[AUDIO LOGO] GEMMA RODRIGUES: Good evening, everyone. My name is Gemma Rodrigues, and I'm the Director of Education and the Curator of the Global Arts of Africa here at the Johnson Museum. I'm delighted to welcome you here, whether you're present in person or virtually, to our third migrations visiting artist lecture co-hosted by the Johnson Museum of Art and the campus-wide Migrations Global Grand Challenge at Cornell University.
Cornell University sits on the traditional homelands of the Gayogoho:no, the Cayuga Nation. The Gayogoho:no members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with an historic and contemporary presence on this land. The confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogoho:no dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogoho:no people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
Today's event is supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation's Just Futures initiative, which has established a multi-year partnership with Cornell to support the cross-disciplinary exploration of migration, dispossession, racism, and redress within a transnational context in part by bringing together artists, scholars, students, and community members in new ways. I could not be more thrilled to introduce you now to this evening's speaker, the conceptual photographer, performance artist, and writer Allan deSouza.
In the recent words of New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, Allan deSouza has made the state of being migrant in culture, place, and time the subject of their work. End quote. deSouza, whose pronouns are they/them, was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to South Asian parents, raised in Britain, and is currently full professor of photography in the Department of Art Practice at the University of California at Berkeley.
deSouza earned their BFA at the Bath Academy of Fine Arts in England and became active in the British Black Arts Movement of the 1980s soon after, alongside artists and intellectuals such as Rasheed Araeen and Lubaina Himid, who sought to engage critically with Britain's colonial past. Later, deSouza moved to New York City to join the Whitney's independent study program and went on to earn their MFA in photography at UCLA in 1997.
I first encountered deSouza's work at the Triennial Symposium of African Art History in 2004, where they presented what was still a work in progress, the last pictures series on a panel for contemporary African art. I was immediately bowled over by deSouza's ability to give public artistic form to their intensely felt personal and familial emotional life, and in so doing to explore with nuance the not always obvious relationship between individual memory, and individual bodily experience, and the impersonal tides of history that continue to sweep up whole populations, communities, and families, carrying them from one part of the world and depositing them elsewhere as so much flotsam, to cite the title of one of deSouza's photographic series that's currently on display in the Bartels gallery.
I've followed deSouza's multifaceted, still-evolving career ever since and continue to be inspired by their broader project of anti-colonial critique, their lyricism, their humor. They have performed at Harvard University, Guangdong Museum, and SOMArts, and have taught at UC Irvine, Cal Arts, and the San Francisco Art Institute as well as now at UC Berkeley.
Their prolific photographic output has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the Phillips Collection, which in 2011 commissioned a set of 30 color photographs in response to Jacob Lawrence's monumental Migration Series, the Whitney Museum, the Centre Pompidou, the National Museum of African Art, the International Center for Photography, the Mueseum KunstpalastMu, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Their writing projects have found a home in numerous journals, anthologies, and catalogs. And recent publications include How Art Can be Thought, a thought-provoking semi-autobiographical monograph with Duke University Press, which examines possibilities for decolonizing art pedagogy and has become a touchstone in the field of art studies. And also the Ark of Martyrs, an autobiography of V, a polyphonic subversive rewriting of Joseph Conrad's infamous novel The Heart of Darkness.
Always thoughtful, always eloquent, always profound. It's been a true privilege and a pleasure to partner with deSouza over the past year to develop the exhibition that's currently on display and also to be part of the team of staff, faculty, and students that have brought them to Cornell. Please join me now in welcoming our esteemed guest, artist, and speaker Allan deSouza.
ALLAN DESOUZA: Well, thank you, Gemma. That's such a wonderful introduction. And following Gemma, I also really want to thank everyone at the museum.
It's such an amazing team here and really makes me understand more just how an exhibition really comes together. There's so much behind-the-scenes work, so many conversations with different people, some really practical, like how high should something be, the conceptual. It's an amazing team, and I've had such a pleasure working with everyone here. So thank you.
So I have to confess I really didn't know what to talk about today. And I kept getting pulled in different directions. And I think it's partly because the work is already up. So I thought I don't really want to talk about the work because you can go and look at it and think about it.
And then another direction I was being put in is, well, there's a museum audience. So there's a kind of general public. And then I'm also being pulled because it's a university, and so there's academics here. And I know there's some faculty here and students here.
And so I mean pulled in sort of these different art historical and conceptual directions. And so I was writing something on the plane here, and I looked at my notes this morning and I started transcribing them. And I thought, no, none of that will work.
But it did make me think again about-- well, actually, one good thing that's happened that I've stopped watching movies in planes, that I actually now read and I write. And it made me sort of re-engage with this notion of traveling theory, not only that ideas can travel or that ideas have mobility but what does it mean to make work for me as an artist while traveling or while being in transit. And of course that's a kind of state of being when one is a migrant.
You know, so that's only been my history. So even when I travel for pleasure, or for work, or for family, that still gets overlaid on migration histories. And so there's no really escaping. And so that question of what does it mean for me as an artist to be thinking of diaspora, migration, as well as the pleasures of traveling. And so to consider diaspora and migration with all the kind of attendant violences, and controls, and the borders, the negotiations that are involved with those travels, and are there possible pleasures, and what does it mean to think on the go and on the move.
So that's some of the things I'm going to try and think through with you, hopefully. Let's see where we get. And a particular pleasure for me is always being able to start with my mother. And it's also the first image you see when you walk into the museum. And that's something that whenever I walk into that space I also think of-- I get to bring my mother into a museum. And so obviously that's an emotional thing for me. And it feels-- there's a lot of pleasure, and it's also feels like an obligation that I can do this for her.
OK. So my title, obviously from Homi Bhabha, "The Location of Culture." And that quote from him-- it's the trope of our times to locate the question of culture in the realm of the beyond. And those are his italics.
And so this is my title, "The Culture of Location." And trying to think around this question, how do our times-- and I'm using his wording-- how do our times enculturate the question of location in the realm of the beyond. To switch that a little bit to what does it mean as someone who is diasporic-- and I've started re-using the term "diaspora," which I know isn't really a word. But instead of Asian or African, what does it mean to actually be diasporan?
What does location mean, and how do we create a culture of location? And what does that beyond mean? So some of the things that I'm thinking about-- and this is from my own writing and looking at modernism because I teach. OK? And so one has to teach modernism in the most expansive way one can.
So modernism's fascination-- and here I'm thinking of European modernism. Modernism's fascination with the spiritual and of worlds beyond, which formed much of European abstractions rhetoric, is-- and I propose this-- the haunting of European culture by its metropolitan hinterlands, its beyond of colonial occupations and regulations-- the returns of the oppressed, as it were. So that's one area of consideration.
The next is modernism and its trajectory towards abstraction as the removal of the body and the abdicated representation of its own deployment of power. It can be reconceived as haunting, as a refusal by the colonized to be completely erased, including from their own histories. So I'm trying to-- I know the taunting has been part of the discourse in the last five or 10 years particularly. And I'm trying to rethink in ways that artworks themselves might be haunted. And I'm thinking about landscape and abstraction.
So whether landscape or abstraction, representation as invaded, newly occupied, and always haunted territory. And counter to the foundational conspiracy theories of empty land, or terra nullius, there is no blank canvas. Similarly, there is no beginning and certainly no first for modernism. No founding fathers.
The spaces through which modernism becomes visible to itself as discoveries and inventions already occupied. And so part of my work as an artist is trying to examine what those previous occupations might be and what does it mean to reoccupy the space of landscape and abstraction as languages and as terrains. So one of the works I keep coming back to when I'm teaching-- and you might have become familiar with this work in the last couple of years-- is Robert Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow.
So painted two years before the Civil War in the US. This is American. And you might be more familiar with it now because it was the image-- it was the painting selected by Jill Biden to hang in the Capitol building during the inauguration ceremony. And this is two weeks after the sort of insurrection.
So, why was it selected to represent the new administration? It's an American landscape using the conventions of European landscape and especially Northern Italian landscape. There's a rainbow that's on that sort of white house to your right.
There's a couple kind of almost mirrored with the male figure pointing towards the house, where the rainbow is. So, you know, is this the new couple who are going to move into the white house on the right with a rainbow on it? And does that represent the new administration? And of course the rainbow is the sign of a new beginning after the storm, and so the storm being the previous presidency.
But it's also a land-- if we think of it historically, 1859, what does the rainbow then represent two years before the Civil War? And certainly two years-- in 1859, people were already considering that there's going to be an impending war. And so it's not unusual to see speculations about it within art.
Robert Duncanson was African-American, and so that's also another deliberate reason to choose that work as a marker of the 2020-- what has become known as the summer of reckoning. OK. But it's also-- in some ways, my students dismiss it. Like, why are we looking at this? It's such an innocuous landscape. How can this be meaningful to us in the present?
And so I wonder-- I give them this example of a previous Duncanson painting, View of Cincinnati from Kentucky. OK? So we're looking north across the river to Ohio from the South during the period of slavery. And we see the same two figures, and there's a comparison with the two paintings.
And in the earlier one, we see one of the very few Black figures that Duncanson ever paints. And it's part of the Underground Railroad looking north to this notion of freedom in the North, what is the legality of freedom. And if we go back to this painting, that's what Duncanson is looking towards. And in the far distance, we can see there's a white building there, what looks like a temple.
And it's something that beckons far off in the distance across the water in the same way that the city in the North beckons across the water. OK? So it's that beckoning to freedom.
We can read some of those things even though they're not so explicit in Duncanson. But his mentor was Thomas Cole. Thomas Cole makes everything explicit. Right?
So here's his white temple in the heavens as the beckoning of freedom and the life after. This is part of a whole series called The Voyage of Life. I'm going to go through these.
Another one where we can read the ideology of Duncan's landscapes is this series of Thomas Cole's, The Course of Empire, and work that I've referred to in my own work. So it's one of a set of five images in the series of Cole.
So the first one is The Savage State, and we have Native Americans here as the supposedly savage state. So this is the Americas. You can see that promontory with the rock that gets repeated throughout the series.
And so the second one is The Arcadian or Pastoral State, which is what Duncanson paints. And what we're seeing is the conquest. So images of the Americas are usually either of the supposed savage state or of the conquest. And so any American landscape is often aftermath. And for me, that's the only way to consider a landscape within the Americas.
We see there is sort of Greco-Roman temples in the background. There's all these little details in there, but I'll skip them. This is the third one, where it's the same scene. You can see the rock, the promontory.
The consummation of Empire, so the US as this new world Empire in the form of the Greco-Roman Empire. The destruction of that empire, and we know it's a civil war. There's lots of clues in the painting itself.
And desolation, the return to nature and back to the savage state, quote unquote. And so the cycle continues. So just to show you back again that consummation, the city gets rebuilt.
This is the Chicago World's Fair, 1893, to celebrate 500 years of Columbus. So we get the white city as the Greco-Roman city in Chicago. And of course this is when the museums are built in Chicago, and the museums are still there-- natural history museum, science museum, and so on.
So, some of my works. Here is another white City made from just found materials, trash, recycled trash. And the title, Everything West of Here is Indian Country, that's a reference to both Chicago and this notion of the moving frontier within the Americas. And also it's a quote from an American soldier in Iraq, that past a certain point anything that moves is fair game.
And in part of that series, I was also making these landscapes out of wax and melted candles, so anything you can see black, those are the wicks of candles. And this is a landscape based on use photographs of Afghanistan and America's initial bombing. So these questions of how to implicate landscape as something that's happening in the world in the present that's about our political situation. And here, also using elements of my own body. So what does it mean for me to be a settler also in the Americas? And that confusion over the term Indian of what kind of Indian.
So here is a landscape based on, again, images of the frontier. But it's a small object which I've then photographed. And I'm using detritus from my body. So eyelashes and earwax. So there's a whole series of these. And then I'm doing landscapes also photographing from the plane. And it's a very simple conceit. I'm photographing out the window and doubling the image by just mirror imaging it. So it's repeating itself, which then forms these images which we can then read as masks or as figures.
And there's no other alteration. These are in the landscape. And I was really intrigued by partly by our sense of how our belief systems, the idea of gods and divinities might be based on the landscapes we inhabit. There's a sort of very ganache looking one. One that I think of as be pre-Columbian. And then also what appear to be shrines as well.
So the very notion of a shrine that's based on this symmetry. So when I showed these works, there's also video, which I'm not going to show you today but that are of the planes' wing. And again, it's doubled. And so the plane becomes-- or the wing itself becomes this autonomous flying object, more like a sort of military drone. And so I photographed the landings and take-offs-- sorry, video them. So different ways of thinking of the landscape. The other way, or one other way that's really part of how I work is my physical vision.
So I have vision disabilities. And obviously as a photographer it's a constant negotiation. So I've had cataracts and detached retinas in both eyes. And I live in the Bay Area so we have fog rolling in here. This is the ocean beach, the fog rolling in. And there was a day when I was by the beach and the fog rolled in. And at some point, I realized, OK, the fog is really thick. And I went indoors and then realized, oh, it's foggy inside. And oh, this is actually my vision. This is not the fog.
So it was the cataracts. Cataracts are usually slow and one doesn't notice it until one's vision gets impaired. And so that was the point of impairment. And that's what actually started looking like. So the world disappearing. So one of the ways that-- so following the cataract surgery, I also had a retinal detachment. So these are some of the ways of repair of the detachment.
So you see the detachment here. And then there's a method of a silicone band on the outside of the retina holding it in place. So there's a pressure from outside. And then there's an air bubble within the retinal cavity that's pushing outwards. And so I became fascinated by thing, and this is actually what it looks like with the air bubble in your eye. So you're looking at the world through this bubble.
And so this pressure from within the eye, pushing outwards and the silicone band, pushing inwards that keeps the eye in place. And over time, over a couple of months, the air bubble begins to lessen and and begins to disintegrate into smaller bubbles. And then for about a week, I was looking at the world through Mickey Mouse.
And it was momentarily funny. But it was a negotiation of looking at one's inner eye and at the world outside at the same time that began to fascinate me. How do we, as an image maker, as a photographer, how do I engage with this? How do I do this? How do I think about looking at myself? And of course, the artistic notions of interiority that we're supposed to work from our emotions and from whatever is within. How do we do that in a work to engage with the interiority that's actually now visible to me and the exterior world?
So some of these things were coming together in different works. And so there's this series, which is in the show, so I'm not going to talk about them too much. But certainly there's an engagement with the surface of the work and a disappearing image from the past. And so 1963 is when my father took the original slide image when we're in Kenya and these are from Independence Day in Kenya. So it's about the new nation as well. As well as the family history. That's me.
And 2005 is when I made these final prints. So I think of the duration of the photograph is 1963 to 2005. And they're about how do you create a visual language that was about how memory, or that's equivalent in a way, a visual equivalent to how memory itself works as something that's constantly being reinstated and also being constantly erased.
And of course, whenever we remember something, we reinvent. It's never the same memory exactly the same each time. So trying to find visual languages for that, which is also the visual language for migration and multiple locations. And then how do I do that in relation to the training that I have had as an artist and being trained within European modernism? So the redaction series is a series of images based on only Rousseau and Paul Gauguin.
And I chose those two-- part of the time period, the making that work and sort of high modernism which is at the same time as colonialism. And Goga, always traveling we associate him with Tahiti and Rousseau never leaving France. And yet creating these hybrid jungle scenes that could be any of the colonies. And based on his visits to the zoo and the botanical gardens and the anthropology museum. And so I redacted these.
And by selecting the color that's the furthest away, illusionistically in the painting, so the sky, and overlaying that color over the rest of the painting while keeping the lines and edges as intact as I could. And so creating my own hauntings. And then the titles Polar Sky is the color of the paint, which is the dominant color. Benjamin Moore paint. And then the Rousseau's title, but with the vowels redacted.
So there's a detail. And there was a whole series of that and you saw that installation shot. And then I also redacted entire books. One on Rousseau, one on Goga. So the text, as well as the images get redacted. And here's a detail of the redacted text. So what does it mean to inhabit European modernism and erase it in the same process of reasserting oneself into it, or to change it?
And then what does that mean in terms of social space as a migrant, as someone who travels who also lives in different places? So this is a project with Yong Soon Min and we're traveling from Paris down to Portugal, to Lisbon, where we have an exhibition. And my two children are traveling with us and we're trying to pass-- hence the title-- as a European family on holiday by having these tresses, these blonde wigs.
And then we just asked other people to take photographs of us in the way that tourists used to before selfies. And partly recording, or taking notes and keeping notes and sending postcards and things of the way that people talk about us. Always behind our backs, no one ever mentions the wigs. But they're horrified of what we're doing to the children. And the children are still horrified by this project. So we photographed in different locations.
And this is Bilbao. And here, we're waiting in a line to a museum and people read it as a performance. So this is the first and only place they actually react in front of us because they read it as art. But we had our portraits done in different cities. Portrait artists never mentioned the wigs.
So that negotiation of public space in Europe and who can be in those spaces and what it means to be visible as a migrant within those spaces. So we get to Lisbon and there's a desk at the entrance to the gallery. And you see me at the table. An image on the desk in the form of the Portuguese flag, and we're asking people in order to enter into the space, you have to match your skin tone to one of the color swatches. And you'll either be in the green zone or you'll be in the red zone.
Either Indigenous or assimilated. And then you get one of those pass books and you also get a stamp. People didn't know it's one passs book, you can open it from one side or the other and it would say assimilado on one side, indigena on the other. And it just gave a little bit of the history of some of the Portuguese colonies where they actually had these policies and how they enacted different forms of assimilation. So I'm from Goa Portuguese colony.
People were horrified at having to do this and also in denial that Portugal did this in the colonies. Actually I should correct that, people younger than a certain age totally engaged with it. People above a certain age were horrified. And said Portugal never did this. One of the ways I've been rethinking territory is through looking at historical narratives of travel, of conquest, exploration-- quote, unquote. And so this is based on Henry Stanley's journey to find the source of the Nile.
And so I transcribe his text and turn it into an exploration to find the source of the Thames in England. And it's an expedition that begins in Zanzibar, which is where Stanley landed. And so a reverse journey of Zanzibar to England. And Henry Stanley's guide for that expedition was a historical figure called Bombay. And so Hafeed Sidi Mubarak Mumbai is supposedly his descendant, a Bombay descendant.
And this is Hafeed with one of the expedition's maps in the background. And so this is an installation view of how one form that ends up. There's a base camp for the expedition, which is powered by those boots on a rowing machine, which can be plugged in to electrical outlet. The base camp has a shower unit. There's clothing. Everything one needs at a base camp, but it's all made out of duct tape.
And then there's postcards, there's flags, there's maps, there's the expedition journals and so on, on the walls. So here's postcards. And it's throughout from Calais to Dover, one of the migrant routes into England. One of the expedition maps. And also looking at the racial segregation of London by different neighborhoods. And here, it's marked by skin tone.
Just an installation shot and this is the map of the London Underground system. And I've renamed every station of people who are from the Global South who have some connection from the Global South. And then maybe, again, in London, or in the UK and also in the US and people who've been important to me. So they're my cultural, political touchstones and influences on me. And you recognize names.
And it's also creating a different mapping between political figures, cultural figures, artists, musicians, and so on. Is there a way to think across national boundaries and across disciplinary boundaries as well? So another expedition I conducted was from Oak town in California, Oakland, to Ishbilia, to Seville. So I used the Arabic names. So pre-Columbus during the Moorish period. And so I use Columbus's ships diary to, again, describe a journey from Oakland, California to Seville, Spain, to where Columbus actually set sail from.
And then the diary images and texts were then mailed in the post to the gallery in Seville. So that's what they look like in the gallery. And these are some of the individual pieces. It's in Spanish. So I'm working from a translation of Columbus' text into English and then I'm rewriting it so it describes the reverse journey. And I'm using Google Translate to translate it back into Spanish, which in Spain, they just thought was old Spanish, which is perfect.
And you can see, it's a life of the captain. And I'm using the name Visitacao Da Costa as the person who is compiling the travel journey, the travelogue. And that's my mother's name. And you can see it's been addressed to someone at the gallery of the University in Seville. And the return address is my mother and the office at the Berkeley Art department.
And there's a translation from when it was shown in the US at University of Delaware. So my mother's been recurring in a number of projects in different ways. And these are some of the collage text images starting off in Oakland and then arriving eventually, there's the transit, there's going through the Panama Canal, the Trans-Atlantic and arriving in Seville.
And my parents used to live in Portugal. And so I would fly to Seville in order to-- and then get the bus over to see them. And so I had already done this journey a number of times and these are the photographs that I've taken in Seville. OK. So this is one of the books that Gemma mentioned. The Arc of Martyrs in 2020, so my most recent book. And as Gemma mentioned, it's a rewriting of Joseph Conrad's Novella Heart of Darkness. And I don't know if anyone can see, I have these great blurbs from different people.
There's Judith Butler, RuPaul, Lindsey Graham Cracker and Brad Pitt, which immediately tells you something about the work I guess. And then the book itself is laid out-- so you have Conrad's text on one side and my text on the other. And so you could do a word for word comparison. So I've changed every word of Conrad's text to a word that rhymes with it. And then my version makes sense as well. I'm not using nonsensical words.
And you can read it as a narrative in its own right. And so I think that might be more readable. And so maybe I can read that top bit, which I think was also descriptive of our particular historical moment that we've experienced. So actually while I'm reading that, why don't you read Conrad's text? And then sort of read along with me. So "that nasty: vote and impeach. Employee with a beard sounds concerned, answered cry for war, spouses ponder pill, mothers are scion-proofed, the Rump's unchaste administrations protracting Fuhrer affinity. Ignominious boys conjure masses amuck, trumpet voters digging for a bankrupted aberration. A mob, illegal, mostly cracker hatred, lubed with downright angst, already rejected its future bitter. A rhyming rewrite crowned with a wit's sublime inner sullen, omnipresent despair. Wherefore puppetry's nation? Dead indeed poisoned cruelty spewed in havoc-- strike clusters squander foggy hope. Lie still, fend for grim slump. Obnoxiously New Day? Go, raise hell.
OK. So I hope that feels applicable to our recent history. So there is a narrative in mind, and it's also an autobiography of V. Again, the character of my mother. Back to the work in the show. In some ways, also thinking about European painting, even though these are, to some extent, documentary. And we can think of it that way. And I really leave it open to viewers how they think of these works as documents of my father's apartment.
This is what it actually looked like after he died. But while making these works, I also had-- I began to realize there's something so familiar about this image and its formal properties that lay out. And I realized I was thinking of this Delacroix painting, The Death of Sardanapalus. The King of Persia. We see him reclined on the bed before he's going to commit suicide. His slaves, concubines, are going to be put to death as well. He's just lost a war.
So rather than surrender, he's going to commit suicide surrounded by all his possessions. And the other image that kept coming into my head was Gericault, The Raft of the Medusa. This sort of tangle of bodies, the sort of splashing waves. The platform of the raft and the vertical form of the sail. So if I go back to that, there's a similar horizontal platform of the bed, the vertical bed hedge and the splashing plastic bags around.
And I don't to what extent those pre-images of those two paintings inform my making of this work, but certainly the works in the show are this negotiation between recording something that was actually there and making an image. How do I, as an artist, negotiate those two things representing something that actually existed in the world, as well as a kind of priority of image making. How do I make this function as an image in its own right?
And so that's part of the negotiation. And so I want you to think about, as viewers, not that this is a documentary photograph, or not that it's a painting, but it's trying to do the work of both. I'm trying to function between those two things. OK. So again, works from the show. And for what it means to me to photograph a landscape, and I'm going to show you some details. So I deliberately wanted to photograph something that isn't there.
And by that, I'm photographing a tree. But the tree itself is out of the photographic frame. What we're seeing is the reflection. And I'm photographing a surface that's unstable, that's constantly moving. And so it's instability and the fact that it's a reflection of something else that was part of what I was trying to think about. So I'll just go through these.
And again, those same questions between representation and abstraction. So even with something like this, you know it's a tree because the other images of the tree that are more readable. And then things which we can immediately identify, like the ducks and the geese. Even if it's hard to tell where the surface actually is, and what's on the surface or what's behind the surface.
And again, for me, these are about negotiation of vision. So these are-- again, these are in the show, the texts which are from Vasco da Gama's-- not written by Vasco da Gama, but somebody on board the ship. 1498 ship journey from Portugal, all the way around Africa. Stops in East Africa, where my family lived and then goes to India and to Goa, which is where my family is from. And so there is that mapping of da Gama's journey, which is my own family's reverse journey. And then my parents eventually living in Portugal.
And so here is my mother again, overlaid with da Gama's text. My father. The two of them together, and back to my mother. And thank you. I'm going to stop there.
Do we take questions? Any questions, thoughts, observations about the show? Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Start using your own money and your [INAUDIBLE] to make work. What was-- why did you start to make work with the detritus of your body, earwax, eyelashes?
ALLAN DESOUZA: Why?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. How did it-- how did it start, or where did it come the idea come about, and so on.
ALLAN DESOUZA: And again, I think that that's also linked to the particular histories of migration, my family and myself. And what it means to be seen as a foreigner in different locations and to not belong there. and so those narratives of pollution and infection. So the way that people might respond to one's body, or for us being in the streets of Europe with blonde wigs, obviously drawing attention to our bodies that are clearly not connected to those wings. Those wigs are not off that particular body.
But the perception of, and the language of foreigners and aliens and so on as being infectious, polluting, contaminating. And so it was to use-- then to use my body itself as well, here's the contagion. It's now forming the image of these locations.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for your talk. So I have a lot of questions, but I wanted to ask you about the Thomas Cole series that was earlier. I'd love to hear how you found them and what spoke to you in particular. Because there are, I mean, I have various views about it, but I guess I want to hear a little more from you.
ALLAN DESOUZA: Yeah, I mean, Sir Thomas Cole, part of the Hudson River School. And why I'm drawn to him is because he's so explicit. And the paintings are so narrative that they're a great teaching tool for other works, which are more coded, for example. And they're very, very explicit about manifest destiny.
They create a visual language for it. And really, that was my interest. So it's not whether I like them or dislike them, it's like I think they're historically important and can be read in so many different ways, partly by who's reading them. I think Iftikhar, you must have a question? Sorry, I'm now public shaming people.
AUDIENCE: Iftikhar? No, not yet. Thank you for your presentation, your lecture. It's was quite beautiful. I have curiosity about symmetry and the early series where you are looking at landscape from above. And by virtue of, say, book-cut matching the landscape that is also obscured in certain ways, you are creating, of course, this third space as well. And I was thinking also about being a diasporan and about return. And symmetry, in a way, invokes a kind of return. But we also read in narratives of diaspora that there is no return, that you keep going.
And so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the symmetry. You begin with your mother, you end with your mother. You begin with a home, you end with a home. But you're never quite there. And I'm just-- I'm curious about these spaces that you are always in between, and perhaps always at the ends of something.
ALLAN DESOUZA: Thank you so much for that. So you have a couple of immediate thoughts about that. Symmetry is one of our standards of beauty. So a beautiful face, however we measure that, it's partly based on notions of symmetry. And symmetry is a form of-- so we ascribe a value to it. So we then think of it as harmony and balance. Now I don't have binocular vision.
So each eye gives me a slightly different image. So it's partly a play on that too, that I can't see symmetry. So something that's elusive, but also to bring into question what we find beauty. And also what we find beautiful, but with the landscape, to create a imagined deity, as if those deities are always existing there, if only we were able to see them. Which is supposedly the nature of deities anyway, how they become manifest, or how to make their actions manifest in the world. Part of your question was about home, return?
AUDIENCE: Perhaps is the unity found at home, in a home, or if it's found in transit?
ALLAN DESOUZA: What's-- so home, again, being something elusive. It's always a desire. A desire for home, even when we feel we're at home. So it's a desire for safety. And I think beauty can be aligned with some of those desires. And that might be the way that I'm trying to think of it, that these are about aspirations and desires. It's not that they're not achievable, I don't think we'd want to achieve them.
I mean, the experience of beauty is that it's always beyond reach. Whenever we think we know it, then-- and this is something I tell my students-- then we functioning on the level of kitsch, of something that's already known and as just a kind of surface. We can talk more. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Thank you. Actually I have a relevant question to that because I was also thinking between symmetry and reflection that sort of recur throughout your book-- sorry, your presentation. Because symmetry happened earlier in the landscape series, but also in your book project, the original text and your rewriting was put in the symmetry and also sort of-- I thought it was reflecting each other, as in imperial with reflection pieces that you showed toward the end with the tree.
But it's also your use of reflection to talk about, or show what doesn't exist. So I was wondering about the correlation between symmetry and reflection in your art-making and how that sort of-- I couldn't really stop thinking about the first beginning line of Baba, that how the correlation between symmetry and reflection talks back to finding culture in the time in the realm of beyond, if I'm saying it in the right way. So yes, maybe I'm sort of throwing too much at you. But I wanted to hear more about this.
ALLAN DESOUZA: OK. Yeah, so actually, it's never quite symmetry. So the first image of my mother that reads more as a photograph. And then the last image of my mother, where it reads more like a drawing or some form of printmaking. And so that's the supposed symmetry of a beginning and a return, as you said, almost as the return home, actually reveals something else. So you have to go back to the first image and think, oh, that's not what I thought it was.
So I think some of my work hopefully functions that way, that there appears to be one thing and then the second version reveals the first one to be something actually different than what you think it is. And so the symmetry of form in the book, Arc of Martyrs and the symmetry of sound. So when both are read simultaneously, they rhyme and they sound alike. That symmetry of sound, or at least a kind of coalescing of sound actually reveals two different-- totally different narratives.
I think of-- certainly with Arc of Martyrs and with some of the works, the different erasures, the redactions, as precursors. So in my-- in the book itself, Arc of Matyrs, my end notes, I write that my text is underneath Conrad's. Mine was written first and Conrad's is overlaid onto mine. And the example I use is Kazimir Malevich's 1915 painting, Black square. Which is, for those of you who haven't seen, it's just a black square.
And supposedly marking a certain kind of end of painting, or the end of representation. OK, so 1915. And then in 2015, the painting is scanned and there's a text discovered under the black paint and it's a racist joke that says something about a depiction of Negroes in a cave, that's the wording. And so this foundational moment of European modernism is a racist joke. And so I think of Arc of Martyrs, my rewriting of Conrad in the same way I think of my renaming of the London Underground stations with these names from the Global South as the text that comes first.
It's the underwriting before the whitewashing of modernism. The Malevich lays a black coat over it. So it's like those expedition journals. It's a reversal of the text, rather than just a symmetry. But maybe functioning as a reflection of it so that you go back to Conrad, to Henry Stanley, to Columbus, to Vasco da Gama's texts and reread them differently from the person who is-- from the point of view of the person who is supposedly discovered. So what it means to speak back to those narratives.
And to think, if Thomas Cole is giving us these landscapes of an aftermath of in the way that [INAUDIBLE] off a landscape that's already been placated as the pastoral landscape. It's to seek the text, or the landscape that comes before that. So what has been erased? So that's been my working method, to use things like reflections and so on to do that. Does that?
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for your talk. That was just really interesting. I had a question because I felt the shadow of India very strongly in this talk. And then also of Europe, the Metro and there's fascinating names that you had over the Metro stops, but also the journey to Portugal from France. And I felt North America strongly in the talk too with the Hudson River School and also the Bay Area.
But the one place that seemed kind of strangely ephemeral in the talk was Africa. And there was a little bit, Zanzibar was mentioned, Stanley was mentioned, but I know it's part of your life. And so I wanted to just ask if and how Africa really fits into this talk because it's also such a huge part of African history with the Indian diaspora and Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the expulsions, Idi Amin, everything else. So somehow it seems strangely shadowy in this talk to me. And I wondered if you thought it was that way too, or if that was by design?
ALLAN DESOUZA: Yeah, it does-- so the last picture series, those family photographs taken by my father, so those all in Kenya. And they are connecting the family history to the history of the new nation. But I do think there's something that you might be actually sort of pinpointing of the position of South Asians within Africa, at least at that period. Initially brought in as-- in Kenya, or at least a sort of the workers for the railroad in the same way the Chinese were brought to California.
And then who also were treated as a kind of buffer class between colonized and-- colonized, but having been colonized elsewhere. So it might be that sort of in between-ness and a kind of shadowiness that you might be pinpointing. But it's something I also do consider negotiate of what is my claim to Africa? And can I make that claim, actually?
And in some ways, the image of my mother for me, is partly that claim since she's born there as well. And then some of my writing is-- some of the writing and image making is about how she locates herself in East Africa. So it's there, but I think you're right to pinpoint it.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much. I had a question following up on your earlier comments around text and how, in thinking of your work, naming, renaming the piece switch and the importance of Vasco da Gama's travel diaries. How you think about text as a kind of-- text visually, rather than text semantically, if you could speak a bit about that because it seems to play a role in your work. Thanks.
ALLAN DESOUZA: I do think of it as texture quite often. So when Vasco da Gama's, that ship journey text is overlaid onto family photographs. For the most part, you can't read it. It's also a fragment of a larger text, so it functions as texture. And an indication of a kind of historical source that's harder to locate and harder because it can't be read. And even if one could read Portuguese, the script itself is hard to decipher.
And so texture certainly, to think of how it functions in textiles, as a weaving together. The wolf and the wolf-- what are those terms? The wolf and the-- yeah, you all know what I mean, right? The one that's-- in weaving, one that sort of functions vertically and the other one that's sort of horizontally and how they intersect. And so certainly how text does that as a kind of intersection of languages that forms the texture and becomes part of the visual surface of a work.
And because so many of my works are engaged with the surface as a kind of location. So whether this is surface of water, or the surface has been the photographic surface as representing the present, or present moment of the viewer engaging with the work. And there's a kind of historical image, which might seem to be in the background.
So it's that play between the surface and the background that for me, is textural. And text-like as well, as to the surface itself becomes a kind of text. I'm sort of playing around a little bit with your question. I do have a number of other works that also engage more directly with texts as a visual component. I think there was--
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for your talk. So with regard to your work that's displayed here in the way, I think what moved me the most was how you've chosen to pick frames of your parents things. And it reminded me of how my own parents things and the collection of their things reminds me-- is so particular to them. And it makes me hold on to the memory of them, that desire of holding onto the memory of them. So I know you referenced these paintings that you were thinking of while photographing those spaces. But could you talk a little more about why you chose items and things? I mean, I also come from a South-asian background where, in a way, honoring elders and parents is through their photograph, or their faces, which is a very different approach from how you are looking at it. At least that's how I understood it.
ALLAN DESOUZA: Yeah. I have a sort of-- let's put it this way, I have a troubled relationship to honoring our ancestors. And again, I'm thinking of my students and some of their work, whether very explicit about that, that this work is to honor the ancestors. And my sort of troubled relationship is not to glorify or to romanticize any past moment. And, you know, when I just think of my aunts and uncles and-- they might be watching. Those are not easy-- or even my parents or when I was younger, my grandparents. Those are not necessarily easy relationships.
And so not to think of honoring, or even mourning actually as simple, but how can I engage with them as really complicated and sometimes really contradictory processes? And sometimes antagonistic. And so the visual language of-- that last image of my parents, the wedding with the split. So they're actually occupying two different images-- my father on one side and my mother, on the other side-- To bring in certain kinds of rifts into a historical I guess, safety, or where we can easily absorb history and assume there's no conflict because it's a gesture of honoring, or mourning.
And I sort of-- I didn't want to do that. So a lot of family photographs, the heads are cut / we only see the bodies, or we see fragments of the bodies. And partly thinking of how-- and I know from experience, also how children sometimes photograph by just having the camera on their sidelines. So anything above that doesn't figure within the image.
So I was partly doing that deliberately, but also not to have that easy honoring. Because I'm now an elder as well. And no one gives me that easy respect, you know? And it shouldn't be that way either. It shouldn't be that deference, I think.
GEMMA RODRIGUES: Thank you so much.
ALLAN DESOUZA: OK. Thank you.
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This visiting artist talk at the Johnson Museum of Art is the third in an ongoing series with the campus-wide Migrations Global Grand Challenge, part of Global Cornell, with support from the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative. The Migrations initiative studies global migration of all living things through an interdisciplinary, multispecies lens, with a special focus on themes of racism, dispossession, and migration
A conceptual photographer, performance artist, and writer, deSouza was born to South Asian parents in Nairobi, Kenya, and raised in England before settling in the United States. They are a professor in the Department of Art Practice at University of California, Berkeley, and hold an MFA from University of California, Los Angeles and a BFA from Bath Academy of Art, England. DeSouza is represented by Talwar Gallery, New York and New Delhi.
DeSouza’s talk, “The Culture of Location,” frames the genre of landscape in relation to migration, settlement, and climate change. The title is a play on “The Location of Culture” by Homi Bhabha, now a classic of postcolonial theory. DeSouza’s transmedia practice explores the legacies of colonialism through strategies of humor, fabulation, and (mis)translation. Their solo exhibition “Al-An deSouza: Elegies of Futures Past” was presented at the Johnson Museum of Art (September 10–December 4, 2022).