March/April 2005

more feature articles:

Laleh Mehranâs Laboratory Politics
By Lizzie Zucker Saltz


Fatimah Tuggarâs Imag(in)ing of Contemporary Africa

By Sylvie Fortin

In Fatimah Tuggarâs work, digital imaging is a tool, a method, a metaphor, and a site for the nuanced, relational and public negotiation of African contemporaneity, and a material for the ăbricolageä of identities. Tuggarâs work probes the cultural logic that binds digital imaging and global capital. It also highlights digital imagingâs inheritance of photographyâs complicity with colonialism, as well as its counter-hegemonic uses as a medium of resistance.

The digital montages of Fatimah Tuggar combine sections of images garnered from two distinct sources. A first image bank is constituted of images shot by the artist in her travels in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere. They reveal degrees of intimacy and immediacy. The vast crypt of Western print and electronic mass media of the last seventy years constitutes a second, boundless virtual bank of found images. Her works thus surface at the intersection of two image systems.

Fatimah Tuggar, Spinner and the Spindle, 1995, computer montage (inkjet on vinyl), 20 X 30 inches (courtesy of BintaZarah Studios)

Initially trained as a sculptor, Tuggar produced her first digital montage in 1995. The economic reality of life in New York partially accounts for her transition to a post-studio practice. Spinner and Spindle, 1995, one of her earliest montages, evinces a sculptural conception of the properties of matter. It also exposes a sculptural syntax by relying on the aesthetics of assemblage and the spatial sensibility of installation: the prosthetic arm is ăassembledä to the body, the test tubes are inserted into a container, the image is cropped so as to marshal compositional elements across the field of the visible.

Tuggar also credits her sculptural training, which provided little exposure to other artistic media and their discourses, for her late acquaintance with the work of such pioneers of photomontage as Hannah Höch and John Heartfield. She also asserts that her approach to art and its making shielded her from the burden of Western tradition and the dictates of its art history: ăI came to art from a community that has not adopted the notion of Western art practice, so I didnât feel I had role models to emulate.ä1 Instead, it is to mass media and advertising that we must turn for the sources of Tuggarâs practice as she worked through ăăreal life connectionsä that start with ideas, and then move on to resolving the challenges of execution by studying and/or using already existing materials, ideas and processes.ä2 Subsequently exposed to the works of Höch and Heartfield, she recognizes them as major influences in the later developments of her work, pointing to their use of photomontage as both an innovative formal device and a biting political tool. Likewise, Tuggar welcomes the parallels that have been made between her work and that of Martha Rosler, while stressing essential differences:

I see a point where I take another direction. I think that her use of found material takes a different position in that she seems to want to expose it (this of course is my own interpretation). While I feel that I embrace it as a way to implicate myself in the process. ·Because I want to be closer to the seamlessness of ads as a way to bring into question the effect that it has on both my own and the viewersâ consumerisms.

Fatimah Tuggar, At the Water Tap, 2000, computer montage (inkjet on vinyl), 96 X 32 inches (courtesy of BintaZarah Studios)

A brief detour through the history of photomontage illustrates some of its attraction for Tuggar. From its emergence in the 1920s, much photomontage has critically engaged the most technologically advanced modes of image production and dissemination to analyze and expose the ways in which some images refashion the world. These images are the ones sanctioned by the dominant ideology; other images are simply censored. Photomontage seeks to expose this process. It enlists and juxtaposes mass media fragments to create awakenings and realizations through tensions and collisions. Photomontage provides Tuggar with a politically-inflected visual syntax, a pedigree of political activism and, at the same time, an intersection with the visual language of advertising.

Considered as precise choices made in the context of a wide range of available technologies of production and dissemination, however, the imagesâ physical properties distance Tuggarâs work from both the commercial uses of photomontage and the works of its artistic pioneers. Her imagesâ output format and slick support (large, shiny prints on vinyl) tensely relay contents that exhibit a controlled compositional roughness. In her work, viewpoints are multiplied, the resolution of each imported element is dictated by its original context and vary widely, shadows are either absent or haphazard, lighting runs amuck. These qualities often endow images with a panoramic quality, and awkward internal transitions. Tuggar enlists the aesthetic rawness and semantic stutter of photomontage to open gaps in images, to disclose their manufactured nature, and to scramble cultural codes. Photomontage thus gives visual form to the slippages that are crucial to Tuggarâs interrogative interpellation, ăto closely examine cultural nuances by assembling together different elements, so that the actual content of work exist mainly in between the elements I bring together.ä3

She therefore positions her images as both modes and models of reflection, where the edges or borders between elements become liminal spaces÷the space of political engagement. This is the space of production of the image, a production enacted by both artist and viewers. It is from this space of possible complicity, where her role as image producer and her identity as a diasporic African artist are neither excluded nor featured, that she issues challenges. Neither deploring nor celebrating the impact of technology and consumerism on contemporary African life: hers is a deep, continued and modulated engagement that produces images.

Bodies and performance: Production and Reproduction

Tuggar enlists digital montage to imagine and present the traffic between spaces and places, producing visualisations of the two-way flow of desires and representations among and across Africa, Europe, and America. Images function as tools for the introduction of women in a multiplicity of contexts÷beyond their traditional spatial distribution, labor (production and reproduction) and consumption. They are also working models for a renegotiation of the terms of this insertion along paths that circumvent maquiladorization, for the imagination of different social, political and economic relations, and for the configuration of an expanded sphere of action. Digital imaging enables Tuggar to redistribute labor, reallocate spaces, and reassemble African and Western relations with pointed precision, thereby presenting a feminist critique of development and biotechnology.

Fatimah Tuggar, Working Woman, 1997, computer montage (inkjet on vinyl), 50 X 48 inches (courtesy of BintaZarah Studios)

Working Woman, 1997, is created by joining two spatial components: the hut which composes the background and closes off the image, and the sun-drenched ground. A figure and a profusion of commodities are laid out in this virtual and inherently contradictory space. How can this interior be invaded by such intense lighting? Crouched on the floor, a smiling African woman is surrounded by encroaching tools of electronic communication, professional efficiency and status. She holds a computer mouse in her hand. Between her and the lower edge of the image, the ground is filled with a MacIntosh computer furiously ejecting CDs, speakers, a microphone and an electronic power bar free of any power source. An upside down clock, a wall calendar, a red designer handbag, a black rotary phone, a classic desk lamp and a decorative plant complete this arrangement. The scene itself is endlessly repeated on the computer screen, a literal implosion of the image, its entropic engulfing in a field of electronic flow. This internal telescoping provides clues to the viewer as to the monitor-based, desktop nature of Tuggarâs productions. Her images visualize negotiations of diasporic identities and/through geographic and electronic spaces. By foregrounding the process of production, Tuggar positions representation as a different type of production: the reproduction of market imperatives through the dissemination of sanctioned images of rural African women and their labor.

In another work, Spinner and the Spindle, 1995, Tuggar ponders the changing role of womenâs bodies, the invisibility of their labor, and increasing technological encroachments on production and reproduction in the new global economy. The image reminds us of many ill-fated development projects in its juxtaposition of absolutely incommensurable realities that are, precisely and perversely, the very site of infiltration of global capital. Here, the battle is symbolically staged on the womanâs body as she spins cotton with one hand, and is engaged in scientific labor with the robotic upgrade that has supplanted her left arm. This image brings together the cyborg fantasies of the 1980s with the genomic revolution that facilitated the exploitive patenting of the DNA of subaltern bodies for pharmaceutical speculation.4 Tuggarâs work also illustrates the passage of life into information, a transformation that, as Gayatri Spivak has shown, was effected across the subalternâs body, existence, and means of subsistance:

·electronification of biodiversity is colonialismâs newest trick. When we move from learning to learn ecological sanity from ăprimitive communismä in the secret encounter to the computerized database, we have moved so far in degree that we have moved in kind. ·we have bypassed knowledge (which is obsolete now) into the telematic postmodern terrain of information command.5

Fatimah Tuggar, Arrival of the New Born, 2001, computer montage (inkjet on vinyl), 48 X 58 inches (courtesy of BintaZarah Studios)

Arrival of the New Born, 2001, tackles another form of (so far-feminine) production÷the reproduction of life. The work critically juxtaposes the commodification of human life, and its (often concomitant) medically-induced manufacture. It also illustrates the commercial imperatives that underpin the ongoing efforts to allocate lifeâs constitutive element to DNA, and the eventual shift from biological reproduction to nano-technological replication through genetic engineering. In Arrival of the New Born, a young woman and a small boy are seated at the edge of a bed, as he holds a fashionably dressed newborn wrapped in a white blanket. They both look at the camera with pride. The background of the image occupies almost two thirds of its surface. It is created through a digital mirroring that strangely evokes a blurry reflection of a distant shoreline into calm waters. An infant, a replicant of the real baby held below, floats with a profusion of small toys÷cars, trucks, ducks and action figures÷against this modulated blue sky speckled with white and grey clouds. Life is now a commodity amongst others. As a commodity, it has a market value and global mobility.

The replication of a figure within a single work is a device Tuggar uses repeatedly, and strategically, like the liminal spaces between sections of images, to suggest that the imageâs truth resides in its construction. It appeared in the internal telescoping of an entire image in Working Woman, in the spatial mirroring of a compound that produces a panoramic effect and a sense of immersion and captivity in At the Water Tap, 2000, and in the extension of the wall unit to evoke claustrophobia through the relentless encroachment of commodities in Lady and the Maid, 2000.

Fatimah Tuggar, Lady and the Maid, 2000, computer montage (inkjet on vinyl), 108 X 45 inches (courtesy of BintaZarah Studios)

Tuggar also enlists the multiplied, identically-clad figure in A Moment, 2001. In this work, the replication of an elegantly dressed young woman is staged in picture frames, and nightmarishly equates the promises of a cake with a life of endless reenactments fueled by social obligations.

Fatimah Tuggar, Day Dream, 1998, computer montage (inkjet on vinyl), 58 X 48 inches (courtesy of BintaZarah Studios)

Replication is not strictly reserved for the figure, however, and also contributes to the strategic distribution of floating consumer products present in many of Tuggarâs works. In Day Dream, 1998, a solitary African woman prepares food in her modern kitchen as Western luxury goods÷jewelry, perfume bottles, and cosmetics cases÷float freely, liberated from gravity, above her head. These commodities of social communication are, McLuhan once told us, the ones that require constant upkeep. In this context, Tuggarâs image asks a number of critically unanswerable questions. Does this image signal the contemporary African womanâs negotiation of two systems of social communication? Is it the dream of luxury that confines her to the kitchen? Is the invisibility of domestic labor guaranteed by the hypervisibility of such markers of femininity? Or is Tuggar, instead, using these consumer products, to which we all fall prey, as a way to ask us what ăour kitchenä is?

Antinomic Technology/Advertising Obsolescence

Technology is inherently antinomic, as it conflates emergence and obsolescence, the opposite poles of the evolutionary time line. Always already obsolete, technological advances are thus essentially proleptic. Primitivism, understood as an early stage of development, is thus the other face of Janus-like technology. They may seem to look in opposite directions, but they mark one and the same threshold. Likewise, advertising is haunted by the ghost of sameness, of prior existence, of obsolescence while having at its disposal huge resources to keep its products ănew and improvedä. Tuggar visualizes this traffic between technology and primitivism in the content, form, and construction of her images. She highjacks it to point to the imperatives and desires that keep it functional.

The anthropomorphic robot appears in many of Tuggarâs works. It has in fact become a character, whom she has named Robo. On the one hand, Robo harkens back to Robby the Robot, who became a leitmotif of the Independent Groupâs watershed exhibition This is Tomorrow, 1956. It is to Robo, the forlorn protagonist of the Postwar industrial and consumer utopias, that invisible domestic labor has been delegated in Tuggarâs image. In this context, he stands in for both the invisible African laborer, and the invisible ăalienä worker. His stage is a contemporary Africa that synthesizes traditional knowledge, the modern convenience of the coaster-enhanced stainless steel table, and the genetically engineered and/or digitally enhanced perfection of the yellow and red peppers.

Fatimah Tuggar, Robo Makes Dinner, 2000, computer montage (inkjet on vinyl), 108 X 45 inches (courtesy of BintaZarah Studios)

In Tuggarâs Robo Makes Dinner, 2000, Africa and the cooking implements are contemporary. A primitive intruder from the bygone era of mechanical technologies, Robo has been anthropomorphized to meet the Westâs current requirement of friendliness from its machines. The work thus produces an inversion of the usual assignment of contemporaneity to western technology. The technological belatedness that pervades many elements of her work also visualizes something akin to the time-lag theorized by Homi Bhabha. Speaking of the relevance of this concept to her practice, Tuggar foregrounds its dialectical nature and space/time conflation:

·[Bhabha] refers to it as both ătime lag or ăthird space,ä and what I understood it to be is that; in the process of dialogic contradiction there arise supplementary discourses as sites of resistance and negotiations. During this process something opens up as a result of a particular discourse that cannot be contained within it or that cannot be returned to the oppositional principle. It opens up a different space. I do see a relationship with this idea and the way I construct my work. But my intent is not to make the two sides oppositional, nor do I see them as in contradiction or combative with one another. But the idea that if you bring two different elements together in conversation that this opens up another space for additional conversations. This is definitely what I am attempting.

The surrealism of the image also provides a concrete and humorous illustration of the antinomy of technology. Moreover, it reflects on the parallel experience of technological dumping in Africa (agricultural, pharmaceutical, military, etc.). Beyond this inversion, the work points to the entropic character of technology: ăthereâs some kind of circle or regressing÷somehow Robo and all this technology has gone back to making fires, and he still has in his hand his remote control.ä6 Ultimately, it expresses both our fate in technology, and the futility of that fate.

What does it mean, then, to enlist the aesthetic of photomontage in the digital age? By juxtaposing the now-obsolete properties of photomontage with the seamlessness-driven special-effects properties of digital media, Tuggar internalizes the obsolete logic of photomontage, thereby relocating it and expanding its operativeness: it is both a motif in the work, a concept for its production, a means to a new realism, and way to exert pressure on the enhanced representations of the world that, enabled by electronic technologies, shape our desires, expectations, and worldviews.

Fatimah Tuggarâs work is on view at 1 Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, co-curated by Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, Iara Boubnova, Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, until February 28, 2005. It is also featured in Africa Remix, on view at Hayward Gallery, London, until 17 April 2005; Centre Pompidou, May 15÷August 20, 2005, and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, June÷September 2006

SYLVIE FORTIN is Editor-in-Chief of ART PAPERS.


1 Unless otherwise specified, all quotes from Fatimah Tuggar are from e-mail correspondence with the author, 28 March 2002.

2 Fatimah Tuggar, teaching philosophy, February 2002.

3 Fatimah Tuggar, e-mail correspondance, 27 March 2002.

4 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 348.

5 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, eds., ăCultural Talks in the Hot Peace: Revisiting the ăGlobal Villageä, in Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, p. 341.

6 Fatimah Tuggar Interview with Gary Sullivan, November 4, 2000. Transcript available at

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