An Artist Uses Photos Found at a Flea Market to Examine Shades of European Colonialism

Nov 18, 2016 7:47pm

In the early 1960s, a Portuguese family went to live in Nampula, the capital of Mozambique. It is not known exactly why they went or how long they stayed. Indeed, even though we see their faces again and again in a new exhibition from Délio Jasse, we never learn the family’s name.

Jasse doesn’t know the family’s name, either. He has no personal connection to his subjects. The Milan-based artist stumbled upon this trove—hundreds of photographs and documents, including personal letters, bank stamps, and government correspondence—while poking around a flea market in Lisbon.

To some eyes, these items might seem mundane, just one family’s inconsequential paper trail, stored in boxes that nobody bothered to move or save. But for Jasse, who has long experimented with analog photographic printing, the papers and photos were an opportunity. The discovery of this nameless archive marked the start of a creative journey, culminating in “The Lost Chapter: Nampula, 1963,” his new show at Tiwani Contemporary in London.

On first glance, some of the featured works look like simple antique photographs, their black-and-white imagery overlaid here and there with colorful stamps and handwritten text—the trappings, it seems, of the paperwork and government documents Jasse found alongside the photos. In fact, Jasse used light-sensitive photographic emulsion and a range of screen printing techniques to blend his artifacts together.

He spent months poring over his material and investigating the history of midcentury immigration to Mozambique. As such, the juxtaposition of snapshots and administrative material is intentional and illuminating. Take the photograph of a few women in full skirts, sunglasses, and high heels, walking on what appear to be sand dunes, conceivably near the beach. Over the photograph, Jasse has printed a receipt—the scrawl is almost indecipherable, but the digits and “Obrigado” (“thank you”) give it away. It’s a reminder, perhaps, that these women in their fashionable clothes had money to spend.

And therein lies the key that unlocks these “lost years.” It is evident, looking at these found photos, that the family was affluent. We can assume they were one of the many Portuguese families drawn to Nampula in the 1950s and ’60s, when Mozambique’s colonial economy was thriving. The photos capture holiday dinners, beach outings, tidy front lawns, and the like: standard fare for a family album. But, despite their familiar appearance to Western eyes, these photos weren’t taken in Portugal or anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. Where are all the local black Mozambicans? Why don’t we see any symbols of their vibrant culture?

In bringing these forgotten documents to view, Jasse raises powerful questions about the inequalities of colonialism, race, and privilege, but also the human desire to re-create a home away from home. In a timely twist, the show cuts into our ideas of geographic and economic borders, and what they represent—how difficult or easy they are to cross—for the visitor, the visited, and the artist.

—Bridget Gleeson

Délio Jasse: The Lost Chapter: Nampula, 1963” is on view at Tiwani Contemporary, London, Nov. 11–Dec. 13, 2016.

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