'Viviane Sassen: Parasomnia
by Aaron Schuman
This interview was originally published in Aperture, #206, Spring 2012
Throughout photographer Viviane Sassen’s series Flamboya (2001–8), under intense sunlight and amid vibrant foliage, clothing, soils, cityscapes, and landscapes (to which Sassen sometimes adds brightly colored powders and props as well), the faces of her Kenyan, Ugandan, Tanzanian, Zambian, and Ghanaian models are often concealed by heavy shadows, their dark skin rendered truly black and devoid of detail. Despite the heavily saturated rainbow of colors dappled around these images, it is blackness that lies at their core, that draws our attention and pulls us in. During a lecture at the 2010 Brighton Photo Biennial, in which a selection from Flamboya was exhibited, Sassen explained: “The shadow turns a person into a kind of symbol. . . . It's not about the particular person anymore; he or she represents an idea. So it's much more about the universal than the personal . . . it's about what we don't see.”
For some, Sassen’s photographs—like many images of Africa and Africans—are troubling in that, through so-called postcolonial, politically sensitive, or internationalist eyes, they appear to ignore the individuals they portray and instead inherently possess—maybe even propagate—the problematic histories, legacies, and relationships between Africa and the West. But perhaps in Sassen’s case this is the point, at least in part, and where the power of her photographs lies. These dark voids, surrounded by seductive splashes of color, are not intended to depict the individual or to document Africa at large. Instead, they act as enigmatic black mirrors, within which we see reflections of “symbols,” of “universal ideas” that we, as a collective (Western) audience, already possess and propagate ourselves—the “what we don’t see,” or maybe the “what we don’t want to see,” within ourselves when we encounter representations of Africa.
In Sassen’s latest series, Parasomnia, such voids remain, but take on new and fascinating forms. Faces—mostly of small boys, young men, and teenage girls—continue to be obscured, by shadow, water, netting, a draped sheet, a large leaf, and in one case a bright pink textbook, or simply by being turned away from camera. But a number of captivating still lifes are folded into this series as well, which are both formally and tonally similar to Sassen’s (anti)portraits: the tangled black roots of a long dead tree lying on pale sand; a hole in a broken sidewalk into which fluorescent orange liquid is being poured; a red plastic bag hovering in the wind over a sun-bleached cement tomb in a crowded cemetery; a deep grave, freshly dug into a plot of rich red soil; and so on. Perhaps because they are still lifes rather than portraits, such images seem less vulnerable to the “burden of representation” that is so embedded in historical precedents and the geographic location of her work, and reveal the inventiveness and real intentions of Sassen’s aesthetic and approach.
As the title of the series suggests, such mysterious and mesmerizing visions seem to have been conjured from a dream state: glimpses of abnormal disturbance between sleep and wakefulness, rather than documents of a specific reality. Sassen herself recently said: “Working in Africa opens doors of my subconscious more widely; my dreams are very vivid when I’m there.” Furthermore, although Sassen was born and now lives in Amsterdam, her earliest memories are of Kenya, where she lived from the age of two to five and often played with the patients of the polio clinic where her father worked. One imagines that her own dreams are infused by these distant but formative experiences (which may explain the youth of many of the models in Parasomnia) and that it is her own subconscious, rather than Africa itself, that is her source material and primary subject.
That said, we as viewers are not privy to Sassen’s innermost thoughts or dreams, nor do we share her childhood memories; what we do share is an understanding of the history of a continent, its peoples, its subjugation, and its representation over hundreds of years—and thus Sassen’s work continues to act as that unnerving and enigmatic black mirror over and over again. The most striking example in Parasomnia is a portrait, titled Ayuel (2010), but in this case a figure and a face emerge from the void rather than disappear into it. Wearing dark blue jeans, a white tank top, earphones, and a bright yellow belt, a young man leans against a yellow post, turns slightly to his left with his hand on his hip, and stares calmly yet sternly into the camera, a blue string threaded through his mouth, stretching from one side of the frame to the other. It’s a beautiful and bewildering photograph, and in many ways it summons up a number of the pitfalls associated with such imagery from the last three centuries—from notions of “purity,” “primitivism,” and the “noble savage” to the exoticization and sexualization of “the Other”, to the exploitation of a race, a culture, a continent, and so on.
But from where do such notions of purity or primitiveness, of nobility or savagery, of exoticism and desire, arise—artist or audience? It appears that, if the responsibility lies with the photographer, she invokes such themes knowingly, unapologetically, and with an understanding that, unlike the historical precedents, her work is intended to generate questions—to “open doors of [the] subconscious”—rather than to dictate facts or define hierarchies. It is interesting to note that, in defense of Sassen’s work, both her childhood experiences in Africa and her career in fashion photography have regularly been cited by others, whereas Sassen does not defend herself or her work with such references. In a recent interview, she simply stated: “I try to make images that confuse me, and I hope they confuse others, too.” One imagines that she sincerely empathizes with the narrator of “Chameleone,” a short story by Moses Isegawa that opens Parasomnia in its monograph form:
Some people think I’m untrustworthy because I don’t look straight at them.
That is perception for you. What we think of others is never the whole truth, for so much is hidden and we end up seeing what we want to see.
My friend Gorogoro doesn’t care for such things. He likes facts, black and white situations, with no room for speculation. I envy him sometimes.
But Sassen’s photographs are not facts, they are not straight, and they are not black and white—there’s the yellow belt, the blue string, and that unwavering stare that begs the question: “What are you looking at; what do you want to see?”