Saturday, July 07, 2007

Rush Hour traffic passes through Museum in Docklands

A step away from the crowds at Canary Wharf, Museum in Docklands is offering visitors the chance to discover a different kind of commuting experience with Rush Hour, a powerful video installation which runs from 6 July to 1 November 2007.

Across three huge screens, the work, by artists David Matthews and Paul Howard, uses a montage of real time/still time photography, and a bustling soundtrack centred around a phone-in radio show, to capture a rush hour moment in Sierra Leone. 

Rush Hour Artists David Matthews  Paul Howard

 A multi-sensory experience, Rush Hour deconstructs stylistic clich├ęs of news reportage, documentary and fictional dramas and draws the viewer into disarming questions about African and Western identities; about poverty, peace, and the complex legacies of slavery.

The video opens upon a curious stillness. A camera moves down an African city street during rush hour, but something is amiss. Whilst a radio crackles with music, jingles, news and debate, everyone here is rooted to the spot, caught in mid-stride, mid-gesture. We are in Freetown, Sierra Leone, looking at a snapshot moment from everyday life.

But this is no simple photograph. With a voyeur’s license we travel around the frozen urban scene, wandering amidst a population caught in stasis.  Then, suddenly, an unexpected blink disrupts this petrified landscape. An involuntary glance meets our eyes and turns hastily away. An arm moves slightly.  Small movements betray life within this unmoving terrain. The people of Freetown are not the still subjects of a photographic record, but subjects standing still for a carefully choreographed freeze frame performance.

Rush Hour is a beautifully orchestrated visual fiction, using the streets of Freetown as a stage and its residents as players. The radio phone-in which soundtracks the piece is a scripted dialogue, spliced with soundscapes from the city.  But within the fiction lies a very real politics of cultural exchange. The artists have worked in conjunction with the Freetong Players, Sierra Leone’s leading theatre company, to create a compelling narrative that places the daily routines of Freetown life within the context of a troubled history.

A former British Colony, Sierra Leone was founded in 1787 as a safe haven for Africans emancipated from slavery. Following a brutal ten year conflict which ended in 2001 and cost anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000 lives, it is now the world’s second poorest country. Yet despite the nation’s poverty, volatile history and collective trauma, Sierra Leoneans have a remarkable sense of optimism, combined with stoicism, energy and spirit.

This indomitable spirit runs throughout Rush Hour, but Matthews and Howard also address their own artistic and economic license in stopping a rush hour in its tracks.  In capturing the daily hustle for survival in a country where many live on a dollar a day, the artists must put a temporary stop to the creative industry of its residents.

Alongside the screened video, film posters, adverts and everyday objects from Freetown will be displayed across the Museum gallery.
David Matthews says “I’ve worked in print and broadcast journalism for many years, both in the UK and abroad. But to work on a non-linear art film in such a challenging environment as Sierra Leone, where cultural capital is so restricted was extraordinary.

So much of the visual imagery we see of Africa is represented through traditional and stereotypical images, so it was a refreshing change to co-create Rush Hour. It's an artwork that is contemporary and abstract, but also authentic and true to the environment in which it was made. In many ways I feel privileged to have contributed to a growing movement that finds new ways of exploring archetypal African narratives.”

David Spence, Director of Museum in Docklands says “We are excited to be displaying such a powerful and original piece of art.  Rush Hour confirms our commitment to innovative exhibitions at the Museum in Docklands.  It also retraces a direct link between Freetown and London’s East End.  When Sierra Leone was founded in 1787 as a haven for formally enslaved Africans, the first ship to set sail for Freetown, left from Blackwell stairs, Docklands.”

 On 10 November 2007, Museum in Docklands will open the only permanent gallery in London that examines the city’s involvement in transatlantic slavery and its legacy on the capital. Marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade by Britain, the new gallery is part of a series of events and projects planned by the Museum for 2007 and 2008. The new gallery, called London, Sugar and Slavery, will reveal how London’s involvement in slaving has shaped the capital since the 17th century, and will challenge what people think they know about the transatlantic slave trade.  It will debunk the myth that London was a minor player in the trade by showing that it funded much of the city’s industrial and financial success.  From Jamaica Road to the Bank of England, from the merchant houses of Blackheath to the nation’s art collections, profits from this most lucrative trade shaped the metropolis.  The new gallery will be a dynamic and evolving space reflecting the continuing resonance of the slave trade for all Londoners.

Museum of London Group Portal - Rush Hour