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Artist Spotlight: Ethel Tawe

Ethel-Ruth Tawe (b. Yaoundé, Cameroon) is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, curator and creative researcher exploring memory in Africa and its diaspora. Image-making, storytelling, and time-travelling compose the framework of her inquiry. From collage to moving image, Ethel examines space and time-based technologies often from a speculative lens. Her burgeoning curatorial practice took form in an inaugural exhibition titled 'African Ancient Futures', and continues to expand in a myriad of audiovisual experiments.⁠

We spoke to Ethel about time travelling, education around history, her current project ‘The Algorithms of Colonial African Photobooks’ and more…

First off, what does it mean for your practice to be a time traveller?

I really love that question, because I feel like it's one of those terms that is interpreted in so many different ways by whoever encounters it in the context of my work. It's been many different things, but mostly two main things for me: a process of unlearning a mainstream understanding of time (or rather a Western conception of time), as well as thinking about time-based media. I’m interested in re-indigenizing our understandings of time that don't operate in a linear form of past, present and future. I’m reckoning with multiple temporalities that are in the conversation, which is recognised by African indigenous knowledge systems. 

As we know, linear timelines are often based on productivity and capitalist agendas - an example is daylight savings or rigid functions of ‘clock-time’. There are several artificially created measurements of time which we take as concrete facts, when they're not. Many cultures recognise this by attuning to more natural and intuitive cycles. I've been interested in what it means to traverse and travel through these time spirals. 

A lot of my coming of age has also been rooted in movement and travel; being what we now call a ‘digital nomad’. I’m drawn to the idea of a digital diaspora, which I expanded on in an interview on BOMB Magazine with Neema Githere who talks about the ways we’re connected online, a kind of third space of its own. How are these new (and old) technologies allowing us to collapse or experience time?

I think the medium of film and moving image allows us to experience different moments collated together, and it's actually very much how life itself is increasingly being experienced in the digital age. 

“Image Frequency Modulation” (2021 - ongoing)

You mentioned your work in film, installation and a few other different elements of your practice there. What does being a multidisciplinary artist look like for you? 

It looks like many different things on different days. It's expansive and boundless. I've never really been drawn to the idea of sticking to one medium. I think because my lived experience, which is a testament to this process of fragmentation, has led me to work in iterations. I've kind of relinquished control over this idea of completeness. 

I’m also pulling from different reference points because nothing is really new, but really an extension of another experience. The ways in which I have inherited my family photographs, for example, have led me to question how am I creating something that can also be inherited: a future archive. It’s also reimagining the idea of authorship, letting it be more fluid in the ways I approach my practice.


Congratulations on your recent 10x10 Photobooks research grant. Can you tell me about your hopes for your upcoming/current project, ‘The Algorithms of Colonial African Photobooks’?

It was birthed from an artistic response to a collection of African photobooks by Ben Krewinkel in the Netherlands, which we presented at PhotoIreland last year. While looking through his collection (a lot of it spans from colonial to post-colonial), I started to see parallels between the eras. I started to ask, what relevance do those early photobooks have with our heavily image-based technology today?

Essentially, I saw strong parallels even in the language. I became interested in how these books were made, both their anatomy and the ideas behind them. Things like the captions, the sequencing, the images themselves and what they were trying to achieve. It made me think a lot about how algorithms work today, but especially how they are built with bias encoded into them. So were these ethnographic photobooks. You have to think a lot about who was making them - these Europeans coming onto the African continent with an agenda. A lot of times these books were quite literally to justify their expeditions and racist conceptions of African people, to be able to classify and exploit more. 

So of course, there's a lot of bias embedded in that. A lot of staging happened, and there were a lot of complicated, seemingly innocent choices that served the colonial machine. And that's how social media works now, if you think about it. We have a platform like Instagram with selections of images that are curated to program us in certain ways.

It's easy to see those depicted in ethnographic African photobooks as dormant subjects who had no say, but actually, what are the inaudible voices and messages resonating from these images? What are the other gestures and embodied refusal that we can read despite being categorised into these rigid types? That's what I’m trying to decode with ‘Typing…’

We're really excited to see where the project goes so thanks for sharing all of that. Now, I know this is a really big question to tackle, but if you could rewrite the syllabus for schools, how would you reframe education around history? 

I started moving away from thinking of my work as ‘capital H’ History that lives under a more rigid record. I’m thinking more of counter-histories and memory work, which is a lot more subjective and embraces unofficial accounts. It kind of validates the personal and shape-shifting nature of the human experience. I don't know how that would happen in the syllabus, but I think it would be interesting to incorporate more personal narratives or encourage a space for that to be explored more. So the syllabus shouldn't dictate history as happening one way, but sharing collective perspectives and experiences.

"Transmission I (2021)"

Can you talk me through your project Timescapes?

Timescapes is a work that I inherited, it just kind of came to me and now I see myself as a custodian of it. It is an exercise in memory and retrieval. The photographs were made by my father. When I found them, they were in quite a state. I was lucky to save them because a lot of times they would just be discarded. I was so excited to look through them and see how he saw the world and what he chose to document. It's a huge album of just landscapes - so interesting. For him, he simply just enjoyed capturing these scenes on his travels. These photos are taken in different places, a lot of them actually in Canada, which is where he studied. 

On an aesthetic level, I was also just fascinated by how they looked as they decayed. It made me think a lot about time and how time passes and adds new layers to physical photographs: evidence of how these photos have moved and circulated ever since they were made. I feel like they are living a life of their own.

When researching your work, I read a few interviews that you'd done and conversations that you'd had with other artists. I'm interested to know how interviewing and conversation play a role in your practice? 

I used to run an arts and culture magazine called Africa 2.O Magazine or A2.O. That was actually where I interviewed a lot of artists. My background is in human rights and development and I have no art training and I was like - well, how can I still learn? So I saw this magazine as an opportunity to learn from artists, and then also offer something back by sharing their stories. I quickly realised how much I enjoyed writing, exchanging and thinking through these concepts. I really see it also as an extension of my curatorial practice, because it allows me to crystallise ideas into a written form. It's still one of my favourite parts of learning. I'm a forever student.

What changes would you like to see in the future of the arts? 

I think I would say more honesty, a more honest industry. Something that accommodates more voices and defends the artist. 

If you enjoyed this conversation with Ethel, make sure to check out our other Artist Spotlight interviews over on and whilst you’re there, why not have a look through all of the fantastic art we have for sale from emerging artists? Pop into the website to see what catches your eye…


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