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Vernissage for "A New Gaze 2": On Aspirations in Blue, White and Red
Photographer Kelvin Haizel inaugurates his exhibition "Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom"
"A New Gaze 2", the second edition of Vontobel’s award for young contemporary photography, journeys this year to Africa. The winner, Kelvin Haizel, transports us to a faraway spot in the Indian Ocean, where tropical idyll and migration policy intersect.
For "A New Gaze 2", the Vontobel Art Commission decided to center on the theme “Identity”, and focus on photographic work from African artists. Eighty photographers from different parts of the continent were invited to submit a project proposal. The winning project by Kelvin Haizel (born in 1987) convinced the jury as it explores identity as a concept that constantly shifts under the influence of local encounters. To complete his work, Haizel made two long trips to the archipelago of the Comoros.
Identity mirrored in the unattainable
Haizel’s curiosity was piqued by the cultural identity of the Comoros. Four main islands form the Comoros archipelago, and stood together until 1975 under French colonial rule. At that time, three of the islands renounced France and established the independent Union of the Comoros. However, scarcely 70 km to the southeast, the people of the fourth island, Mayotte, voted to remain firmly attached to France. Later, having become a part of the European Union, Mayotte experienced an economic upturn – something its island neighbors could only dream of.
Over the last few decades, the border between the two countries – a border that previously did not even exist – has seen a gap arise between the populations on either side: upswing and progress on one side, stagnation and poverty on the other. In 1994, this gap widened further as a visa requirement came into effect for Comorians who want to visit French Mayotte. Suddenly, brothers and sisters became foes, and neighbors became strangers – all living within the same culture. Since that time, hope for a new, better life has driven tens of thousands of Comorians onto boats to attempt a daredevil, often fatal, sea passage to Mayotte. What actually awaits the Comorians there, however, is at best an asylum procedure that may stretch out for years – and promises no certain outcome – or at worst, their immediate repatriation.
Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom: an admonition warning of the migratory conflicts around the world
Even Haizel, a Ghanaian, did not manage to get to Mayotte on his first trip to the Comoros, but had to come back a second time, when he had secured a visa; this proved an experience that shaped his subsequent work. The result is three groups of images, each dealing with one specific encounter. Making use of the symbolism of multiple voices, Haizel energetically assembles what may culturally belong together, but in reality keeps drifting farther apart.
"Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom" abundantly illustrates this approach. The cute little anthropomorphized baby shark, which Haizel himself is seen lulling to sleep, is transported so far from its origins that it is beyond recognition. The proud catch of a Comorian fisherman, it suddenly finds itself entangled in a red-patterned cloth, which, though chiming with the traditional dress of the Comoros, soon melds into the triad of the French national colors. All this occurs in front of a green-screen background that makes it easy for the viewer to forget the context. And to hold up Haizel’s work as an admonition warning of the migration conflicts all over the world.
“Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom”: A Self-Portrait of the Artist, with Shark is the work that gives the 2019 “A New Gaze” exhibition its name. ©Photo: Kelvin Haizel
Similarly multi-layered, Haizel interweaves his personal visa experience in “Every Other Is a Citizen” with portraits of women and men who risked the dangerous sea voyage to Mayotte: “I photographed people who are in Mayotte as asylum seekers, Comorians who have been denied a visa to Mayotte, or those who have not even dared to try.” He overlays these portraits with a photograph of his own visa document, and presents these montages in a setting that for an instant puts us in the passport control queue at an airport, where faces wait behind Plexiglas, neatly lined up to receive their entry decision.
“The clash of image with material reality”
Co-curator Urs Stahel writes in the exhibition catalogue: “Throughout his work we experience an artist who, like a virtuoso, subtly underlays the various encounters depicting the social, political and economic situation in the Comoros with a multi-layered pictorial discourse. He realizes the images as stray migrants of our world of experience – an encounter, a collision of ‘image’ and material ‘reality’, a running together, a meeting between two universes, each influencing the other.”
Vernissage in the presence of the artist
The exhibition “Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom - Comoros Encounters” will celebrate its vernissage on March 8, 2019 at Vontobel’s head office at Gotthardstrasse 43 in Zurich. The works of Kelvin Haizel will remain on display there until April 5, 2019.
All information about the exhibition and guided tours can be found at anewgaze.vontobel.com.
About Kelvin Haizel
Kelvin Haizel (born in 1987) lives and works in Accra, Ghana. In his works he questions the state of the image in today's society, using video and photography, installations and found objects for this purpose. He has already been invited to exhibit his work at a number of international exhibitions, from Nigeria and Mozambique to France and Portugal.
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