03.09 - 26.09.2020
For Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, the creation of an alter-ego happened early in her career, when borrowing images from historic sources brought up uncomfortable questions about ‘using’ the subjects for her own message. And so ‘Asme’ (name gleefully appropriated from a manufacturer of sanitary fittings as seen in a public bathroom) was conceived. She became the vehicle for self expression without vanity and portrayal of black bodies without re-instrumentalisation. This is why the faces that gaze down from the work in her solo exhibition, ‘Battlecry’, at the Goodman Gallery in London, all share an arresting resemblance; they are made literally in her image.
These faces live within seven large figurative works. Her move away from flimsy, bleached-white paper and onto unprimed wood lends them a softness which (because of the veiny woodgrain) has a warm fleshy quality, or the feel of an olden-day manuscript. That she leaves areas to show through, allows the medium to actually stand-in for areas of skin or sky. Working on such sturdy ground has enabled Sunstrum to collage large panels without the material buckling so that these works have the scale and weight of altar-pieces. They bring to mind the ‘Stations of the Cross’ from my Catholic upbringing. Another addition to her practice is the use of acrylics and oil paints (paired here with coloured pencils) which she wields like a draftsperson, mapping and washing in areas, often leaving a faint palimpsest gesturing in the direction a drawing might have gone.
In Trooper this is how she handles her subject’s clothing. The woman, who stands as tall as the picture plane, gathering her hem, leaves loose a layered cascade of fabric. Multiple skirts imply that the one stands for the many. The action of pulling up one’s skirt is ambiguous. It may be a gesture of sexual acquiescence or of readiness to ‘get stuck in’. Across the image, in enormous serif font are repetitions of the clause: ‘to the stars’. The words are from a quote in the essay Why Do I Write? by South African author, Bessie Head, which reads: ‘I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write.’ Perhaps the work for which the Trooper is preparing is to gather her people in the make-shift basin of her skirts and ascend to the heavens. That Trooper fits the saviour/hero archetype is further reinforced by a red halo of pencil swipes.
The impulse to go ‘to the stars’ is to go in the opposite direction of Trooper’s symbolically charged geological landscape. The land is pimpled with overactive volcanoes that signal tensions reaching the point of explosion. An adjacent work also finds its setting along this fault line as three volcanoes spew malevolent smoke in the background of The Seven. In the foreground seven impervious figures are posed in two rows. The dull green of the linework and navy of their attire (which hark back to the monotones of daguerreotypes) are outshone by their scorchingly pink heads. Their eyes are blank and appraising but the heat of their skin evinces pressure building and magma gurgling in the distance. The Seven has its beginnings in an 2018 Artpace residency in Texas, where Sunstrum was afforded the resources to set up a regency-style photographic studio in which to pose as variants of Asme. The photographs percolated in her atelier until, for The Seven, they were collaged together to become an assembly of ancestors. Each of the women in The Seven is an ambassador for a facet of Sunstrum’s own identity, showing how she uses her alter ego as a heuristic; a prism that allows her to splinter into a rainbow of archetypes.
Each self she kits out, enjoying the textures, patterns, ruffles and motifs of ‘the Empire’, but there is also Americana from Sunstrums adopted continent in the exhibition (stiff leather cowboy boots, bison) and from Southern Africa (ostriches, blue gum trees). She is playful about boundary-crossing saying that, both literally and metaphorically, the works show her ‘as an insider and an outsider in every place [she’s] ever been’.
The staged-ness of the scene in The Seven recollects the way early anthropological photography was concerned with recording new knowledge, thus making the first wave of sitters ambassadors for their ‘type’. In a history of anthropological photography, Douglas Harper writes:
In its initial phase, anthropological photography was considered a scientific tool used to gather objective data, rather than as travel or adventure memoirs, as had been the case in colonial photography. The irony of the early anthropological photography […] is that the precise and ‘objective’ pictures of body types and shapes supported theories consistent with colonial ideology, such as Social Darwinism, that are now wholly rejected. It is now precisely the subjectivity of these photos that attracts contemporary interest.
This is precisely where Sunstrum and other artists come in, trying in their way, to acknowledge and to mend. Sunstrum describes giving her figures their unyielding, knowing, open expressions as a way of ‘offering back privacy’ by allowing them scepticism of the process by which they were (and are) recorded.
In the The Two I & II, twin renderings of herself sit on adjacent panels, their postures are mirror images and each has a raptor perched on her arm. She invites us to play ‘spot-the-difference’ with this kind of work. One figure sits on chequered tiles, the other straddles a seascape, one wears a skirt and feather-capped sleeves, the other has on a striped, masculine ensemble. Both look ever-so-slightly pained at their separation from the other. Sunstrum describes them as lovers (which makes it seem cruel that they are not conjoined and could find themselves sold to different homes).
The Knitter gives us a elderly woman who weaves the universe. In Rider a cavalrywoman urges her bison steed onward. Grandpères shows enantiomer time-travellers between the ships of the past and the modular homes of the future. All in all, we have the mother, the lovers, the twins, the soldier, the hero and the ancestors. Sunstrum’s employment of such generalities makes her work widely accessible and readable but I wondered whether she worries that, for example, The Knitter, in which she wraps an effigy of her mother (recently claimed by cancer) in a cloak of foliage and credits her with making her world, might be read as simply the ‘mother nature’ trope with none of the work’s heartbreaking specificity. I asked Sunstrum whether she is concerned that her use of archetype could spill over into stereotype. Her answer is no, which she explained by saying that although it is something she thinks about, ‘archetypes are so useful and powerful because they are recognisable. They are notes to ourselves and to others. [And so pervasive that] We assign every person in our lives [an archetype].’ Perhaps it is her appropriation of archetypal imagery that makes decoding the work so rewarding, because it connects with the viewer on an intuitive and an intellectual level. That she then further imbues the works with her own symbolic language offers rich alternative readings.
Altogether the archetypes are a way of writing herself (as a black woman) into characters that have been predominantly ‘Western’. In her essay in AFRICAN FUTURES (2016), Sunstrum writes:
My work […] features a female figure who often stands in as the archetypal hero on a quest through landscapes that carry various significations: landscapes of discovery, of conquest, of self-sacrifice, of self-mythology, landscapes in the pursuit of home. I am interested in reclaiming and re-ordering narratives of power via an imaginative or speculative occupation of geographies (space) and histories (time).
Rather than criticizing archetypes, Sunstrum offers a wider audience self-identification with them and provides an invitation for hybridity in our thinking about the hero’s journey.