Uganda Stories – Interview with Sunil Shah
In this interview, the artist Sunil Shah recalls the process through which he envisioned his Uganda Stories series (recently exhibited at the Pitt Rivers Museum in the UK), which he sees as “a form of post-documentary storytelling”. The project started in 2012 from the examination of the material – photographs and objects – his family brought to the UK or left behind while forcibly leaving Uganda – a country where his family from Gujarat settled since the 1930s – upon Amin Dada’s expulsion of the Asian population in 1972. Exploring his own family past, his work is a broader and sensitive reflection on layered identities, memories, exile and senses of belonging.
On the Pitt Rivers Museum website, we can read that *Uganda Stories* is “both a subjective journey to recollect the past and an interrogation of documentary photography in its use to reassemble fragments of history”. If we look at the chronology of this work, the first series of it — Family Stories* — *was created in 2012, the latest — Redux — in 2018. How have these journey and interrogation unfolded and evolved for you over time?
Sunil Shah: When the project began, back in 2012, it was framed around a set of interviews with family members, a collection of family photographs and objects and I envisioned it as a form of documentary storytelling, although something that was positioned as a kind of post-documentary approach and not one that was situated in the tradition of the documentary genre and its relationship to photographic realism and objective truth. Instead, I wanted to take a more experimental approach which was open to my subjectivity and allowed a certain creative license to mediate ‘a’ truth and not ‘THE’ truth. It resulted in a photo-text piece, as you see in Family Stories. The photographic content consisted of cropped re-photographed photographs and studio images of the objects and these formed a sequenced chronological narrative with the studio objects offering a disruption to the sequence and the linearity of the text. I wanted to deploy this kind of slightly disjointed feel because the project as a whole, was made to reflect the uneven and fragmentary nature of recalling memory and looking back in time. In researching the Ugandan Asian history, I found it to be incomplete, highlighting certain anecdotal themes whilst also withholding a great deal. I called this, (and formally alluded to this in the images) as a “white space”, a space of opacity out which I wanted to make visible blind spots made up from individual and collective recollections, inconsistent stories and mythologies. As my understanding developed and the project evolved, I questioned why I was beholden to the two-dimensionality of the photographic image and so I pulled some of the objects out of this plane and became interested in how the object functioned as a readymade or found object. I wanted to make an enquiry about the relationship between the image and its referent, in relation to memory and the perception of it through both media and object. The later ‘Redux’ series was an extension of this idea with photographic material and how it can be presented in display. When I could show the actual object why was there a need to re-photograph it?
I must also mention that each time I show the work, it presents an opportunity to reconfigure it based on the present moment in time, especially as one’s evolving aesthetic choices and subjective relationships to the content shifts as well as there being external constraints of site, presentation and budget each time. I actually find this to be a more interesting way of working as opposed to fixing the artwork into a format that will then become its artistic destination and form forever. Therefore, I see project more akin to working with an archive than an artwork in exhibition format, but all that being said, I am working on a book edit of Uganda Stories.
You work with “objects” as in the series *Reification I, III and IV* (2015), where a stuffed animal from your family collection is part of the installation, together with photographs. How different is this work of handling/appropriating it from your previous archival work around photographs? This correlation between taxidermy and photography you put forward in your work is also interesting as these techniques often went hand in hand during colonial times in Africa. Beside that, of course, between the two, we might find a lot of correspondences…
SS: The antelope taxidermy is a good example of some of what I spoke of above, but the point you picked up around its relationship to colonial times is really interesting. For me the antelope shown in the black refuse sack or bin liner is a powerful metaphor for the colonial past and its power, its brutality, its nostalgia, its beauty, its economics, its obsolescence and its perceived death. In my mind this one object could stand in for the whole project or artwork. The antelope was brought over from East Africa by an uncle who needed to spend the remainder of his Ugandan currency before he left and bought this taxidermy as well as a Leopard’s head. These were shipped to London and became wall mounted interior décor in another relative’s house in North London for the following 10-15 years, after which they redecorated and relegated the objects to the attic. After the initial expulsion from Uganda, objects like these symbolised an African attachment and formed a sense of identity for Ugandan Asians but after some time and a sense of the UK becoming a new home and after ‘modernising’ the interior of the home, such objects became less important as psychological attachments and also became seriously out of fashion. So, when I was given the antelope it was after being stored in a black bin bag in a dusty attic and so I decided to photograph it exactly like that. It later became an installation in its own right. However, coming back to the point you make about the relationship between object and photograph, I think many connections can be made, not least with ideas that begin with colonial conquest and power, hunting and capture, master and servant, nature and humanity, life and death. Of course, in the context of the wider project, the photograph itself has a relationship to death as Roland Barthes wrote of in Camera Lucida, and of course there is the idea of loss too, which is a vital aspect of this history as it is about loss, loss of a life lived and loss of everything about that life in the moment of displacement as a refugee, arriving to the UK with one suitcase and £50 of cash.
In *Redux*, alongside with your family photographs, you selected Ugandan newspaper images from the same period. Beside being a personal and sensitive reflection on exile at a very particular period in time, what kind of experiences would you like to convey here?
SS: The Ugandan newspaper images were taken from the Uganda Argus newspaper between the dates August 1972 and November 1972. These dates mark the beginning of the expulsion order by Amin in early August 1972 and the three months given to Asians in which to leave the country. In that time the newspapers reported about the expulsion but also other political and social news as well as the more general newspaper content such as advertisements, classified ads, smaller news items and other information. I was interested in the image economy of visual material that would be seen during this period of anxiety, stress and fear for the Asians but also a period of hope, future and happiness for most Ugandans. I extracted the images from these newspapers and started working with them in relation to beautiful images of the landscape, many of which were taken by the father of Geoff Pollard who kindly loaned me the use of his father’s collection of photographs taken in East Africa during the 1960’s while he worked as an engineer for the British government. I also began collecting ephemera and anonymous found photographs on Ebay that related to colonial and postcolonial Africa in the 1950’s and 1960’s. All these made their way into Redux. I felt the confluence of all the images: the landscape images, found photographs and images appropriated from the newspaper related to different groups of people, not just the Asians. So as a collection of images, it speaks to everyone who wants to interpret this history more broadly as opposed to highlighting only the plight of the Asians. The Ugandan Asian expulsion was a historic event that affected many people: Asians, indigenous Ugandans, Europeans and people all over the world, with this approach, I wanted to expand beyond the narrative that positioned the Asians or my family as victims, but to imply a more complex and interrelated story.
Sunil Shah (b. 1969) is an artist, curator and writer based in Oxford, UK. His work examines art histories, the systems, structures and sites of artistic production and presentation and the postcolonial condition and its relationship to art and visual culture. He has curated exhibitions at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Royal Geographic Society, the Royal Institute of British Architects, Brighton Photo Fringe and the New Art Exchange. He is recipient of Magnum Photos, Photographers Gallery and Source Magazine graduate awards and has been awarded curating mentorships and residencies from the International Curators Forum, Metal Liverpool, Brighton Photo Fringe, Autograph ABP and with the Royal College of Art/Inspires Curating Conversations programme. He is Associate Editor of American Suburb X online visual culture platform.