Taking up issues of travel, immigration, and cross-cultural encounter, both artists speak critically to the present moment. deSouza’s work, Through the Black Country, combines photography, painting, and text in an arresting restaging of the 19th-century explorer narrative. The work follows Hafeed Sidi Mubarak Mumbai, the fictional great-grandson of Sidi Mubarak Bombay – “Africa’s greatest 19th century traveler” – in his journey of discovery through 2016 London. Both reenacting and upending the traditional colonial relationship, Through the Black Country positions modern-day England as the object of ethnographic investigation; in the process deSouza casts sharp light on the contradiction at the heart of contemporary life. The work’s multiple inversions allow for the delight and vertigo of seeing the familiar made strange: in Mumbai’s telling, beer becomes a strange “flat warm brew,” soccer rendered the ritual kicking of a “spherical pig or cow’s skin.” The satire of the situation is as likely to provoke trembling as laughter, however, as Mumbai lays bare the absurd social conventions, paradoxes of history, and unspoken prejudices that characterize the 21st-century West. deSouza’s subtle wordsmithing is accompanied by images of journey – Mumbai’s journal entries, maps, photographs, and sketches. Subverting expectations for picturesque postcard views, however, Mumbai delivers images only fleetingly familiar: unimpressive roadsides, borders, steamships. A startling re-presentation of the known, Through the Black Country challenges us to look at the world through another’s eyes, a task made more pointed by the fact that Mumbai incorporates deSouza’s own navigation as an immigrant from Africa to Britain. The work, like the rest of deSouza’s oeuvre, calls attention to the constructedness of historical narrative, allowing us to reimagine the past while gaining a critical consciousness of our own moment.
The urgency of deSouza’s work is redoubled by Alia Syed’s recent film On a wing and a prayer. Syed’s work is an imaginative response to the case of Abdul Rahman Haroun, a Sudanese refugee who in 2015 walked the length of the English Channel tunnel—a staggering 31-mile underground journey—in a bid for asylum from the British government. With dramatically immediate, almost handheld camera work, the film thrusts the viewer into the refugee’s position, alternately walking and running through the surreal subterranean world of the tunnel. A breathless desperation suffuses the film, the long perspective and unending curves of Syed’s shots underscoring the growing sense that the tunnel is unending and ever-repeating. The futility of the journey becomes increasingly apparent, moreover, as a voice calmly describes what we realize is a far larger and more dangerous trap: the legal non-status of the refugee within the UK’s byzantine immigration system. Vividly conveying the limbo state of the refugee’s condition, the film evokes both the desperation and the hope that charges national borders and those who seek to cross them. As in Syed’s previous films, which have dealt explicitly with memory, affect, and the postcolonial condition, On a wing and a prayer walks a line between personal narrative and critical intervention.