For Autograph’s current exhibition Fixing Shadows – Julius and I by Eric Gyamfi, the gallery has been transformed into a monochromatic cosmos, examining how photography can shift meanings and histories – ‘fixing shadows’ of legacy, absence, and revival. Thousands of cyanotype prints densely cover the gallery walls in the first UK solo exhibition of Gyamfi’s work. In each one, Gyamfi blends his own image with a portrait of the transgressive, African American composer Julius Eastman. Here the novelist, activist and cultural critic, Candace Allen, reviews the exhibition and discovers a musicality to Gyamfi's practice, befitting of the subject at the heart of his work.
Can we conjure for a moment on a possible transmigration of souls?
On 28 May 1990, the charismatic and visionary, defiantly black and queer composer Julius Eastman breathed his last in a Buffalo, NY hospital bed. Too soon at only 49 years old. His time at the epicenter of New York’s musical avant-garde for most hardly a memory, and too many of his at once challenging and incandescent works scattered to disinterested winds; destined, it would seem, to that black hole of perpetual betwixt and between that disappears too much talent.
Also in 1990, some 5,500 miles away in Ghana, photographer Eric Gyamfi is born. Educated at the University of Ghana in Economics and Information Studies but his life dedicated to the arts, using his work as a tool, in his words, “to disturb or shift meanings and histories”. In 2018, Gyamfi encountered a portrait of Julius Eastman on the cover of a book he’d purchased at the Dakar Biennale. He had no idea who Eastman was; he was attracted to the imaged power of that dark-skinned man within the book’s small, portable format, a format Gyamfi was interested in exploring for future use. The provocative commonality this young Ghanaian photographer came to feel vis-à-vis a near forgotten African-American composer derived from learning of the challenges Eastman encountered throughout his adult creative life - challenges which could so easily be Gyamfi's own. And too: the similar tones of their complexions, the ovals of their heads. Then the simplest mistake: a random computer click superimposing a photograph of himself over that of Eastman, and Gyamfi was off.
He employed silkscreen at first, but it wasn’t flexible enough, mutable enough. Already exploring the reach of analog processes in a digital age, Gyamfi decided upon cyanotype, one of the earliest photographic printing techniques, during which an object, any object – yes, a photographic negative, but also a leaf, a rock, a hand, a fan, anything you might choose – is lain upon a surface washed with a combination of iron salts and in the course of doing its normal business, the sun’s light producing an image in varying intensities of what some folk call Prussian blue. Cyanotype was also the process used in architectural blueprints and this too attracted Gyamfi to the process, the act of construction - identities in the manner of buildings, piece by piece, with infinite permutations. Gyamfi’s experimentation, work and play: to fragment and combine these two images of Eastman and himself, in different ways, to varying degrees. More than ten thousand such images produced in 5 years, splitting and re-splitting, reconstructing and splitting again ad infinitum. In every image both artists always present. Even when Gyamfi cannot recognize himself, he knowing that he’s always there; and that exploration continuing to this day.
In every discussion of Fixing Shadows, the artist makes clear that it was Eastman’s image not his music that served as butterfly wing to this cyclone of creativity. He knew nothing of Eastman’s music and having no exposure or particular interest in Western classical music forms, when he was finally introduced to Eastman’s music by a friend he was not particularly moved. And yet, and yet…
"I’m sensing Eastman’s particular incarnation of minimalist music everywhere"
When I enter the gallery space, in its pulsating blue imagery of 6,000 parts, the repeated phrase with subtle but constant variation constructing layers upon layers of meaning, in its permutations of who/how much/where is He 1 and He 2, in its urgencies, I’m sensing Eastman’s particular incarnation of minimalist music everywhere.
In the pulse of Julius Eastman’s eye or eyes vs. Eric Gyamfi’s eye or eyes. Is it his mouth, or his, whose eyebrows/whose hair? I’m hearing Eastman’s insistent piano: “I’m gonna keep on challenging you,” it’s telling me. “Yes, I am. Maybe you’ll catch me up, or even yourself?” Most images are secured by just one pin and so subject to ever so slight jostlings from moving onlookers or simply the air; and here comes that glisten of sleigh bells from the opening movement of Femenine. Just as he does so himself, Gyamfi encourages his onlookers to muse and riff, our own ideas a part of the world he’s blueprinting; and here I go on white. Snow from those sleigh bells and each image’s white base. Is it the white that is the combination of all colors or the white of historical/cultural imperialism? Either notion a springboard, spurring me further in.
Gyamfi selected cyanotype for its protean qualities and there’s music in that as well. The sun’s varying intensities creating myriad depths of blue, a swirl of chemical rather than a completely coating wash akin to the lope of trumpet phrase. The happy accident of a leaf settling on a particular image during its exposure process, the bleat of a saxophone, the scud of a violin; and these iron-salted blues akin to the plant-derived indigo fabrics of West Africa - the fugu of Ghana, the adire of Nigeria. Not the artist’s cognitive intent, but I’m seeing it there. It’s there for me.
There’s rhythmic movement everywhere here, in the patterns of portraits in blue. They dance, these renditions of Eric Gyamfi and Julius Eastman, with the light sources and movement of air on our retinae, in our consciousness. They play against one another and join together these two souls, these two artists, in, out, around and through. We look, we question, we comment. We find them and ourselves in these fixing but mutating shadows; and we are very glad.
Candace Allen is a novelist, essayist, and screenwriter, with a particular affinity towards music. In her book Soul Music: The Pulse of Race and Music she investigated the inspirational personal, social and political power of music. Her novel Valaida, was based on the life of trumpet-player Valaida Snow. She was a political activist in her time at Harvard University in the late 60s/early 70s – instrumental in the establishment of its African and African-American Studies Department, now headed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — and again during the Obama and Clinton campaigns. She is frequently asked for broadcast and newspaper comment on culture and race.
In a previous life she was the first African-American female member of the Directors Guild of America, spending some twenty years in Hollywood film production. She has lived in London since 1994 and has served as an Autograph Trustee since 2021.
Autograph is a place to see things differently. Since 1988, we have championed photography that explores issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice, sharing how photographs reflect lived experiences and shape our understanding of ourselves and others.Donate Join our mailing list