The Middle Passage: Alice in Wonderland

Press Release

9th November – 15th December 2012

Private View: Thursday 8th November 2012, 6:30-8:30pm

Tiwani Contemporary in association with Ed Cross Fine Art is delighted to present The Middle Passage: Alice in Wonderland, the first solo exhibition in London by the interdisciplinary artist Nathalie Mba Bikoro. Bikoro’s series of photo etchings depicting a new Alice travelling through Wonderland is an evolving body of work which explores concepts of identity in relation to gender, matriarchal and patriarchal relationships, anthropology and the mythologizing of the African continent through time using a visual narrative of appropriation. The exhibition will feature live performance by the artist at the private view as well as showing video of Bikoro’s performance art both of which are part of the series.

In this work Bikoro appropriates images from the archives, from popular culture and from her own photography to construct an altered reality which gives the audience signs which they recognise but denies and resists the desire to categorise as Bikoro’s narrative plays with time and location. Bikoro’s work is very much related to the artist’s own encounters and experiences and in the first in a series of larger scale photo etchings figures and experiences from the artist’s recent visits to Gabon, Senegal and South Africa are represented in the Wonderland.

For this exhibition Bikoro will install elements from the photo etchings into the gallery space, this will include the suspension of a carousel horse (seen repeated in Bikoro's large scale triptych 'Carousel/Blanc ou Noir Toutes Les Larmes sont Salées) from the ceiling as well as the display of a series of flags created by the artist using African fabrics. The inclusion of such elements not only mirrors objects within the photo etchings but also speaks directly to the artist's performance which is an inextricable part of this series of works. A flag can also be seen in the work, Les Statues Meurent aussi/we are martians, which shows Alice's encounter with astronauts in the wonderland. Alice is seen to interact with these seemingly alien figures from in front and above simultaneously as Bikoro represents an historical encounter between man and the unknown to the backdrop images of her village in Gabon.
Nathalie Mba Bikoro is a French-Gabonese interdisciplinary artist working with visual arts and live performance art. Bikoro uses her work and her writing to explore and make comment on identity, inspired by her personal experience as part of an African diaspora community. Creating site specific live performance art, Bikoro’s most recent performances speak directly to and are part of her first major series of photo etchings.

With an education in Politics, Philosophy and Media Arts (University of Greenwich), Art History and Fine Arts (Kingston University) and Curation (St. Martin’s School of Art) Bikoro is very much the intellectual artist her work drawing heavily on literature and academic debate.
Bikoro examines questions of identity and community through her work in relation to the relationship between Europe and Africa, specifically Gabon. Bikoro’s ten year battle with Leukaemia was fought out across Gabon, the Netherlands and France and has influenced the narrative and methods in which Bikoro chooses to create her work often using her own body as a site of performance. Bikoro’s personal struggle for recovery played out across geographical boundaries has helped Bikoro to forge a visual language which challenges the conceptual boundaries in the representation and appropriation of African bodies in literature, narrative and visual arts.
She has worked on many educational interdisciplinary arts projects and collaborations and has taught across Europe and Africa. Her exhibitions have travelled across Africa, South Latin America, South Korea & Europe including African Heritage London UK 2010; New Currencies Museum Johannesburg SA 2010; Contemporary African Art Art|Basel Switzerland 2010-11; DMZ Festival South Korea 2010; Perpendicular Casa i Rua Belo Horizonte Brazil 2011; Arts Biennale Sachnin Israel 2012; Dak'art Biennale Senegal 2012. Bikoro was most recently awarded a residency at the Fondation Blanchère and the Soleil D’Afrique Prize Mali.

Essay for exhibition

In a recent piece of writing by the artist Nathalie Mba Bikoro about her own work she begins ‘Identity does not belong to anyone’. This statement sits at the centre of Bikoro’s work as she explores through her photo-etching and performance art questions of ownership and identity in the depiction of contemporary realities. Bikoro’s creation of a form of ‘wonderland’ (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) plays with a sense of time, space and location through the use of a fluid and changing narrative. The work provides the audience with images and landscapes which appear familiar but deny the desire to categorise. The figure of Alice is seen through the photo-etchings encountering new environments, people and things. The work is inspired by the artist’s own life growing up between Africa and Europe and engages directly with important academic debates around the appropriation of imagery and the representation of different identities within visual culture.

The photo-etching series is an on-going living body of work which has no set order or structure. Clues to the journey are provided through the use of repeated imagery and encounters between the figure Alice and other characters in the narrative including her father, her mother (seen represented by a goat) and the sacred fool. Images used in the work come from many different places including colonial archives, popular culture and the artist’s own photography. The artist’s live performance art forms part of the series as each exhibition is accompanied by a live performance piece.

This exhibition explores the creolisation of identities making comment on the fractured nature of the human condition and its constructions. The narratives seen in the work investigate historical and visual stereotypes in art history and visual culture and how these influence our current societies and interactions. The artist explores counter-historical narratives and geopolitical imaginaries. The piece Forget the UN (2012) presents a new stage, disrupting ideas of territorial belonging as nations are mixed, undefined by their geographies, ethnicity, language or their colour. The artist represents this through the creation of a series of flags made from sewn together sections of African Wax Hollandais fabric. Produced in Holland and India the fabric was originally made to celebrate the coming independence of African nations in the 20th century. The fabric is often assumed to be produced and made in Africa and lends itself well to act as a conduit to enable audiences to examine assumptions about origin, authorship, nationhood and belonging.

Blanc Ou Noirs Toutes Les Larmes Sont Toutes Salées/The Carousel (2012) illustrates the ambiguities of childhood innocence and curiosity as the Carousel is activated above Alice replacing the sky. The animals exist in a state between live animal and toy ride. The piece Toussaint makes reference to Toussaint L’Overture, leader of the Haitian Revolution as well as to the figure of the horse as both living animal and inanimate toy seen repeated in The Carousel. The object occupies open space in the gallery connecting the figures and narratives which are running through the works on the walls. Toussaint mirrors the animals in The Carousel as they both resist being tied to a fixed point as they imply movement around both Alice and the audience who enter the gallery.

Alice is preparing for the wedding in The Gates/A little night music (2012). In this world she encounters the forms, figures and ideas of final judgement. Alice’s dependency on family increases in this passage as they enact rituals of imaginary traditions. The piece is inspired by the artist’s recent return to Gabon which coincided with the celebration of independence. During this celebration younger members of the family are dressed as bride and groom figures and put on show to the family. This ritual and experience is explored in this work as the artist makes comment on ideas of ‘tradition’, ‘ritual’ and the family unit.

The Orchestra/La Bataille de Mimbeng (2012) depicts the conflict of Mimbeng in North Gabon between the French armies and the German armies of the 1st World War and is used by the artist to explore the role of the mother and family in Alice’s life. Alice’s mother, who abandoned her earlier in the series, has left her to wander through the altered landscape. Her mother retains a power over Alice as she represents the anchor of redemption and family love that the children and men strive to protect. In the desperate search for independence and victory, they create a counter-reality of a world without a mother.

In 34 Fell from the sky (2012) a huge massacre will unfold. The blinded sacred fool drunk on the ground abandons Alice as she struggles towards the summit of the hill. The artist makes explicit comment to her experiences in Johannesburg during the Miners’ protests in August 2012 and the complexities and divisions of a multi-ethnic country in crisis of identity. Each of the bottles on the hill represents one of those killed during the Miners’ protest. The tyres hang in abundance as symbols of both play and death.

Films and Performance

The artist’s practice is a direct response to the different environments to which she is exposed to. The experience of different environments is seen to be interactive with larger social, global and political narratives which she then layers onto concepts of identity and home inspired by various literatures. The energy of the ideas comes from the people the artist encounters rather than a studio-based environment. The artist channels the narratives and ideas from these encounters into video and live performances. As the vision for the work becomes clearer in the artist’s mind the work is moved back to a more accessible visual practice seen in the series of photo-etchings.

The Middle Passage (2011) and Passage Devès (2012), explore live performance film works in both the favelas of Brazil and the city of St Louis in Senegal between the sea and rivers. Both connect experiences of historical memory and make the body a collective point of ritual interpellation between tradition and modernity. These images are mirrored throughout the adventures of Alice in the etching works on paper as characters re-emerge and guide her journey like the chickens, the children and the goat.

For the exhibition the artist’s performance examines the idea of landing or arriving in new territory as her feet touch unknown land. The effect of direct contact and the raw, exposed nature of flesh and meat are pushed to the extreme as we witness the cooking of layer upon layer of meat wrapped around the feet of the artist. Uncomfortably close to the artist’s body, the meat bandages make reference to ideas of consumption in relation to greed, power and money. Referencing the Middle Passage, the route across the Atlantic between Africa and the Americas an explicit connection to the slave trade can be seen as the audience questions whose feet, whose flesh, whose land.

Film of performance from opening night