14th February 2008 — 18th May 2008
After 10 years of scandal and intrigue threatening the reputation of the British Royal Family the courts have recently announced that - due to lack of proof - there is no evidence to support the sensational claim that MI6 or the Royal Family were responsible in any way for the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. It is an interesting thing, proof; where there is proof, there is normally the truth. And yet both concepts can easily be denounced, hidden and made so sensationally unbelievable as to become Fiction.
Another scandalous monastic subject suspended between truth and fiction is Faisal Abdu'Allah's newest work Browning Britannia. Meet His Royal Highness Prince Ago Piero Ajano, who claims to be an illegitimate black prince subsidised by the British monarchy in secret for many years only to be rendered penniless, the victim of sycophantic fraud and living in a council flat in London. After Abdu' Allah's Goldfinger project; a series of photographs of London's notorious crime family and their associates headed by Joey Pyle Snr, I was looking forward to yet another complicated subject for his newest work. BrowingBritiannia is a departure from the artist's preferred medium of photography but his deft skills with handling his subjects are still evident in this collaboration with production company Big Hug Ltd. The result: an intriguing 'documentary' style film that questions these notions of how we determine what to believe.
Ajano's power of attorney Clarence C. Thomas MBE alerted Abdu'Allah to this extraordinary story of a black man who says he says he is of royal blood. However, whose blood is still a mystery. Whether he is the descendent of the former King of Spain who was said to have had a black mistress or the illegitimate son of Edward VIII and therefore a close relation to the current British Royal Family, we never know. The artist provides no earnest narration, tight edits, background history, or other documentary aids for or against this claim - and while there is certainly enough circumstantial evidence for curiosity -- the viewer must decide what to believe from the verbal testimonies heard in the film alone.
Inside the gallery four screens show the interview footage of Ajano, Thomas and two further acquaintances: Barry Gordon and Michael Wade who discuss conversations and events that both support and deny his claim. Holes in his stories appear when Ajano mentions to Gordon that his mother is still alive in Jamaica rather than shot dead by the Nicaraguan regime or killed in an earthquake as previously claimed (of which Ajano disputes later on in the film). And yet Thomas recounts seeing a photograph of Ajano and King Edward VIII on the Royale Britiannia and conversations with his bodyguards who acknowledge that while he could never be accepted, his status was secretly acknowledged by the royal family. Ajano, now fallen on hard times, appears at the centre of the film, a frail and somewhat confused older man. He seems wrapped in layers of truths, half-truths and fabrications that mention living in Sloane Avenue, the Queen not accepting him and of being kidnapped. Documents were shown to Adbu'Allah that proved Ajano was resident in some of the most expensive addresses in London along with off-the-record accounts from other members of his entourage that corroborate his story and yet the installation and footage shown tries hard not too provide any answers. Abdu'Allah's intent is to 'open a window, not a door'1 into the anxieties of this character who has been taken advantage by those looking after him.
Four additional monitors are installed in the centre of the gallery space. Back to back in a cube formation, each one shows a close up shot of Ajano against a white backdrop, in profile and face on, looking at the viewer and out onto the screens that project his story. In such close focus, one can't help but wonder of his mental faculties when his gaze becomes vacant or his words become incoherent in the opposite footage.
This use of further installation allows this fragmentary 'almost documentary' the exit and entrance it needs to be more than just film footage and the freedom to move in and out of the two worlds of Art and Documentary and this is where its success lies. A lack of a coherent narrative or dominant presence of the artist opens up multiple readings freed from the burden of authorship. Not without bias, Abdu'Allah treats his subject with respect and dignity and the project is a moving piece of portraiture but at the end of the 15 minute run time the viewer is left unfulfilled and hungry for a conclusion.
Many other facets are implicit to this extraordinary story; hidden scandals, racial politics and the threat that an illegitimate black prince poses to the power of the most British of institutions, the monarchy, and therefore the very fabric of public identity. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Browning Britannia is the focus on the problematic dichotomy between truth and fiction. The story seems plausible and yet not due to fragility and implied inconsistency of Ajano, and the pomposity of the others being interviewed. The window has definitely been opened, who knows what else there is to see, but I want more, and that's the truth.
BFI Southbank Gallery
London SE1 8XT