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Carla Liesching Examines Her Exhibition at PhMuseum Days International Photography Festival
Published4 May 2023
Presented as a 6-meter-high installation, Good Hope is a project examining historical imagery in the building and disrupting of enduring colonial ideas in South Africa.
Hi Carla, can you tell us a little bit about the research and image production process? This long-term analysis began with some very personal questions, how has it changed over time?
Good Hope began as a book of research and prose, so writing has always guided my process in this project. It began more broadly as a fragmented essay on photography’s role in knowledge production and meaning-making, asking what the issues are when photography is employed in service of power, particularly white settler colonial power. It became a much more personal and complex project when I centred it in the Cape, where I am from, studying the location as both a historic geographic axis for ships plying the spice trade and a current epicenter for anti-colonial resistance movements and for debates around land justice. Throughout my research for the book, I collected pictures and made small collages. Many of the images are from Panorama Magazine, which was an apartheid government-subsidized magazine that sold a shiny world of benevolent white power, picturing themselves as ingenious caretakers of the land. Why would an authoritarian government fund a photographic magazine like this? Photography had the ability to influence people’s ideas of the regime, it seemed. I cut out pages from Panoramas and collaged them with “Africa themed” National Geographic’s from the early- to mid-twentieth century, school text-books from the apartheid era, and then my own family albums, clippings from current newspapers, and snapshots from my phone of protests and colonial monuments covered in graffiti. The goal was not only to reexamine the historical imagery, but also to interrupt it and present it in a way that questions how images shape us. Photographs are social texts, carrying information about the past and the present, but their meanings are always relational and malleable. I wanted to look at photography’s dual role in the building and disrupting of enduring colonial ideas. That’s where the idea of making the long columns, pillars or ‘scrolls’ came in—a way of representing physical and symbolic architecture—the pillars of empire, so to speak, except that these pillars are not made of concrete or marble, but rather a soft fabric that is temporary and ever-changeable in its display. Each showing of the columns is an experiment and I love that the project can be responsive to its context.
While you're still creating your work, how is the prospect of showing it to an audience affecting the process?
The possibility of showing work always affects my process because the way I install is invariably in conversation with the space. I really enjoy the challenge of coming up with creative solutions to limitations imposed by space, or opportunities created by space too. I aim for installations that have conceptual integrity, as well as technical and practical rigour, often at a very large scale. Having space to test out these ideas is critical for the development of my thinking.
How significant has been showcasing your work at PhMuseum Days? Can you recall the benefits of exhibiting your work at that specific career moment?
Having a solo exhibition at PhMuseum Days in 2022 was the very best timing, as Good Hope in its book form had just come out right at the end of 2021. The exhibition brought a lot of exposure to the project, and I found myself meeting folks who had learned about my work through the festival throughout the year. When I was in Paris for Paris Photo, for example, I met someone who had seen the installation in Bologna at PhMuseum Days 2022, and came especially to a book signing in order to meet me and speak more about the work. We remain friends! Showcasing my work through PhMuseum gave me a new community, and it really says a lot about how PhMuseum, Giuseppe Oliverio (Director) and Rocco Venezia (Curator), truly nurture their community. It is wonderful to see how it continues to grow.
Can you share with our readers how did the collaboration work remotely? What did you like the most about the curatorial proposal on your work and the unicity of your location?
It was a dream to collaborate with PhMuseum remotely. We had a few Zoom meetings, and exchanged ideas fluidly both on our Zooms and via email. Together, through a series of sketches, we came up with a plan for how to install the work. The one thing that was proposed by Rocco Venezia, from the beginning, was that the columns would hang in their own space near the back. They’re very tall, so we thought about how the diagonal lines of the long building, a former train station, would converge, and how the columns would form an impactful architectural gesture. We decided to print them as double sided scrolls that towered at a height of 5 meters! We also wanted to find a way to counter the monumentality, so we included a block of risograph posters at the foot of the columns, containing a story of the student protests during the #rhodesmustfall movement. Rhodes Must Fall defines itself as a student, staff and worker movement mobilising against institutional white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, for complete decolonisation of the university. The poster showed a statue about to be removed, a bird perched on its head, it’s pedestal block spray painted with the words: FUCK YOUR DREAM OF EMPIRE! We wanted to allow viewers to take the poster home, as an act of collective and participatory removal, and also as a way to offer more reading should the viewer be curious to dig deeper into the events informing the work. The entire curatorial collaboration was a pleasure, and the quality of the production was impeccable.
When it comes to preparing a submission, do you have any advice for the new applicants to the PhMuseum Days Open Call?
I don’t know if I have the secret, but I know for my own work that it sometimes helps to include installation shots and sketches that indicate how the images can be shown. That is to say, include an illustration that shows you’re ready and are already thinking through installation methods. Also, write a grounded project statement that avoids big fancy-sounding words that are ultimately confusing and empty. A thoughtful and genuine statement indicates that you understand your work and you’re able to articulate and communicate your ideas in a conversation. Finally, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get selected the first time or even the hundredth time! I have been making art and religiously submitting to grants and exhibition opportunities for about fifteen years, and only later, in the past few years, have I started to see some traction. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and dedication to your own process before others start to see the value in what you’re doing. Listen to honest feedback and let it help you to grow instead of bringing you down. Be your own personal critic as well as your own personal cheerleader and keep at it.
Carla Liesching's project Good Hope was selected through the festival's open call. Participate in the new open call to have the chance of joining us in Bologna. You have time until 11 May to submit your work.