‘Papagaio (Djambi)’, the titular work in Joao Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, bears witness to a West African voodoo ritual in the former Portuguese colony of Sao Tome and Principe. The participants spin wildly in inebriated ecstasy around a fire – a dance made all the more exotic when severed from its raucous and noisy environs as a silent film presented in a conventional cinema layout. At 46 minutes in length, ‘Papagaio’ is quite distinct from the eclectic assemblage of short image loops that populate the other rooms of the gallery. However, it feels crucial to situate this work as the conceptual centrepiece of the exhibition, since it presents the most direct and discomfiting engagement of the colonial gaze.
In addition to ‘Papagaio (Djambi)’, the exhibition contains 18 silent 16mm films, the vast majority of which run for under 3 minutes each. As the viewer navigates the dim rooms in a necessary meandering around sculptural plinths that support the many projectors, different arrangements of images come together. The content of the films range drastically - from domestic portraits of pots and hanging laundry to exotic animals such as chimpanzees and parrots, to scenes of industrial forestry in the jungle. This plethora of images comes together as the artists’ own poetic encyclopaedia with each scene granted the occasion to appear miraculous. Just as the whirring sounds of the projectors imbue the space with a slightly wistful aura, the saturation, tint and slight flicker of the colour palette lends each shot a nostalgic warmth like photographs from a well worn issue of National Geographic. All manner of life are slowed to reveal their minute idiosyncrasies – croissant dough spinning and stretching with astonishing elasticity; an egg frying and creating a shimmering, bubbling galactic formation in a black pan.
In addition to the atmospheric implications of 16 mm, Gusmão and Paiva’s practice is also preoccupied with the both the scientific and mystical properties of early photography and cinema. The origin of the medium is alluded to through the inclusion of two camera obscuras, which etch soft yet remarkably precise images of trees and spinning bicycle wheels onto the gallery walls in an extraordinary act of light writing. Many of the short films recreate images reminiscent of pioneering moments in the history of photography. A scene of a donkey running through a village, for instance, once again exposes the equine motion that drove Edward Muybridge’s forays into mechanical image making. The same tactics of visual trickery that made ghostly figures appear in 19th century spirit photography are also employed, this time to create the illusion of three suns setting together over the ocean.
It’s very easy to become seduced by these wondrous images, at once mysterious and nostalgic, even when the camera turns it’s gaze back upon the people of Sao Tome and Principe. However, a scene depicting a hairy stone in a collection of rarities reminds us of the historically Western stance of collectors and observers, even suggesting that the exhibition is itself a cabinet of curiosities. ‘Papagaio’ thus presents a delicate exploration of the sharp yet ambivalent edges between curiosity, reverence, objectification, and exploitation.