“It’s hard for a person to see the entire elephant,” Dineo Seshee Bopape explained during a walkthrough, speaking about the found animal figurines of wood and plastic scattered throughout her exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Referring to the fact that a human might understand a large animal differently than might, say, an eagle or an ant, Bopape’s comment could also describe the way a viewer might experience her installation, which requires that they crouch to inspect these figurines of birds and mammals placed on soil-covered blankets and piles of bricks, or look up at walls covered from floor to ceiling with a thin layer of mud. The rest of the show immerses viewers in dim blue lighting and a sensorial topography of video projections and sound.
Soil is an element common in Bopape’s work, serving here as a literal ground for a miniature landscape as well as an allusion to larger concerns with geography and territory. Water is also central to this work. It appears in the soil-on-paper drawings of cresting and falling waves that Bopape created over the past two years, enlargements of them projected across a long wall in the first gallery. Water is the focus again in the second gallery, where footage shot on 8mm film, presented low to the ground, depicts the artist’s shadow cast across the foaming breakers on the shore of Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Bopape uses these elements to channel larger histories. She met descendants of enslaved laborers who worked on one of the plantations that once dotted the riverbank, and created small, oblong clay sculptures bearing imprints of their hands, suggesting how bodies and substances might jointly carry such a past. (An extension of this project is on view at Prospect.5 in New Orleans.)
During the lockdown in her Johannesburg hometown, Bopape turned to less material ways to address how the environment might bear the imprint of violent histories. She collaborated with musician Tlokwe Sehume to mix vocal and instrumental tracks with sounds of the wind she recorded pre-pandemic at sites in West Africa that were central to the enslavement and trade of people, including ports on the coasts of Senegal and Ghana.
These sounds permeate the show, contributing to a cacophony of discursive components that amount to a public memorial. The subject—those dehumanized and lost in the slave trade—emerges slowly, through wall text that points to the locations where Bopape gathered the soil, footage and sounds that merge in the show, and through a short story by Bayo Akomolafe in an accompanying booklet. Akomolafe writes of a spirit that appears and dances amid the capture and transport of people from West Africa to North America; like Bopape’s exhibition, this is not a textbook retelling of enslavement but one alive with its own codes of survival.
That this exhibition is on view in Richmond is significant: the city was home to one of the largest auction houses for the sale of enslaved people. The former capital of the Confederacy, it is currently undergoing its own grassroots reimagining of memorials. The central site of the bronze monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee has been reclaimed as a memorial to victims of police violence and a gathering space for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The spacious white walls of a museum are very different from the outdoor roundabout where the Lee monument resided. Still, as the wall text notes, both share the grandeur and carry the memory of “the wealth created by forced labor”; museums are, after all, inheritors of a colonial project. The horizontal constellation Bopape creates on the ICA’s floor, and her repositioning of soil on walls, reorients that space in a way that feels akin to the reclamation of the Lee roundabout, now marked with small gardens, basketball hoops, and memorials to specific people. Sitting below the huge pedestal and (recently removed) bronze general on horseback, these additions are at human level and scale. Both acts induce a rethinking of the conventions of looking and remembering.