A deep dive into the classic and contemporary genres of African art
by Bongo MeiMar 03, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Feb 21, 2023
As I sauntered along the 19-meter length of the second to first century BCE funerary papyrus scroll at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, I felt overwhelmed by the enduring nature of its materiality. The dimmed lighting meant one had to rely on accompanying illustrated explanations to follow the narrative panels. This papyrus of Iuefankh, if I understood correctly, was the compilation of spells the German scholar Richard Lepsius (1810-1884) had studied and published as Todtenbuch, Book of the Dead, although the original ancient Egyptian title is more in the realm of Going Out in Daylight or Beginning of the Spells for Going Out in Daylight or Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light. Lepsius' designated title was meant to emphasise the roll’s intended function as a passport into the afterlife. The various constituting spells and hymns were originally composed by many priests over a 1000-year period. Scrolls such as this were typically buried along with the deceased who could presumably consult them at pivotal moments while transiting towards the afterlife. Lepsius' study of the papyrus of Iuefankh during his visits to Turin in 1836 and 1841 led to his formulation of a standard spell numbering system and the serialising of the scroll into chapters, I learned.
What was not available to me as an infographic was news about the fate of Iuefankh’s soul. Did he emerge into the light? Did he remember all the parts of the ferry and all the names of the gods and goddesses and the million other mundane details that were imagined as prerequisites? Did this cursive hieroglyphic scroll, which was part of his burial paraphernalia, outlive its usefulness before it got repurposed as an object of study and museum highlight? Was its existence here, in the museum that hosts the world’s largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt, proof that the spells worked or a sign that they hadn’t? All I learned about his identity was that his mother was named Tasheretemenu, and she appears at the end of the roll, in chapter 148, standing in front of the god Osiris and the goddess Imenet.
I continued to dwell on the significance of these funerary scrolls and what it meant for words and images to be committed to papyrus in order that the deceased person may consult them when required and what the implications are of these hieroglyphic scripts reaching the gaze of those, like me, who were never intended as its audience. Has their sanctity been ruptured? What is it about them that endures, still, if they had been rendered profane by their interception by archaeologists and dealers?
Visiting Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s solo, TunState, curated by Sergey Kantsedal (with Yuliya Say) at Barriera in Turin a day later amplified these meanderings. Has this papyrus scroll entered a state of tun? Had Çavuşoğlu spent time at this museum, given that, in 2018, she had been teaching in Turin while intensively learning Italian. In fact, the term 'natural mummification' was mentioned in the press release for her show written by Rattanamol Singh Johal, in reference to conditions of extreme heat and cold, citing Pompei, following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, or in the case of Ötzi, in South Tyrol. The newspaper-style catalogue offered a speculative description of the State of Tun, theorising that the gods do not live forever, or even much longer than mortals. They just pass into our reality for brief spells. The rest of the time they are in another state, the State of Tun. The excerpt is from a piece of fiction by Kit Hammonds, published in the catalogue, that chronicles a momentous event in the life cycle of obsidian (volcanic glass), a material that features in several works in Çavuşoğlu’s show. The State of Tun stands on the hill of time, a mountain rising out from the sea of all that was and all that will be. The city itself is formed of interwoven narratives grown slowly as do stalagmites," Hammonds' text reads.
Johal’s press release spells out the link between 'cryptobiosis' and the state of tun, pointing out its definition as "the state into which certain living organisms enter, in response to adverse conditions in their environment, including extreme heat, cold and fluctuations in levels of salinity, oxygen and moisture." Within this self-preservation mode, regular metabolic functions cease, resuming only when the organism finds itself in more hospitable conditions. "Cryptobiosis is observed in brine shrimp, yeast, many varieties of seeds, and in tardigrades, microscopic aquatic organisms whose cryptobiotic state—the 'tun state'—lends Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s current exhibition its title," writes Johal.
Çavuşoğlu has a penchant for unearthing the invisible material properties of beings within the natural world. Her series Red/Red (2015-2017) is an excellent example. It emerged from her collaboration with an expert who helped her extract pigment from the insect known as Armenian Cochineal (Porphyophora Hameli) that lives in the roots of the Aeluropus littoralis plant that grows on the banks of the Aras River, the natural border between Turkey and Armenia. Her last solo exhibition—Pink as a Cabbage / Green as an Onion / Blue as an Orange—also played with the chromatic spectrum of fruit and vegetable dyes, a result of her complex research into subversive agricultural initiatives.
TunState is once again anchored in Çavuşoğlu’s artistic attunement with the natural world, which manifests in her exploration of the un-obvious expressive possibilities inherent to the materiality of certain botanical beings, such as bursera fagaroides, pinus brutia and Lambadistrion. Bursera fagaroides, is a tree native to the Sonoran Desert which extends across parts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. The shrub flourishes only in the presence of a reliable source of moisture.
As the bark enlarges, its shedding resembles peeling skin that lies suspended on the surface until it eventually falls off. Çavuşoğlu travelled across the desert landscape in Mexico to collect the shed outer bark and collaborated with a paper restorer to produce a stable surface for mark-making. I found it intriguing how, processually speaking, this method was a contrast to papyrus, which is made from the inner bark of the papyrus plant. Several installation works in the art exhibition are abstract compositions derived from pigment she extracted from the bark of pine trees such as pinus brutia to dye fabric. In the show one sees Pinus, a large, suspended fabric in the form of a column referencing the source tree trunks. In works like Trail Goes Cold, you see her use of 'carpet shoes'—special sandals worn by those seeking to illegally cross over from Mexico to the United States that leave minimal trace—to create marks on bark-derived paper. From the fragrant resin of the Lambadistrion, she made beads which she strung together on a frame made of wood and thread, resembling the whip traditionally used to collect this resin. She mimics the patterns found on Anatolian textiles that refer to the movements of people and the transformations in the environment.
The show at Barriera—a collector-run space in a not-so-bourgeois part of Turin—is exquisitely laid out, with each work exuding a quiet sense of its being and expressing a relation to each other, so that the works come together as if to reconstitute a poetic corpus or a poem composed of momentous stand-alone lines that share a collective spirit. The method and material attest to the artist’s role as a conduit, someone who listens keenly to her subject matter, allowing it to dictate the outcome. By reversing the word ordering of the state of tun to TunState, the artist subtly gestures to a cross-species republic of resilient beings, drawing upon the fact of their survival as articles of faith and hope in doomsayer times governed by alarmist evangelism. The show exists in the realm of the feminist post-apocalypse in how it seeks to rebuild worlds by reasserting material kinships between the human and more than human. In its slowness, in terms of process—collecting of material, facilitating its transfiguration from one state into another through consulting with expertise and finally composing the artwork—the show bears witness to alternative notions of non-linear time while performing its capitalist critique.
TunState was on view between November 6–December 23, 2022, at Barriera Associazione.
by Hili Perlson Mar 27, 2023
In IBMSWR: I Build My Skin With Rocks, a single artwork forms an entire exhibition, combining all the mediums the visual artist works with into a mammoth offering.
by Rahul Kumar Mar 26, 2023
The exhibition celebrates the work of American artists Betty Woodman and George Woodman with ceramics, abstract paintings, assemblages and photographs.
by Jincy Iype Mar 23, 2023
STIR speaks to Hublot's latest ambassador Daniel Arsham, about his installation in the Swiss Alps, its ephemerality and its connection to land art and timekeeping.
by Rahul Kumar Mar 21, 2023
STIR speaks with German visual artist Moritz Berg on his art practice that is based on the study of perception and the aesthetic effects of a nature informed environment.
make your fridays matterSUBSCRIBE
Don't have an account?Sign Up
Or you can join with
Please select your profession for an enhanced experience.
Tap on things that interests you.
Select the Conversation Category you would like to watch
Please enter your details and click submit.
Enter the code sent to
What do you think?