The nocturnal environment of Letter to a Barn Owl, bathed in low sodium light, serves as a backdrop for a series of sculptural objects overlooked by the portrait of a Barn Owl—a detail of John James Audubon’s drawing from his book The Birds of America (1838). Also known as “ghost owl”, this bird is in many cultures seen as a messenger of untold secrets from both the past and future, and thus of buried tales of marginalized or erased knowledge.
Letter to a Barn Owl is based on a psychic reading Paul Maheke was given by artist and playwright Asher Hartman during a residency in the Dominican Republic in 2017. The installation follows up on the artist’s research—through environment installation, sculpture, text and sound—on the body as both an archive and a territory, where socio-political tensions around erasure and hypervisibility are being played out. Maheke often incorporates dance and music in his works to discuss relationships between objects, language and bodies. In line with the artist’s previous exploration, that manifested recently in his solo presentation A fire circle for a public hearing, at Chisenhale Gallery, London (2018), in Letter to a Barn Owl ghostly presences considers the complexities of embodied history, inheritance as well as memories in an overlay of narratives, media, and aesthetics. The installation comes together as a non-hierarchical collaging, intended as a strategy to complicate conversations around identity and its representations.
The sculptural elements, the sensual arrangements, as well as the lighting situation and sound work flooding the exhibition space, facilitate a sensitive experience that furthers Maheke's interest in dissenting inherited ways of seeing, ontological registers and cultural representations. The scientific, stylized romantic or exoticized to vernacular images of the Barn Owl here also present a vital contradiction: the will to catalogue the visible, against that which is excluded from the depository of the sanctioned Western knowledge.
Letter to a Barn Owl, 2018 (83 min), is also the title of the sound piece engulfing the gallery space. A narrative voice, oscillating between the first and second person, guides the listener through the re-recorded psychic reading taking us on a journey through ancestry, past, present, and future lives. Accompanied by the eerie guitar soundtrack produced by the artist’s brother, Simon Maheke, and heavy bass scores, this work envelopes the space in multiple narratives that emerge and intersect within Maheke’s body—one, “where archive, memory, marginalised identities and the colonial body reappear like ghosts.” Approximations of questions of home and belonging reoccurring in the reading may enforce cross-generational and dispersed cultural heritage through the intricacies engendered by the encounter of conflicting memories. Here, the body cannot be reduced to its physical form but is understood through an interplay of forces, both material and intangible.
This undertaking also manifests in different combinations of domestic-turned-sculptural-object––repurposing elements such as plates, curtains and, mirrors—that can speak to, or about a body, without representing one. They are here used as a display for Roses of Jericho, or “Resurrection Plants.” These uprooted plants can revive from a state of dormancy when moisturized as a strategy of survival. In many religions and cults, the plant is used in rituals. For example, in Santeria, an African-American religion of Caribbean origin, where it is offered to Ṣàngó the spirit (Orisha) of thunder and lightning to unlock voices, for good blessing and prosperity. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, the roses are continuously watered, going from seemingly withered to fully-bloomed.
Paul Maheke (b. 1985, Brive-la-Gaillarde, France) has presented solo exhibitions at Chisenhale Gallery, London (2018); Galerie Sultana, Paris (2017); Assembly Point, London (2017); Center, Berlin (2017); and South London Gallery (2016). Selected group exhibitions include Baltic Triennial XIII (2018); 'The Centre Cannot Hold Itself', Lafayette Anticipations, Paris (2018); Tate Modern, London (2017); Diaspora Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale (2017); and Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, among others.
This exhibition was produced in cooperation with Phileas – A Fund for Contemporary Art.