Exploring the Stellenbosch Triennale, I was interested in learning more about how this contemporary art exhibition aims to move beyond traditional notions of art to provide an impact that is far-reaching. Taking place from 11 February to 30 April 2020 in various locations across Stellenbosch, the Triennale aims to engage diverse people with artists in a critical dialogue about our past, present and future, as well as the challenges we face as citizens in both a national and international landscape.
I visited the Curator’s Exhibition which is located at The Woodmill Lifestyle Centre. The exhibition engages 20 artists’ work from various countries in Africa. Here, the exhibition aims to bring people together in the consideration of the legal, social, and political restrictions faced in contemporary times and to mediate the possibilities of our future. But how have artists engaged in the Triennale’s theme of ‘tomorrow there will be more of us’?
To answer this, I turn to the Ghanaian artist Kelvin Haizel, who explores his ideas through contemporary image-making including video, photography, installations, and objects. Currently, his artwork named BirdCall961: Appendix C is on display. What I find most striking about Haizel’s artwork is that it is a highly universal piece. The artwork, consisting of a concrete wall with charcoal drawings and LED lights, also contains Braille next to passages of text. Moreover, the artwork features a screen monitor with headphones where you can learn about the video footage played on the screen regardless of whether you are visually or hearing impaired. I feel as if the universality of the artwork suits the mission of the Stellenbosch Triennale, since Haizel has considered how the art piece can reach a wide audience by allowing diverse people the ability to engage with and learn about the artwork’s message.
While watching the video footage, you learn of the 1996 hijacking and crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. I think it is important to note that the hijackers were Ethiopians seeking asylum in Australia. During this time Ethiopia saw an increase in refugees and asylum-seekers because of famine and civil war. Although the hijackers demanded the pilots change course to Australia, the plane ran out of fuel and crash-landed in the Indian Ocean near the Comoros Islands.
Approaching the artwork, you cannot help but wonder if the LED lights are meant to represent the lives of the people involved in the hijacking, since only 50 of the 175 passengers survived the crash. As if to mark the trail of the plane as it landed in the water, the LED lights guide the viewer’s eye from left to right and direct you through the charcoal drawings depicting the crash site. The drawings seem to narrate the sequence in which each part of the plane broke off and landed in the ocean: first the left engine and the wingtip, then the rest of the plane. I think it is important to analyze the use of charcoal as a medium, since its gritty and coarse texture could emphasize the horror of the incident, or it could even reflect the smoke and ash of the plane crash.
While you observe these drawings you also notice red circles containing passages of text which are hollowed into the surface as if to depict the windows of the plane. The texts consist of what looks to be snippets of the confrontational dialogue that took place between the hijackers and the pilots. The static in the circles strengthens this idea when you consider that voice recordings of the cockpit were recovered from the crash site. As the sequence of the crash plays out in the artwork, the text in the circles become increasingly illegible. I believe the intent here is to depict how, as time progressed, the recordings became less audible and eventually died out with the crash of the plane. I also found it interesting that Haizel chose a concrete wall as his platform, and this could maybe reflect the boundaries to receiving help as asylum-seekers – why else would asylum – seekers be desperate enough to hijack a plane?
Notably, Haizel has explored the Comoros Islands before, as well as the connection between the hijacking of Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 and the Comoros’ economic and political situation. All Comoros Islands except for the island of Mayotte gained independence from France. The independent islands faced widespread poverty and many Comorians wished to migrate to Mayotte. However, in 1994, France introduced a compulsory visa system for Comorians in Mayotte and since few Comorians could afford a visa, this worsened the independent islands’ migration crisis.
I therefore consider Haizel’s linking of the hijacking incident with the political and economic structures of the Comoros intentional. The emphasis of the location of the crash site is not merely coincidental, but the coming together of different events where migrants are seeking refuge. The artwork could relate to the exhibition’s theme of ‘tomorrow there will be more of us’ by indicating that there should be a conversation taking place on a national and international levels to addresses migration crises. Haizel could be communicating that since we live in a globalized world, our actions affect all of us.