As an artist, I’ve become obsessed with the idea of expanding and bending time. In my latest work ‘Image Frequency Modulation’ (2021), I explore collage and assemblage as a form of history-making. Placing my father as a central subject, I juxtapose analog and digital photographs with moving image, sonic and sensory play.
In this practice, I recurrently ask myself: “How do images hold memory over time? How do we reactivate visual archives? How do we listen to images digitally?”
Here’s the process of how I began investigating this inquiry…
At the onset of the pandemic, I returned to my family home in The Netherlands and spent a lot of time indoors, as many of us did. During this time, I began digitising my family archive; a project I had long wanted to undertake.
I chose to sort the photos by family members, so my mum had a little archive, so did my dad, my sisters, brother, grandma, etc. While there was plenty of overlap of course, I started tracing distinct patterns emerging within each person’s archive.
At the time, I had just encountered the incredible work of Black feminist theorist Tina Campt, particularly her book ‘Listening to Images.’ Campt encourages us to go beyond the optic and listen to sonic frequencies of images, a vibrational sound which is felt when we are moved by what we see and the context in which the images are produced. This charted the way I engaged with the archives.
What I love the most about images is how they allow us to travel time. A seemingly frozen moment, continuously propelled into the present by every eye that encounters it. This is the event of photography as Ariella Azoulay puts it. In her words: “The event of photography is never over. It can only be suspended, caught in anticipation of the next encounter that will allow for its actualization”.
In many ways, I took it upon myself to continue the events in “Image Frequency Modulation”, layering and reactivating the archive with new digital and antifragile forms.
With these ideas in mind, my father’s archive stood out to me for several reasons. For one, it made me reflect on his relationship with sound as a translator/interpreter, former radio host, lecturer, and avid storyteller. His archives spans over 60 years, with the youngest photograph of him at only 6 months old.
I was able to learn about his transformation across time and space. I found a vast range of sizes, duplicates, and intriguing annotations at the back of his photos. The most amusing was his nickname ‘Visco’ which on some images was scribbled out in pen and replaced with new nicknames, or embellished with stickers and other decorations. These images were mementos, to be handed out to friends and loved ones.
As I held them, I thought about the hands that held them before mine, and the circulation that journeyed them to me. Many of our family heirlooms are discarded without inventory, both willfully or by accident/decay. For me, digitising provides a mode of countering the transience of physical photographs, but only in the state at which I find them.
The image selection process was intuitive, based mostly on how they made me feel: the texture of a seemingly damaged photo, a passport size image with closed eyes which may be deemed defect, a stylish photo of my father in iconic pants and what appears to be a pocket clock (an ode to this time travel experience).
In assembling the analog photographs and objects, I used cases, bolts, a pocket radio, cables, alongside tea stained paper, a handwritten poem to my mother, and other signifiers of my father’s relationship with sound and our Cameroonian heritage.
In some photos, my father is shown at work in mobile interpretation booths with colleagues in the mid ‘90s, when photography became more candid and cameras more accessible. In contrast, posed studio-like photographs show perfectly poised hands in family portraits which many may find semblance in their own archives.
Some photos are from his studies in Canada, while others feature interaction with his siblings and parents — duplicates (frequency) of such images indicate that some may have been for distribution and others for arrangement in family albums. Through conversations with my dad, some casual and some recorded, we identified places and faces in the photographs.
I was intrigued by the presence of strangers, some lost to his memory and others remembered by these visual prompts.
With the proverb recitals, I began investigating the idea of transmission. How do we not only preserve sacred teachings in written word, but also the manner in which they are uttered and articulated? I came to learn about the sensitivities of my mother tongue — words drastically changing meaning with the slightest variance in intonation.
At home, I found a book of proverbs in my dialect which my father edited back in 2010, and which was entirely typed up by my mother, an archivist herself. I explained my project over Zoom conversation with the book’s author Ngala Ngiantar, cross checking their translations and interpretations as displayed in the exhibition.
Digging through the teachings of these proverbs I came to learn much more about my ancestry and how we understand the world. I selected about a dozen proverbs and paired them with footage. My father and I then recorded call-and-response recitals of the proverbs at home, with many retakes and reflections on their complex meanings.
A main objective was to activate our sensory input through this installation. While books are central in recording histories, our bodies have long been repositories of knowledge and memory. In the work, I include a sensory device that converts human touch into sound to allow the audience to participate in this layering.
The video montages include both found footage and captures of water from my travels. Water is symbolic of the fluidity of time and shapeshifting: shown as tea, as the sea, and as rain. The juxtaposition of footage of water by delicate photographs, cables, and glass, acts as a ‘glitch’ or trigger to contemplate the fragility of these objects.
As an artist, I’ve worked primarily with collage and paint so far. This was my first time developing video work. The process taught me to continue to break free from linearity, where I simply listen to the work and adopt the necessary mediums. I love the way Lorna Simpson works publicly and embraces the process as various iterations of the work.
I am also influenced by sound artists and music in the creative process, prompting me to think: what if these sounds had images, and what if these images had sounds?
As we learn to pay attention to the nuances of cultures far and wide, I believe we are able to tap into transgenerational collective memory and find resonance across cultures. This requires us to reimagine memory not as something situated in the past, but as an active reinvention and recalling with each life’s breath. For me, this is the power of image as memory.
So, why “Image Frequency Modulation”? Frequency modulation, or FM as popularly known in radio, is the encoding of information in a carrier wave. The process of encoding and transmitting information is what birthed this work. This iteration of ‘Image Frequency Modulation’, is the first of a series I plan to extend in various interactive forms.
‘Image Frequency Modulation’ changed shape as I experienced setbacks in the making, much of which I’m thankful for in retrospect. It caused me to ask several questions, one in particular I continue to sit with. As prompted by Santu Mofokeng’s ‘The Black Photo Album’, I honestly ask myself: when do family photographs become works of art?
This work is currently on view at Melkweg Amsterdam at the exhibition “Back In The Day Is Our Future”, open until 5th December 2021 (Tuesday to Sunday 12 - 9pm).
I want to acknowledge the curator Jessy Koieman, and my incredible co-exhibitors including David Uzochukwu, Berette Macaulay, Aqueene Wilson, Marciano Lynch, Kay Slice and Rossel Chaslie. I am grateful to the incredible Melkweg Expo team, especially Olga, Rosalie, Magnus, and Fleurie.
Ethel-Ruth Tawe (b. Yaoundé, Cameroon) is an image-maker, storyteller, and time-traveller based between Ghana and The Netherlands. She is a multidisciplinary artist examining archives and identity in Africa and the diaspora. Using collage, pigments, words, still and moving image, Ethel’s work reflects on space and time, often from a magical realist lens. Her burgeoning curatorial practice took form in an inaugural exhibition titled 'African Ancient Futures', and continues to expand through a myriad of audiovisual experiments.