On a recent visit to the Zeitz Mocca I encountered Isaac Julien’s diptych still from his Fantôme Créole series named Papillon No 2. This simple display of two interconnected photographs is the ending note of an exhibition called Two Together. This exhibition is built around major themes explored by artists from Africa and its diaspora, each gallery or section consists of either two objects or multiple words by two artists or two major themes. This comparison creates a dialogue and contrast between the two elements being juxtaposed, through the artist’s separate interpretations of the overall theme.
Isaac Julien, CBE is a British installation artist, filmmaker, and distinguished professor of the arts at UC Santa Cruz. Julian is known for his contemporary work around the politics surrounding sexuality, masculinity, and cultural displacement with the intersection of various forms of creative expression, taking influence from dance, painting, sculpture, theatre, film, and music.
The photographic diptych Papillon No2 comes from a still within the film Fantôme Afrique that sits within a four-screen film installation named Fantôme Créole. The installation juxtaposes Arctic and African landscapes as it combines two films: True North, filmed in the Arctic landscapes of Iceland, and Fantôme Afrique, filmed in Burkina Faso. In the film Fantôme Afrique, Galloway’s, a black choreographer involved in the making of the film, figure dances through Ouagadougou’s desert, mosques, congested street markets, and dark interior spaces. These scenes are scattered with archival footage of colonial expeditions, pop art advertising of outdoor cinemas, and the people’s fervor during post-independence gatherings.
Fantôme Créole can be translated as a ghost language. Fantôme is French for ghost, while Créole means a stable natural language that develops from the simplifying and mixing of different languages into a new one within a fairly brief period of time. Within this series lies the film Fantôme Afrique, translated as African Ghost. By calling both Africa and its languages ghosts Julian is commenting on the disappearance of African cultures during colonialism and the continued loss experienced in the diaspora. This diaspora features heavily in the piece that is specifically addressed in this review is called Papillon No2. Papillon can be translated through French to mean butterfly, this is a reflection of the mirror image that is portrayed in the artwork.
This contrast between colonial and postcolonial identity is the main theme specifically displayed in Papillon No2. The idea of diaspora and existing in two different places at once is something that is widely understood on the African continent due to colonialism and the ongoing experience of immigration. Within the diptych Papillon No2 we are displayed with a reflecting image of black American choreographer Stephen Galloway, depicted in two figures to show a duel consciousness. The character’s body is pressed against a wall, his arm outstretched, and his eyes fixed on the dusty ground. The images are seemingly reflections of each other, however, at a closer look, we can see subtle differences like the slight tilt of the head. This is showing that people who do in fact exist as two different identities do not have the exact same identity in each setting and that if you exist in two different spaces you can never be whole in either. The photographs have one major difference however, the color of the Galloway’s tunic. He is dressed in a kurta (a tunic of Indian origin), a black one in one half of the diptych, and white in the other, creating a sense of opposing forces in the individual again emphasizing the sense of diaspora throughout this piece. The background of the photograph features a curved derelict wall, with gaps created by doorways letting light through. These suggest vacancy whilst creating an idea of elongation through its curvature. The comparison between space, curvature, and its derelict nature evokes an image with multiple dimensions and the existence of one person in multiple dimensions.
Papillon No2 is a small diptych placed at eye level meaning it is not intimidating and accessible to everyone. In my opinion, this is what Julien wants, he wants for this piece to be understood and interpreted by the masses as the theme of the diaspora is experienced by the masses on the African continent. Papillon No2 is the last piece in the Two Together exhibition, as well as being the only piece that is featured alone, I believe this to be a specific choice of the curator. Papillon No2 is a reflection piece in itself, the other pieces throughout the exhibition are used in comparison to one another to display the feeling of separation and diaspora whilst Julian’s work does that through its own themes and reflective nature. It is my belief that adding another work to this room would add another dimension to the theme which is not necessary.
The beauty of this piece of photography is it’s a near-perfect depiction of what it’s like to exist in a diasporic state. The idea of being able to exist in two places at once whilst not really being able to exist in either state is shown through this reflected diptych in a way that is highly accessible and understandable to all members of the public the way a painting or drawing might not. Photography allows the audience to personally connect with the character that is being photographed, seeing themselves within the setting of the photograph and projecting their own experience with the theme chosen. This personal reflection a perfect way to end the Two Together exhibition, creating a personal connection with the various diasporic conditions displayed before it and leaving a lasting impact on its audience.