New Artist Focus: Sarah Hayden on Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa

Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa: Voiced and Unvoiced

Sarah Hayden
The artist in front of a gallery's white wall. Text on the left bottom writes, On Saturday 11 October 2003 I went to Tate Modern
A Short Video About Tate Modern, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2003

In her essay, “This Word ‘Art’”, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa writes of the excitement she felt on first realising that “language could be a means to hold people (societies) to account”.[1] Across her moving image work, Wolukau-Wanambwa handles language—as it manifests vocally and as readable text—with unusual precision, and to compelling effect. Deploying both channels expansively, her practice stretches “voiceover” and “captions” beyond their customary functionality. Writings voiced and unvoiced are set in uncommonly fluent flow. What follows is an attempt to uncoil—through very close attention—the compressed and subtle mechanisms by which Wolukau-Wanambwa’s work achieves its scrupulously calibrated political force.

In A Short Video About Tate Modern (2003), we do not hear the artist’s voice at all, but watch instead as text onscreen narrates how she experienced “this sort of really weird/ agonised/ weird moment” during a live art workshop, and conducted in response a performative intervention at this national institution. Captions are here repurposed as sub rosa or secret transmission; like notes passed under a closed door, they communicate the unspeakable or unheard. Emphasizing the kinetics of this textual choreography is the artist’s still presence at the centre of the screen. For the entirety of the video, she stands completely static against the white wall, looking back, first in one position, as untalking head and shoulders, then in another. If not actually unblinking, this gaze is absolutely steady; it never wavers. Meanwhile, with the narrator’s voice transposed from diffuse sonority to screen-bound legibility, to ‘hear’ the story is necessarily to be confronted by (and to confront) her physical presence. To apprehend the work, the viewer must endure the gaze of the artist as she describes coming into consciousness of an excruciatingly embodied visibility.

Beginning as though in media res with a verbally shrugged “So any way-”, the captioned unvoice of the artist-narrator proceeds to address the reader-viewer with familiar informality. As the anecdote unfurls, a recitative of first-person pronouns (“I went…I noticed…I think… I wasn’t…”) underlines the felt particularity of her acute singularity. Transposed from the space of the page to time-based media, text onscreen holds us to its own timeline. And it is the deliberately paced dripfeed of detail that makes this video feel so intensely, uncomfortably, like a story told live. The video reads like an anecdote recounted between friends or familiars: one interspersed with parenthetical clarifications (“(we had to do some stuff/ up and down the corridor)”), mini-rewinds for specification (“And they caught-/ one of the kitchen staff caught sight of/ me in the workshop”) and one square-bracketted, expressive “[sigh]”. The narrative that unfolds comprises both the micro-equivocations of a story related before its significance has yet been fully processed (“Because/ I think/ because i was there”) and the accretions of emphasis of processing happening live (“And he must have/ – clearly-/ he must have told his workmate”).

A Short Video About Tate Modern, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2003

When text onscreen accedes to the role usually accorded to narrative voiceover, punctuation can acquire new valence. In Wolukau-Wanambwa’s account of being (yet again) “the only ‘non-white’ person/ in this room of about …/ 15 people”[2], the inverted commas around the hyphenated adjective shorthand the privileging of whiteness as unquestioned, unmarked norm against which all others—like the black-clad figure against the white wall—are negatively constructed.[3] Thus framed as deviation from the norm, the black British artist is understood as unexpected, aberrant. Likewise, the ellipses that separate the adjectival approximation “about” from the hazarded number (15) that follows promptly the viewer-reader to attempt some uneasy mental reckoning. In the interval instantiated by punctuation and line-break, we (you) are prompted to wonder: what proportion of participants in an artists’ workshop at Tate Modern do you expect to be “non-white”? And what contextual factors do you unconsciously factor into your estimations? The demographic profile of London? The year in questions? Statistics half-remembered from a skimmed Arts Council Report? The limits of one’s own social group? In marking the narrator’s wondering pause, the string of dots puts reader-viewers on the spot(s). Later, the video text slips into direct, second person address. When, midway through a comparison of the roles within the institution where “invisible black people” are not to be found (the box office, the bookshop) with those they in which they are seen (as kitchen staff, security guards, invigilators) the captions interject, as though to abbreviate: “But you know—you go there”. This “you” encompasses all of us, if differently. You know such segregations and colour-lines—if not through familiarity with this institution in particular, then through the experience of living within a structurally racist world.

When the captions recount the artist’s sudden awareness of being “hideously over-exposed” and “hyper/ hyper/ visible”—her exclamatory “oh my god” and subsequent, shocked realisations pop up centred, in the middle of the screen. There, short lines of white text are starkly visible against the black background of her clothing, that is itself so very (symbolically) visible against the otherwise entirely white Tate Modern wall. The relaying of her epiphany, that “So all around me are all these black people/ and yet I appear to be the only one who’s here/ to ‘participate’/ to ‘make art’” is accompanied by a marked augmentation in the volume of background noise. Just as the artist was assailed by this realisation, so the audience—in synchronous sympathy—is made “deeply uncomfortable” by this sonic swell.

In the second and final shot, we see the artist again. Or, rather, we see her feet, calves and ankles—the rest of her body having been whited-out by the huge sheet of (white) paper behind which she stands. Only two markered-on circles indicate where her eyes would be: a gesture of deliberately obtuse self-inscription. Though occluded, she appears to look on (but perhaps without needing to see any more). This short video, we read, is the work Wolukau-Wanambwa went on to make in Joshua Sofaer’s live art workshop at Tate Modern that day. As we watch, other participants stride past as though she were not there at all. We hear the indistinct hum of their voices in unperturbed conversation. The artist remains just as still as before, against the wall, while the (art)world bustles on around her overlooked-but-present, inaudible-but-eloquent body.

A list of works from 1975.
Credits as at 24/10/2008, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2008

Credits as at 24/10/2008 (2008) was made by Wolukau-Wanambwa in response to an invitation to contribute an “artistic family tree” to the LUX Associations Project. This short video takes the form of a scrolling film credit sequence: a citational scroll-by sequence, listing the cultural producers, artefacts and institutions Wolukau-Wanambwa considered to have been most significant to her artistic formation. Ordered by year, from c.1308 to 2007, the span of this roll-call is as chronologically extensive as it is categorically broad. Starting with Dante’s Purgatorio, it goes on to list an emphatically global mix of entries from music (Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Steve Reich, M.I.A., Dead Prez, J.S. Bach), art (Adrian Piper, Hito Steyerl, Hanne Darboven, Valie Export), literature (Toni Morrison, Susan Cooper), film (Ousmane Sembène, Sidney Lumet), theatre (Heiner Müller, Samuel Beckett) as well as comedy (Richard Pryor, The League of Gentlemen, South Park), cultural critique (Edward Said, Angela Davis, Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault) and some major cultural institutions (Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, British Museum). Viewers familiar with Wolukau-Wanambwa’s work might be inclined to draw lines of influential inference—from, say, the institutional (critique) interventions of Pope L and Andrea Fraser to A Short Video About Tate Modern. Other lines could be plotted from Darboven’s wall-based infographics via Hans Haacke’s systems-expositions to Woluaku-Wanambwa’s mapping of class consciousness in A Continuing Survey of Syntactic Parsing (2010) or from the politically charged essay films of Farocki and Steyerl to the documentary diction of Promised Lands. The video’s constellation of coordinates promises to body forth a someone: the sum of these inputs. And yet, as the work’s title records, Credits as at 24/10/2008 is a document of the artist’s influences as recorded on a particular day of a particular month of a particular year. Date-indexed, the list it presents attests to the mutability of any such profile or portrait. The artist asserts the right to be neither static nor fully-formed, remaining instead in flux: forever under construction. So, while a genetic family tree can only be extended or elaborated, its artistic analogue can reconstitute or reimagine itself daily.

Within the film’s brief loop, no domain of cultural endeavour is allotted higher billing than any other, and each name is accompanied by the title of a specific work/s: a play, sculpture, building, album, etc. No vague name-checking of forebears and consanguineous coevals then, but something much more focused. As well as providing the reader-viewer with a checklist of more and less familiar recommendations for reading/listening/viewing etc., it serves to direct our attention away from the biographical figures and onto their most significant works—as subjectively determined by the artist.

Three exceptions twist against the cultural bent of this chronicle: “A death”, “A birth” (correlating with the year of the artist’s own) and a reference to “Footage in Clive Gordon’s documentary Men in Pink of journalists watching from their hotel windows as a woman is hacked to death in Rwanda in 1994”. These incursions of life on art remind the reader-viewer that every entry in the list was made and is encountered and interpreted only within the frames of mortal, relational—and so political—existence: personal as well as aesthetic ardours, human losses, atrocious violence. The footage so brutally described adumbrates the rest of the list like the retinal afterimage of traumatic memory. Disrupting the flow of entries, it opens a recursive system of frames-within-frames-within-frames. When, without warning, we are prompted to envision the artist (at 22) watching Clive Gordon’s re-presentation of an unknown videographer’s footage of the journalists four years earlier “merely observing” through windows “as a woman is hacked to death in Rwanda”, we are also made conscious of our own positions as observers, enmeshed within yet another frame.

Throughout her work, Wolukau-Wanambwa maintains an astute attention to the co-imbrication of ethics and aesthetics, to entanglements between brutal systems and cultural maneuvers, especially as they are deployed in tandem in the service of colonial aggression. In her essay on “Margaret Trowell’s School for Art”, the artist describes how Britain’s Indirect Rule was played out in Uganda’s art pedagogy as well as through its governance.[4] Wolukau-Wanamba uncovers the means by which “art education in the Uganda Protectorate participated fully in the interpellation of African colonial subjects and in the development of a non-identical colonised cultural space”.[5]

No Theatre is written in capital in the middle. Landscape in sunset is in the background.
Promised Land, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2015, 2018

Promised Lands (2015, 2018) forms part of Uganda in Black and White: Wolukau-Wanambwa’s sustained and ongoing exploration of the legacies of British late colonialism, and the production of colonial subjectivities in East Africa. In the run-up to the declaration of Ugandan independence in 1962, the British Government pursued ‘Operation Legacy’: a process to ensure the systematic destruction of any documents likely to incriminate them.[6] Since 2010, Wolukau-Wanambwa has been preoccupied with the archiving and archive-destroying practices of this administration, the British colonial forces’ photographic documentation of Ugandan prisoners and the prisons in which they incarcerated them, as well as, more recently, the extension of the colonial mission through the administration of Margaret Trowell’s School for Art.

In Promised Lands, the sun sets over a landscape while the camera, set to autofocus, recalibrates repeatedly.[7] As the scene upon which it is trained grows steadily darker, it jerks the picture back to sharpness. What we watch growing dark may be a framed vista onto the site of one of the ‘White Peoples’ Refugee Camps’ in Uganda, into which some 7,000 Polish and Ukrainian refugees were deported (from a Siberian gulag, via Teheran and colonial India) to live from 1941-1952. In full, approximately 30,000 European refugees were settled in East Africa in the 1940s and 1950s. From the voiceover, we learn that this place, Penderosa, that was mis-named after the set of the TV Western Bonanza “is not, as one might have been led to assume, an ancestral home. It’s also not a jungle. What you see here is cultivated land”, and from the captions that it is “not Buganda” and that “not nearly Canaan”. Where we expect the porchwriting at the start of a documentary to place the scene upon a map, this clash of negatives confirms only that we’re not going to get a fix on what or where we (ever less distinctly) see. As it proceeds, Promised Lands draws to the surface suppressed symmetries in the history of population displacements between the European and African continents—wresting migration from a discourse of toxic simplicity into one of rightful complexity.

Whatever of the over-layered, over-laden location to which its text is anchored, the action in this film is not situated anywhere within the foliage-framed scene on which the camera remains fixed. Instead, it plays out in the vivid, interplay between text and voice, written and spoken word. As the ethics of naming, description and representation are made subject to scrutiny, the text that appears onscreen subverts its given occupation: introducing ambiguity where we expect it to locate us in time and space, increasing rather than decreasing linguistic confusion, attesting to the fallibility of memory where we expect captions to (at least claim to) present a complete and objective record. At first, text onscreen seems to function as a kind of ancillary pedagogical backup but its didacticism is so overt that it soon looks arch. At times it seems to parody the imperious presumptions of subtitling conventions in traditional anthropological documentary: chiming along soundlessly and redundantly in time with a conversation between the artist and her uncle but seeing no need to translate between German and English. Ultimately, the technê of translation falters, and gives up. Declaring the interpretive project a lost cause, it pulses a semaphore of semantic failure: ‘INDECIPHERABLE’, ‘INDECIPHERABLE’. When, instead of offering a transcript of some indistinct speech, the captions concede, ‘I CAN NO LONGER REMEMBER WHAT HE SAID, OR WHAT HE WAS HIDING IN HIS HANDS’, this admission ruptures the structural tissue of the film—subjectivity spills through the portal traditionally dedicated to the transmission of notionally authorless pseudo-objective truth. Alternately in concert and in contest with the captions, the artist’s sonorous voice is deployed to similarly disparate and subversive ends. It can be heard reading dictionary definitions; trying out the mien of an acousmatic Voice of God only to dismantle its authority in polyphony; recounting family history; conversing with an uncle; reflecting on personal experience and re-voicing found text.

Indecipherable is written in capital letters in the middle of an image of dark landscape
Promised Land, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, 2015, 2018

Long before it was designated a reception centre for the accommodation of European refugees, East Africa had earlier been proposed, in 1890, by the Austro-Hungarian economist Theodor Hertzka as the ideal site for “Freeland”: the utopian society he called upon Europeans to build in the supposedly ‘empty’ putative ‘no man’s land’. And it is from Hertzke’s colonialist treatise, ‘Freiland: A Social Anticipation’ that the artist’s voice reads, in the third chapter (C) of the film.

Wolukau-Wanambwa’s extraordinarily rousing rendition of Hertzka’s words incites visions of a beautiful “enchanted valley”, ripe for (re)settlement.[8] Waxing euphoric, her voiceover eulogizes the grandeur of the landscape of this paradise in which “at an inaccessible height above, numberless veins of water/ kissed by the dazzling sunlight, spring from the blue green shivering crevices foaming and sparkling”. As the image onscreen dims and grows indistinct, the artist’s voice invests this sensuously arousing image with increasing fervency. Held rapt by oratorical virtuosity, we feel ourselves enthused into visualisation of this East African “Eden”. Or we would, if we were not simultaneously witness to the counter-valent interjections of an inaudible voice that disrupts the transmission, speaking as text from out of the screen.

Where the audible voice is rapturous and verbose, the all-caps captions counter each audible assertion with legible, emphatic negation: “NO … NO TO YOUR EMPTY SPECTACLES …NO BEING MOVED”. These textual interjections flash onscreen entire—as though readymade or well-practiced: available to hand each time toxic utopianism must be opposed. Crucially, what is countered is not the logic of colonialism but, rather, its rhetorical moves, and affective appeal: its displacing transports of delight, its cravings to penetrate lands into which it hallucinates virginity, emptiness, ripeness, promise. To the voice’s assertion of a totalizing gaze that claims to encompass entirety, the text onscreen answers: ‘NO WHOLE’. To its projection onto the space of an image of classical antiquity, the text responds: ‘NO AMPHITHEATRE’. What generates the firmest opposition is the voice’s figuring of this land as “indescribable”, as sublime.[9]

Somatically activated by the voice, we are made to feel the attraction to the lushness of promised lands as prone, pristine and, as a result, ripe to be made imaginable, to be “spoken for” and forcibly settled. Repeatedly stirred up by this vocally spun image of illimitable environmental richness, we are repeatedly (silently) yanked back down into awareness of just how pernicious and how politically expedient a description of a landscape can be. Through Wolukau-Wanambwa’s rapturous delivery, the aesthetic strategies of the colonial imaginary are made audibly appreciable. But even as the artist’s voice enthuses, its seductive power is undercut by the words that appear on the screen. While the sonorous voice waxes on, you read resistance. In the text onscreen, a silent but defiant voice writes back, in de-colonial contra-diction.

[1]Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, “This Word ‘Art’”, in Lis Rhodes: Dissident Lines, ed. Irene Aristizábal and Lis Rhodes (Nottingham Contemporary 2019), pp. 27-32, p. 31.

[2]In reproducing the screen-transitions as line-breaks here, I hope to draw attention to the paced delivery of text across the duration of the work.

[3]Wolukau-Wanambwa has long been interested in pointing up the absurdity of the micro-differentials and ideological biases from which English class-consciousness constitutes and reproduces itself. See Fauxonomy (2005) and A Continuing Survey of Syntactic Parsing (2010. On the construction of middleclassness as normative baseline in English society, see Stephanie Lawler, “Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle-Class Identities”, The Sociological Review 53(3) (2005), pp. 429–446.

[4]Wolukau-Wanambwa reveals how Margaret Trowell’s pedagogical mission was born of a mix of “neo-medieval aspirations for an artisanal god-fearing Africa”, capitalist Christian zeal and belief that while “it was not feasible for British culture to be assimilated by indigenous East Africans [….] it was, however, possible for an ‘alien’ European culture to improve and to strengthen its colonised counterpart—but without essentially altering it”.Wolukau-Wanambwa, “Margaret Trowell’s School of Art”, 106, 113.

[5]Wolukau-Wanambwa, “Margaret Trowell’s School of Art”, 122.

[6]Among the materials to be destroyed were those that might “embarrass Her Majesty’s Government or any other Government or the present Government of Uganda”. See Memorandum from the private secretary of the chief secretary of Uganda, dated February 28th 1961. Shohei Sato (2017) ‘Operation Legacy’: Britain’s Destruction and Concealment of Colonial Records Worldwide, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 45:4, 697-719, DOI: 10.1080/03086534.2017.1294256

[7]Rosalind Galt observes that “landscape images in film are uniquely able to investigate [the] relationship of politics, representation, and history because landscape as a mode of spectacle provokes questions of national identity, the material space of the profilmic, and the historicity of the image”. See Galt, The New European Cinema: Rewdrawing the Map (NY: Columbia UP, 2006), 27.

[8]What makes this work is the artist’s decision to withhold the full bibliographic reference to Hertzke’s treatise until the credits. On first reading, —(unless, of course, we already know the text), ‘Freeland (A Social Anticipation) reads as the title to this chapter of the film, and not as the bibliographic allusion that it is—leaving the listener vulnerable to its seduction. The film holds back the information that would otherwise preemptively deafen us to that enthusing voice, and protect us against enchantment by its idealizing, destructively covetous rendering of place.

[9]As it enunciates Hertzke’s description of the “natural miracle whose grandeur and beauty words cannot describe”, Wolukau-Wanambwa’s voice half-breaks on the word “cannot”, as though struggling to sustain speech in the face of such wonder. Here, and elsewhere in this compelling vocal performance, the listener is prompted to recall the artist’s background in theatre.

Sarah Hayden

Sarah Hayden is a writer and Associate Professor in Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Southampton. She is the author of the monograph Curious Disciplines: Mina Loy and Avant-Garde Artisthood (University of New Mexico Press, 2018), and co-author with Paul Hegarty, of Peter Roehr–Field Pulsations (Snoeck, 2018). Imminent publications include essays on Nancy Holt, Christopher Kulendran Thomas and sensorial sovereignty. Sarah leads the UKRI/AHRC Innovation Leadership Fellowship project, ‘Voices in the Gallery’ (2019-2021). As part of this project, she recently curated the exhibition Many voices, all of them loved at John Hansard Gallery and the Voicing the Political series of study sessions at Nottingham Contemporary. She is currently writing a book about voice in contemporary art.


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