Interview with Asmaa Jama
Asmaa Jama reflects on the process of creating and producing Except this time nothing returns from the ashes with curator Carmen Juliá.
Except this time nothing returns from the ashes is a collaboration between Asmaa Jama and Gouled Ahmed that explores self-portraiture, memory and the archive. The exhibition is inspired by African photography studios; places of self-expression that are at once political and historical, fictional and intimate.
The project was commissioned by Spike Island as part of the West of England Visual Arts Alliance programme. Here, the artist reflects on the process of creating and producing the new work and exhibition with curator Carmen Juliá.
Your current exhibition at Spike Island, Except this time nothing returns from the ashes, was developed from a digital commission supported by the West of England Visual Arts Alliance programme. The initial commission was awarded to you in 2022 and it later evolved into a much more ambitious project developed in collaboration with Gouled Ahmed. Can you tell us about that first proposal and how it grew to develop into a major exhibition at Spike Island?
For the initial proposal, I was more interested in water and mercreatures. I’d seen Zinzi Minott’s digital commission for Spike and I was interested in making something that was more interactive. When we got the commission, we realised that we could only shoot in the UK and Addis Ababa because that's where we have networks, and Addis is landlocked. So we thought it might be interesting to focus on something else instead of trying to create a water story in a landlocked country.
My collaborator Gouled Ahmed has a lot of self-portraiture in their practice. A previous project that we worked on together is about archiving, which felt like a natural form where we could meet. It was around that time I think that I also saw Samuel Fosso at MEP in Paris, and I was thinking about the tradition of expressive self portraiture in photography.
The commission was a good opportunity to work with more people. For previous work, we only cast one or two people; this time we had five, and the idea of a family of sorts emerged. I started writing down a story, and then images started coming.
Filming in Addis and seeing the structures, and repurposed plastic everywhere, I was reminded of when I was younger in Kenya. There was this huge mountain of waste and people climbing up it, who turned the things that they found into wonderful things. It connected with Gouled’s way of making costumes, which is turning everyday and mundane objects into something beautiful. That's something that the cast connected with as well, the idea of the discarded, or people that have been pushed to the fringes of society.
The title of the film, Except this time nothing returns from the ashes, is highly evocative and it conjures up ideas of loss, disappearance or devastation. Could you tell us why you chose it?
I was thinking a lot about burning and fire, an idea about burning down this world and something new emerging. Except this time nothing returns from the ashes may seem pessimistic, , I was trying to think a bit more critically about my own desire or want for resurrection, for a story where somebody comes back and something gets saved. I wanted to think about a story where no-one does, nothing does. I think what we ended up with was more hopeful and defiant actually.
We also tried to make a connection to our own family history. Gouled has a lot of family photographs, which are very interesting. There's even one that looks like a shot in the film, two people on the back of a horse. In my family, there are photo negatives that my father has always carried with him that I've thought about a lot. There's a kind of unfinished story in one of these, and there are questions that I was addressing to the photographs that I can't ask him directly. I feel like we were circulating around these tales and trying to re-imagine them and speculate.
As you mentioned before, the film is set in Addis Ababa, where Gouled lives. Could you tell us about the significance of this particular location and your connection to the city?
I had never been before, but there's a sizable Somali population and a Somali Region in Ethiopia, Ogaden the capital being Jigjiga. For me, the two countries were in a way porous. I know people with family from there and my grandfather was a soldier in the war over that region, so there’s a tie. Gouled’s family are Somali and from Addis Ababa and Djibouti, which is a former French colony. There’s a story of colonisation between us and it was interesting to connect that to Somali heritage from a different place - the country and the places we shot in the city felt familiar.
Addis used to have a lot of photo studios with sets styled with iconic and recognisable colonnades, fake flowers, even up until recently - it was more recently that studios decided to update and modernise. We spent a long time looking for one of the original studios. It was funny really… I think with diaspora we hold on to a time capsule to the culture that our parents left with. But the countries themselves move on, culture is not static. For the film, we had to create what we wanted.
From the places we shot, the Russian theatres felt significant because of the Soviet influence in Ethiopia. There's also the blue and white car and the bus that was imported and left by the Soviets. We filmed a church workshop, which is on the fringes of a market called Mercato, the biggest market on the African continent. We filmed outside, where there are manufacturing places and tuk-tuks and snack shops, which are everywhere and very common.
The film is structured in five chapters, each introducing a different character. Who are these ghostly presences dwelling in the margins of the city?
The first two are Requiem and Ruin, a couple. When I imagined these characters initially, I was thinking of them as ghosts, each of them representing a different sense of longing, something that they missed from the world. I thought it would be interesting if they each had their own backdrop, so you feel like you're entering a different world for each.
There are the Lovers, they wanted to feel again; and the Shopkeeper who I felt wanted to be seen, playing with the idea of visibility. The Singer wanted to be heard, Sami El-Enany, our sound designer, played with the idea of space and emptiness, in the sound design in that section. And then the Archivist, who wanted to be remembered and remember.
For the Lovers, it was interesting thinking about their poses, about ways that they could be connected. Some of them are directly referencing photographs from that older generation of self portrait photographers from the continent. During the horse scene, they're holding hands without breaking apart as everything is happening around them.
We wanted different music [for the Lovers], like for a wedding. When we were filming, people thought that they had just got married and were yelling congratulations from the street.
Let’s talk about the sound, because it’s very present throughout. Some of the sound is taken from the British Library archive, but there is also the sound of your own voice. Throughout the film, your voice remembers those who live in the margins and have been forgotten, the ‘discarded’ as you refer to them in the film. Your voice is incredibly powerful not only through the words you’ve chosen to vindicate the margin as a disruptive force, but also in the tone and delivery of those words.
I struggled with writing the text for a while after we finished shooting, I didn't know how to approach all the different stories; whether I should try and take on the voices. What I settled with was mostly being an observer of them. I spent a lot of time writing for each character, and then got rid of the words and watched the film again. I tried to speak as it was happening; what was interesting to me was the pace, maybe because the film is quite slow, a lot like moving photographs. It needs to breathe.
For the initial chapter, I was thinking of the idea of a rupture. Also the idea of excavation and something being salvaged, nothing / noone going to waste.
With Leah’s part with the singer, I mentioned a Saar ceremony which happens where a jinn is removed from someone. The music reminded me of that. I also think the stage light in that scene is interesting. I did some work in theatre and someone told me once that in France they leave a light on so that the spirits of the theatre can come back and be guided by the light. With Leah, looking up at the light in the corner; it did feel like she was waiting to be taken to where they were, signing to them. In the music videos that we used, there's a glitch that always happens, either sonically or visually, and they end up looping or being stuck at the end. That made me think of this idea of being caught between realms.
I feel like the Shopkeeper was the hardest to write perhaps. In that one, the city played more of a figure because of the interaction with somebody buying something. They were perhaps more like someone that had been discarded or needs to be seen; by the time you get to the last chapter with the Archivist, the figures have chosen to haunt, to not leave. I think there’s also something interesting about engaging archival material directly. I listen to these sounds, or interact with photographs or stories, and feel that it’s contaminating the story... It's really difficult to be objective .
I don't think you could be objective, you're very much part of it. I think the film in many ways is claiming the right to exist for all those who have been pushed to the margins of society. It’s very compelling how, towards the end of the film, your voice claims that space, asserting their presence: we're here and we're here to stay, we belong here and this is our place. It's very powerful.
Can we talk a little about the music and the archives and where you've sourced the music, you've worked with that collection before?
The recordist is called John Low, and he did recordings in Somalia and Sudan. It’s a little hard to tell because things are loosely labelled. I asked for files of Taarab, which is Swahili music, and also some Sudanese tapes and Somali music in the dialect that I speak and another dialect. I had to use my ear to work it out. The Taarab it’s more obvious, they use the accordion and a style of singing that's very beautiful, it has some connection to the Mawwal from the Arab regions. For the Sudanese recordings, people were talking in Arabic in between. The Somali tracks in Af Maxaa, I could understand, and I could guess the other dialect. It was interesting spending a lot of time listening to the music, and thinking about where it could go.
There was one singer that he recorded, Amin Xaji Cusmaan, who had a very beautiful voice, but I don't think he sang professionally. He was a soldier, it felt like a very sad story to me. They were all mostly original compositions, and it was great to use his work again. He had one song he covered called Geedi Shambow, which is about a king based in Abyssinia.
We used Taarab music in the theatre scene. Towards the end, I really wanted something that sounded like metallic percussion; those were recordings of work songs by people tilling in the fields.
I spent quite a bit of time listening and then selecting extracts. Each recording was over an hour long, Low would just click play and people would talk, sing, talk, sing - there’s no delineation. Sami El-Anany our sound designer, mixed them and composed additional music as well. We had a very interesting conversation about the sound. We went through the film and talked about what was happening, for example that this part is talking about excavation and ruin, so what does it sound like when something is being excavated? I said the sound of earth or something circling, Sami got excited and added more elements. For the theatre, I said maybe the sound of something evaporating because she's fleeing or trying to flee; and he thought we could use the really high whistle of a kettle. For the Lovers, there’s a black scene where we thought deep space or something that sounded like deep space would be interesting. He played with my voice as well, sometimes making me sound further away.
Let’s talk about the exhibition itself. You had done some film commissions previously for BBC Arts and for Bristol Old Vic, and had screened your work at the Venice Biennial of Architecture, but this is your first exhibition in a gallery. The film is presented surrounded by a colourful octagonal wall. Decorated with cut-outs of geometric designs, reminiscent of the patterns found in the film, this structure is a homage to East Africa’s built environment.
In the back perimeter, the installation Ash is our inheritance comprises a poem written directly on the wall, a line of charcoal, and a black and white chequered vinyl floor that evokes the interiors of African photography studios. How did all these other components come together?
I think it gives the work a site. We spent such a long time trying to build a world that feels real, you’re framing out everything else. I think it's interesting that you can be in an incredibly mundane room, but from what you're seeing through the camera you can be transported.
Because the film is rooted in different places and the characters feel like they’re in their own world, it felt interesting for the gallery to be a physical place for the work’s existence. For the structure, I tried to use some of the colours from the film as well and I think it looks interesting, almost like an extension of the world that they're in.
For the back perimeter, I thought it was interesting to write the text and for people to slow down. With the floor, it does make the space feel bigger. It's interesting for it to move from being 3D to 2D and then back again to 3D in the metaphysical world.
With the black side of the structure, when you're watching it from outside, it abstracts the film even further because you just see pieces of it through the shapes. It makes you peripheral also, and it feels like you're watching something that you shouldn't necessarily be watching. It also looks like frames or cut outs, a mirroring of the illustration that I did on the photographs, for example, that hides or obscures faces. There's a lot of layering, so it's nice to recreate that.
What was your experience working in a gallery setting,, did you feel like you had the support you needed to take your work a step farther?
Definitely. And I think it’s a different way of thinking on something, it became a second project in terms of how to show it as well. It was exciting, exciting and challenging. It gave me confidence also to realise a vision, to create things on a grand scale and play with installation. It was wild. I feel like I was trying to be very serious and work, but also trying to come to terms with the opportunity. If you're quite young and don’t have so much experience, you’re always included in the additional programming rather than the core programming. I think it’s interesting and important to take risks. And it’s significant to have something installed for an amount of time; it feels like the gallery is staking something in the idea. The artist always stakes something by pouring so much into it, so it's wonderful that it's been received and reciprocated.
All images: Asmaa jama and gouled ahmed, Except this time nothing returns from the ashes (2023). Installation view, Spike Island, Bristol. Photo Dan Weill
Asmaa Jama is a Somali artist, poet and filmmaker based in Bristol. As a poet and writer, Jama has been commended for the Brunel African Poetry Prize, shortlisted for the Wasafiri Writing Prize, the New Poets Prize and James Berry Poetry prize, and longlisted in the National Poetry Competition. Their work has been published in magazines and journals such as Poetry Review, The Good Journal, Ambit, Ballast and Magma, and translated into French, German, Portuguese, Somali, Spanish and Swahili. Their writing has been commissioned by Arnolfini (Bristol), Hayward Gallery (London) and Ifa gallery (Brussels). Jama was a Cave Canem Fellow 2021.
As a filmmaker, Jama was commissioned by BBC Arts to make the interactive film Before We Disappear (2021), and by Bristol Old Vic to make The Season of Burning Things (2021), which was screened at the 17th Venice Biennale of Architecture (2021), as part of 100 Ways to say We. Both films were made with artist and costume designer Gouled Ahmed, as part of an ongoing creative collaboration. Jama is a Film London FLAMIN Fellow (2022) and a resident artist at Somerset House Studios.
Carmen Juliá is curator at Spike Island Art Centre (Bristol) where she is responsible for the artistic programme including exhibitions, commissions, public programme, artist development and engagement activities. In 2021, she curated Veronica Ryan’s major solo exhibition Along a Spectrum. Previously, she worked at Tate Britain (2008-16) where she was a member of the Contemporary British Art team working on acquisitions of contemporary British art for the collection. During her time at Tate, Carmen was curator of numerous collection displays and major commissions including Phyllida Barlow: Dock (2014).
Except this time nothing comes back from the ashes is commissioned by Spike Island, Bristol, and is part of the West of England Visual Arts Alliance programme, supported by Arts Council England.