The titles of Grace Ndiritu’s two video works on display at Chisenhale, Still Life and Responsible Tourism (both 2006), act as foils to each other. The contradiction ‘still’ and ‘life’ bear on ‘responsible’ and ‘tourism’, and the dynamics of agency and passivity, representing subject and object, become happily apparent in both. British artist Ndiritu defined the works ‘video quartets’; they comprised four large-scale screens forming a rectangle around the viewer, with each screen standing at a point of the compass – a metaphor of orientation and dispersed geography.
Responsible Tourism, which was shot among North African nomadic tribes, unrolled in a clockwise progression, one screen erupting in sound and movement as the others remained poised in freeze-frame. Women in black headscarves sang into a microphone and clapped hands; a young boy listened to a performer chanting; men in blue robes rode camels in the desert; a man prepared dinner by a dusty white truck. Disjunctions between image and soundtrack, whether technically – the women’s song, for instance, played at regular speed while they moved in slow motion – or referentially, suggested a fraught relationship between straight reportage and aestheticized portrayal. The short loop of the men riding camels was accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack, recorded at the Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu, giving the work the appearance of a choreographed ballet. Three camels walking in unison reminded me of the cygnets’ pas de chat in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1877). On the easternmost screen a young boy with a slightly swollen face listened expressionlessly to someone chanting off-screen. As the camera pulled away at the end of the performance, the other listeners came into view: more boys in tattered clothes and a Western photojournalist in a truly ridiculous blue turban, who covered his camera lens with a plastic bag as the performance ended.
The video was succinct in its message and underlined the implicit political premise of the piece, which aimed to critique the exoticization of different cultures that tourism can perpetuate. In part this was a challenge: positing, for example, the men on their camels as an ‘everyday’ moment shows the construction of the category of the ‘everyday’ along Western norms. It was also a defensive strategy. By recording unstaged moments, Ndiritu aimed to circumvent problems of representation. But why ‘unstaged’ activity should indicate authenticity was never fully addressed, and what claims Ndiritu had to designate ‘everyday’ were not specified. One sensed that much of the critique was located in Ndiritu’s performance of the role of the Western tourist, and this was a performance that went sight unseen. Responsible Tourism was a virtuosic celebration, but supplanted romanticization of its subject with a romanticized ideal of the everyday.
In Still Life Ndiritu, swathed in Malian fabric, assumed art-historical poses or ran her hands along her body, ratcheting up the degree of lavishness that Responsible Tourism contained. Inspired in part by Henri Matisse’s use of textiles in his paintings, Ndiritu’s sensuous and provocative performances suggested a parody of the represented African woman. She allowed only parts of her body to be seen – her bare arm lying across her side as she reclined in the position of an odalisque, or her hands running along her thighs as the rest of her body was hidden by a hanging piece of fabric – splitting her self-representation into sexualized body parts and the demurely hidden bearer of tradition. This strategy can be traced amongst African-American artists, such as Adrian Piper, or Lorna Simpson, who contested black stereotypes by embodying them ironically or by mimicking them to an exaggerated degree. What new strides Still Life makes with this strategy is not always clear.
Ndiritu’s work has the most impact in the moments where it loads undetermined gestures with implied significance. The photojournalist in Responsible Tourism is a recorded fact; Ndiritu’s actions in Still Life are quite possibly the idle caresses of one whose mind is elsewhere – to read these as, respectively, a metonym for Western colonialism and cultural fetishization, and purposeful eroticized behaviour, arguably reflects the viewer’s expectations of what the work of a young, black, female British artist might be about. Ndiritu encourages this ambiguity. As the man in the last screen of Responsible Tourism finishes the preparation of his meal, the soundtrack winds down and the lights in the gallery space dim to mark the end of the piece: a skilful conclusion of form and content that leaves open the questions of who and where he is, and what significance the making of his dinner, casually recorded, holds in the art gallery context.