It was an open-ended dialogue between artist and curator. It was a creative process between friends. Tako Taal and Seán Elder sat between the screen facing us, the audience. Their faces were illuminated by phone torches. The luminosity created a somewhat personal and private ambience in the darkened room. Guided by the torch, the artist and curator shared extracts gathered from their previous correspondences via email, phone calls and so on with us in turn. This ‘conversant dialogue’ incorporated screenings of Taal’s two recent pieces – You Know it but it Don’t Know You (2017) and Halo Nevus (2018). Both films were, I trust, informed by and emerged from the process of the dialogue. It was as if we are on a visit to their studio, being welcomed to sit beside the warmth of their friendship and witness their intimate co-working process.
To write a short text reflecting on the event – which marked the first of many public programmes that LUX Scotland is organising in Aberdeen in coming months – I endeavored to take part in their conversation. As well as Taal’s films, I traced their memo of the extracts that they verbally shared that the evening and highlighted a few particular keywords as inspirational cues to project my thoughts.
Suggested by the fact that word ‘curate’ originated from ‘care’ in Latin, in a general understanding, the curator is supposed to be the one who cares. In this sense, the artist is the one to be cared for. But this also suggests a power structure in their roles. As we can still see within this, how post-war mega art events across the world have been organised, it is common to understand that an appointed curator has the power to come up with the theoretical theme or concept and chose artists or artworks to embody it. Imagine the curator on the top of a triangle and artists or artworks in the wide space below. The methodology and attitude within ‘working together’ that Taal and Elder named, however, flattens this rather masculine triangle. I always have an image of a table for the idea of ‘working together’. It is a round table where people with any background, culture or discipline can have a seat and make a contribution to a critical conversation over tea or coffee. At this table, the power is taken over by diversity. Setting up this round table forum and sharing and caring about our differences or opinions is another format of curation. More immediate and relevant to where we are now. Another way to move forward.
Taal’s work You Know it but it Don’t Know You was filmed in The Gambia, Taal’s paternal homeland. It was, by chance, made at the same time as The Gambia’s 2016 presidential election that marked the country’s first change of presidency since a military coup in 1994. With support from Aberdeen City Council’s Visual Artist and Craft Maker Awards (November 2016) Taal spent three weeks in The Gambia and one week in the Gambia Hospitality and Tourism Institute. The visit to the Institute was ‘to see the other side of the tourism industry in The Gambia’, which, besides farming and fishing, is one of the main Gambian industries. The film shows images of students of the Institute learning different subject areas: housekeeping; culinary arts; bar and restaurant; and administration. Most images are focused on students’ hands in action, their gestures. They go along with a commentary of a gentle yet flat-toned voice. It tells Mandinka words and their English translations taken from a list that Nain – Taal’s grandmother – wrote in 1986, three years before the artist was born. It begins with ‘alikira /the next world’ and ends with ‘tubaboo /the person from across the great sea’. Taal explains:
‘As a dictionary the list is not complete yet narratives emerge through its concise selection. Reflecting particular moments in time, the student’s gestures and my grandmother’s list embody a search for knowledge and understanding in an exercise of curiosity and welcome.’
But which knowledge do they search? Who do they get ready to welcome?
In the middle of the film, there is a scene of Gambian performers showing traditional dance and music by a swimming pool in a luxurious looking hotel. This is not a part of the curriculum of the Institute. The viewpoint is set on a stage with the performers looking towards the hotel customers on the other side of the pool,. Some are watching and some are not watching the performance. Some are eating, some are speaking. Within the vigorous Gambian music and dance movements, there is a strained silence and tension in this scene – a tension between the gestures of hotel customers, performers, the artist and interpretations of us, the viewers. It is confrontational and welcoming at the same time. And this ambiguous and split tension is, I trust, what Taal seeks in her artistic practice.
Taal’s work Halo Nevus is a short film exploring our location and position within personal, familial, cultural, local, social, political and national history through the artist’s birthmark. The work was commissioned by Grand Union in Birmingham on the occasion of Inherited Premises, a two-person show by Tako Taal and Rami George curated by Seán Elder (25 May – 3 August 2018).
‘This two-person show is a reflection on personal and national narratives, shifting away from a singular perspective to reflect on the multiplicity of self-representations inherent in diasporic experience.’ (1)
At the beginning of Halo Nevus, there is a scene of a news interview. “Why are we not in The Gambia?’’ the interviewer asks the new Gambian president Adama Barrow, who was elected in December 2016 but was in Senegal for security reasons at that time of the interview in January 2017. Instead of replying to the question, Barrow slowly turns his head toward the camera and stares at us. Again, we come across a moment of tension – which is simultaneously confrontational and welcoming, that we are invited to interpret.
Taal has a birthmark at the end of her left arm. The mark seemed to be a dark brown ellipse.
‘The change was sudden. Although you weren’t aware. you couldn’t see how the edge became soft, grew pale and translucent until a thin white rim defined its entirety (…) At first, you thought the colour leached outwards, and would eventually cover your body. After living with it, you saw the reverse. The white rim continued further into the mark. Eating at the middle. A freshly defined centre becoming smaller and smaller.’ (voiceover from Halo Nevus)
The word ‘diaspora’ literary means ‘the scattering of seeds’ in Greek, This finds a resonance with images of Taal’s mother in this work, who is shown preparing her allotment soil for the next seeding season.
In spatial terms, diaspora is always fundamentally in tension with the quintessential territorialism of the nations-state: diasporas are manifestations of being dis-placed (…) diasporic identities are always simultaneously and ambiguously deterritorialised and reterritorialised, they always hover in a movement between ‘home and away’, attachment and detachment, identification and disidentification. (2)
Like a memory or cultural heritage of Taal, or her roots, her birthmark itself – its mysterious emergence and change of pigmented territory – is a personal and fragile yet beautiful representation of the conception and complexity of diaspora and diasporic experience. The little elliptical island floating on Taal’s body seems to contain a whole diasporic narrative and universe. Many images in this film, in addition, appear to be unfocused, vague and rather sudden. This ambiguity also represents the uncertainty of Taal’s birthmark as a focal subject of the film, but also it emphasises the ‘scattered’ nature and feeling of being unsettled, displaced, detached or disidentified in the diasporic experience or identity, and the nostalgia towards the ‘putative homeland’ (2). Yet this work also involves a generous gesture of welcoming – more vague, more open to invite viewers’ interpretations or understandings.
A frequently appearing waterdrop image, the shape of which is similar to Taal’s birthmark, supports the fluidity and ambiguity seen throughout the film. The way the drop is slowly blown off, leaving a shadow and a tiny bits of water in the final scene, both indicate water’s original location, metaphorically – and poetically – epitomising the quality of diaspora: ‘they are uprooted but cannot remain completely rootless, they are dis-placed but always face the task of replacing themselves’ (2).
I have heard that Taal and Elder will be visiting São Paulo soon. I was there too recently for a month and a half to make an exhibition focusing on the Japanese diasporic identity in Brazil, and left there on 1st October 2018 – just before Jair Bolsonaro was elected. I am interested in seeing what we are going to share or not share as experience in a different time. I shall certainly keep taking part in their dialogue – with a hope to sit with them at a round table over tea and coffee.
Naoko Mabon (b.1982 Fukuoka, Japan) is an independent curator based in Aberdeen
Before initiating her own curatorial practice WAGON Mabon worked for galleries in Tokyo, Newcastle, London, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. She recently curated:
Kyojitsu-Hiniku: Between the Skin and the Flesh of Japan at The Pavilhão Japonês, São Paulo, Brazil (2018); Alan Johnston & Atsuo Hukuda, a two-person show at Suisei-Art, Kanazawa, Japan (2018); Ilana Halperin: Geologic Intimacy (Yu no Hana), Fujiya Gallery Hanayamomo, Beppu, Japan and Peacock Visual Arts, Aberdeen (2015 – 2017).
This essay was commissioned as a response to On Sharing, Separations, a screening event that took place at W OR M, Aberdeen on Saturday 10 November 2018. Both essay and screening are part of LUX Scotland’s pilot programme of events in Aberdeen, supported by Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Funding Programme .