Writing Without Words: The Autoportraits of Hélène Amouzou

May 1–31,  2023
    Hélène Amouzou, Autoportrait, Molenbeek, 2009. Courtesy of the artist
Hélène Amouzou, Autoportrait, Molenbeek, 2009. Courtesy of the artist

Togolese-Belgian photographer Hélène Amouzou creates distinctive imagery through long exposures, generating photographic apparitions that speak to the issues of displacement and exile. Presented in an outdoor installation at Metro Hall, the 13 haunting, larger-than-life images both reveal the deepest parts of the artist herself, and evoke the spectre of people forced into movement across the globe.

Hélène Amouzou, Autoportrait, Molenbeek, 2009. Courtesy of the artist

I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.

— Ralph Ellison, in the prologue to Invisible Man (Penguin, 1965), p8.

If we allow our eyes to rest on the photographs produced by Hélène Amouzou, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a disruptive, troubling, and unsettled paradigm present, as the works carry an unnerving autobiographical political charge that calls into question how and when we (society) take responsibility for the stranger in need. The black body in the context of this series of images is transitioning, painfully transforming, caught between STATES, exposed on every front, and trapped indeterminately, aligned only to no place. Amouzou’s works function as symbolic notes to how one survives psychologically in the space of in-between.

In the land of no place, people are rendered less than human, aliens that must be tamed, suppressed, expelled, and when necessary, killed. But aliens are patient, they wait sometimes for decades for the State of recognition, a place to call home, and acceptance. Amouzou’s works are culturally and politically challenging because they evoke all the world’s human subjects who are caught in the horrifying colonizing maze that keeps them trapped, caged in a state of emergency—a condition or sentence that means a life lived outside of the law, hyper-alert and emotionally taxed, near invisible, where a subject’s innocence is devoured by experience.

Here, Amouzou’s photographs become talismanic symbols that point to difficult conversations concerning exile, displacement, migration, refuge and the state of human rights across the global north. The radical visual alchemy her work produces is that she makes present the undocumented or “non-person” not as victim, but as a subject suspended in colonial time—an autobiographical political presence that refuses to be erased.

Hélène Amouzou, Autoportrait, Molenbeek, 2009. Courtesy of the artist

Amouzou has transformed her invisible self into a haunting reality that moves the viewer beyond the image and into to a catalytic sensorial space producing difficult dialogues concerning political disavowal. Her work, therefore, calls forth our colonial present. In rendering her presence spectral in nature, she offers a reflective moment across our time to consider all those peoples of the world, past, present, and future, who have not and will not be allowed the right to imagine a future.

These photographs critically function across myriad cultural and political dynamics; they reveal and attempt to heal the traumas of asylum and dispossession. The use of the self, fused with the evocative symbol of the suitcase, not only conjures a sense of displacement and uncertainty but also calls into question the difficulty of managing difference and one’s own cultural baggage. The empty suitcase deployed here calls back into focus not that which has been brought or left, but all those things that simply can’t be seen or neatly packed away—the internalised baggage of life.  

Amouzou reminds us that she and many of her fellow travellers (the dreamers) are seemingly only allowed to exist as ghosted or invisible people. But her ghostly presence here is not one that screams. Amouzou’s ghosts come with an inquisitive, tentative, reflective, and concerned gaze. The power then of her work is that it opens a new space where in the end empathy is awake and difference is allowed to lounge in permanence and cultural splendour. Should we care to pause on the journey of our own myopic lives and take time to consider the generosity of Amouzou’s images, we can see and feel that we are not being haunted, but invited into a spiritual world where conversations awaken curiosity and crush fear.

In a space before time and words, the world was covered in a thick blanket of darkness. It was a warm and loving covering. Since it was hard for the spirits who inhabited this space to see one another they learned to live by and through touch. So if you were running around lost you knew you were found when arms reached out in that loving darkness to hold. And those arms that held the spirits in that beautiful dark space before time are holding us still.

— bell hooks, “Dreaming Ourselves Dark and Deep Black Beauty,” in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery (first edition, South End Press, 1994), p79.

Hélène Amouzou, Autoportrait, Molenbeek, 2009. Courtesy of the artist

Curated by Mark Sealy

Presented by CONTACT in partnership with Autograph London and University Arts London, and the City of Toronto

Hélène Amouzou was born in Togo, West Africa, in 1969 and has been living in Brussels (Belgium) for the last twenty years. Photography has proved to be the medium best suited for her artistic research and technical experiments. She prefers to work with film, which she sees as demanding greater attention to detail. She creates her own distinctive and haunting imagery, which speaks to the contemporary issue of the people in exile and of those invisibilized. “Self-portraiture is a way of writing without words. My aim is to reveal the deepest parts of myself.”