Afterlives on Shelagh Keeley, Notes on Obsolescence (2014) and 1983 Kisangani, Zaïre (2015) Ranjit Hoskote on Shelagh Keeley
At the core of Shelagh Keeley’s art lies the most primal of all expressive impulses: the gesture of marking a wall to record an everyday experience or an occasion of heightened awareness. The origins of this artistic choice lie in the extensive journeys that Keeley made across Africa between 1973 and 1983, in the course of which she studied the mural iconography of the Dogon ancestral and chthonic spirits in Mali as well as the Neolithic rock paintings of Tassili n’Ajjer and south Oran in Algeria. Beginning in her own house at 1168 Queen Street West, Toronto, in 1979, she adopted the practice of drawing directly on walls, working with an ensemble of techniques and materials, including drawing, photography, collage, wax, crayon, pigment and charcoal. Over more than four decades, the artist has modulated the wall into a membrane, sensitive to the braiding of memory and desire, the weave of observation and annotation, the relay of event and resonance.
Keeley draws on two archetypal registers in approaching the wall: the palimpsest and the stele. These registers are not, of course, mutually exclusive; the same work may reference both on the festive energy of the palimpsest and the pensive aura of the stele. If Keeley tends more towards the palimpsest in Notes on Obsolescence (2014), she invokes the stele in 1983 Kisangani, Zaïre (2015). Testimony to Keeley’s encounter with a defunct textile factory in Mönchengladbach, Germany, Notes on Obsolescence engages viscerally with the life cycle of industry, the contrast between the rhythms of a fully functional manufacturing plant and the residues that remain once it has been de-commissioned. Distilled from a visit to Kisangani, formerly Stanleyville, in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), 1983 Kisangani, Zaïre communicates itself as a reliquary for a largely vanished architecture: edifices embodying a colonial efflorescence of Belgian modernism, which were destroyed during the civil wars and regional conflicts in which this African nation became embroiled during the 1990s.
A montage of photographs and drawings, Notes on Obsolescence is haptic in the intensity with which it grasps and models a psychological reality. It invites us to consider the rise and decline of labour. It is suffused with the tragic beauty of what has decayed or is no longer in use: what is known, in classical Japanese aesthetics, as shibui. We think, as we scan this wall installation—zooming in on details, dwelling on the layered images—of the paradox of post- industrial culture, by which a once-vibrant site of production becomes a phantom, a museum of its own devices. And yet, the work also gestures towards the possibility that this fragmented, dispersed, broken history might yet be brought together into a narrative of redemption.
The spirit of labour asserts its persistence through one of Keeley’s leitmotifs here: the Jacquard loom with its distinctive, binary- coded punch-card mechanism. Even as we consign it to the museum of superseded forms, we are reminded of its influential and ubiquitous descendant, the computer. Notes on Obsolescence takes its place in a genealogy of Keeley’s works, which invoke and honour labour through means that vary between the elliptical and the declarative. These include a steel work in Pittsburgh (1990), a 30-foot rolled steel piece in a steel factory outside Bombay with slogans by the workers coded into it (2005), and a site- specific installation in Caoyang New Village, Shanghai (2009), created in a tea pavilion in the village park to honour the workers of Caoyang, who were the first to be provided with housing by Chairman Mao in 1952.
Keeley shot the 27 photographs that comprise 1983 Kisangani, Zaïre in difficult circumstances during her visit to Zaire in the early 1980s. The country was still in the grip of President Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–97), the dictator who had ruled it since 1965, enshrining himself at the centre of a personality cult even as his singularly corrupt regime transferred Zaire’s rich natural resources to his patrons in France and the USA. Since Mobutu had forbidden photography, Keeley’s was a clandestine act of bearing witness to buildings from the country’s Belgian colonial past. These are now melancholy evocations of what no longer exists: many of these buildings, especially in Kisangani’s central business district and elite residential areas, were destroyed during the violent power struggles that led to Mobutu’s fall and continued after his departure into exile.
Arranged in a grid of three rows and nine columns, the Kisangani photographs suggest the contact sheet, the film strip, or the bulletin board: forms of organizing visual data that exceed their preparatory status and exercise a fascination over the viewer in their own right. Their format indicates that they constitute evidence; but of what? The multiple answers to this question draw us deep into these exteriors and interiors, and into a reflection on their contexts. At one level, these photographs testify to those often overlooked regional theatres in which international vocabularies of architecture took shape and developed variant histories of use and reception; Kisangani, in this reading, may be aligned with sites such as Asmara, with its Futurist and Novecento architecture, and South Bombay, with its Art Deco precincts. At another level, these images convey the unsettling atmosphere of a crime scene, seemingly encrypting the furtive act of espionage while also signalling towards the brutal machine of oppression over which the Mobutu clique presided, continuing and refining techniques of terror and exploitation pioneered by King Leopold and his successors during the same colonial epoch that produced these architectural experiments.
Both Notes on Obsolescence and 1983 Kisangani, Zaïre constitute secular projects in eschatology. Through these works, Keeley meditates on the afterlives of systems of production and settlement, and on the destiny of the human beings who operated and inhabited them, animated built form and assemblages of machinery with their presence and their activities. These are studies of a future that will be generated from the episodic recollections, archaeological remains, disembodied voices, half-glimpsed conditions of pasts that will not simply lapse into silence and invisibility. Shelagh Keeley is a guardian of those obdurate pasts.