A book lies open at a page showing a still from the 1966 documentary Africa Addio, it shows the shocking image of a man being dragged away to be executed. As a starting point for the installation commissioned by Pavillion, it illustrates the violence of image making as much as the events that may or may not have taken place. It represents the lies and the mythmaking involved in telling history that Abonnenc wants to explore and at the same time it presents the challenge of how to confront the subject of Imperialism and exploitation without falling into the trap of creating more violent imagery.
Abonnenc uses copper, a resource abundant in the Congo, which was mined and brought to Europe. He bought a number of copper crosses, which had been used as a form of bullion, from e-bay, and had them smelted down and reformed. This is the process, undergone in a Sheffield forge, we see depicted in the film.
50 kg, we are told by the narrator, was the weight of copper that could be traded for a person in the Congo, and by chance this was the lowest amount that would convince the forge to accept the job, which would make it worth their time. These coincidences add to the potency of the narrative.
The proceedings are symbolically violent. The copper crosses are cut and smelted; the moulds are beaten and stood on, but there is calmness to these scenes. The actions take on a methodical, surgical quality, which is in high contrast to the hysterical drama of the 1966 film. As if taking part in a ceremony, these men are totally engaged in their power play with the materials, dare I say like magical blacksmiths.
It’s hard to avoid using clichéd language of alchemy or magic and within the film itself the young narrators describe ideas of ‘sacred trade, sorcerers, superstitious rites.’ Watching the procedure as an outsider I see images of men doing strange and mysterious things, transforming materials, performing acts that I don’t understand. This is the fascinating process of making- this is industry.
The resultant copper rods, which are on display, are minimalist in form. They appropriate the aesthetic of Modernism, which had its own role in the imperialist appropriation of African culture with its fascination for so-called primitivism.
‘Mythmaking is an intrusion on reality’ Abbonenc reminds us. But it seems unavoidable. Even art with its own history is complicit in these crimes. Sometimes myth is reality.
Set up in this disused former pin factory, itself a setting for the industrial revolution, the location is historically tied up in this story. Challenging our memories and myths, not just of Africa but also of home, and the role cities such as Leeds or Sheffield had in the Imperialist past by re-forming these materials into goods to be sold back to the world.
Around the walls of the space, ceramic busts of inventors and industrialists such as T.R. Harding, who set up production at the Tower Works in 1866, gaze out from their alcoves. Mythologised figures in British history and just one side of the story. What if we were to destroy these monuments and use the remains to build something new?
This installation does just that, ‘The past is now dead, the future unimaginable’, are the final words.
An Italian Film (Africa Addio) is on display at Pavilion – Tower Works, Leeds until 21 December 2012.