Part of Artists’ Moving Image Festival
I had a bit of a shiver as I looked through the archived texts on Thulani’s work to get ready for tonight. Today is Thursday 23 September, making it exactly two years ago since the exhibition run of “of sugar and Bones” where this work originally featured, previewing on the Thursday night of 19th September 2019. Here we are two years later to watch this beautiful film, some of you maybe for the first time.
I’m excited because Thulani has especially re-edited the film we’re about to watch. So the moving image element from the 2019 installation in the Civic Room which was a really immersive and site-specific experience, it’s been transposed to the single screen for tonight. Originally, the film was installed as a duo of works ‘Ukhumbula Khuphi (Where Do You Remember?)’ and ‘Ukhumbula Kanjani (How Do You Remember?)’ at Civic Room, Glasgow.
In the film, Thulani films the stages of a demolition as one Glasgow’s colonial buildings is unceremoniously torn down. And it’s to make way for a four-star boutique hotel. Textual interjections were made throughout, coming from African (Nguni) dream theory, and this “recognises dreaming as central to an individual and a community’s wellbeing and positions dreams and the body as a site of ancestral knowledge.” Tonight, Thulani has not only reworked the film to make it a single channel video, but for this iteration of “of sugar and Bones”, Thulani also uses the 20th century African-American poet Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred to reflect on a changing urban landscape as a method of remembering.
But at the same time as it is exciting to debut this new version of Thulani’s work, tonight is also in some senses a re-sharing or rescreening which feels poignant and appropriate, too. Two years ago, when I interviewed Thulani about the intention of the film, he spoke about wanting to use the work to highlight and slow down perception of specific erasures taking place in the Glasgow cityscape. More specifically, in the exhibition text from 2019, Thulani talks about the physical presence in Glasgow’s built environment of colonial profits that have been amassing since at least the 19th century when Glasgow’s trading industries, manufacturing bases and geographical position made it the second city of the empire. The text recognises that “Today Glasgow and South Africa’s built environment act as a marker to this history. In Glasgow, these architectural emblems of authoritative memory and the continual process of urban renewal are petrifying the city into a state of collective amnesia.” The exhibition as a whole was described as “a meditation on sites and methods of remembering.”
So being able to screen this work and give it room to be seen two years later lets the film act again as a powerful reminder and disruption of structural forgetting that takes place as public and commercial contractors dismantle the colonial architecture of the city and with it, the evidence of Glasgow’s leading place in colonial rule, bolstering a national Scottish collective amnesia of this complicity.
In this new edit of the work for tonight, as I’ve mentioned there’s the inclusion of the lines from Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem A Dream Deferred. And it’s with this that Thulani draws a line of connection between the deconstruction of the Glasgow cityscape and the breakdown and decay of Harlem’s built environment in the 1950s. In each case, the buildings share their origins in the lost lives, freedom, dreams and hopes of enslaved and colonised people. So there’s the double injustice of wrongs that are first painfully endured, then secondly erased from the record unacknowledged. Recognising the particularities of this moment here in Glasgow, the film poignantly draws attention to the insidious consequences of beautification and gentrification. Namely, the demolition of the once grand architecture funded by the profits of violent exploitation and how that bolsters the endemic denial of the central role of Scottish culture and people in colonial rule.
I’m also conscious that speaking about the complex layers of history and forgetting that Thulani is urgently addressing in his work threatens to just take up all the space for discourse around it. But in itself this is an injustice to the incredibly artistry of what’s achieved in this film, and in Thulani’s practice more broadly. Through Thulani’s deft hand as filmmaker, he creates a moment of captivating pause and draws our attention to this everyday sight of a crane demolishing an antique Glasgow building. Thulani holds the camera as a witness, and in his role as editor of the hours of footage he gathered I think of him as becoming a kind of choreographer, sequencing the moves of the huge machine, choosing the points it looks stiff, slow and old, then when it whirls with an unsettling elegance, graceful and commanding, the hydraulic crusher sometimes is anthropomorphised into an arm, but also looking something like a long-necked monster. At one point, huge and in the distance, it’s as if it could figure out it’s being watched and suddenly rush at the camera towards you. As well as finding the drama and character in the movement of the machinery, there’s also the building up of these textures in the film, the netting, the partitions, and through this there’s the subtle telling of a narrative of hiding and obscuring as the shots of the film are framed through these layers of materials, and they become patterns that interrupt and delineate what is able to be seen and what’s then made invisible. But also we’re just really lucky to be able to have the film to watch right now so I’m not gonna spend any more time telling you how to watch it. Except from flagging that this a silent film so don’t panic when it starts because there’s not been an AV hitch or anything, I’ll just leave you now to discover by yourselves that it’s robust and more than beautiful enough to shine all on its own, without any more of a spiel from me.
LUX Scotland and Tramway’s annual Artists’ Moving Image Festival (AMIF)