The last couple of years has seen an immense surge in the toppling of monuments of white European colonizers across the Americas. The monumentality of these long overdue take-downs is also met with mixed feelings, even for the communities who have experienced and continue to live with the atrocities of centuries of “new world building.” It goes without saying that the repair, the re-building, the re-imagination of world orders does not happen overnight. I am reminded of the many who go on living, resisting colonial figures well outside of their bronze bodies and into the aftermath of their fall. Much of the conversation in mainstream media focuses on the taking apart and breaking down—the theatricality—of colonial structures. What remains and what persists after the fact is seldom addressed. In mid-summer of 2021, I came across multi-media artist Hannah Somers’ work at Toronto’s Alliance Française. I caught a glimmer of something akin to a possibility—a hopeful ideation of what it could mean to begin making one’s own monument. I saw Somers’ work as an ode to radical imagination, by way of rebuilding and repairing the understanding of things and relationships closest to us.
In her series, I Found a Place, Somers photographs herself in various positions, her body engaged with objects from her childhood home of London, Ontario. The work is also accompanied by a video featuring the artist’s own writing. I Found a Place, Somers’ undergraduate thesis project, exhibited at Toronto’s 2020 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. The project investigates the artist’s relationship with the cultural artefacts that she grew up believing were representative of her Trinidadian heritage. Collected by her mother and aunt, two adopted Black twins who were raised by a white couple in an Ontario suburb, Somers expresses the differing generational feelings towards these objects—some of which were not even made in the Caribbean. In her video, she places each object under scrutiny, arranging and rearranging them on the blocks in the studio space and around her body. Grappling with their constructed associations to Trinidad, Somers explains that her intention is to recontextualize these objects by finding a new place for them. Through performance, poetry, and movement, Somers activates and empowers the objects—their poetic vibrations even palpable in the still images of her work. Her embodied and nuanced approach is rooted in the understanding that the meaning of these objects remain in perpetual motion.
The way I position my body around a particular object reflects how I felt about it and where I saw its place in my house—hung on a wall. And so taking it off the wall and placing it on my body is almost like making myself the wall again. I’m becoming the support for that object.
Nawang Tsomo: Hannah, when we first met at Christie Pitts Park to discuss your work, we spoke a lot about looking back at past work. And so I thought that I would start by talking about what you’ve been up to since the making of I Found A Place. You were accepted at the Alliance Française to exhibit the work as part of the Scotiabank Contact Festival in May 2020, and like many other events, those plans were delayed to the Summer of 2021. The show is now closed and quite a bit of time has passed. Could you speak about what that means for I Found A Place and what that means for your overall art practice—photography or otherwise?
Hannah Somers: You're right, a lot of time has gone by since I initially made the project. It was interesting because when I did a portfolio review before graduating from the Image Arts Photography Studies program at X University, I spoke with one of the interviewers, who saw I Found A Place as a kick-off point for my art practice. And I agree with that. But I also disagree with that. I definitely feel like it was my starting point, but at the same time, I’m still processing all the same things that I was processing during that project. It might seem over and done with, to somebody looking in from the outside, but internally I feel differently. The basis of that project is about a connection to specific objects in my home that I had when I was growing up. And though they meant certain things in the past, now they mean other things. While making I Found A Place, I was focused on what those objects meant to me but now, looking back, I definitely have come out of that. Instead, I’m asking myself why these objects even existed in my home in the first place.
Looking back on that project is an interesting thing. I feel very ready to move on to something new. I think it's because I was sitting with these thoughts for so long in a state where it wasn't yet turning into a show because of the pandemic.
In the photographs, you beautifully yet awkwardly position yourself within the constructed space of a studio, placing the objects not only on the wooden studio blocks, but also in and around your own body. I sense a deep tension in these exchanges, and I wonder if you could talk about this recurring theme in the project: the relationship between body—living and breathing—and objects—presumably static and mute, yet, in many ways, the loudest part of these images, visually.
HS: I was quite focused on uncomfortable positioning because I do feel a kind of discomfort towards the objects. Yes, they hold sentimental values on multiple levels but there is also this negative underlying awareness, or feelings of confusion towards them. And I was using my body to show that. There’s one image that I call Jamaica for the Wall, in which I'm holding a bird-like sculpture. I think there is less discomfort with this object because my mother really loves it. And because she has this strong connection. The way I position my body around a particular object reflects how I felt about it and where I saw its place in my house—hung on a wall. And so taking it off the wall and placing it on my body is almost like making myself the wall again. I’m becoming the support for that object.
So when speaking about the relationship between body and object in my work, I also have to consider the place itself. The series is called I Found A Place and what I'm doing—putting myself in these positions in the studio space—is essentially trying to find this place.
Could you speak about the importance or significance of using the photo studio as the backdrop for these images?
I decided that it was the best place to do it because all of these objects hold a place within my home, but here, I wanted to re-contextualise them so that I could try and re-understand them. In order to do this, it made sense for me to bring them into the studio because I was trying to redefine them through the medium of photography. In photography, the studio is where I figure things out. I use it as a space to ask and answer questions. So this studio space is like a landing port. It’s also like this non-place; a fake existence where anyone can create anything. Even the scuff marks on the bottom of the images which most people edit afterwards to clean everything up, I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to clean everything up because I wanted it to be very obvious that it was set in a studio space.
I spent so much time working with these different elements in the video because I always knew I was trying to create a kind of monument. A monument of still life objects in motion.
I was also especially drawn to the video in the exhibition. Why video? How did this aspect come into fruition?
For me, process is really important. The process of doing, making, and researching is just as important as the end product. And so video has become an important part of my process, even in cases where it doesn't actually end up being part of the final product. I use it as a tool to figure things out.
I remember when I was working on I Found A Place during my final year in art school, I was really struggling with the still images in the series. I knew what I was trying to say with the series but I just didn't know how to completely bring them to the surface within the photographs. My professor at the time advised me to experiment with video and that the photos would eventually come later. And they did. I needed to work with moving images, I needed to work with motion and sound and incorporate different elements in order to figure it out and translate those ideas into the still image. I spent so much time working with these different elements in the video because I always knew I was trying to create a kind of monument. A monument of still life objects in motion.
What does this “monument” mean to you?
The video emphasizes an act of piling things. I was trying to create a monument through this pile of objects. This process of piling objects on the studio blocks is another way of me trying to make sense of them in order to give them importance. There was one rendition of the video that comes to mind that was really different from what I eventually decided to go with. In this other video, my full body was actually in the frame. I was walking into the frame and placing the objects on the studio blocks. In the final version, it’s just my arms in the frame. Focusing only on my arms placing the objects just felt less chaotic, and it allows us to really see the individual objects. The movement also suggests my confusion towards them. You’ll see me placing things and then moving them to another spot in the frame. And this happens again and again as I try to work towards this monument.
Earlier you spoke about the discomfort that you felt with certain objects and how that was reflected in the way you positioned your body. I can see this reflected in the way you recite the poem in the video. I sense a distance between you and the monument. Your voice has a monotone, automated feeling. Could you talk about your writing process?
The audio in the video did not come until much later. I knew I needed sound to wrap up the video. One morning, I woke up and just decided to write. So I started, first, by describing each of the objects. My process for this was simply to look at the photographs of the object and to start writing down what I saw. Then I also thought about what they mean to me and where they come from. I added some factual information from my research, and I also talk about Christopher Columbus at some point. After writing the poem, I recorded myself reciting it. The way I describe the objects is not entirely clear, which is how, I think, my writing turned into poetry.
I also had the poem on the back of a takeaway poster in the gallery. Being able to simultaneously see the words, read them, and hear them, is something I wanted the viewer to experience. The words are very specific and laid out very intentionally, and I wanted the viewer to experience the poem in different ways so that they could also interpret it for themselves.
What kind of realization, if any, has emerged from creating this project? In other words, this place that you’ve found—what is it like?
I would say I found the place. But I wouldn't say it's permanent. I think it's a temporary space that is often in motion. In motion because the objects that I brought into this new place and the studio space had to eventually also go back to their original habitat, my family home.
A lot of these items are the same as those that would be bought by tourists visiting the Caribbean on vacation, because they are inherently tourist tropes. And as tourist objects, they don't often have a place in people’s homes. Maybe they're shoved in the back of the closet because they are seen as trinkets from a trip. Maybe people bring them back to give them as gifts from their vacation. So, I think that for tourists and other non-Caribbean people, they don't hold that same kind of place in their home like they do in mine. I had to think about what these objects mean to these other people who don’t really have ties to Trinidadian culture or the vast Caribbean. To see these objects through their eyes and see how insignificant they could be, because people often buy them without much thought. I thought about this dynamic a lot. So I was trying to give them a purpose, by giving them meaning so that their importance would be affirmed. I mentioned before that some of the objects in I Found A Place were things that my mother and aunt’s adopted parents brought back for them from their vacation trips. They were raised in a very white town and it was very different for them because they didn’t really have any Black role models around them. So in a way, I think they saw clinging to these objects as representative of their culture. They were also trying to create and nurture meaning and I think that this reflected onto me. So even though I feel a certain uneasiness towards them, I was still trying to feel comfortable with them. Giving them this meaning is what helped me find a place for them.
...some of the objects in I Found A Place were things that my mother and aunt’s adopted parents brought back for them from their vacation trips.
You spoke a bit about this earlier, but what are some common and lingering themes that you’re still working through and will be taking on within future works?
I think about my current (untitled) work with my mother and my aunt—which is very specifically about my upbringing—and wonder why they would bring these kinds of objects into our lives and into our home. My aunt and my mother are the root of where a lot of my confusion about my ethnicity and race stems from. They have dealt with similar things, only at a different time and under different circumstances. It’s natural for me to work on projects with them because they are the root of it all. My current project follows my mother and my aunt, how they were raised and how they dealt with situations growing up in a white town, and how all of that reflected on what they thought about their Blackness, culture, and ethnicity.
The pandemic also closed me off to photography a little bit and I started working with other mediums to continue working with my hands in a creative way, with less focus on photography. I was doing embroidery, weaving, and working with clay, which is another project that's in its very early stages, and will eventually also be a lens-based project.
Your work brings up the complicated notion of identity politics that stems from a lineage of artists. Could you speak about some artists or writers that have inspired you?
I would really like to continue working with the body and notions of movement and so I’ve always been inspired by Lorna Simpson’s work, she is one of my favourite artists. For I Found A Place, I drew a lot of inspiration from Montreal-based artist, Eve Tagny. She works a lot with natural objects—plants and rocks—and with movement. Another huge influence for me was Sara Cywnar; her 2016 film Soft Film really inspired the video piece in I Found A Place. I loved the way she uses the studio to call attention to specific items, and her use of audio in her film was another major aspect that motivated my own film-making.
Hannah, speaking with you about your art practice has been illuminating. Your interaction with the objects in I Found A Place speaks volumes for those who are also working towards reclaiming aspects of their identities and cultures. I look forward to your exciting new work. My deepest gratitude for your time and energy. Thank you.