An Archive of Identity

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An Archive of Identity is formulated as an artistic research project with the purpose of investigating critical issues related to the topic of archive and identity in post-colonial Africa. The project had an early experimental iteration and is currently being revised.

This project was stimulated by and draws on the academic paper An Archive of Identity: the Central African Archives and the Southern Rhodesian History, by Drs Lawrence Dritsas and Joan Haig of the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. The project proposes that the mentioned archive, called Oppenheimer Series and the questions it raises, be taken as a starting point for artists’ and experts’ explorations of the archive and its importance for post-colonial understandings and contemporary art practice. The Oppenheimer Series is also relevant today because some of the information contained in it is on the verge of loss in the sense that it is not available anywhere else: these sources are the only recorded witness we have. Its presentation of stories of courage and deprivation in the uncharted territory north of the Limpopo also provided the fuel for a romantic imagining of what it was to be both white Rhodesian and British – a dual identity. This process can be compared to how 19th century Scotland looked to its imagined, heroic past to inform its particular form of ‘unionist nationalism’ that was both distinct and within the UK. The idea of hybridity and duality again pervades much contemporary discourse. Between 1943 and 1956, government archivists in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) collaborated with the publisher Chatto & Windus to produce a series of nine books. The collection was known as the Oppenheimer Series and aimed to constitute a faithful archive of national identity.The volumes offered in print, for the first time, the primary sources – diaries, correspondence, notes and maps – that chronicled the first English-speaking Europeans to visit south-central Africa. The volumes included journals and oral histories from 19th century Scottish explorers and missionaries Robert Moffat (Matabele Journals) and David Livingstone (The Zambesi Expedition).
By means of exploring archives, museum collections, gathering oral histories, and specific materials, artists, researchers and others collaborating in project will examine different representations and experiences of Africa’s post-colonial past and how cultural practices played a key role in the development and perception of identities. The existing archival materials are of great wealth. Their cultural significance and value to contemporary artists, are generating interest from leading curators, academics and cultural relations experts. One possibility is to devise conferences aimed at exploring and exposing turning points in the history of modern African and European art. These would expose issues of making, preserving and disseminating archives from Africa. These platforms of engagement and discourse will raise important questions which can be expected to stimulate artistic and academic research opportunities. This interdisciplinary exchange and dialogue between artists, curators, thinkers and audiences – both Western and non-Western – will reflect critically on the reciprocal exchange between Africa and Europe through art, particularly the encounter between Africa and European Modernism, and its resonance for contemporary art practice and archive. This will be done through research visits and residency programmes, that will be organised in collaboration with cultural organisations, universities and experts. Institutions which have offered to collaborate in the research include: Imperial War Museum, the Royal Geographical Society, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Museums of Scotland , Antony Penrose Archive; National Gallery of Zimbabwe; National Archives of Zimbabwe, Bulawayo Gallery. By establishing a connection with the archives, artists, researchers and others collaborating in project  will be invited to explore previously unseen materials and reinterpret histories, seek to uncover, recover and discover histories, challenge imposed narratives, re-enact what was said or unsaid, recorded or unrecorded, visible or invisible.
This project had an initial experimental iteration in 2013, involving the artists Uriel Orlow and Berry Bickle. Berry Bickle belongs to the generation of African artists who emerged on to the international art scene in the early 1990s. These years witnessed the development of theoretical discourses on post-colonialism, post-cold war, cross-cultural identities and globalisation. The new geopolitical context generated the inclusion of a larger group of non-western artists in international art projects and offered a myriad of positions on the state of a changing world. Exploring issues of race, psychological violence, power, territory, history, memory and exile, Bickle raises questions about submission versus control, tradition versus modernity, and the local versus the global. Uriel Orlow’s practice is extremely connected with archives.  He explores blind spots of history and forms of haunting, and brings different image-regimes and narrative modes into correspondence. The opportunity to exchange knowledge with Uriel and Berry at the very early stages of this project gave us enormous insight into the approach and opportunities this project can offer to artists, researchers and the general public.

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