When the Painterly meets the Political

Shiraz Bayjoo in conversation with Denise Clarke.
London, May 2019

Mauritian born, London based Shiraz Bayjoo is a contemporary, multi-disciplinary artist whose research-led practice focuses on the interrogation of public and personal archives in order to challenge dominant narratives. Citing the words of Antonio Gramsci, ‘the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces without leaving an inventory’, he explores the construction of personal and collective identities through multiple connections and perspectives.[1]

After studying Fine Arts at University of Wales Institute, Shiraz Bayjoo has undertaken numerous residencies and exhibited around the globe including: projects with Iniva, Tate Britain and Whitechapel Gallery in London, Gasworks Fellowship, Mauritius 2014, Interchange with Yinka Shonibare in London 2014, A Land of Extraordinary Quarantine at Greenlease Gallery USA 2016, Surface to Horizon at Clarke House, Mumbai 2017, Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial at Monash University, Australia 2018 and Search for Libertalia at New Art Gallery, UK 2019.

Denise Clarke (DC): You have had a busy 18 months, including exhibiting works at Dakar, Sydney, Casablanca and Sharjah biennials. But first I would like to take you back to your 3-month residency programme at Bow Boys School in Tower Hamlets, London, that culminated in the exhibition of a multimedia work, Bow Boys Archive at Whitechapel Gallery in 2012 where I first encountered your work. In retrospect, having seen your later work, it seems to me that Bow Boys Archive is perhaps a pivotal or seminal work in that it seems to say something about how you began to find your voice and really articulate what your role as an artist would be.

Shiraz Bayjoo (SB): Yes, very much so! Actually, what started as a 3-month residency eventually expanded to a full year. It allowed for so much more in-depth research. I had already been involved with Tate Britain’s artist-led outreach programme Illuminating Cultures that focused on the teaching of Middle East North Africa cultures in schools from 2009 and I had carried out some work in Isfahan (my great grandfather on the maternal side was from Iran) and in Xinxiang province in China with some help from the Uighur community in East London.

I began to think about a nexus of concepts: identity, cultural connections, vernacular cultures, nationhood – its symbols, myths and narratives. Bow Boys Archive was where I really gained confidence. It was a space of experimentation when I figured out a direction and where my voice should sit. Located in East London where there is a rich narrative seam related to immigration, I worked closely with boys in Year 10 at Bow Boys school. The work that emanated from this became a multimedia tableau. A meditation on a 21st century migrant community comprised of archival images, portraits and furniture/objects and sound.

The residency took place in the year building up to the London Olympics. At that time, much was being made of the diversity of London’s inhabitants as part of Olympic bid by Brand UK. Having asked the boys to reflect on their personal experiences of immigration and explore notions of individual and collective identity at this time - one of heightened nationalism and patriotism – what emerged was something very different from official narratives of a generous diversity. What repeatedly emerged was identification with archival images of protest in 1970s and 80s, despite the boys having no direct experience of civil movements. Much is said about whether artists can/should make political works. We need to step into the “real” world and expose hidden or marginalized stories. To provide a space that reveals and is inhabited by multiple stories and identities in a sophisticated way. To allow us to re-imagine ourselves – if one feels there is no chance of (social) mobility in life, maybe art can imagine and enact this in a way that boosts confidence and conversations that create communities.

DC) You started work on another multi-media work Ile de France currently being exhibited at Sharjah Biennial in the wake of Bow Boys. The film at its heart has a lyrical or haunting quality to it and a very strong haptic or textural sensibility. Could you talk a little about that work, about your research process?

SB) Ile de France is a meditation or exploration of complex individual and collective, national identities on the island of Mauritius. It was uninhabited until the 17th century. Its population is intimately linked to colonial exploits by the French and British. It was pivotal in the slave trade, with slaves from Africa, India and Madagascar. The narrative of the film emerges through the inter-relations between landscape, architecture and objects with connections being made through materials and metaphor. There is no human protagonist. Whilst the landscape provided the same environmental background for slaves and early colonist fantasy alike, such spaces were inhabited differently. The film moves from coast, rainforest and into architectural spaces of different scales – industrial and domestic. It also focuses on objects as historical artefacts – evocative of different lives to reveal the layers of historical processes that underpin identity.

I generally start with stories that emerge from my research. I work with personal and private archives, vernacular histories, literary and academic texts. Ultimately my research process is about asking multiple questions about identity and belonging. I have a compulsion to find out about these things. To take up one position I think, can be dangerous. Identity for me is about complex displacements and connections. It is interesting to see how some connections are made and others ignored. Stories can be explored in academic texts, but they are usually written for a small specialist audience. The stories may be based on a polemic discourse, but this may not come to the fore. I prefer to allude to things and then let them ripple a bit!

My work is visually led although the film has an accompanying soundscape of vernacular music, TV footage of the moment of independence in 1968 and the ever-present sound of the ocean. Overall it’s about establishing an aesthetic language for the work in tandem with the research. I originally trained in painting. I take a painterly approach to the moving image, developing a spectrum or palette to bring together different elements. It is not a documentary although there are some documentary elements. I do not want my work to be associated with documentaries that dwell on migration as a form of refugee tourism. Ile de France is about developing an aesthetic of place, a psychological or experiential space within which emotional connections can be made – where it is possible to feel through things that are otherwise difficult to take in. I want to look close-up, to think about the surface of things, who touched them? This is why texture is so important.

This work has I think, real contemporary relevance. There is this idea that empire happened over- there, but today’s globalized economy developed out of colonial logic and forms the backdrop to today’s migration patterns and diasporic condition.

DC) I was particularly curious about the series En Famille shown at Sharjah Biennial as part of the Ile de France installation. The images are all women. As representations they seem both proud and melancholic. They are standing tall but appear to be receding behind empyrean pools of blue, green and orange. Who are these women and what are their stories?

SB) That is a good description. I was lucky enough to come across a photographic album belonging to an early colonial family that included rare portraits of their domestic slaves - the hidden people of the house. Photography is an important archive in early Mauritian history. It arrived very early via a wealthy planter class that embraced the science of photography as a hobby. I was not sure what to do with the portraits – whether to celebrate them, contemplate them or lay them to rest? I felt a responsibility towards those portrayed.

Most colonial households had slaves. They lived in very close proximity with the family, providing care for their children and yet they can be seen as both inside and outside the family. Very often their real names were not used. They were known by perceived personality traits. Called names such as “Lazy” or “Charming”. Also, the female slaves were especially subject to multiple forms of violence within the household. The apparent assumption of the banality of such quotidian violence meant that very little has been written about it.

However, I felt that if such stories and representations were only considered on a political level their full impact would be missed. It would say nothing about people’s thoughts and hopes. I decided to place their portraits on wooden trays where photographic transfers are overlain with acrylic paints and resin. The trays belonged to my aunt who used them as presentation trays in her jewellery business – trays for the display of beautiful objects. The resin is not perfectly applied – this is not about glossing over. It is possible to peel away to reach the material below. I wanted to create emotionally resonant space, a feeling of intimacy. The box like structure could equally be coffin-like so the portraits are about both remembrance and letting go.

Images Above:
Series En Famille, 2015 - Courtesy of the Artist

The series now resides in the British Government art collection. Interestingly I was telephoned recently to let me know that they would be on display at a meeting of Commonwealth leaders at 10 Downing Street. It made me think about how, as art, these portraits are now on display still within the tentacles of empire, but it made me smile to think that once un-named, invisible slaves were now occupying a space right in the heart of British seat of government!

DC) This year’s Sharjah Biennial is entitled Leaving the Echo Chamber. As its curators acknowledge it is a moniker that initially entered the contemporary lexicon with reference to incessant internet newsfeeds and social media where one encounters only beliefs and opinions that coincide with your own. I am curious to know how you see Ile de France in terms of a response to Sharjah Biennial’s curatorial exhortation.

SB) The term echo chamber can be understood in many different ways – contexts and scales. One can of course have a personal echo chamber but there is also a globalised context. I am thinking here of the discourses of the Decolonial. Much academic writing and many historical archives are written or recorded from a western perspective that has historically produced a single narrative. I like to look at vernacular tradition and landscape in order to go beyond western narratives.

My work is about challenging and breaking down dominant narratives in order to embrace an often-complex multiplicity of voices. For me the Decolonial is not about reversing knowledge. It’s more about finding lateral connections, bringing research elements together in order to exact new interpretations. It is about establishing different levels of intimacy and understandings through connection. In Mauritius there is a growing move to establish connections to ancestors and ancestral homes. It’s not about embracing a singular new identity but as a means of recouping an individual and collective identity beyond colonial narratives. This allows us to see the ocean not as a space of separation but of connection.

I am also thinking of biennials as echo chambers in themselves. At Sharjah Biennial I was mindful of how the works were displayed in relation to each other. With reference to the works in curator Zoe Butt’s section, it seemed there was a conscious effort to think through the reverberations between the works – a definite interplay between different levels of emotional heightening that was developed to great effect. Some works that were very emotionally powerful. They were placed alongside works that perhaps ameliorated the level of emotional tension.

Biennials are often viewed with a degree of ambivalence. They are linked to circuits of neo-liberal capital but their proliferation in the Global South has also played a role in giving a platform to non-western artists who challenge dominant narratives in a variety of ways. Biennial curators do not always move beyond currents dominant in a western artworld and have their own curatorial agendas, but they can also facilitate artist-led conversations and new connections. This is what I experienced especially at the last Dakar Biennial. A tremendous exchange of ideas and comradeship, a space where lateral connections can be made or indeed rediscovered.

DC) It strikes me as interesting that both islands and biennials could be considered as spaces of utopian desire.

SB) Yes, there is that aspect. In terms of biennials, I have mentioned the ambivalence often felt towards the biennial institution. Whilst they are seen as complicit in circuits of the global neo-liberalism, but I also feel that biennials could play a role in “development” within the global south. Much is made of outreach programmes in terms of skills training and knowledge development, but biennial artists could do more in terms of developing more creative initiatives beyond the traditional western charity model focused on a certain type of education.

In terms of islands and utopia - islands such as Madagascar and Mauritius have long been seen as paradise islands where abundant nature is viewed as a metaphor for “innocence”. But wherever there are people, there are politics. These Indian Ocean islands do have a beauty, but this obscures darker stories. I am of course, thinking here of slavery, of indentured labour and piracy.

Mauritius was also known as the Maroon Republic because of the large number of escaped slaves living on Le Mourne Mountain in the far south-west of the island. One could put a positive spin on this by viewing the island as a symbolic space of resistance. On the other hand, many of these slaves by legend committed suicide by jumping off the mountain into the sea. There are many myths circulating about the motive behind the suicides, including on reaching the sea the escaped slaves realized that they were in fact marooned on an island with no chance of return to loved ones or homeland. This is not “island” as a space of desire or resistance so much as a space of despair driven by a sense of utter isolation. Whatever the truth, this story is key in the identity of Mauritius. There is now a permanent UNESCO memorial to the slaves on the mountain.

I also worked in Australia and Tasmania. British colonialists in Tasmania moved many indigenous peoples onto an island 5 miles away from their homeland. They could still see it but were left without means of sea travel. The level of physical and psychological violence done to these people can only be appreciated if it is understood how intrinsically important “the land” is to their identity – their very sense of being. In Australia such injustices are only beginning to be addressed now. A government cultural policy initiative focusing on issues of representation, remembrance and memorialization is being led by artist Brook Andrews. The choice of an artist to lead was based on an acknowledgement that an artist rather than a single academic could potentially best bring together the many different types of thinking required in the path towards a fuller understanding of the issues.

It is important I think, to bring all these different stories back here. I have been invited to a number of institutions including Courtauld Institute in London, Monash University in Melbourne and University of Missouri as visiting lecturer or critic where I am having conversations that make me think things are shifting and stories are multiplying. Does this mean that things are really shifting and that the days of the narcissistic white, male artist are over? I certainly lean towards the optimistic as it’s the only constructive way to move forward, but I fear things can easily roll backwards. In terms of the white male artist, I don’t think their day is quite over – but it certainly should be!

[1]Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, Selections, International Publications, New York, 1971