Robert Ellis: Proverbs, 3/3 – 15/4 2017 at Belfast Exposed

The gallery handout makes astonishing statement calling this small exhibition upstairs ” “an ongoing  body of work using photographic images and audio recordings that engage with the contemporary landscape of Uganda while exploring its layers of memory.”

Whose layers of memory?  Memory of what? The body of work is not using images it is those images…

The exhibits were given a collective name “Proverbs”  for one reason: “… story telling still seems to hold a certain degree of reverence.”( Robert Ellis in the gallery handout)

Looking at the image above does not provide a persuasive evidence that it is an image from Uganda. Ellis spent there three months in 2013 and some undisclosed period in 2016.   Instead, the lens based image gives credence to the enthusiastic welcome  to Ellis as a part of a “terrifically competent” graduates  shown under Photoworks  2007 in a review by Aidan Dunne (The Irish Times, 27 June 2007), Dunne perceived Ellis’s document of Brazilian community then as “an outstanding project”. The recognition continues,  in 2014 Ellis’s photography appeared at Plat(t)from 2014 an the Photo-Museum Winterthur, Switzerland. That is a curated exhibition  gathering young artists – who are invited to be present  as well as they artwork.

So – I have almost classical dilemma (Aeschylus Iketides) between the visual thought of a foreigner  and the disinterested  subjects, natives or landscape.  The tree  appears  in a proverb I know – not a Ugandan one. My grandfather told me to protect trees, because killing a tree is killing a city.   My association to the wisdom of my ancestor is made admissible by Ellis’s juxtaposition of the majestic tree crown and distant roofs and lights and a light tower…

Easily – another connection surfaces while looking at the image – the tree looks like a kind of a platan tree, admired by Handel’s Xerxes in the aria Ombre mai fu  for offering shade:  dear, friendly and gentle tree.

The framing sets the tree in the centre of this fragment of the landscape  while the human settlement nearer the horizon sincerely admits that it continues beyond the frame.  The image has thus a tenor and the chorus – in two different rhythms – in a seamless co-existence.  Do I sense a latent conflict? Yes, but the artist holds me firmly on the side of the tree,  agreeing that human species depend on nature.

People appear in the rest of the exhibits, alas, I do not have those images.

Photographing persons anywhere raises the dilemma between the aim to document and the encroaching the privacy of the subjects. It is possible that they do not mind… it is possible that Ellis did not need to ask their permission. Nevertheless, he is an outsider  giving his view of what his subjects think of as familiar.   By chance this theme surfaces in a current exhibition at the Photo-Museum Winterthur  titled Unfamiliar Familiar. Outsiders views on Switzerland.

That is a parallel theme to Ellis’s view of Uganda.  He portraits the local people, standing, walking, perhaps talking.  That the images do not contribute to a particular national identity is their strength.In my view, the repertoire Ellis presents is not inflating stereotypes, his curious eye zooms on subjective characteristics of the viewing, it is not restricted by stereotype or advertisement.  Seen by an outsider – the subjects carry warm familiarity, replacing sharp differences by overarching similarity of life lived now – here and there.

Successfully, Ellis offers authentic fragments of the seen at every given moment, some look staged, but all subtly claim the status of a document, of external evidence.  Yet – since all meaning could be questioned, Ellis offers the insecurity of free interpretation with instinctive promise of beauty, the beauty of something ordinary, unexceptional, yet  uniquely  true.  I almost said  uniquely  beautiful and good – in agreement with Socrates’s  twinning of  kallos and agathos.  (Plato, Gorgias, 474d-75d)

And so Ellis  escaped the  danger of offering  exotic as the grounding for an outsider’s view.




About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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