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BLOOM is a continuation of my 2015 rendering of the life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880), Born Aina, she was a titled member of the Yoruba people of West Africa who was orphaned by war, enslaved to a Dahomean king, and eventually given to a British merchant who presented her as a ‘gift’ to Queen Victoria. As the latter was one of the first to embrace photography, the photos of Sara Forbes Bonetta in the Royal Photographic Archives became visual evidence that she actually existed.


In Esi Edugyan's book Out of the Sun (2022), I came across a passage that resonated with me, as she beautifully describes the 'thread' I’ve been exploring. Edugyan mentions that she wanted to explore the lives of the people who have been out of sight throughout Europe's history. The people who were often marginalized, rarely appeared in the European art of the 18th and 19th centuries as individuals and civilians. Instead, they were used as a representation of cultural concerns, viewed through the lens of Christian morality and white society's standards. It was only in Europe's twentieth century that black individuals were depicted as people living human lives. How have images of African Europeans been constructed and deconstructed over time? Which role has photography played in preserving history and culture? Which role can it have now to address historical gaps and normalize an alternative narrative?


In BLOOM, I turn to 19th Century cartes de visite of women who were Bonetta’s unknown contemporaries in Victorian and, later, Edwardian Europe. Cartes de visite were invented in the 1850s and they became a world-wide craze soon after. Many of the traits we associate with our selfies were also present in this popular, early photographic format. For this series I experimented with an original and very rare 1861 carte de visite studio camera from the Hoch Collection — the same wet plate collodion method that was used to create original cartes de visite. I  produced albumen prints from the glass plate negatives and also include some self portraits.


All the portraits in BLOOM are not mere re-enactments, BLOOM is a collaborative project in which the lives of the actual sitters are portrayed and who's own histories are implicated in the specific concerns of race in European society, faced by the historical subject they portray.

All the women portrayed have moved from different African countries to Europe in the last decade and share their stories through their portraits. Together we establish them as citizens within an archive instead of marginal bodies, lost to time.  They bloom with dignity, much like their ancestors — the women from actual 19th century cartes de visite who appear as jewel-like adornments on dresses or rest in the sitters’ hands. And like flowers, the sitters, rendered life sized, appear startling in their beauty, ephemeral, surreal, and yet grounded in their own being.  While the Bonetta portraits establish that her figure was for a royal agenda, a highly constructed and constricted reality- with the anonymous cartes de visite sitters, or presumably regular citizens, different stories unfold 160 years later. What are their stories? Who were the sitters, who was the photographer or commissioner? And how do we view these portraits now?

Flowers and notions of flowering became a new locus in BLOOM as a metaphor for human nature marking a history that traces movements of people and movements of nature. Flowers were the first objects ever photographed by the Victorians — so called botanic ‘photogenic drawings’ were created by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1834. This inspired botanist and photographer Anna Atkins to create the first photobook with cyanotype impressions of British Algae a few years later. The Victorian’s most beloved motifs were flowers and as pioneers in photography they even surrounded their subjects and photo albums with floral beauty. Floriography, an explicit language of flowers, became a social movement in the 19th Century.  In the Victorian era emotions in all their raw fullness were frowned upon. As a solution to this confinement of self-expression, a secret language of flowers, floriography, was ‘invented’, but in fact adapted from other cultures. Published in France in 1819, the book ‘Le Langage des Fleurs’,  later named ‘The Victorian Language of Flowers’, offered close to 300 meanings for flowers as they were used socially. The book created an industry in botanics, and floral dictionaries sprouted up everywhere in Europe and eventually in America.  This language of blooms became inextricable to social ideas of femininity and social status, and to notions upholding empire and a new lexicon of ‘enlightened’ Europeanness. Among the social codes and markers for these, some botanics were explicit references to African and other ‘exotic’ blooms that reflected the increasingly popularized Victorian pseudo-science of race and sexuality.  One such citation is ‘vulgar minds’ — ascribed to the African marigold flower. 


In BLOOM  botanic history is layered and carried through the images in various ways. Both in bouquets of flowers (‘tussie-mussies’) held by the sitters, which encode messages; as wel as some of which are actual commodities or of importance to colonial trade. 

Also over the past two years I created paints and inks, which I extracted from wild flowers were foraged by myself and my daughter throughout Europe. I used these inks for the 19th Century practice of hand tinting my black and white photographs. I also experimented with anthotype printing created from wild flower extracts — a unique alternative to traditional photo printing which parallels cyanotypes photographic sunprints.

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