Imaging South Africa: Collection Projects by Siemon Allen

August 27 – October 31, 2010

This exhibition offered the most comprehensive presentation to date of South African artist Siemon Allen’s “collection projects.” Over the last decade, Allen has created expansive installations of various mass-produced ephemera—postal stamps, newspapers, audio recordings—that he has methodically acquired and catalogued. In terms of process, he approaches each project like an archivist, researching and assembling artifacts to disclose underlying narratives about their production, dissemination, use, and message. Allen employs the social critique that inevitably arises from his work as a means of interrogating what he describes as “the contradictory and complex nature of South African identity.”

In Stamps, a massive inventory of over 23,000 stamps released in his native country from the colonial era to the present, Allen probes the official construction of an idealized national identity often at odds with social realities. In Newspapers, begun in 2001 as a research project documenting coverage of the United Nations Racism Conference in Durban, he examines another image of South Africa, but one constructed externally through the filter of the US news media. With Records, the most recent addition to the series, Allen has built an extensive ongoing collection of South African music and audio artifacts, with the intention of establishing a web-based archive of this material, due to go online next year. The exhibition will also feature a room-sized sculptural work woven out of videotape that he considers a precursor to his collection-based installations.

Allen began assembling Records three years ago when he purchased a 1965 record by the exiled South African singer Miriam Makeba. Struck by the overtly political nature of the album cover’s liner notes, he began to investigate how these artifacts disseminated an anti-apartheid message. Allen has now acquired over 400 recordings by Makeba that reveal the global reach of her image and music. This project is only one part of a much larger collection of South African audio material. Allen will also show a new series of monumental prints created from scans of individual records culled from his larger collection. When magnified in images nearly seven feet square, their distressed, topographic vinyl surfaces visually capture veritable histories of repeated use.

Artist’s Biography

Siemon Allen studied at the Technikon Natal in Durban, South Africa, where he received his Master’s Degree in 1999. While in Durban, Allen was a founding member of the FLAT Gallery, an artist’s initiative that operated during the mid-1990s. His work was included in the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale as part of the exhibition Graft, and also in the Vita 93 and Vita 98 exhibitions.

Stamps has been presented at the Renaissance Society in Chicago; Artists Space in New York City, and the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC. Newspapers was included in The American Effect at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and in A Fiction of Authenticity at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. Most recently, Allen’s collection projects, including Records, were featured in solo exhibitions at the Durban Art Gallery and the BANK Gallery, also in Durban. Now based in Richmond, Allen currently teaches in the Sculpture Department at the VCU School of the Arts.

Support for this exhibition has been generously provided by the Office of the Dean, VCUarts and media sponsor  WRIR, Richmond Independent Radio.