Samuel Fosso, Stuart Hall, and the importance of the archive

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I started writing this a few weeks ago having heard the news that photographer Samuel Fosso’s life’s work had been almost entirely destroyed in the looting of his home in Bangui, Central African Republic, partially saved by the chance passing of two journalists. Just days before I had been watching an interview with John Akomfrah about his recent film The Stuart Hall Project and he said something that resonated with me: the archive has been the space of intervention from the beginning, and I suppose that will be the motif for the rest of the practise. I presume he was referring specifically to the archival footage he used, but it became a motif, as he would say, that I began to notice everywhere.

The following week, the unthinkable yet inevitable happened. I won’t attempt any kind of sentimental memorial to Stuart Hall, as there have already been many genuine, personal tributes in that vein by those who knew him best. However, in the short time that I’ve been on this scholarly path, Hall’s writing has underpinned almost every piece of my work.  I am almost certain that this particular strand of art history that I so love would not exist without him, and I would probably be yet another clone examining the formal qualities of Greek sculptures, or Italian Renaissance painting techniques. But I digress.

It was also around this time that I finally saw Twelve Years A Slave. At the start, as is customary, I sat through several trailers for other films. One was about Nazi art theft, and one of the characters says something to the effect of “…if you destroy people’s culture, it’s like they never existed.” (Ironic placement considering the subject of the feature film?) I can’t say for certain why Samuel Fosso’s work was looted, however it is unsurprising that during times of conflict, artworks and items of cultural representation also become casualties of a larger power struggle.

It made me reflect on the struggle in this country for black culture & history to be represented in a meaningful, dynamic, but also permanent way. I thought of the Black Cultural Archive, finally being housed in a building worthy of the legacy it preserves. I thought of many individuals and organisations existing on the margins, precariously. I thought of Iniva and Autograph ABP, at Rivington Place, a real life bricks & mortar space dedicated to the arts of ‘the other’. As former chair of the board at Iniva, Stuart Hall used his influence to secure funding for the building. Another example of how his legacy goes far beyond his exceptional academic work. I’m grateful for these spaces of contemplation, representation and education.

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