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Features / September 15, 2010

Congo Memories: Isabelle Pauwels’s adventures in history

What is it about ordinary, everyday objects that makes them so impossible to discard? Why do they accumulate on our desks, in our living rooms and in boxes out in the garage? Take, for instance, the objects that appear in Isabelle Pauwels’s video W.E.S.T.E.R.N., which was shown earlier this year at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. These are the kinds of objects you might expect to find at a flea market: an old set of copper scales, African statues, floor lamps missing their shades. In W.E.S.T.E.R.N. these objects have been gathered from around the house and are introduced to the camera by Pauwels’s mother, who stands in front of a white screen in the middle of her living room in Richmond, British Columbia, picks up a microphone and presents each item as though it is a piece of evidence in a court case. Exhibit A: a floor lamp made from the root of a coffee plant affixed to a round metal base. Exhibit B: a statue of a farmer that was shipped out of the Congo by Pauwels’s Belgian family before the country gained its independence in 1960. Exhibit C: a statue of a seated African boy with an inscription on his backside that reads “Optimum Registered Trademark.”

What we can immediately gather is that these assorted objects share a collective past. They are not random relics from the family’s attic, but a carefully selected collection brought togethe to relate a particular history. Held in front of the camera, the objects become material indicator of the events that the video attempts to trace. Rather than relating a story in a linear manner however, following a cast of characters through scenes that form a plot, the video is organize in six sections, a series of snippets whose juxtapositions are at times as dissonant and knotted a history itself. W.E.S.T.E.R.N. is filmed and edited in a way that emulates the fragmentary nature of archives, personal stories and memories.

In Pauwels’s video, scenes shot in her parents’ Richmond home are interwoven with clips from old home movies shot in the Congo whose grainy quality places them roughly in the 1950s. In the work’s most intriguing moments, objects associated with those presented to us by Pauwels’s mother appear in this old footage, which was mostly shot on eight-millimetre film by the artist’s grandfather (Agricultural Agent No. 90872). The colour-saturated old footage shows us Pauwels’s family dining, resting, playing and celebrating birthdays. In the background we get a glimpse of the Congolese landscape: steep hills, plantations, huts inhabited by locals who peel potatoes and work in the fields.

It is in these old home movies that we see workers carrying large bundles of firewood that bring to mind the coffee-root lamp that Pauwels’s mother keeps in her study. It is in these grainy frames that we see workers lined up in front of the market to have their products weighed on a scale that recalls the one we saw in the Pauwelses’ living room. As we recognize these objects in the old footage, we are uncannily transported to the Congo and then back again to the family’s Richmond home. The objects provide a physical link connecting the two geographies.

Objects, however, are not the only elements in W.E.S.T.E.R.N. that join the past and the present. Throughout the work, Pauwels creates parallels between events and activities in the old footage and the new video she is making. Outdoor shots in the Congo film are juxtaposed with the exterior facade of the Richmond home, and old interior footage appears following indoor scenes in the new video. Visual analogies emerge comparing the two contexts’ vegetation and architecture. We also find Pauwels negotiating her own activities as a video artist in relation to her grandfather, who made these films in his spare time.

One section of the video aligns the agricultural agent’s leisure time with the mechanized time of eight-millimetre technology. In a following scene, we watch the artist manually winding film from one spool to another at the kitchen table. Pauwels seems to be asking us to consider the nature of artistic activity in relation to ideas about productivity and leisure time. Such analogies and recurrences create a sense of continuity between the two locations, implicating one in the other. W.E.S.T.E.R.N. is not a discrete look at the past but a video that is historically conscious, rolling one era, with all its anxieties and misunderstandings, into another. Its visual metaphors weigh actions in the present against ones in the past as though they have been placed on opposite sides of a copper scale. Can we say they are of equal weight?

The video’s installation at the Henry Art Gallery introduced yet another object that brought Pauwels’s historical narrative into the present. In the gallery, W.E.S.T.E.R.N. was projected onto a white sheet of drywall housed within a hut that directly recalled a structure seen in the film itself. The hut limited our access to the film and added another frame that mediated and conditioned the viewing experience.

In a talk at Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver last year, Pauwels spoke about a cabin that stood at the periphery of her grandparents’ property in Belgium. It served as a solitary retreat for her uncle Karl, but was also where Pauwels and her sister spent most of their time while visiting. For the kids, the cabin was the opposite of their grandparents’ living room, where everyone watched their manners. The living room was the site of civilized living, and the cabin was where the children could escape and be themselves. The installation thus reiterated the tension between the liminal space of the hut and the living room, heightening the drama.

Projections in huts have other connotations in the context of Pauwels’s work: I cannot help but see in her installation a reference to a scene from Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo, which first appeared in the early 1930s. In the scene in question, Tintin invites Congolese tribesmen into his hut to watch the footage he has filmed and recorded of a witch doctor with a white man who is handling the tribe’s sacred fetish. The tribesmen, not recognizing the virtual nature of the film, begin to throw arrows at the screen, piercing the hut’s wall and hitting the witch doctor and the white man in the film, who happen to be standing outside. In Pauwels’s video, the fetish object handled by Hergé’s character has been replaced by the objects held up by Pauwels’s mother: all are fetishistic bearers of the long expanse of colonial history.

In its North American context, the hut also evoked first Nations teepees. This visual alignment of Aboriginal culture with colonial experience in the Congo is a theme that Pauwels also points to in the video itself. One scene in W.E.S.T.E.R.N. shows children playing cowboys and Indians. In another scene, dated 1981, the camera tilts up and down, showing us the surface of a Northwest Coast totem pole in the same way that Pauwels’s video camera does as it observes the coffee root in her parents’ living room. Such correlations do more than merely build a relationship between the two colonial experiences; they collapse the present into the past, pointing to historical patterns and continuities. Colonial history is thus left unresolved in Pauwels’s work: it is neither a past that is over nor one that has been dealt with. Rather, it is a history that still resonates in the present moment.

Pauwels’s exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery looked into the past through the extinct, but still extant, eyes of explorers, voyagers and adventurers. Recalling Tintin’s escapades and Charles Marlow’s exploits in the Congo, the show evoked the mythologies that surround the colonial experience while negotiating Pauwels’s position in relation to it. In her film she contextualizes her personal family history within parallel, and often problematic, narratives from popular culture, terrains that have both informed and troubled her own views. In exchange for tropical jungles and psittacosis, however, we only have the fetish of history and the frame of the camera to take away.

This is an article from the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.