Remember Me: A review of Open Your Eyes
Art Exchange’s exhibition ‘Open Your Eyes’ is a protest against forgetting. It showcases artists who are revisiting marginalised histories from Europe’s colonial past, thus fulfilling Steve McQueen’s neon artwork’s quiet but determined request, ‘Remember Me’. The show was organised as part of the University of Essex’s decolonising the curriculum programme, with the selected artists looking to colonial archives and doing something transformative with the material. Hence, archives, in this show, ought to be viewed as an embodiment of a protest against forgetting. Questions are asked of colonial structures in Africa that were imposed centuries ago that continue to have an enduring presence today and are reassessed through drawing, installations, photomontage and film. The artists interrogate instances from Europe and Africa’s shared history that speak to specific historical moments which simultaneously address wider events. The recollection of history is presented in multifarious formats: Barbara Walker re-balances the representation of African individuals in Art History and Kapwani Kiwanga recreates floral arrangements that were displayed during the transition to independence in African countries.
A strength of the exhibition is that no single artwork dominates the space. Each piece can be read autonomously whilst co-existing in a dialogue with other works. The exhibition begins with a drawing by Walker, which challenges the issue of race and representation in art history. Walker enquires into the (lack of) visibility of black subjects in western European painting by subverting an image from a British national art collection where the black subject is marginalised. Walker removes the white subjects so that only the black subject is visible, reinterpreting (art) history and making the marginalised visible. However, one can still see the faded silhouettes (on a white background) of white subjects who have been removed, whose shapes appear like contours on a map. Similarly, Walker acknowledges the absence of representation of the contribution that black servicemen and women have made to the British armed forces. In a drawing, a black serviceman gazes at the viewer. This look is sobering, especially when positioned next to McQueen’s insistent ‘Remember Me’. The phrase, both specific and universal, informs all works in the exhibition which speak to particular historical events but also to a universal colonialism. McQueen’s power lies in his ability to synthesise big ideas into short statements. ‘Remember Me’ talks to any colonised society.
Naturally, the idea of power shifts appears as a major theme in the exhibition. Kiwanga responds to this notion in her reconstructions of floral arrangements based on archival images relating to 20th century independence ceremonies in Africa, where flowers were part of ceremonious giving symbolising the shift in power. Over the course of the exhibition, the flowers, which are positioned on plinths and also protrude from a wall, wilt and change, like the presentation of historical facts. The metamorphosis the flowers undergo traces the impermanence of historical memory.
Elsewhere, the question of how to restore narratives – seamlessly, or broken? – is conceptually examined. Kader Attia’s ‘Repaired Broken Mirror’ presents a visibly mended mirror, which was repaired using techniques employed in non-western cultures, where breakages are made visible rather than masked over. The work represents Europe masking over cracks of colonisation and others revealing them. Visible repairing illuminates the notion of recognising trauma in order to repair it. Down the centre of the mirror is a crack where it appears that some rusted metal has been laced through holes to repair it. Moreover, these conceptual works juxtapose effectively with narrative works like Walker’s.
The curatorial decision to place some of Kiwanga’s installations in the centre of the gallery helps physically guide the viewer in a circle around the show. On the right-hand wall, past and present collide in Sammy Baloji’s photomontages of colonialism and industry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The images depict industrial landscapes where archival images of European officials and Congolese workers are imposed onto contemporary photos of the DRC’s copper mines. The artist has deliberately shown a stark contrast between the black and white archival images and the colourful contemporary photographs. This juxtaposition elucidates the conflicting relationship between the colonial period, which only ended in 1960, and the post-colonial lamenting of vanished potential. This is depicted in the landscape’s current decline, which is highlighted in the images by rusting machines and empty buildings. Baloji’s images are memorials now to the shattered promises of modernity. The artist’s combination of past and present materials to create the works – archival imagery and modern photo-editing – bridges colonial and post-colonial eras.
However, not all of the works correspond well together. The highly digitised style of Baloji’s photomontages offer a stark contrast to the soft, poetic shapes of Kiwanga’s natural flower installations, Walker’s graphite drawings and the handwritten scrawl of McQueen’s sign. Additionally, the harmony of the space is slightly disrupted by the overpowering yellow dress that is worn in Tibor Kalman’s manipulated photograph of Queen Elizabeth II who is racially transformed by having African-Carribean features. Nevertheless, the inclusion of works in a variety of mediums which help pose various questions allows for a dynamic show. Each work has been given a generous amount of space which lets the viewer contemplate the works individually.
All artists in the show use archives to experiment with different ways of utilising the fragments of history. This is further exemplified in The Otolith Group’s film ‘In the Year of the Quiet Sun’ (2013), which displays details of Independence Day postage stamps and archival footage, representing the hopes of African freedom. However, there is only so much a small gallery space can do on the huge subject of colonialism. Hence, the curator inventively broadened the subject through a series of talks which further explored questions raised in the show, addressing colonial history beyond Africa, which the exhibition focuses on. Ultimately, all of the works ought to be viewed as a springboard to investigate questions such as how to address colonialism not merely as history but as something that is tenacious in contemporary life, which we see in today’s enduring racism. I believe many art institutions still suffer from aphasia – the inability to find the words – in relation to addressing colonialism. Although this exhibition certainly does not offer answers, it determinedly speaks to colonialism’s complex and deeply troubled global history, questions narratives of power and vitally recognises colonialism not only as something that happened a long time ago, but as a recent phenomenon.
Arts Assistant (Interim)