By turning local news publications into art, Siemon Allen hopes to fill in the gaps of his South African education.
“I’m going to build a wall from here to here,” explains Siemon Allen, talking with his hands and sounding more like a contractor than an artist. “Nothing fancy, just extending this wall by about 6 feet.”
Patrick Murcia, co-director of the Logan Circle gallery Fusebox, looks on calmly as Allen discusses his plans. “We had another piece where someone came in and chiseled through this whole wall,” Murcia says, gesturing to the back of the gallery.
“Right,” Allen says with a laugh, “but you had professional people install that.”
It’s a Saturday night in September, just one week until the opening of Allen’s latest installation, Newspapers, and the gallery walls are an uninterrupted expanse of white. Wrapped in cardboard and lying on the floor in the corner are a stack of 120 pages from the Washington Post featuring stories about South Africa, as well as another stack of 120 pages from the Washington Times.
Each page is covered with a sheet of white tracing paper that Allen has cut to allow just the piece on South Africa to peek through. On opposite walls of the gallery, he plans to create two wall hangings of hazy black and white punctuated by the isolated articles.
But before he can start pinning up his work, culled from a year’s worth of newspaper-clipping, Allen has decided that he needs to build an extra 8-by-6-foot wall to display it in just the right way.
To the 31-year-old, Richmond, Va.-based artist, it’s no big deal. After all, he once constructed a half-scale model of his parents’ South African home for an exhibition in Chicago. He also painstakingly collected every stamp printed in South Africa from 1910 to the present for his Stamp Collection: Imaging South Africa installation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art last year (Artifacts, “Stamp Act,” 7/27/01). And he often spends weeks at a time printing his own professional-quality art books one by one on his Epson printer and having them individually bound.
Allen gets flustered when asked to describe which aspect of his personality drives him to these kinds of overwhelming efforts. “The way I work is very idiosyncratic; it’s quirky,” he says. “It’s very intuitive. It’s about piecing things together, isolating repetition. I guess I’m just a sociominimalist. How about that?”
Allen grew up in the South African seaport of Durban, within the sheltered confines of the white middle class. Because the state controlled the media, he says, “You had absolutely no idea that anything was going on or that anything was wrong.”
It wasn’t until he started art school at Durban’s Technikon Natal in 1988 that Allen became aware of the country’s harsh social realities. “The social responsibility of the artist was probably the best lesson I learned growing up in South Africa,” he says. “I mean, during the height of apartheid, there’s no way you could’ve made art about anything else.”
But by the time apartheid ended, in 1991, the South African art scene had begun to transform itself. Allen and a few of his art-school buddies tapped into the nation’s newfound hopefulness when they decided to clear out the living room of the flat they shared and turn it into their own little gallery. The FLAT Gallery, as they called it, began in 1993, just after Allen had finished school—and just before South Africa’s first free election.
“The election straddled the gallery’s existence, and I always see that as a pivotal thing,” Allen says. “South Africa was a transitional place. You had a total receding of the white government and a moving in of the new black government, and that political change affected the way you thought about everything. It felt like anything was possible. It was extremely exciting, and the gallery reflected that.”
Allen had already exhibited his work in Durban and Johannesburg, but FLAT was an idea too good to resist. “Someone just said, ‘Can I put my work up next week for a critic?’ And we said, ‘Sure.’ And the following week someone said, ‘This is a great idea; I’m going to do something, too,’” he recalls. “And the next thing you knew, it was two years and 40 exhibitions later.” The gallery featured a rapidly changing schedule of shows by friends and fellow students. It generated so much buzz that it attracted artists from as far away as Johannesburg and Cape Town. When the founders weren’t busy curating or presenting their own shows, they were entertaining.
“I recommend it for any young artist who just wants to go crazy for a couple years,” Allen laughs. “It’s really difficult, because you lose your privacy. But it’s an amazing experience. We had people coming in all times of the day, so the art and the life just bled together. We weren’t sure when we were making art and when we were living.”
Allen’s artistic utopia turned out to be short-lived, however. In 1995, FLAT ended even more dramatically than it began. “I remember driving down the road and seeing all the fire engines….And then I realized they’re putting out flames in our space.” Allen recalls. “The last thing I remember is coming up the stairs and the landlord looking at us like, Don’t come back! That was indicative of how crazy the place was.”
That same year, Allen met Kendall Buster, an American artist who was finishing up a residency in Durban. At Buster’s suggestion, Allen did his own residency at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University that fall, and moved to the States for good in 1996. Soon after, he and Buster married and settled in Washington, where they lived until relocating to Richmond this past July.
In South Africa, Allen toyed with themes that have shown up more powerfully in his later work. One early piece consisted of artifacts from his youth: a fleet of model airplanes, a set of Hardy Boys books, and a pair of Doc Martens. He also assembled a much smaller collection of South African stamps, which later became the jumping-off point for the Corcoran piece.
After his move to D.C., Allen says, his work became more politically charged, fueled by his growing interest in the American news media. “C-Span, NPR, talk-radio shows all day—the access to information is so great,” he notes. “Living in Washington has been a great experience for me to learn about how the structure of the government works. I mean, I still have no idea how they run the government in South Africa, but I have some sense here.”
In one recent series, Allen wove together strips of videotape to create abstract tapestries. In another, he clipped passages from newspaper articles dealing with South African politics and art and inserted them into the thought balloons in Tintin cartoons he’d read as a child.
The real turning point, though, was the stamp exhibition at the Corcoran, which also featured a timeline of South African history. The project let Allen show the stark contrast between the positive images depicted on South African stamps and the atrocities that were actually occurring in the country at the time when each stamp was issued. It’s a view Allen says he was never taught in school.
“This is why it was so amazing for me to work on the stamp piece,” he says, flipping to the back of a book he made for the installation and pointing to a map of South Africa. Originally published in 1978, the map shows areas of the country then inhabited by various groups of nonwhites. “This is the kind of map that was never shown in schools,” Allen says. “If I’d been more diligent as a kid, maybe I would’ve found out, but when I was a kid and saw a map, the whole thing would be white. But the fact was, the whole country was subdivided. All of these areas are separate homelands.”
Newspapers has been similarly eye-opening for Allen. He first began clipping articles during 2001’s United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban. Then he began saving all the stories he could find on South Africa. “I started buying papers, and I just couldn’t stop,” he says. “It’s pretty obsessive, but it’s an education for me. It’s a social history of South Africa as seen by the U.S. media.”
The idea to turn it into an installation didn’t come until later. “The stamps present an idealistic image that is created by the South African government. It’s an internal construction of an image,” Allen explains. “So I began thinking, What would be an external image of South Africa? If I were to present an image in the U.S. of what South Africa is, what would that image be?
“I don’t know, maybe people come to the gallery to get away from the politics of the world we live in,” says Allen. “But Newspapers is really made for Washington. This is a political city, so there’s no reason why political art shouldn’t be made here, right?”
Over the next year, Allen will be taking the project to galleries in St. Louis, New York, and Boston, as well—which means that he’s already started clipping stories from those cities’ newspapers. He hopes eventually to bring the exhibition to South Africa, where he travels about once a year.
“I think I have a responsibility to take that information back,” he says. “Here it’s about media, but there it would just be about the pure information. They would say, ‘Oh, I remember that,’ or, maybe, ‘That wasn’t true,’ or, ‘I can’t believe they put that South African golfer on the front page.’” CP
Newspapers is on view to Sunday, Oct. 27, at Fusebox, 1412 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 299-9220.