City Gallery Wellington presents Lexicon, an exhibition by celebrated Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen, direct from the 2013 Venice Biennale. The photographs were all taken in Africa.
Sassen's work touches on her childhood memories. She spent three years of her early childhood in a remote village in Kenya, moving back to the Netherlands with her family when she was five. Africa was a formative experience for her. "To me, Africa is vivid colours and strong contrasts of light and dark", she says. "I remember looking at women and children sitting under the trees sheltering from the sun and, even as a child, seeing these graphic shapes."
Sassen is obsessed with the blackness of black skin. "It's a more beautiful skin color", she says. "When I'm the only white person in a black society, I feel very nude. And when I see other white people in Africa, they're white, pinkish, ugly, and sweating. I'm aware of the whole debate about my depicting black people in Africa as a white European woman, and of me being in control because I'm carrying the camera. But I'm not really interested in that debate, because for me the work comes from a very personal private place. When I'm in Africa, I feel like I'm coming home, yet I also feel like I'm not one of them."
Robert Leonard, City Gallery Chief Curator, says, "Africa is a big, culturally diverse place, but Sassen never specifies where on the continent her images come from. Her iconic but enigmatic images play on our expectations to wrong-foot us. They are a strange alloy of documentary and directorial photography: some of her subjects look found, others staged. They show us how people in other places live, the colours and textures of their environment, yet are riddled with formal conceits. Some images emphasise the vivid and vital, others feature coffins, body bags, and graves. In so many ways, her works are never exactly one thing or the other."
Sassen is a leading fashion photographer. She says that art photography and fashion photography are like the two sides of her personality. She studied fashion at the Royal Academy in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and briefly became a model, working for Viktor and Rolf, before doing a photography degree in 1992. The Scottish National Gallery presented her exhibition In and Out of Fashion. Sassen is represented by Stevenson, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Lexicon is accompanied by two films. Pieter Hugo's recent music clip Control (for South African rapper Spoek Mathambo's cover of Joy Division's 'She's Lost Control') features stereotypical images of Africa: cemeteries and burning slums; minstrels, zombies, and voodoo. Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's 1953 essay film Statues Also Die began as a study of the African art in Paris's Musee de L'Homme, but turned into an attack on French colonialism. It was heavily censored in France, and the directors cut has only recently become available.
- Lexicon at the 55th Venice Biennale
- Discover more on Viviane Sassen's website
- Read a Guardian UK article about Sassen as a fashion photographer
- New York Times interview with Sassen, November 2012
- Event - Viviane Sassen : Lexicon Floortalk
- A review of Lexicon at City Gallery, by Tim Corballis on Circuit