Saskia Olde Wolbers

Artvehicle 25/Review

6th October 2007 — 11th November 2007

In the downstairs gallery space of Maureen Paley a sequence of fifty snapshots depicts various aspects of life somewhere in Africa. Images of tired buildings, abandoned or not yet completed, sit alongside pictures of children playing in the street. These could almost be the photographs of a naive traveller charting his first experience of backpacking, but the focus on unusual modernist architecture and abstract industrial forms takes them somewhere else. In one, a truck lies upturned by the side of the road, its cargo of timber spilt. In another, two men stand in the dark, one holding a rabbit, the other a knife. What begins as a seemingly banal succession of images develops into an unusual and compelling narrative.

This sequence is a document of a journey made by Saskia Olde Wolbers and is presented as source material for the video piece Deadline which is projected in the space upstairs. The voice of a Gambian woman, Salingding, narrates the film and tells the remarkable story of her family history and of her own sixteen-month journey across 3000 miles of west Africa. In 1960, her grandfather's two wives gave birth to two boys in adjacent rooms, on the same hour of the same day. They are described as twins who had the 'luxury of having grown in their mothers alone'. One of these boys, who would become Salingding's father, was deemed to be the younger by virtue of the fact that he was thought to be a week early, and so these two lives had their fates sealed almost at random.

The story runs almost in the form of a poem and the narrator's voice is accompanied by distant African drums. It seems appropriate to describe the sound before the visual because it is such an extraordinary tale and it is stunningly rendered. Indeed the aural is so powerful that for much of the film it dominates what we see on screen. This is not to take away from the imagery, but the narrative is so rich that at times the visuals struggle to compete, or there seems to be an imbalance of some kind between the two. Like much of Olde Wolbers's work the content is neither wholly based on fact nor purely imagined. She constructed Salingding's narrative from an amalgamation of stories from several different individuals that she met in a Gambian fishing village; a mixture of local folklore and actual histories.

The imagery itself alludes to various aspects of the monologue and is typical of Olde Wolbers's previous work in its abstraction of commonplace objects. She creates strange and unfamiliar landscapes which are imbued with a kind of hypnotic quality through her use of slow, but often very extended, camera movements. There are five or six principal visual themes running through the piece. One depicts snake-like forms with scales coloured like the flags of African nations. This references the 'Ninki Nanka', a python which has the head of a termite and carries a small diamond on its cranium. Another depicts a glass rabbit dripping blood, upwards, from its head. Slowly the relationship to the photographs on the ground floor of the gallery becomes apparent. The woman describes how her brother hit a rabbit while driving. 'He got out of the cab and slit its throat, announcing breakfast as he threw its limp body in the back of the van.'

Towards the end of the film Salingding asks 'do we all have journeys mapped out in our central nervous systems like migrating birds? It seems the only way to account for our insane restlessness' The idea of the journey has always captivated the human imagination. There is a certain romanticism attached to the notion of the traveller as someone liberated from the banality of the everyday. Conversely, people's reasons for moving from one place to another can also be desperate and even essential to survival. Olde Wolbers's film charts an economic migration of a family, a story that falls very firmly within the scope of the latter of those two categories. It offers a bleak portrayal of how fragile the hopes of those who 'desire to travel away from the everyday squalor' can be. Of how corruption, or crime or governments or any number of factors can stand between people and their dreams of a better life for themselves and their families.


Maureen Paley
21 Herald Street
London E2 6JT

Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-6pm

Saskia Olde Wolbers —