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Women Artists Take Over Artpace with a Trio of Exhibitions Tackling Gender, Race and Identity 

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Roshini Kempadoo
  • Courtesy of Roshini Kempadoo
Could you give us a brief introduction and explain what your work typically addresses?
I live in London, and I work as an academic but also as a scholar and researcher and artist. I describe myself as a media artist. I come from a photographic documentary background. And I always have moved into thinking about the limits of the photograph — never really being quite satisfied with photography’s connection to the real and this problematic kind of space around there. At the same time that I was doing documentary work, I helped to set up Autograph, which is the Association of Black Photographers, which is still going. I was also part of Format, which was a women’s picture agency in the U.K., and the only one of its kind. It ran for a while, coming out of the Greenham Common ’80s-’90s movement. I was part of that as well. The kind of bread-and-butter stuff of photography that I did was emerging from that and was contributing to that.

When you were working as a documentary photographer, were you traveling the world?
No, I was mostly doing U.K.-based, probably pro-union work. At the time, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was really anti-Thatcherism. It was really quite political a time, particularly for people of color. It was about, on the one hand, supporting the idea of workers’ rights and better housing. It was very much about bettering social conditions. My work has always come out of that, and that’s what I’ve always been interested in.
click to enlarge Roshini Kempadoo, Ghosting, 2004 - COURTESY OF ROSHINI KEMPADOO
  • Courtesy of Roshini Kempadoo
  • Roshini Kempadoo, Ghosting, 2004
So those were projects you pursued on your own as a photographer or were you assigned to follow them?
Partly assigned, but I always worked in the gallery space as well ... and that would be my personal projects. My first project was with the Icon Gallery in Birmingham. It was called My Daughter’s Mind and it was looking at three generations of women of the Asian diaspora, just interviewing them and doing a kind of documentary reportage work around the grandmother, mother and daughter. It was about exploring identity and thinking about nations of color in relation to disenfranchised groups as well. I was very much a part of that group.

What can you tell me about the fictional aspect of your work?
[It goes] back to the limits of whether a photograph can reveal [certain] stories. The idea of people perceiving something as being truthful with the photograph, I bring that into question by working with montage … I was working with the first version of Photoshop when it came out — a long time ago — as woman, which is quite unusual [laughs] … Being from the Caribbean — my parents are from Guyana and my formative years were in Guyana — I came into photography being very aware that there was an incredibly strange perception of what the Caribbean was at that time. I guess my visual language was always in response to that — trying to uncover how you might understand a different type of Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora.

What are some of your impressions of San Antonio so far?
It’s very, very different. I’ve been to Houston and haven’t really been [anywhere in Texas] outside of Houston. Very different to Houston, so a lot more low-key in terms of both the buildings and in terms of space and pace, which I find much more enjoyable. I really like the cultural quarter around Blue Star. [It’s] very interesting and I think, obviously, we get a very different perception of what Texas might be [laughs] in England. I think it’s very interesting to see how different it is. And it does depend on how the media presents it.

Is your Artpace exhibition part of a preexisting project?
It was a project I thought about when I got the invitation. I thought about how important it would be to link, to think about the space of San Antonio with the Caribbean. And, of course, what happened was: it’s through oil. So I’ve got an oil drum in the gallery [laughs]. One of the things that’s happened in Guyana and off Venezuela, is that they’ve found one of the biggest deposits in the world of oil and gas … Guyana only has 800,000 people. It’s really a massive place with very little population, so the impact of that money is going to be quite something. And nobody knows what it is going to be … That’s almost an unpopulated space … We have an indigenous population that may well be affected … And it’s very, very remote … What I’m trying to do is make that connection through the oil, and really evoke the inequality — what impact that might be, and to just put those two quite different cultural spaces together. 
click to enlarge Photographs created by Roshini Kempadoo during her Artpace residency - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • Photographs created by Roshini Kempadoo during her Artpace residency
So, you photographed indigenous communities?
No, not really. I didn’t want it to be an ethnographic [project] in that sense. What I was doing was listening and recording … I’m not really going to directly use those stories or their voices in audio, but evoke another narrative, an imaginative narrative, from those stories I heard. The idea is that there are two fictional characters: one living here, who is of indigenous/Latina origin who has been very aware of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the connection that’s had to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, as an activist. [I’m] thinking about environmental activism and two women characters who come from those spaces who are familiar with each other but are actually doing very different things. It’s a what-if scenario; it’s also just thinking about how we approach the environment. And my interest in particular in indigenous people — both here and in Guyana — is based on the different knowledge they have about the land, which we don’t. We don’t have the same knowledge at all. When you listen to people, they actually are talking very differently about the way in which you think about land, and think about space, and think about what we occupy.

Other than the oil drum, I see some sort of glass dome.
Those a parabolic speakers. What’s happening is we’re [hanging them], and it’s a combination of images, photographs that will be framed, and an audio narration with some music that you’ll hear in the space. Separate from that is a small, short video loop that kind of gives some idea of movement, a journey. One of the interesting things, in amongst this kind of story, is the issue of migration, which affects everybody. Venezuelans are moving into Guyana, as well as here. So, you’ve got this incredible movement happening as a result of Venezuela. Literally people just take boats and hop across the border. The border doesn’t mean anything in so many ways. It doesn’t mean anything to indigenous people either. This idea of movement is quite an important one as well.

And the oil drum? Will that stay in the space?
I think so. I think we’re going to hang it, suspend it somewhere. I did a green-screen shoot with Maria Ybarra, she works in theater. I used two actresses here. Amalia Ortiz, she’s a performer as well, and we had quite a lot in common in terms of just talking about what she does and how active she is in terms of thinking about some of the issues of women’s rights and equality. Maria, her friend, who’s Latina as well, worked with the oil drum.

So are they the two characters in your exhibition?
Yes. They just registered a little bit in the image, in the photographs. The idea isn’t to pause and dwell on them in a major way.

Are they inserted into some of the images you made in Guyana?
Yes. Only two will be in Guyana and some of them here. I took a combination of images … In making images, the space that you’re making images in, the emotional space you might be making images in, one of the things I’m realizing: I just think there’s an urgency around what we need to do now, in terms of working with artists.

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