Broadcaster Bidisha Mamata takes a closer look at the work of the Togolese-Belgian photographer Hélène Amouzou, whose distinctive imagery speaks to issues of displacement and exile.
Autograph commissioned this text to coincide with Voyages, the first UK solo exhibition of Amouzou’s evocative self-portraits.
“When you go to a new country, you are nobody, you lose everything.”
London, autumn 2023. The artist Hélène Amouzou is giving a talk about the work in her exhibition at Autograph to a group of rapt visitors. It’s hard to square the charismatic and candid woman in front of us with the sentiments she’s expressing; the grief, fatigue and erasure of flight and exile, the long road towards accepting herself as an artist and her personal journey from Togo to Germany to Belgium, as well as a return visit to Togo, her home country, decades later.
Amouzou’s first solo show in the UK covers a fifteen-year period of creation. While not all the works are displayed chronologically, there is a strong development from the shadowy attic setting of her early self-portraits, out into the light. The attic is not wholly confining, nor is the light wholly gratifying. Both environments are ambivalent and ambiguous.
Amouzou left Togo in 1992 and lived in Belgium from 1997 onwards, feeling “invisible, unseen, unnoticed” as she tried to regularise her stay and get her status, residency and work permits in order. Even with friends helping her, Amouzou’s refusal of pity meant that she didn’t tell anyone about her situation: “When you meet someone, you want them to see you and accept you as you are.” Yet refusal to be pitied also prevents deep understanding. As she struggled alone, she felt, “No-one’s seeing me, no-one’s asking me anything. I wanted to shout on the street.” It is from this period that the attic images emerged.
She discovered photography in the 2000s after making friends in church with someone who had a camera. This led to her studying film and photography and attracting the praise of her teachers. An early assignment was to craft self-portraits and she chose to represent herself in a blandly funereal tailored black dress she wouldn’t usually wear, thinking “it’s safer if people don’t recognise me.” Yet Amouzou’s attempt to self-conceal backfires as she appears (correctly) as a woman who is uncomfortable and confined, trying to fit into an unwelcoming sartorial, physical and cultural context.
In the early photographs, Amouzou is a ghostly presence. Ghosts can be angry one moment, sorrowful the next. They manifest when there is chagrin, grief and unfinished business. They want revenge and attention, release and rest. Amouzou’s body appears with various degrees of opacity depending on the length of the exposures she uses, and she embodies a wide variety of attitudes. In her own words, there is the passionate “I want someone to see me”, the ashamed “I don’t want anybody to know my situation”, the exhaustion of “the burden I have on my shoulder …I just want to rest”. In one impressive, nude image she photographs herself from behind - rare for her as she usually confronts the viewer eye-to-eye. She is hale and gleaming, raising her foot like a spectral giant stamping on a world that has squandered her vitality and constrained her strength. Another work reveals the attic’s sloping beams, raw insulation panels, bare walls and floorboards, on which Amouzou flails, an angry and trapped ghoul demanding notice. In another piece she is naked and see-through but utterly monumental, her arms crossed over her front like a pharaoh, eyes closed, thighs braced. Amouzou fills the length of the shot, as if she is fused with the building like a strong pillar.
The setting of the attic has a strong cultural resonance as the archetypal holding-place for unseemly emotions, unexplored histories and unspeakable truths. Sorrows and rages too complex to be put into words lead to strange manifestations in classic ghost stories; the ghosts vanish into the walls as Amouzou often does in her photographs, the wallpaper design showing through her body.
The attic was a convenient space for Amouzou to create in privacy while her daughter was at school, but it also held the parts of her that harsh daily life would not accommodate. In her tour of the exhibition Amouzou movingly described it as a place where she could cry “because I wanted my mum.” It is a literal safe space, a place of regression where an overlooked woman can be a homesick little girl, whereas in ‘real life’ she must be the strong mother herself. The ignored, not-quite-integrated part of the building cradles Amouzou’s ignored, not-quite-integrated feelings. The resonances are obvious – as Amouzou joked, “The attic and I, we have the same story.”
In many of her images Amouzou actively defies pity, gazing askance into the camera lens which is at shoulder level, side-eyeing the viewer with derision and challenge, a set mouth and unimpressed eyes. Her work should not be read as the photo-diary of an unhappy woman. That would ignore her forethought, deny her humour, overlook her variety and flatten out her intentionality as a stylist, a performer who embodies a character with admirable expressiveness and a punk artist using props to construct a mood on a theatre set.
That said, Amouzou initially did not recognise her own talent, dismissing her work as “nonsense, not for anyone, small, not good enough.” She saw herself as “just a woman who is taking photographs” and it was only after encouragement from editors and mentors that she listened to advice, accepted opportunities and grew willing to stand as an artist. In gaining confidence in herself, she gained mastery over her own inner vulnerabilities and counteracted her corrosive feeling of invisibility.
Amouzou’s photography results in prints, generating a literal paperwork of her own, in which she voices her perspective on her own terms. The asylum system is also obsessed with paperwork, but in a reductive and dehumanising way; its identity cards, forms and permits are about qualification and conformity. It is geared towards refusal, not acceptance and certainly not the embrace of subjectivity. It requires that people try to stand up for themselves in the face of official disbelief and suspicion despite the fact that, as Amazou said in her talk, “I’m not lying, I’m just here with my child, I am just a woman seeking a rest.” The system is designed to humiliate, to beat people down and tire them out. It is in defiance of the derogatory stereotypes and humiliating bureaucracy of the asylum system that Amouzou produces her work and creates an alternative official record of herself.
One of her most distinctive props is a suitcase, the obvious symbol of migration. Small and old-fashioned, the 1970s style cases in her works look comically dowdy, immediately marking out whoever carries them as not belonging. Once a sign of aspirational mass leisure travel to exotic locations, in Amouzou’s work the suitcase is comically unfit for purpose. They are pitiful containers and useless supports, appearing as too-small seats or wobbly plinths. In some images the case has funerary implications, resembling a coffin into which Amouzou tries to fit herself. In other shots it’s as if she’s trying to post herself back home or carve out a comfortable napping berth. The suitcase fails her every time with its flimsy promise. Sometimes images of purification, self-care and death overlap, as in the shot where Amouzou is lying lengthways in the case, her floral dress draped over her like a shroud, a broken pot at her head. All the surfaces in this shot look old and weathered: the faux leather of the case, its pleated internal pockets, the grain of the floorboards, the peeling wallpaper and the fabric of the dress. It could be a funeral, a baptism in a rundown church or the world’s most depressing beauty salon. Either way, she will obviously not be delivered to a better (after)life following the ritual. It’s tragic, but darkly funny.
Throughout Amouzou’s work, clothing is a powerful emotional and cultural signifier. The white floral dress is her accommodation between standard European summer fashion and her own flair and taste. The shoulder-baring wrap dresses and jewellery appear when she yearns for the truly flattering and familiar fashions of the past. The tailored black dress is the embodiment of constraint and disconnection. She is ill at ease in all of them. In the show’s most disturbing image, the floral dress hangs from the rafters like the body of a woman who has committed suicide, while Amouzou cowers naked on the ground, as if her soul dropped out of the bottom of the frock and got dumped in purgatory – the liminal space of the attic.
As the exhibition progresses, the musty shadows are gradually replaced by clearer light. Amouzou gained her residency card in 2009 and her passport were finalised by 2015. But on a return visit to Togo – her first in 25 years – she discovered that she couldn’t reclaim lost time, rejoin the wider family seamlessly or relive the past. Whatever was left behind had also changed. The past wasn’t waiting, preserved as in the 1990s, to comfort those who left.
The big square image transfers on the wall of the exhibition show us a large room with different light, a travelling trunk, a patterned carpet and a wall that’s losing its whitewashed finish, its raw inner matter seeping out in a symbolically convenient continental shape. But this image is not ‘authentic Africa’, it’s like a satirical tourist board fabrication, with Amouzou togged up in a dress and beads, next to a beautifully crafted traditional pot. The trunk is gorgeous but purely decorative, a colonial throwback once used by foreign occupiers. iPhone charger cables, screens and jeans are nowhere in view. The irony behind the constructed image is clear in Amouzou’s face, which wears the disgruntled expression of someone whose nostalgic expectations have been vividly flouted.
In Togo, Amouzou embraces the pitiless light of day. She photographs her mother with striking deference, depicting her with complete authoritative solidity, her eyes dark and direct, her mouth in a bemused quarter-smile. She humours her daughter but has no need to convey anything to the camera, as Amouzou did. In another telling image, Amouzou stands behind her, her body language like that of an uncertain little girl, perplexity and emotional hunger in her eyes. The comforting fantasy-mother Amouzou yearned for does not exist and Amouzou herself has become “a woman who moved away and now lives abroad.” Her return to Togo does not supply the all-encompassing understanding she craves and she has to eat this bitterness and rise above it.
The show’s final print appears – uncharacteristically – in full colour and full opacity, serving up a defiant visual joke which demonstrates Amouzou’s command of staging, costuming and lighting and her strong irony. She devises a magazine-style fashion shoot with herself at the centre playing an idle matriarch who exudes power and certainty. Posed on a pink velvet chaise longue, she wears a pink beaded necklace (perfectly co-ordinated with the furniture), a gorgeous green dress and head wrap, earrings and cuff. The jaunty rug and peachy light complete the picture. Even the damaged wall has a certain earthy chic.
It is a transformation fantasy, glossing over the disappointments of reality. The central character has risen up the family hierarchy and was never (in the fiction of this image) a marginalised refugee. Compared with the diminished, exhausted and sorrowful woman of the opening works, every inch of the wish-fulfilling closing image says, I have arrived, you cannot ignore me, I have no shame or strife. The character, meticulously created by Amouzou, is relaxed and poised, powerful and leisured, occupying her place at the centre of the universe.
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