One Man Struggles, While Another Relaxes
Ivory
150 x 50 mm
2003
Private collection

A miniature container ship carved from elephant ivory is a fictional, hybrid cipher for the financial power shaping the contemporary global market place - with particular focus on the consequences for the African continent. The container ship is an overt symbol of the mechanics of globalisation*, plying the global trade routes that silently criss-cross the world seemingly un-noticed. Although insidious, the trajectories of global capital can be traced back to the vested economic and geopolitical policies that institute and maintain them. Founded on a so-called ‘periphery’ and ‘centre’ binary, global capital is generally reducible to the relative positions of supplier and buyer - with price, access and quota controls held by the latter through subjective trade agreements:

The reach and penetration of contemporary forces of production and apparatuses of control and management also produce spaces which, because they offer little to global economies, start to fall apart and become factories of poverty no outsider would dare to enter. A geography of control and inequality increasingly shapes zones of relative order and influence set against other zones of unruliness and structural violence. [1]

Historically the practical, spiritual and cultural uses of animal materials (specifically bone, ivory and horn) in primary traditional cultures have been extensively recorded. Contemporary applications of these materials exist in limited form in the few primary traditional cultures still in existence but the majority tends toward the curio and eco-tourism markets – with subject, medium and formalism conditional to market taste. The function of elephant ivory in this project relates to several fields: 1) As a critique of the representational myths of cannibalism in Africa during the colonial era. The image of Europeans in safari clothing and plinth helmets being boiled alive by ‘savages’ with bones through their noses still endures as a defining Western construct of the colonial conquest of Africa. With conquest came the assumption that Europeans venturing to Africa faced certain death, either by disease but more likely the local population. This assumption also had influence in the 19th century over the restriction of Africans into European states for the same reasons, citing fear of foreign disease, ‘savagery’ and potential lawlessness as justification. Conquest was highly profitable and ‘over there’, but its inverse was never dreamt of. 2) As a manifestation of death (natural or otherwise) the bone serves as evidence, in so much as a death made this small carving possible. Specifically carving a container ship from this loaded material gives testimony to the possible cause of the death or disaster, vaguely reminiscent of the cinematic convention of the murder victim, during their dying moments, melodramatically writing their killer’s name in blood. 3) As a pseudo-anthropological specimen, the carving constitutes a re-figuring of this field’s recent politically correct ‘celebration’ of contemporary artefacts from traditional cultures that evidence the inherent binary construction of contemporary subjects realised in primary materials. The primary / modern binary of the ship carving promotes a critical assessment of this construct as well as “…the colonial-era argument that Africans, rooted in the past, cannot adapt to modern cosmopolitan life.” [2] Yet the reality is that contemporary imperial modes of production and trade have reinforced Africa’s colonial era subjugation through a process of exclusion and exploitation: “…Many Westerners, convinced of fundamental differences, have increasingly shut the (African) continent out of their consciousness, except for a lingering interest in its wildlife and in the rural arts of tribal villages.” [3] The suffering alluded to in the morbid material of the carving represents a hypothetical effect of contemporary contact between the African primary and the technological monolith of globalised trade – an overt metaphor for who (still) comes out on top.

The endemic dislocation of people through global capitalist practices is a central grievance of anti-globalisation proponents. One characterised by economically and politically motivated domestic migrations from rural areas to urban centres and contingent with the global migrations of ‘boat people’; illegal immigrants; refugees and asylum seekers engaged in hazardous trans-border crossings. This issue impinges upon the question of nationalism and in turn on the construct of the ‘global village’ – “while some in the West herald the end of the nation-state, that formation remains dominant, both in the West and in the rest of the world.” [4] Colonialism lasted five hundred years, followed by various forms of twentieth century political internationalism which rapidly developed into contemporary globalisation following the 1973 oil crisis, a global turning point that followed one of the most important political processes of the previous century - the nation-state independence achieved by numerous African colonies during the 1960’s. This is a uniquely reductive chronology and entirely conditional to both the specific framing of the temporal compression evident in the carving’s inherently binary construction and to the critical analysis of the construct that packages the world as a rapidly shrinking, ‘global village’. A construct characterised by representations of ethnicity as diverse but essentially metropolitan and Western in outlook; mobile IT tools and telecommunications (both business and lifestyle); an increasing ease and relative economy of global travel and an abundance of free time. But however ‘global’ this construct might be marketed as, it is largely only a lived experience in the West and within sectors of those countries outside this distinction with various grades of First World infrastructure. A ‘shrinking’ globe is proportionally relative to an ever increasing divide between those with access to the mechanics and luxuries of a ‘global village’ and those without, the former reducible to capital value and the latter largely conditional to or excluded by Western economic and geopolitical policies.

The primacy of ivory next to the highly complex engineering of a modern container ship, serves as an obvious metaphor for the very disparate positions the First and Third Worlds occupy. But to lay the blame for Africa’s current dynamics on the legacy of colonialism or the growing discord of globalisation is redundant – neither are solely responsible. The focus is not on assigning accountability, nor motivating reminiscence for a pre-colonial Africa. Rather the temporal compression evident in the pseudo-cultural object from a fictional historical primary culture grafted to a generic contemporary container ship prompts the viewer to intuit how Africa’s future-present is in a sense, a re-run of its colonial past.

"Tribal Africa has always had a reactionary smack to it – particularly in the hands of people who have tamed it militarily – only to celebrate its totems as decoration. But even freed from these immediate associations, the idea of an innocent classless Africa is highly problematic. There is a nostalgia within it, whether in a painting by Preller or its invocation by black consciousness groups, a reference to a state of grace which is pure, and ignorant of the constraints and processes of Africa in its dominated state. This idea of a pre-European Africa of innocence is firstly false and more importantly it obscures the strange contradictory relationship between Western conquest and the tribalism that still endures." [5]

 

Notes:

*The term ‘globalisation’ defined as a world in which finance is the dominant form of exchange and control as opposed to power being negotiated through politics. See: O’Tuathail, G. and Luke, T.; “Present at the (dis)intergration: Deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation in the new wor(l)d order”; Annals of the Association of American Geographers; Vol. 84; 1994; pp. 381-398

[1] Simone, A. M.; Globalisation and the identity of African urban practices; in Judin, H. and Vladislavic, I. (Editors); “Blank – Architecture, Apartheid and After”; NAi Publishers; Rotterdam; 1998; p. 174

[2] Wright, G.; The Ambiguous Modernisms of African Cities; in Enwezor, O. (Editor); “The Short Century: independence and liberation movements in Africa 1945 – 1994”; Prestel; Munich; 2001; p. 225

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ahmad; A.; The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality; in Race and Class; Vol. 36; 1995; pp. 1-20

[5] William Kentridge; Phaidon Press Ltd.; London; 1998; p. 108

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afrika
Author unknown : 1903
© B.V.Z.

 

 
 
 

Poseidon
Mediterranean Shipping Company : 2002
© MSC Ltd.

 

 
 
 

“Smells good. Who is it?”
© www.pcdon.com

 

 
 
 
"Let’s start with ‘Failure to wear a crash helmet.’”
Giles Cartoons : 1973
© Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd.
 
Michael MacGarry