THE ENS PROJECT’S FIRST PRINCIPLES
16th September - 26th NOVEMBER
Reviewed by Simon Raven
A complex and unusual collection of artworks, mimicking the formal language of a museum display, was spread across two floors of the New Art Exchange's exhibition spaces. Nigerian born and London based artist, Leo Asemota's exhibition gathered works in a range of media, including photography, video, sculpture, performance and drawing, made during varying distinct phases of an ongoing artistic investigation. The 'ENS Project' in its various interconnected parts uses the historic relations between Britain and Benin as a lens through which to consider the influence of technological, social and cultural phenomena on the psyche, whilst also enacting both a loss and ritualistic reclamation of identity.
The audience is invited, via a small sign, to enter and read the exhibition in a particular narrative order. Our journey begins with a haunted act of erasure: a wall piece featuring 35 heavily framed Polaroid photographs, in which a face-shot of the protagonist (presumably the artist) has been bleached white - an effect which might be achieved by holding a camera flash too close to the subject, and which might be suggestive of an interrogation or blinding act. Each erased head becomes a lunar mirror, reminiscent for me of the smooth blank chip in a scrabble set, which can stand for any letter. Indeed, one of the meanings of 'ENS', of the exhibition title, is a unit of measurement for the space taken up by a letter type.
The 35 photographic images/moons are hung in a grid, sculpturally evocative of a giant computer keyboard. From this vantage point it is possible to imagine each deleted face as a large white thumb-print, pressed into an alphabet of erasure. One missing image at the corner of the grid hints at a deeper theft and etymology for the work. The 35 blank faces alludes to the number of bronze heads looted from statues in pre-colonial Benin during a punitive expedition by the British in 1897 (the heads were taken to cover the cost of the expedition, and no doubt as a symbolic act by one 'head of state' on another) Each head was stolen from a statue of an African King relating to the practice of Igue, in which the head is worshipped as a site of communion with ancestors and gods. In writing, and at the exhibition, I found myself imagining a giant, headless bronze statue of an African King, typing a story of blank white faces with large thumbs: a lunar script of identity theft and erasure. Less dramatically, the work also conjures allusion to performance documentation by Tehching Hsieh, who, from 1978-9, punched a clock every hour for a year, and the godfather of the Polaroid, Andy Warhol, who took pictures of his own blank face among multiple society portraits. All of which have a contemporary counterpart in online social networking sites, which provide platforms for countless projects in which the protagonist photographs them-self every day for a year, enacting the anonymous mechanisation of subjective identity and loss.
Along the next wall were hung a line of drawings again framed in a way that was suggestive of computer keys or typography (this time in red and white, colours of blood). The images, delicately made with coal and white chalk, formed a lexicon of symbolic exchange and alchemical process. Among them were diagrams of mutability, and the beautiful phrase, 'I am the reason for my parents existence'. A complex and expansive web of mystical signifiers: diagrams, patterns and moons, hinted at a close study of archetypal imagery, alongside the formation and unpacking of symbols consistent with a deep exploration of identity and spiritual rebirth. A form of powdered white chalk (orhue) used in drawings, performances and sculptures throughout the exhibition, relates to Olokun Worship, practised by the Edo people of Nigeria. Olokun, god of the sea, is a powerful, benevolent deity, considered greater even than Oba, god of the land. In Olokun ritual white chalk is used as a tool for invoking prayer, both in drawings and in combination with objects, dances and musical rites, often involving an act of erasure (and perhaps an inhabiting of the 'ENS' space itself).
Following the drawings is a video of a performance made as a radio broadcast. The video is shown without sound, but can be heard by following a link on the NAE website. As such, the viewer is invited into a circular narrative in which formal arrangements are inverted: radio is traditionally heard and not seen, video is seen and not heard. Another blank space created and filled.
Several sculptural objects housed on plinths and under clear, plastic vitrine cases, included a chess set carved from chalk and coal, and a bible-jacket encrusted with coal. The formal arrangements of these works, and the colours black, white and gold, reminded me of modernist works by Constantin Brancusi, or props gathered from a lecture by Joseph Beuys. Their museological mode of display provided some distance from this reading, and an element of parody which might have been developed with accompanying texts.
Upstairs in the Mezzanine gallery three further components of the 'ENS' project were displayed in an order dictated by the sectioning of the poured concrete floor into three distinct areas. The first contained detailed drawings, or plans, for a performance in which Asemota re-walked the path of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee parade (on the same date even) through London. Navigational sketches and diamond shapes made from coal provided clues to the historical path and objective of the work.
Shown on a monitor at the end of the space was a film of four Nigerian men, dressed in highly formal, militaristic wear (maroon berets, sunglasses, black leather suits, braiding, boots) performing a ritual promenade, carrying four corners of a religious object: a rusted votive ship or anchor, with pale blue lace rigging, encasing a clasped heart of white chalk. The sombre procession paused at various monuments to Queen Victoria, and in The National Portrait Gallery, where rituals involving chalk and various other objects were enacted. A sense of reclaiming a political past, with symbolic connotations far beyond those normally associated with art, were created. In addition to psycho-geographic performances, I couldn't help also thinking of Eddie Murphy's movie, 'Coming to America', in which white preconceptions of African heritage are brilliantly parodied and subverted. Each participant in the performance took their turn to read texts suggestive of Britain's colonial past, including one by Rudyard Kipling, which were printed and exhibited alongside the film, and the ritual boat/sculpture housed in a large glass case.
'ENS Project' is an ongoing and fascinating work, to which I am indebted for the opportunity to discover aspects of Nigerian culture and British history which until visiting the New Art Exchange I knew nothing about. It is interesting to see the work sited outside London, in a city with a history of mining both coal and gypsum, which is also a form of white chalk. The show runs until 26th November, and I recommend a visit, particularly when there is a talk to help unpack some of the shows complex but ultimately rewarding religious, artistic and historical narratives.