Enactments Through a Different Lens: Allan deSouza - An Artist Profile

April 20, 2014   •   By Allan deSouza

All photographs courtesy of Allan deSouza.


IT SEEMS ONLY FITTING here, on a site devoted to literary discussion, to situate my photographic work in relation to writing. Nothing new in this: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” makes better sense when considered in relation to poetry’s orchestration of singular fragments into a coherent whole; just the right word in just the right place. Walker Evans tried his hand at writing fiction, and the everyday, narrative dramas of his photographs reflect this. I’m interested in photography’s descriptive properties in a similar way that a novel might cause us to believe, at least temporarily, in the world it produces through its use of convincing details. We are more likely to accept the bigger picture, even during the wildest flights of imagination, if the details seem to us to be truthful.

I photograph things that have happened or that exist in the world, but what these photographs mean, or how the viewer might bring them into meaning is usefully approached through the “what if” proposition, the hindsight and the “different circumstances” of historical fiction. The photographs collected here novelistically deal with multiple locations and time-travel, or at least travel, and different time periods. Not quite re-enactments, more like enactments through a different lens — forgive the pun. I intend my photographs to be fictive; not something made up, but a form of imagining or a different sensing of reality that shifts the view to and from a different position — to see from within another’s shoes. And to put oneself in another’s shoes is always an act of imagination.

The Searchers series (2003) alludes to the John Ford-directed Western, made in 1956, starring John Wayne. With Monument Valley as a backdrop, the film emphasizes the grandeur yet oppressiveness of the landscape as the protagonists continue their five-year search. The film touches upon various themes, intentionally or inadvertently, including ideas about the frontier, racism and anti-racism, miscegenation, honor, duty, the family, and ultimately, how these add up to what it means to be an American. The photographs were taken on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya (also my birthplace), and depict a group of watchers, though we don’t see what they are looking at or for. The searcher becomes the tourist who seeks the “authentic” African experience of the untamed wilderness and its wildlife.

The World Series (2011) was inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s iconic The Migration Series (1941), which portrays the 20th century black migration from the American South to Northern cities. While Lawrence used the motif of the train, my focus is on the plane and international travel, with a fictional protagonist who could be a tourist, a migrant, exile, returnee or one who inhabits many locations and psyches. The visual narrative tracks his passage through different locations, interpreting or translating the signage and cultural codes of each new space through his prior experience.           

The Love Shack series (2013) gains its title from the B-52s’ song. Released in 1989, the song hearkens back to an earlier time, as does the band’s name, which refers to the hairstyle via the bomber. Each prefigured the future, but each restaged the past in different ways in a present that had rapidly changed. The band celebrated the utopian and escapist optimism of the period, while the bomber, designed to carry nuclear bombs, was a relic of Cold War paranoia, but is still in use. I’m not sure what the hairstyle does.

My sepia-toned photographs also play loosely with time, depicting beach shacks in Goa, India (and my ancestral home), that have been prime sites of hippie culture since the early 60s. They are both celebrations of American popular culture, and escapes from the perception of American authoritarian and imperial power. Blasting out British and American rock, Euro-techno and Trance music, they continue now as encounter zones between Euro-American and East Asian alternative cultures, eco-tourists, ravers, nouveau-wealthy Russians, Israeli soldiers on R&R, Indian holiday-makers, migrant and local populations. The shacks perform complicated, shifting relationships to time and location. Through the familiarity of their music and names, The Ritz, The Buckingham, TGI Friday, etc., they provide us our own pasts, but situate them in an alternative, relocated present. 


"The Searchers"






"The World Series"










"Love Shack"





Born in Nairobi, Kenya, and having lived in London, New York and Los Angeles, Allan deSouza is now based in the Bay Area. His photography, installation, video, text and performance works restage historical evidence through counter-strategies of fiction, erasure, and (mis)translation. DeSouza has exhibited extensively in the United States and internationally, with recent solo exhibitions at SF Camerawork; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF; and the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. He has participated in group exhibitions at the International Center for Photography, NY; Pompidou Centre, Paris; Gwangju Biennale, Korea and Guangzhou Triennale, China. His writings have been published in various journals, anthologies, and catalogues, including Third Text, London; X-TRA, Los Angeles; and Shifter Journal, NY. He is a Professor in the Department of Art Practices at UC Berkeley, where he has developed a new Photography program. He is represented by Talwar Gallery, New Delhi and NY.

He is participating in two current Los Angeles-area exhibitions:

Flash: Allan deSouza
California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside
March 22–May 24, 2014

Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa
Fowler Museum, at UCLA
April 23 – September 14, 2014