CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Multidisciplinary artist Allan deSouza looks at the legacy of empire in his work “Through the Black Country,” opening Jan. 25 at Krannert Art Museum. KAM is also opening the U.S. premiere of New York-based Palestinian artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s two-part exhibition “And yet my mask is powerful,” which uses video, sound, and installation to consider cultural heritage and new narratives from the Middle East.
“Through the Black Country” depicts an expedition to find the elusive source of a fabled river – only this expedition is led by an African who travels through present-day London seeking the source of the River Thames.
DeSouza uses the iconic narratives of colonial exploration and discovery in Africa in his work, in this case “Through the Dark Continent, ” by Henry M. Stanley. The exhibition includes the diary entries of fictional explorer Hafeed Sidi Mubarak Mumbai, with a narrative structure taken from Stanley’s writings. The fictional explorer Mumbai is said to be the great-grandson of the historic figure Sidi Mubarak Bombay, an enslaved African who was transported to India, given his freedom and later returned to Africa to lead numerous British expeditions across Africa.
“DeSouza likes to play on the border between fiction and nonfiction, what is real and what is imagined, partly because so much of the history written during the colonial period of what Africans are is a projection of the colonial imagination,” said Allyson Purpura, the curator for the exhibition and Krannert Art Museum’s curator of global African art. “It’s about re-staging that moment of encounter, turning it on its head to expose the artifice of ethnographic objectivity.”
DeSouza’s installation references the racial history of London, with the character Mumbai traveling through areas of the city where immigrants (and more recently refugees) have settled or been displaced through gentrification. In addition to the diary entries, “Through the Black Country” includes sculptural components as well as photoworks, collages and reconfigured maps alluding to London’s imperial history and to the current politics of Brexit isolationism.
The deSouza exhibition links colonial history to contemporary London and its racial landscape, as well as to his own biography. He was born in Kenya to parents of south Asian descent, and he grew up in London where he became active in the British Black Arts Movement in the 1980s.
It also has a connection to “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean,” an exhibition at the museum that opened at the end of August 2017 and runs through March 24. “World on the Horizon” looks at the historical movement of objects and people between the East African coast and the Indian Ocean region, and considers their cultural and aesthetic influences on one another.
“DeSouza’s history and biography is part of that globalism, coming from many places and managing a sense of multiple origins shaped by imperial contests throughout the region,” Purpura said. “His show bridges that aspect of “World on the Horizon” with the contemporary moment.”
DeSouza will be at Krannert Art Museum at 5:30 p.m. March 1 for an artist talk about the exhibition. The museum will host a gallery conversation about his work at 5:30 p.m. March 15, moderated by Purpura and featuring U of I faculty.
The museum also will host two events related to “World on the Horizon” this spring. A gallery conversation “Fetishizing the Foot: Mobility and Meaning in Indian Ocean Sandals,” at 3:30 p.m. March 7, will take a look at the footwear featured in the exhibition. The African Students Organization will host a Global African Community Forum at 6 p.m. March 8 to discuss the exhibition.
A second new exhibition will open Jan. 25. “And yet my mask is powerful” is a two-part installation by Palestinian artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme. The exhibition at Krannert Art Museum will be the U.S. premiere of the work.
It features a video and sound installation, showing young people exploring ruined Palestinian villages in Israel, where they find masks and try them on. The second part of the exhibition is a collection of objects and images resembling that of a scholarly study or museum collection. It includes replicas of 9,000-year-old limestone masks found in Palestine, also seen in the video.
“Here are some of the oldest objects of cultural heritage from Palestine brought into an installation in order to question who owns culture and how it circulates,” said Amy Powell, the curator of the exhibition and Krannert Art Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
The exhibition also addresses how we think of violence and destruction in the Middle East. The video and installation incorporate text from the poem “Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich, which inspired Abbas and Abou-Rahme to think about what can be salvaged from disaster. The exhibition includes dried vegetation such as fig, pomegranate, almond trees and cactus, all native to Palestine, which have been threatened by non-native plantings but have still survived – a metaphor for anti-colonial resilience.
“When we think of Palestine and Syria, Iraq, Iran, places whose objects are all referenced in this exhibition, we hear that they are always in crisis,” Powell said. “This is definitely a very personal work for the artists, but it has a lot of broader implications. “It’s important for museums to think about cultural heritage and what are the social implications and politics of these objects – what histories do they represent and how do they relate to scenarios unfolding now,” she said. “I’m really hopeful that part of the campus conversation around this exhibition will be about indigeneity more broadly, and modes of addressing the colonizing powers that take root in a place.”
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