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Flamboya by Viviane Sassen


“How is it to be young in Africa?” is a question Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen once thought she could answer without the shadow of a doubt –for she herself had been brought up in Kenya. Though she was still a child when her family decided to move back to the Netherlands, her memories of Africa remained vivid – at first as images of a longed-for home and, later on, as a set of fetish moments. She always carried in thoughts the barren plateaus of Kenya, the rewarding friendship with the children stricken with polio living across the street and the visions of a father who would spent his time surrounded by illness trying to find cure for his patients. It was in 2002, the year of her thirtieth birthday that she set foot on the continent of her childhood –for the first time since what had seemed to be ages. With her, she had brought the nostalgia of passed-times and a photo camera. First traveling to Cape Town, she came back to Europe with her series ‘Cape Flats’ (2002) and with the certainty that she would soon come back. Since then she has been journeying across an increasing number of countries in South and East Africa and has come to dismiss her own ideas about the continent as too reductive and simplistic.

‘Flamboya’ refers to the ‘Flamboyant’ tree which blossoms in December and spatters the landscape across East and South Africa with countless deep red-and-orange flowers. Yet, maybe this name constitutes the sole remaining concession and reference to an exotic image of Africa in the history of a body of work that otherwise helps challenging this enduring conception. Shot in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia, the ‘Flamboya’ photographs stand as paradigmatic for Sassen’s new way of looking at Africa – one devoid of sentimentality and that through poetical metaphors acknowledges the challenges and drawbacks of its complex reality.

Considered Western countries’ colonial past, the technology of photography, touching on the subject of ethnic otherness, carries with itself negative implications difficult to circumvent. Furthermore, one might justifiably ask oneself whether, throughout these last few decades that have seen colonies take their independence, the situation has actually undergone any change. It might well be argued that our present post-colonial era has seen the advent of new forms of domination –photography having been and remaining a tool of symbolic mastery. For in fact, the portraiture of difference as it is done today under the form of an apology of poverty (with models always happy despite hardship), a war spectacle (barbarism as the artifice of uncivilized societies) and a lost paradise (illustrating the primitivist fantasy of a more instinctual state of being) still serves to justify inequalities. Ultimately, visual regimes always bespeak their own exclusionary logic.

Much depictions of Africa as one can still find them illustrated today in popular ethnography magazines and coffee-table books feature the continent either as a lost Eden or as a place of war, poverty and corruption. Versus these common stereotypes, no weeping mothers, unnecessarily smiling children or men with guns find their way into Sassen’s work to trigger mindless empathy or cost-effective guilty feelings. Yet is it possible to create a work that does not in one way or another fall into old schemes? And isn’t representation always a form of empowerment? It is bearing these questions in mind that Sassen shot her ‘Flamboya’ photographs. If it wasn’t possible to utter any definite statement about any kind of experience and if the (pos-)colonial history of photography was betraying her ambitions, then it was the act of doubting itself that was meant to become the object of her photographs. Without giving up figurative means, Sassen went on developing a visual language that questions the ideology underlying the belief in photography’s mimetic power.

When Sassen came back for the first time to Africa, she was already working as a photographer for different underground magazines. Throughout the editorial work she had started producing since 1999, an aspect had already appeared as characteristic of what had to become her esthetic language. Her photographic compositions always involved some kind of subtle trompe-l’oeil. For instance, she would simulate presence by absence (enhancing clothes by visually erasing the model wearing them) or would blur the boundary between life and death (gloves mistaken for hands). Far from being a matter of purely formal interest, this visual trickery was at the core of her expressive enterprise for it secured the impact of her photographs while it actually challenged binary oppositions such as those of nature versus culture, absence versus presence, life versus death. Through her Africa work, the elements of this incipient visual grammar would come to articulate themselves more steadily as her subject matter came to involve the question of the representation of ethnic otherness.

With the help of leaves, cast shadows or even turning their back to the camera, Sassen’s models in her collection of photographs ‘Flamboya’ anticipate and prevent themselves to become the object of the inquisitive gaze of photographer and potential viewers alike. Sassen’s models are cast as individuals aware of the ritual that constitutes the act of being photographed and actively participate in it. This dimension mirrors Sassen’s way of working. Almost none of the individuals featured in her work are professional models, they are simple passers-by met on the street or other public places. Yet, Sassen’s work is not strictly documentary. Rather than being interested in the features of a specific individual, she aims at producing a kind of archetypal image that she composes (she privileges the verb, to compose, over the more commonly used, but in the case of the description of her work inadequate, to stage).

Although most of Sassen’s ‘Flamboya’ photographs are portraits, none of them allows viewer to easily (or not at all) distinguish the facial features of most of her models. Their personal identity is symbolically – and sometimes literally — left in shadow. Furthermore, just as the individuals portrayed wear clothes or seem to use their own body or natural environment as a camouflage, the quantity of descriptive elements in terms of geography and culturally laden props are restricted heavily. This apparent parsimony of visual information is counter-balanced by the use of bright colors and Sassen’s high sensibility for contrasts and appealing compositions. Although crucial aspects of the life conditions of the individuals portrayed still surface, Sassen’s ‘Flamboya’ photographs transcend the documentary and reach the metaphoric.

Lying on the ground in the shadow of a tree, seated behind tree ferns or just standing in the sun in such a way that the excess of light turns their skin into a new kind of reflecting surface, the individuals featured in Sassen’s ‘Flamboya’ photographs seem to be awaiting something and for which they need to hide – or find protection. Absorbed in thoughts, dedicated to some undefined activity or just sleeping (or are they actually dying?), they become the actors of open narratives. Whereas each viewer is left alone to decide of the story to be read in each photograph, (s)he will invariably feel invaded by a feeling of uneasiness. Beyond the fact that it is impossible to fix the meaning of the photograph, they seem to return our gaze and intimate that her subjects are actually looking at us rather than the other way around. And ultimately, they do partake to mysterious mises-en-scène whereby their identity becomes function of their camouflages rather than the result of the photographic registration of their body and facial features.

In a very humble way, Viviane Sassen acknowledges the fact that as heavily bound as she feels to Africa, she will never be completely able to break free from her occidental background; that the fears and desires that have nourished the cultural and financial treasury of the West for centuries on the account of Africa and other so-called Third world countries cannot have completely been eradicated from her work. Maybe it is so, maybe not. In any case, who will dare to throw her the first stone? If the technology of photography is damned to structure reality in terms of an unequal relation between the ones who are empowered to depict and those who are the object of their gaze, Sassen has already proven to put at pain its discriminatory mechanism. By coherently staging the impossibility of capturing the identity of her African models by suggesting that identity is always a kind of camouflage, she has come to reflect on the typical western belief that image making amounts to meaning making. Through compositions that dramatize the paradoxical relation of westerners towards the African population intimating the possibility of a fatal unraveling, she has achieved to hinder the cycle of knowledge production as power exercise. The only certainty invading us as we keep on looking at her work concerns the ethical response one might have confronted to life: that of doubting what one has always taken for granted. Just as Sassen choose to question the comforting dream of an exotic childhood to acknowledge the ambiguities of reality, it is in our hands to accept the challenge that constitutes the existence of others. For, this would mean to allow them to constitute the real danger and source of unpredicted changes, which only subjects can be the agents of. It would be the death of otherness as a mirror image of one’s own interests and the birth of a truly separate – and therefore unmasterable — entity.


Words and images: Courtesy of Viviane Sassen