The East Riding of Yorkshire has the fastest-eroding coastline in Europe, with sea consuming land at a rate of 2.5 metres per year. In the settlements perched anxiously on this shifting coast, homes look straight out onto the waves of the North Sea. Beneath lie remains of lost settlements, long-since claimed by the devouring water. As in all places situated on the front line of the climate crisis, time is less linear here. Though ostensibly relics of the past, these sunken former towns portend a similar future for the current coastal settlements, which as the global climate destabilises, face an accelerated prospect of comparable submergence.
It is fitting, then, that photographs in Nii Obodai’s Of Natural Magic have such a shifting, spectral quality. Depicting the fragile coast and inland waterways of the East Riding, Obodai’s images appear like mirages of the distant past or tentatively pictured future. Trees, water-surfaces, decimated cliffs and hydrophytic plants emerge from delicate, monochromatic fogs, looming into perception like prophetic objects in an obsidian mirror. True to the disrupted temporalities that characterise the affective frontiers of climate change, Obodai’s images of the present appear already imaginary, the subject feeling as unreachable as though viewed across several centuries in either direction. ‘I am interested in the earth as a living landscape, a living entity’, the artist has stated, ‘…many things in flux, many things on the move.’[i]
Water looms particularly large on the ecological psyche of the East Riding, where boundaries between land and water have always been highly permeable. Alongside the global phenomenon of rising, expanding seas, Holderness contends with a sinking coast. Its landscape is heavily reclaimed from former wetlands, which centuries of drainage have converted into fertile farmland. This agricultural wealth has come at a cost: centuries of ecological destruction and enclosure, and a sinking landscape now vulnerable to flood and erosion. The region’s major city, Hull, sits at and below sea level on the alluvial plain of the Humber, a great, rippling estuary that forms ‘the parent stream and common denominator of all East Yorkshire’s inland waterways.’[ii] Though never directly photographed by Obodai, the magnetic pull of this estuary-artery resonates throughout the images of its riverine capillaries further inland, the Humber ‘[knitting] what would otherwise have been uncoordinated limbs into one body’. [iii]
These waters contain more than just ‘natural magic’. Though the mystical quality of Obodai’s images tempt the seductive narrative of countryside untouched by human hands, the rivers have both written and been written by the region’s economic and political history. Some of the waterways featured in the exhibition – such as Pocklington Canal – are man-made, and all have historically been subject to fluctuating administrative control and financial organisation. Baron F. Duckman notes that during the thirteenth century on the River Hull, ‘lay landlords… exercised a local authority over what was after all Beverley’s way to the sea.’[iv] In one of many historical instances of the East Riding’s inland rivers functioning as vehicles for both economic opportunity and social control:
‘Joan de Stuteville exercised the privilege of lowering or raising a chain across the river from sunset to sunrise during times of civil disturbance. The attempts to remove impediments to navigation remind us of a perpetual theme in the history of all navigable rivers: the constant struggle among rival factions, each with its own particular, and often equally valid, claims on the use of a waterway.’[v]
Obodai’s shots of Barmby Barrage show a man-made dam at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Derwent, named after a nearby village whose moniker still carries the pre-enclosure suffix ‘-on-the Marsh’. Built as a flood defence and to prevent the contamination of freshwater with the salt of the Humber, the barrage features special ladders for lamprey and has opened periodically to admit journeying salmon. It’s one of many waterway regulators that will face increasing pressure in the coming decades, simultaneously interrupting and subject to the ecological rhythms of the region, and the twice-daily tides of the Humber.
Communities surrounding the Humber are among those at the frontier of the climate emergency in the UK, with once-in-a-lifetime floods now seeming to occur regularly. In this region that is so vulnerable to haemorrhaging ingresses of water, the wetlands that once blanketed the area seem constantly to threaten reappearance. The prospect of that unstoppable flood, the coming water that looms large in the climate change imaginary, feels almost tangible in the pre-emptively commemorative quality of Obodai’s slow-exposure photographs. Past, present, and future are mixed together by the rapidly changing climate, which disrupts temporal expectations as much as land, water and alluvium.
Nii Obodai’s Of Natural Magic was at Beverley Art Gallery from 21 September – 23 November 2019.
Jay Drinkall is a writer and editor based in London.
[ii] Duckham, Baron F. (1973). THE INLAND WATERWAYS OF EAST YORKSHIRE 1700-1900. East Yorkshire Local History Society, pp.4–5
[iii] Ibid. p.5
[iv] Ibid p.6
[v] Ibid p.6