Al-An deSouza has created art across various mediums for more than three decades, examining and embodying transnationality in spite of racism and colonialism. The California-based artist, writer, and educator, a self-described “diasporan,” was born in 1958 in Kenya to parents of Goan descent—five years before the former declared independence from England and three years prior to India annexing the latter, which ended Portugal’s rule over the state. Their exhibition here, “Elegies of Futures Past,” featured a nonchronological installation of works from four photo-based series: “The Lost Pictures,” 1963–2005; “Flotsam (1926–2018),” 2021; “Elegies of Futures Past (and Other Fugue States),” 2018–19; and “Anthology,” 2022.
For “Anthology,” deSouza placed family photographs from weddings and vacations into thrift-store frames, overlaying them with excerpts from accounts of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s voyage around Africa to India between 1497 and 1499. Through this juxtaposition of image and text, the artist forced us to consider how colonialism overwrites and countermands familial history. The stories from this imperialist looter’s trip are as monstrous as you would have expected. In one passage, da Gama’s cruel interrogation techniques are described: “The captain-major ‘questioned’ two Moors whom we had on board, by dropping boiling oil upon their skin, so that they might confess any treachery intended against us.” In another, we read a careless and self-congratulatory testimonial full of violence and delusion: “Inasmuch that we had discovered the country we had come in search of, as also spices and precious stones, and it appeared impossible to establish cordial relations with the people, it would be as well to take our departure. And it was resolved that we should take with us the men whom we detained, as, on our return to Qualecut [India], they might be useful to us in establishing friendly relations.”
“Elegies of Futures Past (and Other Fugue States)” mourns and memorializes the artist’s father. It features a collection of daily photos, produced over the course of a year, that deSouza took of a freshwater lagoon in the San Francisco Bay. The basin made the artist think about their father looking out at the ocean in Portugal—their parents relocated to the country during their twilight years after living in Kenya and India. According to deSouza, their move felt “as though they were closing a historical loop, with their lives in many ways retreading da Gama’s route.” The shadowy surface of the rippled lagoon suggests a sunken end for a world traveler, even a kind of watery grave.
“The Lost Pictures” was created from slides deSouza’s father shot in Kenya around 1963, the year the country declared its independence from the British Empire. The artist made prints from these images and left them in high-traffic areas around their home, causing them to collect grease, dust, grime, a lot of hair, and water spots. DeSouza then made scans of the sullied prints, which, by this point, were practically abstractions. In a conversation with art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson in 2012, the artist discussed the process of erasing and adding new life to their father’s unpretentious snapshots, saying that the works operated like memory in the way the mind blocks or alters certain pictures and events from one’s past. Take Harambee, 2005, a print from the series whose title is actually Kenya’s national motto. Translated from Kiswahili, the country’s official language, the term means “Let’s all work together.” Yet the image, depicting what might be a family posing with a soldier, is washed out, seemingly on the verge of disappearing—a trace of some long-ago and perhaps even significant event that, today, is barely discernible.
How do you commemorate the lives of loved ones who lived so fully and through so much? How do we retain an authentic sense of them after they’ve gone? DeSouza didn’t offer us any neat answers. But through their handling of materials with an approach that is both deft and playful, they showed us that even the barest or most vexed of human traces can make fitting, if haunting, memorials.