Review: 'Identity' an exhibition by SAASUM
Review by Claire Fogarty
St. Andrews Africa Summit Society collaborated with ST.ART Magazine to produce a multi-media pop-up gallery at Spoiled Hairdressers. The event showcased a range of art centered around one theme: African identity. The different mediums successfully gave a varied insight into different interpretations of the theme, and the event itself, complete with South African wine and music, made for an enjoyable and interesting evening.
The theme of African identity permeated both the art forms, and the organisational decisions of the event itself, immersing guests into the experience. The wine which was poured upon our entrance highlighted the venue’s sophistication, and the silent auction underscored the seriousness with which the event was to be taken. The salon proved to be an excellent space for the exhibition: it was white, clinical and minimalistic, to not distract from the artwork. A clean, professional presentation was sustained, whilst the rooms small size and slanted ceiling gave the venue space an edge. The light was manipulated to spotlight the work whilst keeping the rest of the space dim and calm.
With regards to the artwork, my personal favourite was one of Mary Hill Brooks’ portraits from Matonyok Children’s Home, Tanzania. The amazing early evening light in which unidentified forms of children ran through the grass was glorious. The work of Camilla Chumaceiro also stood out to me. Her photography collection from Kenya and Tanzania explored imaginative compositions, and portrayed emotions, identities, and events in a way which told a story conclusively. Emma Rebein’s portrait photography from Rwanda also reflected excellent skill and creativity: the moments she captured were either of impeccable timing or brilliant manipulation. Either way, she generated intense moods and scenes which demanded curiosity.
I took some time to speak to SAASUM’s Events Coordinator: Primrose Adjepong, where I learnt more about the stories behind the pieces. Interested by the artists’ various backgrounds, I asked for her views on non-African people contributing to a collection expressing African identity, particularly as previews for the film ‘#poorpeople’ were part of the exhibition. This raised important questions about voluntourism, as well as Western misconceptions and generalisations about Africa.
I discovered that some of the artists were using themes from within their own culture to create their artwork. Kidist Haile, for example, photographed a coffee celebration and her family in Ethiopia, whereas other pieces were inspired by volunteering or recreational excursions. Primrose believed that identity encompasses how other people identify you, and therefore thought that these different perspectives were important.
We also discussed the different ways in which the work would be received by someone from within the culture, and how that would compare to someone outside of it. For example, she recognised that Antoni Arola’s work was taken within a fishing town, an insight to which I was ignorant. The fact that I wouldn’t have known this without asking awakened me to the importance of context, particularly when looking into a culture I knew little about.
It struck me that a large number of the pieces were portraits, and so I asked Primrose how significant appearance is when representing identity. I thought this was an interesting question to ask, especially since the venue typically functions as a salon, and people visit salons with a view to altering their appearances. Valeria Duca’s painting, ‘Sophia’ was inspired by a girl of Gambian heritage living in Saint Andrews, who discussed both this and her hair in blog posts. Some of the portraits, such as Ben Chatira’s drawing, also produced a fearlessly cultural image.
Primrose acknowledged that physical appearance is the first thing people know about you, and the stereotypes people assume about you are ultimately based on your appearance. She believed that portraiture breaks down categorisation by forcing the viewer to take each individual for who they are beyond their appearance, which she stated was particularly important in a Eurocentric university such as St. Andrews. She also said that the exhibition represented the dichotomy between the aspects of our identity that we can change and those we cannot. The gallery also symbolically represented physical appearance, which could both express, and perhaps unintentionally mask, non-physical aspects of our identity.
I also wondered how a culture which runs across such an enormous continent could be adequately captured. Primrose agreed that this was impossible: the exhibition specifically stated that it would showcase an African identity, and not the African identity, since there is no such thing. The exhibition was not an attempt to blur the distinctions between all African countries, but to accommodate a representation of all of them. As a whole, the artwork represented eleven different African countries.
Overall, the experience was educational and immersive, and opened my eyes to the importance of showcasing and preserving different cultures. Personally, what I think made the event so successful was its collaborative and varied nature: its many different contributors, art forms, and interpretations left the theme open to personal pursuit. Instead of projecting a total and undisputed summary of African identity, it presented many possible responses, leaving the initial question of ‘what is African identity?’ not answered, but merely explored.