The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship

From June 30 to August 12, 2017, Tiwani Contemporary will present The Slave Ship by African artist Theo Eshetu. The artist is known for his pioneering work in film and video, combining his formal interest in the moving image with anthropological ideas to examine the notion of culture itself.

With The Slave Ship, Theo Eshetu continues his exploration of the fundamental components of video – time, movement and light – and creates a pensive oceanic epic evoking the history of slavery. The title of the installation references one of J.M.W Turner’s most celebrated works, the 1840 painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On (also known as The Slave Ship). The painting depicts the slave ship Zong, pummelled by violent waves, as its captain throws enslaved men and women overboard in order to claim insurance.

The viewer is invited to look into a window that gives onto a pitch-black space. There, a perfect, lucent orb shimmers with moving images of abyssal waters and enigmatic landscapes. The result of a play with perception and mirrors, the view from the window evokes telescopic visions, the specular reflections of still waters and the roundness of the earth. As the viewer is immersed in blurred marine currents and embarks on a voyage into the depths of oceanic memories, reality and fiction converge while myths past and present emerge.

Eshetu borrows from the legends of the Flying Dutchman (a phantom vessel condemned to sail the oceans for eternity, with a ghostly crew of dead men) and Drexciya (the underwater city founded by African slaves who were drowned during the Middle Passage) to suggest that the ghosts of deceased enslaved men and women still haunt the waters of European ports. The footage for the video was shot in Hamburg, Germany, where the Swedish Africa Company traded in slaves, gold, ivory and sugar from São Tomé from 1649. Eshetu uses the metaphor of the oceans to examine the legacy of historic trade from South to North, and its current currency in the present trade of goods and migration at sea.

Theo Eshetu was born in 1958 in London, and grew up in Addis Ababa, Dakar and London before establishing himself in Rome. He currently lives and works in Berlin. His works have featured at major video art festivals including Brave New World at the Baltimore Museum of Art (2006), the Museum of African Art, and The Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (2010); the multiscreen video installation The Return of the Axum Obelisk at the Unesco Headquarters, Paris (2009); Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (2010), DAADGalerie, Berlin (2014) and the American Academy in Rome (2015). Eshetu has won a number of awards in Berlin, Milan and Locarno. His works have also been presented at The Studio Museum in Harlem (2016), Deichtorhallen, Hamburg (2016), the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle (2015), Göteborg Biennial (2015), Kochi Biennale (2014), the 54th Venice Biennale (2011), the Sharjah Biennial (2011) and ICP, New York (as part of Snap Judgements, curated by Okwui Enwezor in 2006). Eshetu is currently exhibiting new work in Kassel and Athens as part of Documenta 14.

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