What makes it possible for certain individuals’ stories to prevail, while others remain invisible, or disappear into oblivion? What are the intricacies of institutional or structural erasure? And how does the unveiling of such silenced narratives contribute to collective thinking?
The Showroom and The Otolith Collective raise these questions in a curatorial format in the London iteration of Women on Aeroplanes – an international multi-part research and exhibition project, which loosely borrows its title from the novel by Ghanaian writer Kojo Laing, and its ethos from his implosive deconstructed syntax.
The project includes new work by artists Lungiswa Gqunta, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, and observes the largely unrecognised role of women in struggles for liberation, their participation in transatlantic networks, and their key voices in revolutionary socio-political movements that helped to achieve post-colonial nation-states in Africa.
Lungiswa Gqunta presents What songs will we sing when everything returns to us (2018), a sculptural installation conceived as a garden of exile, reflecting on the hardships endured by South Africans in exile. A new series of works on paper draw on her research into the uses of sound and song as modes of resistance in response to the often hidden structures of violence persisting as a result of the systemic legacies of colonialism. Created over the course of her residency at Gasworks (July-September 2018) these drawings consider the notation of western musical score in relation to free jazz, whilst meditating on the ways in which South African sound and song have been passed on through oral tradition in the contexts of protest and ritual. Together these works evoke an experience of collective resistance and history-telling through song, amidst a subtly violent terrain.
Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum has been commissioned to create a full-scale mural on The Showroom’s facade, for which she has been inspired by South African writer Bessie Head (1937-1986). Head rejected the brutality of apartheid by exiling herself to the village of Serowe in Botswana. Titled Exalt B.H. Sunstrum’s mural envelopes the facade of The Showroom with a view of Serowe’s landscape dominated by an ever-present sky, a significant element in Bessie Head’s oeuvre. Weaving in and out of this expanse of blue are Head’s words from Earth and Everything: ’I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write.’
Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa uses the gallery as both a repository for and as a space to reflect upon the research she has undertaken to date into the life and work of Amy Ashwood Garvey (1897-1969). Ashwood Garvey was (among many other things), Acting Chair of the historic 5th Pan-African Conference of 1945, co-founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), of the Nigerian Progress Union, the West African Students Union and the Notting Hill Carnival. She was also one of the most well-travelled and well-connected political activists of her generation. However her numerous and extraordinary achievements are only marginally acknowledged within official histories of anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism and feminism – in all of which she played a significant role.
In Carrying Yours and Standing Between You, Wolukau-Wanambwa presents the archive of material that she has been gathering this year; using selected texts, images and accounts of her own research experiences to draw out and reflect upon the many and varied mechanisms that have resulted in Ashwood Garvey’s historiographic marginality.
A series of inflight magazines, edited by the international curatorial team, travels along the route of the unfolding international project. Experimenting with the format, each issue becomes a light container for research-in-progress; at times a flying museum built upon each iteration of the project and connecting to the next. The issues continue to travel, wherever they are taken by participants and visitors. Issue two will be launched at The Showroom.
Running alongside the exhibition is a public programme of events which aim to expand upon and collectively develop new knowledge. Writers, researchers, critics and artists will be considering the activism of women - and in particular women of colour - in the struggles for independence from colonial rule in the 20th century. They will look at how and why the immense achievements of so many of these women have come to be marginalised within the official or mainstream narratives of these struggles, and what these women's erasure might teach us about the workings and priorities of mainstream western forms of historical representation. Through these events speakers, participants and attendees can work together to develop new or alternative strategies for recording and recounting such women’s lives and work in order to do a more lasting justice to their efforts and achievements.
Women in the Pan-African Movement Weekend of Events
8 Sunday – 9 December 2018
Saturday 8 December 10.30am–1pm: Marika Sherwood in conversation with Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa
Sunday 9 December 1–4pm: Black Herstory Archives Workshop led by Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski, Yula Burin and Nydia A. Swaby
Curated by Emily Pethick and Elvira Dyangani Ose with The Otolith Collective (Kodwo Eshun, Anjalika Sagar and Hannah Liley).
Women on Aeroplanes forms part of an international project of the same name curated by Annett Busch, Marie-Hélène Gutberlet and Magda Lipska, coproduced by Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth and funded by the TURN Fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes). In collaboration with The Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA, Lagos), ifa Gallery Berlin, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, The Showroom and The Otolith Collective, London.
The project at The Showroom is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, and by the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $153 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country. Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien. L’an dernier, le Conseil a investi 153 millions de dollars pour mettre de l’art dans la vie des Canadiennes et des Canadiens de tout le pays.
The project is also generously supported by Harry David and Mercedes Vilardell.
Image: Detail from Women on Aeroplanes Inflight Magazine #1, 2018 with the portraits of Muluemebet Emiru (left) and Touria Chaoui (right). Design by very (Alexandra Papadopoulou, Marie Schoppmann and Nathalie Landenberger)