In Conversation with Sherie Sitauze: Artist In Residence

Sherie reviews photo albums documenting Edward James and Frank James’ trips to North East Africa. © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

As part of the residency programme created in collaboration with West Dean College of Art and Conservation, Sherie Sitauze and Sonia E Barrett were invited to respond to the College’s African Collection as part of the Whose Heritage? research project.

We caught up with Sherie as she began her residency.

What are your plans for the residency?

I was supposed to do this residency last year, and then obviously with covid it was postponed, and so we had thought about doing some of it remotely, and some of it online, so Sarah Hughes [Collections Curator] sent me over a fair amount of material and I went through it. I can’t remember exactly what I had been thinking, but I remember within my proposal and so on, my intention was for it to be very narrative driven and considering the native people within the photographs within the archive, but I think I had less of the photographs and it was more about the actual objects and artefacts. 

I had been thinking along the lines of trying to piece together the narratives behind the objects, and to uncover the narratives, to connect them to and with their respective communities. I think that was also something I was thinking about in terms of West Dean and what needs to be done within the collection as a whole, in that prior to last year, and even still now, a lot of the conversations with the communities that the objects refer to, there had been little to none, or absolutely no interaction. A lot of organisations had no idea that these objects were at West Dean… which is quite surreal – when you look at the collection, there’s things like prayer boards, things that would be sacred and quite important – everything is important of course – but certain things would be sacred and more so for rituals and practices, where you have stuff like the prayer boards, ceremonial knives, ceremonial weapons, and there was nothing about them – there was a lot of missing information. Initially I had been thinking along those lines; connecting these objects with their communities in order to uncover the narratives behind them. And then, I came here! [laughs]

I saw the objects on Wednesday [Sherie’s first day on-site] initially, so I saw the objects and the connection. Some, if not most, have come down from display now. Things need to be reconsidered around how they are displayed, so I’m planning on seeing the objects in person. There’ll be a difference between looking at them online and seeing them in person, because of things like poor documentation, lack of description, or even an accurate description, and also seeing the state and quality of the objects. There are issues around conservation as well. Then it was also what I hadn’t seen most of, which was the actual archives where you have stacks and stacks of books, some notes from expeditions that the brothers went on, these quite large photo albums, which is what I have been working with the last couple of days, and then also these illustrations that the brothers would have had commissioned based on these photographs. 

So since Wednesday I have been focused on that… trying to think about the people within those photographs and that’s where I’m at. There’s so much to get through, but you could spend the whole entire day, if not the entire week with a single photograph and trying to unpack it and explore it, research around it, and I don’t know how many photographs there are within the collection, but it’s definitely over 50, so… it’s still early and there’s still a lot to get through. I think primarily, it’s always been the plan to look at these objects, and now these photographs, and look at the people within them; thinking about who those people are and what their narratives and stories are, and thinking about ways to present that. It’s really important in terms of not trying to… you know I’m only one person and there isn’t a photograph that refers to me in a very specific way, so it’s also important to think about ways to think about these narratives and talk about them without speaking on behalf of people, because I think also the reality is that the people in those photographs, they are people’s ancestors, and those people could now be living somewhere; so I’m thinking about how to connect them.

What do you hope to achieve from this residency? You touched on what you’re aiming for, but when you reach the end of the residency, what do you want to say, ‘this is what I’ve done’?

Um… it’s a question of if there ever will be an end! I think it’s something I have been thinking about and speaking about with the guys here at West Dean; there is so much and also because the collection has never really been touched before, whether it’s possible to have an end, or the idea of an end so soon. It’s also thinking through the idea of evolving the narrative and continuing the conversations that there shouldn’t really be an end, because I guess it’s also not something that I want to close the book on, and be like ‘ok I’m done’. I think in terms of the near future, there are some things, like particularly with the photographs and objects, something as simple as labelling and image descriptions and the text, perhaps like the interpretive text is something that I would hope would happen in the next few weeks or so, and something that will come through with whatever it is I end up making or doing… but where I’m at now, I’ve branched off into two directions and what I hope to have achieved – which feels like such a weird thing to say [laughs] – is at minimum to have created or drawn an acknowledgement of the connection between the respective communities and the collection here at West Dean. We’re at the beginning, or start, of those conversations. 

I’m also thinking about where West Dean is in Sussex, and what West Dean’s relationship, especially the collection, is to the community within Sussex, so from what I’ve researched online, there is representation between people that are from Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and so on… it’s a small percentage, but those people do exist within Sussex, so I’m hoping to have created at least with the local community, their awareness of West Dean, in terms of the collection and their country’s artefacts and photographs of their ancestors.

What drew you to the residency? Why did you decide to apply for it?

At the time, even still now, I mean my work has shifted because of covid, but also it was solely moving image and video-based work. So the title of the residency was Whose Heritage? It felt very much in line with my own practice, in terms of what I look at within my own work; so the narratives and myths of communities within Southern Africa, which refers to my Dad’s side, so the people of Venda, and it’s looking at these missing narratives before colonialism, and thinking about them from the perspective of erasions, so people that have been missed and the communities that have been missed in history and that have been erased. It’s also thinking about how their voices have also been erased, but also how their voices haven’t been necessarily heard; it’s history and narratives are predominantly from the perspective of the coloniser, or from the perspective of the white western person and the community never really being able to speak for itself, although trying, but you know facing obstacles along the way; so yeah, that’s kind of my practice. 

The collection I was very interested in because it was a similar thing – the brothers going on colonial expeditions; wondering, collecting and stealing objects and also photographing people, in most cases, more than likely without their permission, because in a lot of the photographs the people do not look like they want to be photographed; so I did not know that at the time [of applying for the residency], but it was also seeing the examples of the collection online, and going back to my aims, wanting to draw out the narratives of the native peoples and what the objects refer to, and being interested in working with an archive in order to highlight things that hadn’t been necessarily considered before.

Frank James’ Expedition album from Sudan dated 1881-1882. © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

Why do you do what you do?

I can’t imagine myself doing anything else [laughs], but I think more so on the more serious side of things, I think what drives my work and drives me is… my own practice is very much driven by my own community and also being a person of colour and understanding the importance of having other voices heard and also highlighting stories and narratives that are as important, especially being within a very white space; those stories have been historically considered ‘other’ or have been erased because of colonialism, they don’t have the same kind of significance and the same kind of resonance. I think it comes out of wanting those voices to be heard, but also wanting a variety of narratives, rather than a false idea of a universal narrative, or a universal idea of something which doesn’t really encompass the people that live in the world and the people around us. More recently, it has come out of an understanding of and accepting different knowledge and different belief systems and accepting that nothing is universal; I really don’t like the idea of universalism, I mean globalisation is a different thing but I think a lot of it comes out of that, and also representation and being able to see yourself or your community in history, and it not to be this very specific and western, very white idea of what history is, which has always been for a long time from the perspective of the coloniser. 

It’s also about being able to see those communities from a perspective that isn’t necessarily negative or isn’t about violence, being able to see your community represented within a gallery space or within a museum in the right way; in the right way, because there are a lot of organisations and institutions who don’t do it in the right way. Being able to see your community represented in the right way makes all the difference and also makes you feel part of history…. everyone wants to know where they came from like 100 years ago, what their ancestors were doing; even 500 years ago, prior to colonialism. I think a lot of it comes from wanting to avert the colonial gaze and for not everything to come from colonialism, and also understanding what there was before colonialism. Historically, you have this idea of Africa being painted as this singular dark continent before colonialism which wasn’t the case, which has been quite interesting in this residency; finding within text, the idea of discovering new land or going to a place that the James brothers went. Some of the members of the tribe were recruited to join them on this expedition and then going to this place and they explain to the tribe that this is where they want to go and so on, because it’s like ‘nobody has ever been there’, when there were already people living there. It’s the strange idea of colonial conquest and arrival, when things already existed before colonialism.

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