‘The Archive and the Contested Landscape’ – Festival of Ideas

“This project exploring the dynamic material interplay between archives and contested landscapes was initiated by Kelcy Davenport and Nawrast Sabah Abd Alwahab as part of their ongoing art-geology research collaboration…

By Hannah Cox

“This project exploring the dynamic material interplay between archives and contested landscapes was initiated by Kelcy Davenport and Nawrast Sabah Abd Alwahab as part of their ongoing art-geology research collaboration.  The project was introduced via a symposium event in Cambridge on 22nd March 2018.  A related exhibition comprising of creative responses to the theme, by artists and non-artists inclusively, will take place in Cambridge and Basra from 22nd – 28th October 2018, as part of the Festival of Ideas.”

The first part of this exhibit took place in Cambridge whilst the second will be taking place in Basra, Iraq in 2019. The project looked interesting, an exhibit across three buildings beginning at Gallery 9 on Norfolk Street. Immediately upon entering, there were 26 copper figurines on the floor, Elizabeth’s Eade’s Net Realisable Value. After being told we could hold one, my son chose a pregnant figurine and she was placed carefully into his hands whilst I read about the piece. The 26 copper figurines have been ‘corrupted with sea water to produce startling green crystals’. Eerily reminiscent of Egyptian Shabti dolls found in the Pharaohs’ tombs, they are themselves symbols of slaves. The title relates to the calculation regarding the worth of water damaged goods, the figurines to a real life event:

“On the 3rd of November 2017, the bodies of 26 girls aged 14-18 were pulled from the sea off the South Coast of Italy. They were all of Nigerian origin. One wore a t-shirt with the words “I’m super happy”. It is believed that they were destined for the vociferous sex slave trade in Italy. The only two identified were named as Marian Shaka, who was married, and Osato Osaro. Both were pregnant.”

The power of this piece builds on you slowly. Drawing us unexpectedly into confronting the horrors of the sex slave trade still happening today. Tragedy, beauty and horror all rolled into 26 little figures, some slightly broken, and others slightly less human due to the crystal growth. We stand to move on, placing the pregnant figurine back on the floor where she longs.

The Gallery echoed with the sounds of Rosanna Greave’s film The Flaming Rage of the Sea (2018). Choreographed stilt performers represent the fens people whilst oral histories and the poem ‘The Powtes Complaint’ protest the draining of the fens and discuss the histories of the Cambridgeshire Fenland.


The harsh landscape contrasts with the images of the traditional folk festivals and the whole piece functions as a visual poem. A very stark piece highlighting the struggle and ‘precariousness of a landscape below sea level’.

Sarah Strachan spent the weeks prior to the exhibit preparing an incredible clay water filtering vessel in the fashion of the place where the clay was sourced: the Al-Hammar Marshes in Southern Iraq. The piece, Shared Water, Contested Water, provides an artefact linking the ‘paleoclimate archive and the future demand for water’. The quality of the vessel is proof of the time, care and skill of Strachan in preparing a complex material as a part of a series of clay objects.

Many of the pieces focus on war. My first impression of Artists Activists’ T.H. Elderton and Walter Yeo was of two beautiful sculptures. They are the ‘men with the Broken Faces’, a term which the artist disagrees with as ‘these men must not have their identities transformed and grouped into a terminology to be forgotten as individuals’. By the time we came to leave I knew not to consider them beautiful, only to leave understanding and knowing that individuals went through an unimaginable hell when they lost their faces.

The next part of the exhibit was on ARU’s main campus. Ian Moffat’s Lunette: A Deep History of Australian Climate shows us the ‘stark, craggy forms’ of the crescent shaped dunes attached to Salt Lakes are layered, ‘recording thousands of years of climate change driven by the natural wobbles in the Earth’s transit around the sun’. Not only do these images open our eyes to the beauty of lunettes, but they also show the deep history Australia has and stand as a testimony to man and other creature’s abilities to change and adapt to climate change.

The third building of the exhibit was the Zion Baptist Church Crypt. Walking into the crypt was a slightly unsettling experience. Most noticeable, perhaps because the crypt walls were reverberating with the sound, was William Crosby’s WHAILES. Speakers faced the centre of the unlit room, playing whale song, and whilst it is incredibly loud, it serves to educate us about noise pollution in the world’s oceans. This piece discusses the effects of human activity on the ocean – a contested landscape that not too long ago, existed without human interference.

Events were also arranged by Kelcy Davenport to further discuss and explore the theme of the contested landscape, such as the mid-week symposium. Here, contributors to the exhibit gave talks on their work. One piece which benefitted from the symposium was Sally Stenton’s and Nawrast Sabah Abd Alwahab’s If the Cloud Allows.They arranged for people in Cambridge and Basra to walk in a circle and look at the moon simultaneously. The pictures in the exhibit and the story were made more powerful after seeing the short film which shows the events as they happen at the same time on 26/10/18. I doubt one could truly view this piece, as it is an experience. The two acts explore a feeling of connectivity and the significance of the cyclical movement of the groups in line with the moon and the earth.

This exhibition was a huge undertaking and an even bigger success. Thank you to Kelcy Davenport and Nawrast Sabah Abd Alwahab for arranging this exhibit and curating these works and to all who contributed to the exhibit. I sincerely recommend visiting the website and social media pages, and if you can see any of the pieces, I entreat you to. This exhibit not only explored contested landscapes, but through them brought out the importance of human connections. Through these works we are linked to cultures, war zones and people who we are led to believe are ‘them’ or ‘other’. In exploring our connections, we experience the humanity of people we often dehumanise and challenge the ideas which can lead to contested landscapes.

All quotes taken from the exhibition catalogue.

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