While getting ready to speak with Jackie Nickerson about ‘Terrain’ my main interests were the aesthetic and sculptural qualities of the compilation, with some inquiries orbiting the place labourers hold in national psyche.
In the flurry of our exchange, protracted over three countries and two continents, I found our confab returning to the process and production of food, and how it is that one of the problems facing African agriculture is the adoption of Western methods of production.
© Jackie Nickerson. Terrain, Oscar, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.
Compositionally ‘Terrain’ is very striking. As the press release for the upcoming book launch reads; “Terrain is about us in the landscape, how we change the world we inhabit at every moment of our being human, and how, for the better and for worse, the world that we make, in turn, changes who we are.”
There’s a manipulation in ‘Terrain’ of Nickerson’s figures, sculpting her subjects on the terrain into amalgamations of the whole process of food production. At first glance we notice their beauty, then, perhaps secondarily, their relationship to the place they’re in, hopefully landing on the idea of man-in-nature.
In this series the cultivated land of Africa rolls ripely behind the subjects (which seem to become objects) of Nickerson’s images; “I think Africa is bracketed by two exaggerated images: urban squalor and rural wildness. I am trying to disrupt this commonplace assumption, and make images that might make us think about the value of labour and give an insight into the people who are growing our food.”
© Jackie Nickerson. Terrain, Makanyara, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
When first introduced to ‘Terrain’ I couldn’t escape the obscured visual of these whopping heaps, bundles, and sheafs moving from earth to market with the worker, positioned underneath these piles, as a fulcrum. Mechanized men moving masses for the benefit of the majority. USSR style state-sanctioned propaganda, which created iconography out of the land labourer to support long term production goals, flitted before my mind’s eye as I tried to interpret the question Nickerson was posing.
In the psyche of the developed world, man’s disconnect from nature is a phenomena that Nickerson is hovering over. In a very broad examination into the materials and process of food production, which obscure the individual, Nickerson creates photographs particularly pertinent to the developed north and the USA right now, and poses the same question to countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia, in which these photographs were taken, as they further mechanize their food production. We are at a point in our existence when what we put into the microwave or have delivered, shares no connection to a thought about from where it came, or who laboured to grow and harvest it. That’s a statement on globalisation; the post-industrial experience is inching toward ubiquity.
Is this absence of humanity in our daily food not disconcerting? It was in Nickerson’s case, indeed it seeded the project. She tells me ‘in fact, they [labourers] are somewhat hidden and forgotten… are an unseen part of rural life – agriculture is highly mechanized so even if you’re traveling around the countryside, it’s unusual to see people working on the land. This is partly why I made this work in parts of Africa. I began to see something of this when I was living in Zimbabwe.’
It is this direct intersection with the landscape that informed our conversations, and through our tête-à-tête that her sensitivity toward food, the environment and the future of both were revealed. Nickerson’s firsthand experience in the SADC as flaneur and thoughtful documenter is, at heart, an experience of the strung-out reverberations of decolonization and sanctioned neocolonialism. Land rights and the auctioning of these, usage and the power that comes with owning land, and the role the end user plays in this cycle, have imprinted on Jackie. The precipitous entry of the continent and its players at the juncture of commerce and agriculture is something she is impassioned about on a local and global scale.
Trying to make sense of these issues is not a particularly easy thing. However, these questions should be asked even if we don’t have conclusive answers. If these photographs can get under the skin, they have the ability to shake a person’s self-world relationship.
TERRAIN will be exhibited in London at Brancolini Grimaldi ( Nov. 19 – Dec 31) and at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York (Jan. 16 – Feb. 20. 2014). The book published by TF Editores will be released in November 2013.
Jackie Nickerson (b. Boston, USA, 1960) makes photographs that examine identity, and the physical and psychological effects of working within specific environments. Her work is held in many important private and public collections and has been exhibited in venues which include the Santa Barbara Museum of Art ; Museum of Modern Art, Salzburg; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; National Portrait Gallery, London and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Her new book ‘Terrain’ will be published in November 2013 through TF Editores. She is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and Brancolini Grimaldi in London.
Written by Kyle Tregurtha.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.