Taking up issues of travel, immigration, and cross-cultural encounter, the artist speaks critically to the present moment. deSouza’s work, Through the Black Country, combines photography, painting, and text in an arresting restaging of the 19th-century explorer narrative. The work follows Hafeed Sidi Mubarak Mumbai, the fictional great-grandson of Sidi Mubarak Bombay – “Africa’s greatest 19th-century traveler” – in his journey of discovery through 2016 London. Both reenacting and upending the traditional colonial relationship, Through the Black Country positions modern-day England as the object of ethnographic investigation; in the process, deSouza casts sharp light on the contradiction at the heart of contemporary life. The work’s multiple inversions allow for the delight and vertigo of seeing the familiar made strange: in Mumbai’s telling, beer becomes a strange “flat warm brew,” soccer rendered the ritual kicking of a “spherical pig or cow’s skin.” The satire of the situation is as likely to provoke trembling as laughter, however, as Mumbai lays bare the absurd social conventions, paradoxes of history, and unspoken prejudices that characterize the 21st-century West. deSouza’s subtle wordsmithing is accompanied by images of the journey – Mumbai’s journal entries, maps, photographs, and sketches. Subverting expectations for picturesque postcard views, however, Mumbai delivers images only fleetingly familiar: unimpressive roadsides, borders, steamships. A startling re-presentation of the known, Through the Black Country challenges us to look at the world through another’s eyes, a task made more pointed by the fact that Mumbai incorporates deSouza’s own navigation as an immigrant from Africa to Britain. The work, like the rest of deSouza’s oeuvre, calls attention to the constructed-ness of historical narrative, allowing us to reimagine the past while gaining a critical consciousness of our own moment.
Allan deSouza was born in 1958 in Nairobi, Kenya and grew up in the UK. His works have been exhibited worldwide including at The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; The Pompidou Centre, Paris; International Center of Photography, NY; Museum Kunst Palast, Germany; Museum for African Art, NY; Smithsonian Museum, DC; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gwangju Biennale, Korea and 3rd Guangzhou Triennale, China; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF; Fowler Museum, LA; Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, IL. He lives and works in the Bay Area, California, where he is a Chair and Professor in the Department of Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley.