by Vatsala SethiMay 24, 2023
Samantha Box exhibited a series of works taking the form of a set of digitally collaged photographs at Église des Frères Précheurs as part of Les Rencontres d’Arles Edition 2023, curated by Tanvi Mishra. Through her photo collages in the exhibition Caribbean Dreams, Box explored the accepted traditions of photography such as still lifes in particular, and their origination in Dutch Renaissance still lifes, at a time of colonialism and empire. Connecting the spoils of empire with lusciously displayed fruits, the visual artist juxtaposed her own body as a reminder of the colonial gaze, while subverting it.
In speaking to the aims for the curation at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Mishra said, "One of the exercises for me was to put on a different set of glasses and acknowledge the fact that our relationship to images is very fluid, shifting with the artifice of viewing and each viewer's personal memory. Can this fluidity, then, allow us to reimagine a different view of things already in our midst?”
Box speaks from mixed heritage, with her own ancestry’s history of indentured labour and other forms of colonial exploitation, taking root in African, Trinidadian, and Jamaican heritage. The success of colonialism is seen through the luxury and riches that European countries were able to emulate as a result of trade and empire. To form these visual art series of photographs, Box created elaborate tableaux, gesturing towards a film set or stage, where the collages arrive at a point of deconstructing the familiar materials of classical painting traditions. In Edges, Box dons the figure of a draped defendant or warrior as she holds sticks of sugarcane in her hand, against the backdrop of a landscape, and closed fruit. Stark lighting mimics the contrast-heavy lighting principles in Dutch Renaissance paintings that were appreciated for their sumptuous tenebrism.
In a conversation with STIR, the curator mentioned, "The objects and the food portrayed in many Dutch still lifes (paintings) were larger than life, in this sort of hyper exoticised perspective––for example, the cut open papaya always the fascinating and icky fruit of the orient, bringing disgust and pleasure to the table at once.”
In a joint conversation with Mishra and Box, they spoke with STIR about the dichotomy between 'desire' and 'disgust' and how this is a recurring theme when talking about racial relations, between the coloniser and the colonised, and especially reflected in the products of empire. In the “slickness” of product photography which is something that Box speaks about, we can examine the quality of the image and photograph as emulating the desirable, while holding disgust in the synthesised image-form, where lighting plays a large role.
Notably, Box links still life as a genre with contemporary products or food photography, where the image becomes an advertisement. Critiquing the same, Box’s own photographs juxtapose grocery receipts and archival photos to cut across time and formations. In expanding the material presence on the plane, Box is able to enable a layered kind of self-portraiture in claiming a narrative of exploitation and enforced migration, towards an integrated multiculturalism of New York City, where she currently resides. In One Kind of Story, Box’s own pixelated draped form forms the background of a set of archival photographs, digitally brought into the frame.
Box told STIR, “I am also sitting with the idea of what the purpose of still life is beyond commodity because it’s very much active right now in our society: we still often end up encountering still life as product photography or food photography. The idea of the ‘fruits of the empire’ comes from Dutch 17th century still lifes, where what you are basically seeing is the product photography of that time; it’s like an advertisement for the Dutch Empire, and the kind of "luxuries" that that imperial project can bring to those who colonise.”
Box discussed her own process of developing photographs and how she composes each frame. She spoke to STIR about the lengthy process of addition, removal, destruction, and creation in her photographs, where the key to the total image is felt through the compositional plane. In Transplant Family Portrait, the light source is revealed to create a lab-like setting, where plants are grown in artificial settings, identified by the luminous pink. In contrast, stickers that are donned by fruits and vegetables form another kind of advertisement within the chain of production, where the produce creates the exotic imagery of a land far away, in an idealised image. It is also pertinent to note that in the creation of a time-lapse such as this, where the reference lies in the historical as well as the contemporary, there is an aspect of rehumanising the so-called Black other, which we can see in how Box dons various characters, that often make eye contact with the viewer, turning the gaze back.
"Thinking of what a still life can be contemporarily—and how it has functioned historically––in relation to my body and personal history, and bodies and histories like my own––complicates the practice by adding layers that reckon with race and colonialism, capitalism and ultimately, the modern world," Box said.
The exhibition 'Caribbean Dreams' was on view until August 27, 2023.