Like all the images in Ghostwriter, the complex stagecraft in Birds of Passage is informed by Dada collage, magical realist texts, political puppetry, propaganda poster design and feminist craft practices. Soleimani chops, collages and sculpts images to set the scene in her theatrical three-dimensional tableau. Objects, drawings, prints and fabric, sourced and crafted by the trio, are vessels for the story, set against a flaunting of fantastical shapes, colours and textures that create unique visual codes, networking the different chapters together.

One of the most significant codes in the series is taken from an ancient Persian game of Snakes and Ladders. The grid – which sometimes appears only subtly as a motif in the background and other times dominates the entire narrative of the image – alludes to the games immigrants are forced to play to survive as well as the elements of chance, risk and reward involved in the process of her parents’ journey. Soleimani plays with these contractions to build atmosphere and tension, shifting between beauty and peril, the alluring and the unnerving, holding us in limbo.

Ghostwriter is the first time Soleimani has turned the camera inwards. For the last decade, the artist’s practice has centred on geopolitics in the SWANA region, focusing on human rights violations and how governments fail to provide for their people. Now, we see the artist explore these themes through a personal lens in an attempt to retrieve, index and preserve her family’s story whilst examining the consequences of political systems reducing citizens to “abstractions”.

Time is not always linear in Ghostwriter as the artist grapples with how these stories have been told throughout her life. Since Soleimani was an infant, her parents, who didn’t believe in therapy, used storytelling to manage their PTSD and metabolise their traumatic displacement. At first, their experiences were shaped into a kind of autofiction – retold through protagonists like Mr Jones and his dog Bill over tea, on long car journeys and at bedtime – but as Soleimani and her sister got older, the stories became less censored and more matter-of-fact. “My parents didn’t want me to grow up and think of the world as an idyllic place,” she says. “They wanted me to know the truth.”

A commitment to ‘deep listening’, coined by the late American avant-garde composer and scholar Pauline Oliveros, shapes Soleimani’s life and practice. Oliveros distinguished hearing and listening – the latter a corporal experience that involves an acute awareness of the external and internal, spoken and unspoken, whilst paying attention to the multiple realities at play. Deep Listening embodies the trio’s co-creation process in Ghostwriter. Together, they patchwork different perspectives, memories and emotions from their collective past, dismissing the notion of singular truth and instead holding space for how trauma and the passing of time allow for new modes of (mis)interpretation.

Despite the shielded identity of her protagonists to limit the threat of ongoing persecution, there is a relational quality born from this work and how Soleimani unfolds the intimate geography of their lives. We become invested in them and their story. In theory, Ghostwriter’s biggest threat is becoming sentimental, a saccharine ode to the artist’s radical parents. However, Soleimani’s bold and imaginative narration goes beyond negotiating her family history and offers a conduit for a new way of seeing and feeling.

After experiencing Birds of Passage, I realised the difficulty of isolating these exhibitions. Whilst they are successful as their own entities, the work’s real draw is born from the visitor’s engagement with the work through its constant iteration. She may not admit it, but Soleimani rewards our loyalty. Her provocation to us as viewers is to code-break. Pay attention. Notice every detail and how they build, shift or morph over time. To remain committed to deep listening. ♦

Images courtesy the artist, Edel Assanti, London, and Denny Gallery, New York © Sheida Soleimani

Installation views of Birds of Passage, at Denny Gallery, New York, from 5 September – 7 October 2023.


Gem Fletcher is a writer and host of The Messy Truth podcast, a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. Her writing has been published in Foam, Aperture, British Journal of Photography, Creative Review, It’s Nice That and AnOther.

Images:

1-What a Revolutionary Must Know, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

2-Noon-o-namak (bread and salt), 2021 © Sheida Soleimani

3-Crying Quince, Laughing Apple, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

4-Khoy, 2021 © Sheida Soleimani

5-Agitator, 2023 © Sheida Soleimani

6-Panjereh, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

7-Remorse, 2023 © Sheida Soleimani

8-Behind the Door, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

9-Safar, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

10-Field Hospital, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

11>13-Installation views of Birds of Passage, at Denny Gallery, New York.

Lina Pallotta

Porpora

Book review by Mariacarla Molè

An exhibition at Centro Pecci in Prato, Italy, and accompanying book published by Nero brings together nearly three decades of work from Lina Pallotta centred on the artist’s friendship with Italian trans activist Porpora Marcasciano. What emerges is a family album shaped by alliances, complicit looks and shared visions; a newfound space of fabulousness, writes Mariacarla Molè.


“Among the roses and the violets” is the title of a nursery rhyme that little girls used to sing whilst playing “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” in kindergarten. A sweet image that turns bitter in Porpora Marcasciano’s memory of a little child rebuked by nuns, mocked by other children for being a little boy in the circle of girls and thus forced to sing alone and dream in the privacy of the bedroom. And among the roses and the violets seems to have bloomed the lilies, such as in the first image of Porpora by Nero, a project that collects black-and-white analogue photographs that Lina Pallotta has taken of the Italian trans activist Porpora Marcasciano between 1990 and 2018, with text contributions by Porpora herself, Kae Tempest, Raffaella Perna and Allen Frame. The story’s flow slowly reveals her face, and, before it is fully disclosed, identifies a barely hidden profile, some home interiors and the apostles on top of the Church of San Giovanni Laterano in Rome, one of the cities in which the friendship between Porpora and Pallotta emerged. It has been nourished by revolutionary dreams, irreparable losses, class consciousness and euphoria.

Porpora lived in Rome for 17 years but founded, in 1979, the first gay collective Il narciso in Bologna, where she contributed to the birth of the movement Movimento Identità Trans (MIT), of which she is now president. In New York, where Pallotta went to study at the International Center of Photography (ICP) and lived for many years, she had many visits from Marcasciano, as well as in San Bartolomeo in Galdo (Porpora’s hometown), and in San Salvatore Telesino (Pallotta’s hometown), both in the same southern Italian province of Benevento in the Campania region. It is the geography of a history of activism, of a life, of a friendship told through images without following a chronological order. It’s a story with a slow and recessed beginning, that narrates a material presence, a tenacious presence, proving an existence, even in the flowers, reflected in other people, in the empty streets, in Rome’s 2011 Europride crowd, in the flooding Tiber River and in the wide landscapes of Benevento. We see Porpora blurred in the foreground, looking at the camera, looking elsewhere, melancholy and barely visible in the grainy dark. The darkness and grittiness of the photographs, exalted by the porosity of paper, are due to the missed use of the flash and of the long exposure, in order to capture the movement in the images.

In Pallotta’s photographs, there’s nothing it is not in reality, no composition, no additional light, no static objects. Indeed, Pallotta places an absolute identity between the image and the movement, with the intention of catching the eternal and incessant modulation of a reality that changes infinitely. Images are restless, considered as parts of the eternal march of time. The photographs thus are dirty, grainy and chaotic because reality is dirty, grainy and chaotic. And any form of overlapping images is not an effect of post-production but the result of errors, unforeseen events with the camera that have been accepted within an artistic practice, as they were parts of reality. That is the case with two photographs taken in Bologna in 2015. In the first, Porpora is in the centre of the frame, and nearby her right shoulder seems to have opened a window onto another view, with another light, orientation and subject. In the second, even more chaotic, it is possible to identify an overlapping vehicle, one issue of Babilonia on the ledge – one of the most important gay Italian periodicals – a window, Porpora sitting in front a little mirror that looks like a little inflatable pool, some branches or maybe just their shadows, some clouds or maybe just their reflection. What emerges is how Pallota’s cinematographic approach is able to move things from their statis and return them to their multifaceted reality precisely by virtue of the camera.

Pallota manages to show the artificiality of the static nature of the subject-object relationship and transform it into something closer and intimate. At this level, it is not even possible to speak of “portraits”, “intimate shots” or “engaged photographs” because it is as if everything were a world of universal variation, universal undulation, universal lapping: there is no genre, no themes, no chronology, no beginning, middle nor end, and, in turn, no chance at all of nostalgia. It is a story that does not have a privileged point of view, which seems to have come from behind the scenes; a story sometimes opaque which gradually opens up to welcome other people inside, such as loved ones, friends, activists – and above all Marcella Di Folco, the Italian gay rights activist, actor and politician. The public dimension then spreads in the book session dedicated to the material archive linked to the history of the LGBTQ+ Movement, in the same spirit in which Porpora collects oral sources and documentation for the reconstruction of a trans story. A book that has only a name on the cover, Porpora, cannot tell a story by the voice of a single narrator, not even that of a long-lasting friend such as Pallotta. In the last photograph, indeed, the only one taken by a common friend on a rooftop in New York in 1996, we see Lina and Porpora very close to each other. Lina is looking straight into the camera with her head on Porpora’s shoulder who, in turn, points a camera at the lens and seems to look us through the camera lens, making us part of the story.

This idea extends to the exhibition at Centro Pecci, Prato, Italy, Volevo vedermi negli occhi, the first solo exhibition in an Italian public institution of Pallotta, curated by Michele Bertolino and Elena Magini: the desire to see yourself reflected in others’ eyes, and again we are part of a story that can only be multiple beginnings, multiple points, multiple times. In the curved and organic space of Pecci, Porpora’s photographs progressively unveil the material presence of the photograph. The large format prints placed on the floor supporting one another, together with the small format ones hanging on the wall, create multiple paths and different readings. The exhibition is thus palindromic, the idea behind it being the loss of a privileged perspective, moving the only way forward. Owing to the fact that movement is the core of Pallotta’s photography, whilst in Porpora’s experience trans is meant as moving, in transit, releasing the tension between the two poles of the gender binarism. Freestanding photographs are witnesses of a life of militancy which has gone through attempts of removal and the research of a vocabulary, to reclaim their own existence, but also through what Porpora calls “fabulousness”. One image in particular seems to contain all this richness, the one taken in Rome in 2011 in which Porpora is behind the glass putting up a poster of Divergenti, an international festival of trans cinema, conceived by MIT in Bologna. Reflected in the glass vehicles and palaces, the flowing city, beyond the glass, Porpora’s face is looking down, focused on what hands do: to project her vision on the entire city. That is an image of one of many little moments travelling in the stubborn direction to create other worlds, other visions, and not only in terms of cinema.

It is almost impossible to give an univocal interpretation to Pallotta’s photographic narrative of Porpora, as much as it is difficult to give a definitive reading to the scenes taken by her. Some will read this path as a diary of a collective body. Others will see in it a single story of a single person. I prefer to read it as a family album, a family shaped by alliances, complicit looks and shared visions, a family meant as a newfound space of fabulousness. ♦

All images courtesy the artist, Nero and Centro Pecci, Prato, Italy © Lina Pallotta

Porpora is published by Nero. Volevo Vedermi negli occhi runs at Centro Pecci, Prato, Italy, until 15 October 2023.


Mariacarla Molè is an art writer based in Turin.

Images:

1-Lina Pallotta, Piazza San Giovanni, Roma, Europride, 2011.

2-Lina Pallotta, San Salvatore Telesino, 2000

3-Lina Pallotta, Bologna, 2015

4-Lina Pallotta, Porpora and Valerie, 1994

5-Lina Pallotta, Roma, 1990

6-Lina Pallotta, New York, 1993

7-Lina Pallotta, Roma, Tevere, 1996

8-Lina Pallotta, Terranova Bracciolini, 2008

9-Lina Pallotta, Porpora, Roberta and Lucrezia, 1990

10-Lina Pallotta, Roma, Cattedrale di San Pietro, 1996

11-Lina Pallotta, San Bartolomeo in Galdo, 2018

Felipe Romero Beltrán

Dialect

Book review by Tanvi Mishra

The Foam Paul Huf Award 2023 and 2022 Aperture Portfolio Prize winner Felipe Romero Beltrán has released a new book with Loose Joints titled Dialect. Presenting the temporal dimension of the period of asylum which a group of nine young minors from Morocco navigate as they wait to be validated as documented citizens of Spain, it offers a possibility of restoring a personhood to the immigrant body, writes Tanvi Mishra. His solo exhibition at Foam Amsterdam runs until 1 May 2024.


Borrowing from the structural divisions of theatrical works, Felipe Romero Beltrán’s image-based series Dialect unfolds over three acts. Balancing between reality and recreation, it lies in the interstitial space of speculation. The photographs are not made in service of representation, but to gesture at the pace of a time. Flanked by two companion pieces – Recital and Instruction – which serve as prologue and epilogue, Dialect intersects with other theatrical forms of performance, choreography and film. Bringing these multiple pieces together, the book presents the temporal dimension of the period of asylum which a group of nine young immigrants from Morocco navigate as they wait to be validated as documented citizens of Spain.

The photograph has played a central role in the context of the recent migration to Europe and the refugee crisis. At certain times, to showcase its precarity – countless visuals of inflatable vessels at sea carrying tightly packed Black and Brown bodies. At others, its eventuality – images of people docking on the shores of Italy, Turkey and Spain, only to be confronted with the fortified system of border control. And this is with reference to those that make it alive. It is not just the photojournalistic image that has presented us this reality. Artists have staged the horror of bodies washed ashore, with an apparent motive of raising awareness. In these repeated acts of “bearing witness” or stirring a public conscience, there has emerged a surplus – thousands of images of groups of people in overloaded boats, in never-ending queues, in overcrowded refugee camps. They are not afforded names, nor any individuality, only pictured at the edge of a land that supposedly bears promise. Whilst the photograph no doubt serves to makes an incident visible, its repetition creates a numbness. Catalysed by this anaesthetisation, and depersonalisation, a public sentiment takes shape – the imminent “threat” associated with the immigrant from a foreign land.

In this archive of excess, the narrative often ends at the physical border. The immigrant is rendered nameless, but racialised. The border itself is imagined as the line that separates political boundaries, not one that extends far beyond it into detention or asylum centres or what Caterina Borelli refers to in her essay in the book as the ‘documentation regime’ that confronts every refugee. Beltrán’s commentary is located within the “custody and control” exercised by this extended border system, and the State’s desire – either by physical force or bureaucratic procedure – to organise the bodies that enter its territories. Both spatially and temporally, Beltrán expands the image archive beyond the repetitive documentation of the transgression of geographical boundaries.

Beltrán’s three-part act situates itself in an internment house in Seville, where a group of minors who have illegally crossed the border into Spain are housed until they reach adulthood and wait for their immigrant status to be shifted to naturalised citizens. It opens with, and periodically returns to, the impermeability of this edifice. All walls leading to a corner, the irony of doorways permanently sealed shut: serving as reminders of the futility of escape and the inevitable acceptance of the wait. Sociologist Pierre Bordieu recognised the act of making people wait, especially in anticipation of a favourable outcome, as an act of power and dominance. Youssef Elhafidi, one of the boys Beltrán photographs and author of one of the book’s essays, speaks about the desire for economic opportunity that motivated him to leave his family in Morocco and jump aboard a boat headed for the cold, dark Mediterranean in the dead of the night. It is this desire that is capitalised by the State as he enters its borders. The currency here is of time, or the ‘interlude’ as Albert Corbi refers to in his accompanying essay, which migrants must pay with to earn themselves a place in society. ‘[Illegal migrants] are exposed to an Interlude in which the language of the law and the language of Otherness are indistinguishable,’ Corbi states, referring to the limbo of one to three years that minor immigrants must endure once they reach adulthood in order to achieve a change in citizenship status. This process of waiting in and of itself, and the ‘strategy of delay’, serves to maintain the racial hierarchy of society[i].

Limbo, as an intermediate state, does not offer “incidents” to be photographed. It is in waiting, for the next condition that holds the prospect of movement, and freedom. In focusing on this period of suspension, Beltrán’s images oscillate between banality and theatricality. Mixing classical reportage with re-enacted scenes recalling the young men’s journey to Seville, the image-sequences allow us to speculate upon the documentary image, and the futility of these binaries imposed to evaluate its “truth” value. Moving through the three acts, the aesthetics deployed amplify the mundane – a pale colour palette, centre-weighted frames, often men looking back into the camera, reminiscent of images purposed for biometrics. In others, they are seen performing banal rituals of daily life. Unlike the theatre of the European coast, there is no drama in the images of the asylum walls, the unmade beds or the decaying fruit.

But the placid tenor of the edit is routinely disrupted by images charged with a speculative tension. A young man attempts to release two hands that grab his neck; two young men carry a third on their shoulders; another points two fingers to the right as if to aim fire. In these scenes of seemingly violent situations, the threat, however, appears to be muted. One of the two hands that grabs the neck holds the back of the head with care; the apparently collapsed body is carried against the backdrop of the familiar asylum walls; the hand that points beyond the frame has no weapon to hold. In collaboratively restaging experiences from the boys’ journeys to Spain, Beltrán places the record of waiting in the asylum in ‘dialogue with the crossing.’[ii] It is this dialogue, perhaps, that may offer a cathartic potential. Academic Zoé Samudzi refers to revisiting trauma as a space of potential knowledge production. In rejecting its ‘performative reiteration as a kind of re-wounding’ she advocates for a possibility to imagine healing ‘by learning how to refuse to reproduce it.’[iii]

The three works in the book borrow from reality, however, do not claim to be representative. Drawing from the experience of the body, each work elicits specific temporal characteristics of the immigrant ordeal. In positioning Recital as the precursor to the opening act of Dialect, Beltrán locates the narrative within the monotonous drone of bureaucracy and the legal system. Presented as a grid of screengrabs of three young men reading the first four pages of the Spanish immigration law, the book’s translation of the videos reinforces the repetitive burden and the simultaneous struggle to navigate a system built on the language of othering. Here, time acquires a circular characteristic, offering only an illusion of moving forward. Progressing from here to the three acts of waiting that follow, circular time mutates to dead time, and comes to a halt.

In choosing Instruction as the epilogue piece, Beltrán takes us back to the point of crossing, as if to initiate a recall to the initial point of rupture. Unlike Recital, the repetition of its frames is frenetic, and the pace charged. Performed by two dancers – one of whom, Bilal Siasse, is also one of the young immigrant men Beltrán photographs in Seville – the choreographed piece maps the movement of the body in response to an external destabilising force. Drawing from Siasse’s actual experience of crossing the border, Instruction is described as a ‘gesture performed within the jurisdictional limits of the State.’ In its visuality, however, it is reminiscent of the unpredictability of a body at sea and the surrender to its chaos through involuntary somatic responses. Whilst the legal border may begin near the shore, the impact on the body precedes its arrival on land.

In the description of this final piece lies the core inquiry of the work: how to translate a body? In contemplating this with respect to the performance, and the translation of Siasse’s visceral experience – for the choreographers and the dancers through the Stepanov notation [iv] – Beltrán acknowledges the impossibility of its complete representation. The book, then, can be seen as a compendium of praxis that records the movement across, and within, the border on multiple tenors. Piecing them together, Beltrán offers a possibility of restoring a personhood to the immigrant body that has for long been dispossessed – of the complexity of its identity, the dignity of its humanity and of the faith in the validity of its imagination.

All images courtesy the artist and Loose Joints © Felipe Romero Beltrán

Dialect is published by Loose Joints.

Felipe Romero Beltrán: Dialect runs at Foam Amsterdam until 1 May 2024.


Tanvi Mishra works with images as a photo editor, curator and writer based in New Delhi, India. Mishra has served as the Creative Director of The Caravan, a journal of politics and culture. She is part of the photo-editorial team of PIX, a South Asian publication and display practice. She works as an independent curator and has recently curated the Louis Roederer Discovery Award for the 54th edition of Les Recontres d’Arles (France). Mishra has also been part of the curatorial teams of Photo Kathmandu (Nepal), Delhi Photo Festival (India) and BredaPhoto (The Netherlands). 

Her writing on photography has been published in various platforms including Aperture, FOAM and 1000 Words. She has served on multiple juries, including World Press Photo, Chennai Photo Biennale Awards and the Catchlight Global Fellowship, and is currently part of the first international advisory committee of World Press Photo.

References:

[i] Shahram Khosravi, “Waiting bodies in dictatorial and bordering regimes” in The Funambulist (2021), available at thefunambulist.net/magazine/they-have-clocks-we-have-time/waiting-bodies-in-dictatorial-and-bordering-regimes, accessed 1 September 2023.

[ii] Felipe Romero Beltrán, “Stepanov Notation for the piece Instruction” in Dialect (Loose Joints, 2023).

[iii] Zoé Samudzi in conversation with Noor Asif, “Breath Back: An epistolary introduction to reparation and repair” in Parapraxis (2022), available at parapraxismagazine.com/articles/breath-back, accessed 1 September 2023.

[iv] Developed by the Russian dancer Vladmir Stepanov in the late 19th century, the Stepanov notation is a way of recording dance or body movement based on musical notation. By doing an anatomical analysis of movement, it deconstructs complex movements into elementary ones performed by individual body parts, identifying each of these moves as notes.

Monika Orpik

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road

Essay by Natasha Christia

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road is the new body of work by photographer Monika Orpik set in the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site at the frontier of Poland with Belarus. Transcending the dramatic twists of the ongoing political actuality in Eastern Europe, it is a stark political statement that calls attention to the ethical double standards currently applied to asylum seekers, depending on political agendas and a refugee’s place of origin, writes Natasha Christia.


     Imprisoned by four walls
     (to the North, the crystal of non-knowledge
     a landscape to be invented
     to the South, reflective memory
     to the East, the mirror
     to the West, stone and the song of silence)
     I wrote messages but received no reply.

     Octavio Paz, ‘Envoi’

The borderland as an enclave of limbo, uncertainty, freedom and political oppression is the subject of Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road, the new photobook that Polish photographer Monika Orpik has edited with Łukasz Rusznica. Based on Orpik’s own photographs and a series of recollected testimonies, Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road takes the reader through the frontier of Poland with Belarus, where Orpik found herself in 2020 on a volunteer assignment for an NGO. In the course of three and a half months, she travelled through the Białowieża Forest, which straddles the border as an interterritorial natural boundary that separates and, at the same time, merges the two countries into one.  

The Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site described as Europe’s last remnant of primeval woodland, was by no means unfamiliar to Orpik. For her, as for the generations born and raised after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has been associated with long, carefree childhood summers. However, nowadays, few of these nostalgic memories remain intact.

As luck would have it, a chain of tumultuous events started to unfold upon her arrival to the area, with the situation deteriorating further ever since. On 9 August 2020, the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus sparked a wave of civic protest against the Belarusian government and President Alexander Lukashenko. The brutal suppression of the demonstrations led to an exodus of members of the opposition. Belarusian dissidents found themselves stranded at border crossings between Belarus and Poland, alongside thousands of refugees from the Middle East. The Belarus–European Union humanitarian crisis in 2021 resulted in severe ill treatment and unlawful “pushbacks” of asylum seekers by border guards on both sides. The Polish government declared a state of emergency, establishing a militarised no-go zone along the border with Belarus. In January 2022, it initiated the construction of a €353 million wall aimed at deterring refugee crossings. The wall was completed in July 2022, five months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, purportedly as an element of the “country’s fight against Russia”, in the words of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

‘Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth’, writes Lucy Lippard in The Lure of the Local (1997). Orpik’s narrative impetus seems to acknowledge this intersubjective width and length, that is, the way in which the territory she explores is directly lived in by its inhabitants and temporal users. To start with, it articulates how a supposedly nourishing and untouched natural reserve is relegated by jurisdiction to a national boundary, and an in-between no man’s land. It bluntly exposes how the millenary trees, the brushwood and the fallen leaves of a forest become the living tissue of a ghastly past of deportations, ethnic cleansing and Cold War dystopia – a past which, up until seemingly yesterday, Europeans considered consigned to a bygone era. What once stood as a cradle of hospitality, harvest scents and folk tales is now, in the best-case scenario, a temporary shelter to those who are waiting to move forward or recover their homeland, and, in the worst, a literal graveyard for those who are left to perish.

To decipher the unspoken histories of the Białowieża Forest and its neighbouring region, Orpik turns to the specific and vivid life experiences of two of the communities that currently inhabit it: asylum seekers fleeing from Belarus, and the remaining local Belarusian minority, whose ancestors endured, after the Second World War, oppression and linguistic discrimination by the Communist regimes of Poland and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. These are the protagonists of her narrative. Their stories are told in the first person, and together with hers, they orchestrate how they wish to be represented in front of the camera: with the exception of a few isolated scenes of gatherings or people engaging with the environment around them, primarily via the landscapes, domestic spaces and objects that surround them on a daily basis, and all of this in place of straightforward portraits that could potentially expose them to the Belarusian regime.

The forest as literal passage (to freedom or to exile) is the leitmotif of Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road. What was meant as a sentimental journey to the land of ripe apples turns into a murky psychological hinterland. The passage is invested with an encroaching greyish veil that seems to eclipse nature’s exuberant wealth and taint the soul with disorientation. There is no wanderer’s song; the wanderer does not know on which side of the border they stand.

It is difficult to conceive how violent the encounter with nature can become when one is forced to undertake a clandestine route on foot that may last for days, or even weeks, through dense vegetation, in the hope of eventually making it to the other side. In her visual recreation of such an experience, Orpik takes into account her condition as an outsider, and avoids making a spectacle of it. She instead chooses to insert in her narration a series of jump-cut spreads that feature sequences of horizon shots, taken mostly from the window of her car. As if suddenly reaching a clearing, or hinting at a path or a road, these intervals condense and accentuate a gaze unfamiliar with its environment, and its frantic quest for the correct coordinates – a way through and out of this prison.

As Orpik drives around and engages in conversations with locals, her lens obsessively attends to the minutiae of interiors and exteriors where time feels stagnant and inescapable. Once more, we are given only occasional points of reference. Half-built structures, decayed surfaces and industrial ambiences appear abandoned in a precipitate manner; others seem to overcome this palpable sense of weariness and confinement, welcoming anew a domestic warmth. Wood resurfaces persistently, in tree branches, architecture, library interiors, book pages and rolls of typewriter paper. It comprehends, as a living rhizomatic organism, past uprooting next to a legacy that can sustain the promise of a solidary and peaceful coexistence in a new homeland. For the ‘universal story of migration is not only about leaving a space’, maintains Orpik. ‘It is about entering one too.’

Text is a substantial component of the book. Reminiscent of the ‘wall of language’ intersecting Michael Schmidt’s Waffenruhe (1987), it contributes to the intensification of the overarching narrative experience. Extracts from recorded conversations with 15 people – devoid, to a great extent, of specific geolocations and ethnicity terms – are edited into a collective voice. The voice in question speaks in two languages: whereas English is clearly employed for reaching out to a wider international audience, Belarusian takes on symbolic and political connotations. Its insertion is equivalent to the restitution of a language that has been consistently suppressed over decades on both sides of the border, and is currently vulnerable to extinction.

It was pivotal for Orpik and Rusznica to produce a timeless body of testimonies, beyond the dramatic twists of the ongoing political actuality in Eastern Europe. Their stark political statement calls attention to the fact that this is only the beginning – forced migration will remain on the frontlines in the face of political unrest and climate change – whilst acknowledging the ethical double standard currently applied to asylum seekers, depending on political agendas and a refugee’s place of origin.

Dense and misty, the forest denies a reply to the wanderer. The forest is made to obey the law of the border and its spectral tentacles. In Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road, these tentacles are personified by the sequence of the orchestra conductor’s hands. The hands cut the book into two halves and establish a tempo of ambivalent gestures. And yet, in light of resurfacing division on European soil, the dim veil that enfolds them seems to slide towards the darkness of totalitarianism. The tentacles are infused with isolation and fear. Fear, above all – for even when the border and the regime eventually dissolve, the fear will not. From the Evros River in Greece to Spain’s Melilla border fence in North Africa to the militarised Polish border zone, the natural landscape – now tamed as a claustrophobic confined territory, a no man’s “zone”, or what Giorgio Agamben calls the biopolitical paradigm of the ‘camp’ – seems to offer no way through. ♦

All images courtesy the artist © Monika Orpik

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road is published by Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT).


Natasha Christia is an unaffiliated curator, writer and educator based in Barcelona. She holds a BA in archaeology and art history from the National Kapodistrian University of Athens, an MA in modern art and film from the University of Essex and a postgraduate diploma in publishing from the University of Barcelona. Ηer curatorial research and writings focus on the way photography, archive, film and the photobook interact with the 21st century artistic avant-garde.

Carrie Mae Weems

Reflections for Now

Exhibition review by Jermaine Francis

Carrie Mae Weems’ work has long questioned how the representation of the Black subject has historically reproduced racism and inequality. On the occasion of Weems’ first major UK solo exhibition, Jermaine Francis considers her distinguished opposition to racial violence and all forms of oppression to engage us in a dialogue about the Black experience and narratives of resilience in the US.


Reflections for Now, at the Barbican, brings together a collection of installations, film and photography by the artist Carrie Mae Weems. For over 30 years, Weems has employed the use of multi-visual disciplines to interrogate the image and its effects on the contemporary Black American experience. Furthermore, the exhibition asks us to consider the work beyond reductionist readings of identity, as Weems has herself written: ‘There are so many avenues of exploration in the work. […] There are ideas about beauty, how beauty functions in the work.’

The exhibition opens with a series of abstract images in Painting the Town (2021), made in the aftermath of the protests that erupted after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis in 2020. Large-scale and tightly-framed, the photographs of boarded buildings appear to resemble the visual language of abstract expressionism, but flipped on its head, once the context is revealed. The colour blocks demonstrate to the audience an act of erasure: the removal of the evidence of the protesters’ words, which in turn serves as a metaphor for a wider denial. In addition, Weems also suggests another subject of erasure: Black abstract expressionist painters, such as Mary Lovelace O’Neal, whose contribution to the discourse of painting and wider culture have often been overlooked.

The gallery space becomes the battleground in which the agency of the Black woman is asserted. Whether she is in front of the camera or behind the camera, Weems, in the words of Hilarie M. Sheets, ‘us[es] herself as surrogate for all possessed women, controlling narrative both subject and photographer.’ In Roaming (2006), which ends the show, a solitary Black silhouetted figure appears engulfed by institutions, museums, galleries and architectural structures, made even more poignant by Weems’ evocation of Benito Mussolini’s Rome, a reminder of the aesthetics of fascist desires.

Kitchen Table (1990) is an epic series that flows through two rooms, disrupting the one-dimensional representation of the Black woman through the presentation of an unapologetically complex set of narratives by the sophisticated incorporation of performance, construction, text and the self-portrait. In these photographs, Weems is centre stage, presenting her own story. Unlike so many historical depictions of Black women, she demands agency from the viewer, whilst engaging us in a rich dialogue about relationships, race, misogyny, sex and camaraderie.

The amplification of the presence and resilience of Black women is everywhere in this exhibition, and felt no more powerfully than in the installation Case Study Room The portraits of Black Panther members such as Angela Davies and Kathleen Cleaver are presented equally with their male counterparts, their contributions celebrated.

The exhibition takes us on another journey, one of dissonance and erasure that more directly addresses the issues around photography’s distribution and historical use. From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96) is a deeply moving and emotional work which deals with the concept of what Mark Sealy refers to as ‘racial time’. Weems asks us to consider ‘the photograph’s function as a sign within the historical conditions’ and how Black people have been historically represented.

The controversial Harvard daguerreotypes of Black slaves, now recontextualised with overlaid titles, proposes the process of dehumanisation, the photographs being complicit in the reinforcement of racial ideologies. It is further into the sequence that we are presented with the Gary Winogrand image of a white woman and a Black man, a couple, holding two chimpanzees. Some Laughed Long & Hard & Loud (1995–96) is the title, and Weems is asking us to consider this and the other images in the room in the context of ‘racial time’. It also calls to mind Jean-François Lyotard’s ideals of the sublime – ‘presenting the unpresentable’ – as well as the work of Alfredo Jarr, which employs aesthetics to unpack social injustices.

These avenues of exploration are what we are constantly asked to engage with throughout the exhibition. Articulating these overlapping themes and strategies most powerfully is The Shape of Things: A Film in Seven Parts (2021), a 45-minute-long panoramic video piece taking the viewer on a nonlinear journey through the history of the USA. Comprising a rich mosaic of archive material, news footage, noir, sound and soft monologues, it gives me a sensation similar to one I felt hearing Larry Heard’s Waterfall (1987). The panoramic screen dominates not just the room but also our eyeline, conjuring parallels to Weems’ protagonist in Roaming. There are particular scenes that are distinctive, a sumptuous frame of a Black woman fixing her gaze towards us, while papers, documents and newspapers cascade around the figure. The appearance of multiple female figures, and one male who dances in the rain, can be read as a sense of defiance but also healing. Early on, we experience a sensation of dissonance, with the screen split vertically to project repeated 1960s archival footage of a Black protest. On the right, a white crowd directs their anger to the image on the left, where a Black man verbally retaliates. A monologue in a male voice informs us that, in the end, they stopped trying because some people cannot be convinced to change.

From the multi-image work, The Push, The Call, The Scream, The Dream (2020), certain images haunt my mind. The first is a portrait of two women side by side, one young and Black, the other white and wearing the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan. The other is of a young boy crying at a funeral, which takes me to a place where I contemplate various events that have happened, and continuous cycles of hate.

We are presented with scenes of modern tragedies in which desperate people attempt to flee wars, famines and droughts: news footage of Afghani families trying to board the disembarking planes, refugees fleeing on boats, combined with ladies of leisure drinking tea from a bygone era; archival films of old comedy circus performances, devious clowns, alongside views of the Capitol riots. These are the consequences of this modern day pantomime and Weems asks us to reflect on America’s polarisation and the collateral damage being the Black demographic. This is reinforced by a scene in which a Black man runs in front of three clocks all set to three o’clock, whilst a voice undulates the dream-like sequence: “commemorating all who have fallen, and all those who have endured, commemorating every Black man who sees age 21…

The words speak of the other reality; of the Black and brown victims, repeatedly killed at the hands of those in positions of authority, who wear the same uniform as Goodman. In the hypnotic darkness of It’s Over – A Diorama (2021), an installation which I would describe as a memorial to the fallen, Weems presents a sense of hope. We are given propositions by a male voice whilst a camera sweeps over illuminated individuals in a crowd. A kind of manifesto exploring how citizens in the US can maybe find a better way of living, the film ends with the image of Weems swinging to the Jimmy Durante song, Make someone happy. Reminiscent of circus acts, it all feels appropriately bittersweet.

I often found myself questioning whether the wall texts need to be so descriptive of Weems’ intentions, yet this is a criticism that could be levelled at any exhibition. Maybe I wish it was left more to the viewer than some institutions might like to imagine, or maybe what’s most important is to experience a journey, one that tries to engage us in a dialogue about the Black experience and resilience in the US. In a world in which dialogue appears to be under attack, maybe we need this more than ever. ♦

All images courtesy the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York / Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin and the Barbican, London © Carrie Mae Weems.

Carrie Mae Weems: Reflections for Now runs at the Barbican, London until 3 September 2023.


Jermaine Francis is a UK born and London based photographer and visual artist. Originally from the West Midlands, his work explores power, space, identity, social and political issues. He has exhibited at the ICP New York, Photo Oxford, Saatchi Gallery, Galeriepcp, and the Centre for British Photography. He co-curated Notes on a Native Son at Peckham 24 2023 together with Emma Bowkett.

Images:

1- Carrie Mae Weems
, Untitled (Woman Standing Alone) from Kitchen Table Series, 1990


2- Carrie Mae Weems
, Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Make Up) from Kitchen Table Series, 1990

3- Carrie Mae Weems
, You Became A Scientific Profile; A Negroid Type; An Anthropological Debate; and & A Photographic Subject from From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-96


4- Carrie Mae Weems
, If I Ruled the World, 2004


5- Carrie Mae Weems
, The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin from Constructing History, 2008


6- Carrie Mae Weems
, Still from Cyclorama – The Shape of Things: A Video in 7 Parts, 2021


7- Carrie Mae Weems, 
The Louvre from Museums, 2006


8- Carrie Mae Weems
, Philadelphia Museum of Art from Museums, 2006


9- Carrie Mae Weems
, When and Where I Enter — Mussolini’s Rome from Roaming, 2006


10- Carrie Mae Weems, 
The Edge of Time — Ancient Rome from Roaming, 2006


11- Carrie Mae Weems
, Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me — A Story in 5 Parts, 2012


Nadège Mazars

Mama Coca

Essay by Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo

In the context of a trio of research-based photographic exhibitions built around the idea of self-governance for Fotofestiwal 2023 in Łódź, Poland, curator Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo focuses on Mama Coca by Nadège Mazars, a documentary project which tells the story of the Nasa people of Cauca, southwestern Colombia, indigenous tribes who came into conflict with the Coca-Cola corporation – a canny reminder that rejecting the consumerist spiral and questioning the dogma of growth is one way we can rediscover our connection with the earth.


The Nasa people of Cauca, southwestern Colombia have a long-standing tradition of indigenous activism. To support their territorial and political autonomy, they established the Indigenous Guard (Kiwe Thegnas or Kiwe Puya’ksa) more than two decades ago as an organisation dedicated to preserving and passing down indigenous culture, including the traditional use of coca leaf, to younger generations. The indigenous guards carry symbolic batons that represent their responsibility to the community, as opposed to being used as weapons. Comprised of women, men and people of all ages, including children, the indigenous guard courageously confronts the violence and actions of armed actors involved in the expansion of illicit crops, such as cocaine. They risk their lives to protect their territory from the disharmony caused by these crops, which disrupt socio-economic relations and contaminate water sources with harmful substances. Cue Nadège Mazars, whose powerful documentary project, Mama Coca, explores the diverse methods employed by the indigenous guard to educate their community about their political and spiritual responsibilities with the view to fostering respect for their traditions among Colombians and Americans alike.

Coca leaf products have deep cultural and medicinal significance in Andean communities. Whilst coca is the source of cocaine, it is also believed to possess healing properties and amongst the Nasa people in the Colombian Andes, chewing coca leaves is a vital part of their rituals, symbolising harmony and reverence for the land. The use of coca leaves has a long history, made evident in pre-colonial stone statues and the spiritual practices of Nasa healers. In the Amazon, coca leaf flour aids in meditation and wisdom-seeking. Socially, the “mambear”, chewing coca is practiced in communal spaces, fostering collective knowledge. In the Inca Empire, coca was sacred and restricted to the elite, used for anesthesia in surgical procedures. As recent studies have shown, coca plantations date back more than 8000 years. Balls of coca leaves were even found in the mouths of pre-Columbian mummies.

Today, coca is of course primarily associated with the production of cocaine, leading to its prohibition along with the drug itself. The stigmatisation of coca traces back to the arrival of the Spanish in the Abya Yala continent, where it was demonised and banned due to its perceived association with the devil and regarded as a hindrance to Catholic conversion. However, there was a contradictory approach to coca during colonisation, as it was also promoted by colonial elites to enhance the productivity of indigenous workers in harsh mining conditions. This history of moral stigmatisation during colonisation has had a detrimental impact on the culture and social cohesion of indigenous communities and, consequently, the contemporary valorisation of coca as a sacred plant with significant cultural importance plays a crucial role in the indigenous struggles in the Americas. It speaks to ideas of autonomy, ancestral territories, distinct culture and spirituality for indigenous peoples, reaffirming their identity and resisting the destructive effects of colonisation.

The conflict between multinational company Coca-Cola and indigenous Colombian company Coca Nasa revolves around the use of the four letters that represent the plant’s name. The Nasa people have been cultivating coca leaf for centuries in the Colombian mountains, making various products derived from legal processing, including food, beverages, herbs and natural medicines. In late November 2021, Coca-Cola demanded that Coca Nasa remove a beer named Coca Pola from the market, claiming it to be a case of plagiarism. In February 2022, representatives of the Nasa and Embera Chami peoples sent a letter to Coca-Cola expressing their concerns. They argued that the use of “coca” without consulting indigenous peoples is an abusive practice, violating national, Andean and international human rights norms. The letter demanded explanations and threatened to ban the sale of Coca-Cola products in indigenous territories. Since then, Coca-Cola has remained silent, potentially due to the fear of being implicated in the appropriation of traditional indigenous knowledge and facing a scandal. The legal battle remains unresolved.

Throughout its history, the original recipe for Coca-Cola is said to be one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world. However, in 1988, one of the company’s leaders acknowledged the presence of coca in the beverage. In an advertisement from the Scientific American magazine dated 7 July 1906, a photograph of two natives of the Andes region appeared alongside the caption: ‘These people endure their hardships more easily by chewing Coca leaves daily.’ It is believed that, for many years, Coca-Cola imported coca leaves, which were likely decocainised before use. The company seemingly obtained a special permission that allowed them to legally bypass international anti-drug laws, which restricted the sacred Inca plant within the borders of its native countries. This created an international monopoly on the use of the coca plant, whilst small indigenous companies like Coca Nasa face strict prohibitions on exporting their coca-based products.

However, within the concept of self-governance, a refuge of hope becomes apparent. Three separate, but linked, exhibition presentations at the recent Fotofestiwal 2023 in Łódź, Poland this summer bear witness to this model and are all driven by the following question: how are new forms of self-organisation practically structured in conjunction with political and legal autonomy in tandem with traditional and natural authorities to control the implementation of developmental projects?

The model of self-governance continues to be the subject of numerous theoretical debates but here the intention was to examine just three isolated cases within a broader range of issues present on the continent: the complex process of building a collective that has evolved over 40 years following the failure of Werner Herzog’s filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Peruvian region of Alto Marañón, as investigated in Ipáamamu – Stories of Wawaim by Eléonore Lubna and Louis Matton; a rebellion initiated by a group of Purepecha women to protect the Uauapu ritual, resulting in the expulsion of one of the most dangerous drug cartels from the city of Cherán which forms the basis Oro Verde by Ritual Inhabitual, and of course Nadège Mazars’ Mama Coca.

To comprehend this model, it is necessary to understand the key factors that have ancestrally contributed to preserving the activities of each community, identifying their customs, problems, adaptations and current situation. In these countries, the communities are surviving despite the lack of recognition and interest from different companies and state entities, despite national and international legislation protecting their rights and heritage. Therefore, the purpose of these exhibitions is not to shed light on the current context of the respective communities’ everyday activities and lives, but to demonstrate how they have survived and what methods of defense they have employed against various threats, such as the arrival of foreign film productions, the advent of the avocado industry, or the threat of a lawsuit from a US multinational corporation. Each exhibition offers a critical perspective on the concept of self-governance whilst underpinning an attempt to present the holistic nature of the research that allowed the photographers to comprehensively unveil the historical and ideological realities.

Ultimately, these events are part of a war against nature. Their magnitude and violence should not be underestimated. In this context, how can we restore peace, democracy and hope? The options are numerous: rejecting the consumerist spiral, questioning the dogma of growth and rediscovering our connection with the earth. All these commitments share a common ground: they are a response to a system doomed to failure. Each of these acts of resistance points us to the necessary paradigm shift in order to continue building a peaceful and resource-rich planet. However, beyond individual actions, how can we bring about a collective societal shift towards more sustainable lifestyles?

The hope is that we can emerge from this with our heads slightly bowed, our anthropocentric pride humbled, with greater respect for the fact that other cultures have been able to establish a wiser relationship with their surroundings. But for that, we must be willing to sacrifice something. What are you willing to lose? What is your hope? ♦

Fotofestiwal 2023 ran from 15 – 25 June 2023.


Sergio Valenzuela-Escobedo is an artist, researcher, curator and author working both in Chile and abroad. Since 2016, he has curated exhibitions including Mapuche (Musée de l’Homme, Paris, 2017), Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation which has been on tour under his supervision and Geometric Forests (Les Rencontres d’Arles, 2022). He holds a PhD in Photography from the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP), Arles. Valenzuela-Escobedo is also an artistic director and co-founder of doubledummy studio, a platform that creates a space for producing and showcasing critical reflections on documentary photography. He is a member of the jury for the Arles Book Award and a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). His writing has appeared in Inframince, 1000 Words and Mirà.

Images:

1>6-From Mama Coca © Nadège Mazars.

7>9-Installation views of Nadège Mazars: Mama Coca at Fotofestiwal 2023, Łódź, Poland, 5 – 25 June 2023.