Exhibition Visit, 5th November 2015
While in London for work recently I found a couple of hours to revisit Rivington Place to see the Bruno Boudjelal exhibition, ‘Frantz Fanon’.
His reflective and somewhat haunting work about the life of Frantz Fanon, the anti colonial writer, philosopher and Psychiatrist, was set out in a single gallery space at the venue. The work was displayed in a very darkened room with the images illuminated with spotlights. This arrangement set the tone of the exhibition in many respects and I think augmented the effect the artist wanted to create with the work. On the opposite walls to the images were quotes from Fanon’s life and work, these were in differing size fonts, perhaps suggesting emphasis?
I was familiar with Fanon and in particular his final written work: The Wretched of the Earth, originally published in 1961 and now a Penguin Classic. As a student in the early 1980’s I had read this book along with other writings by Fanon. His work challenged colonialism, the impact of occupation and the lasting racism inherent in colonial powers. As a doctor and Psychiatrist Fanon presented a unique view of colonialism and oppression. How Fanon is seen today depends on ones perspective and these can range from him being a visionary anti racist, all the way to a political and revolutionary leader.
The artists statement about the work says:
“This series is based on Frantz Fanon; a Martinique born French-Algerian psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and writer whose work is influential in the fields of post colonial studies. I felt it was important, at a point where Algeria is celebrating its fiftieth birthday, to consider the thoughts and life story of Fanon, his relation with Algeria, his position as one of the most important post-colonial thinkers, and finally the story of his journey as a human being.”
The exhibition its self was a collection of large scale black and white prints taken in locations where Fanon had once lived. These included images of his birth place in Martinique, images of Algiers, Blida in particular, where he practiced as a psychiatrist and formulated many of his most influential ideas and images of Tunisia where he spent the last days. There were also images of individuals, one of the portraits was of an old man who had been one of Fanon’s last patients.
The images had a ethereal almost ghost like quality and had the look of very aged ‘personal’ photographs, the sort that can be very valuable to their owner but have less meaning to wider viewers. The image below typifies this, it is vignetted, focus is uncertain and the image was taken at an ‘off true’ angle. This was I assume the artists intent.
Looking at the images I was reminded of Clare Strands work: ‘Getting Better and Worse at The Same Time‘. A central premise of this work as Strand (2015) sets out is:
“……can works continue to degrade yet still retain their value, their aesthetic and maintain a sense of reason.”
Boudjalel’s has perhaps intentionally created this sense of the past seen though apparently aged and in some respects degraded images. They create a mood rather than a sense of the pictorial.
It is strange the thoughts that come to you in a an exhibition because I also thought about Sontag’s (1977) reference to Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1963 film ‘Carabiniers’ in which the treasure and spoils that two peasant soldiers bring home after war are a suitcase full of photographs, photographs seen as having intrinsic value as objects, artefacts and to many, treasures.
Although very loosely pictorial, Boudjelals gave me a sense of images as treasures and this added to the biographical journey through the key locations in Fanon’s life. The work also seems to create a sense of melancholy, of things lost and forgotten places. Perhaps also Fanon’s work. As an experiment I asked the attendant in the gallery about their knowledge of Fanon, they had none prior to the exhibition. I wonder was a motive for Boudjelal to reflect that Fanon may now be forgotten or less prominant?
This is particular poignant in the present time with media coverage of the refugee crisis and the racism that seems to abound. Fanon and his commentary on the psychological impact of post colonialism, seems to be very current in many respects.
The images all had a aged look, the artists had I think wanted to create a sense of time passing and the look of an old photograph. It was only after the exhibition visit that I read that the gallery had billed it as an installation. In hindsight, this makes sense because I think the artist wants the viewer to have a sense of Fanon and his work as something of the past, but simultaneously link to to the present.
From a purely photographic viewpoint Boudjalel presents the medium as a different way to consider a biography. His use of a somewhat oblique imagery of a place, presented as intentionally ‘aged’ looking photographs, the sort that might be kept by an individual as a memento, set the tone of the whole exhibition. Whilst the work was essentially records of landscapes and people, this work could perhaps be seen as a sort of aftermath documentary style?
In summary the exhibition was engaging and I was left with a desire to re read Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”, something I am currently doing. The power of images to spark action in the viewer!
Fanon, F. (1961) The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin ,London
Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London
Strand, C. (2015) Getting Better and Worse at The Same Time, found at : //www.clarestrand.co.uk/exhibitions/?id=306 (Accessed 15 November 2015)