Published  23/07/2015

Hannah Collins: ‘Most of my work is a line between culture and the world’

Hannah Collins: ‘Most of my work is a line between culture and the world’

The British artist known for her large, unframed photographs talks about her latest exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre in London, photographing a hut where Nelson Mandela lived, investigating civil rights in the American south and spending time with tribal peoples in the Amazon


Hannah Collins is a British artist who creates poetic and immersive works using film, photography and sound. In the mid-1970s, she studied at the Slade School of Art and later won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States. In 1991, she received the prestigious European Photography Award and, in 1993, she was nominated for the Turner Prize. This year, she has attracted acclaim as the winner of the Spectrum International Prize for Photography of the Foundation of Lower Saxony.

A constant traveller, she lived for many years in Barcelona and California before returning to the UK. In Spain, she has photographed gypsy communities who live at the edge of the polis.1 At the Camden Arts Centre in north-west London, she brings together early prints from her east London studio and two of her recent works: a homage to the west coast artist Noah Purifoy and an installation situated in the Amazon rainforest. In this interview, she discusses her concern with the human occupation of place.

Nicola Homer: Could you tell me a bit about the starting point of your work?

Hannah Collins: In terms of the photographic medium, my starting point long ago was a frustration with the ability to get near enough to a reality through paint, to have an interface between art and life that read clearly. I began as a painter. I have always written and have always included words. How does the body make its way on to the surface of the work? Elements that seemed constant began to appear in the works, as the horizon is an element in almost all the pictures. That is partly related to the human body. I’m always trying to measure the work in relation to the viewer and make the viewer work in looking at it. So the title is important and it gives you a way in, but it is not entirely revealing. It gives you certain elements of the work. The photograph itself was like a skin. It was a very thin thing. It was also flexible and mobile. You could roll the photographs up and send them off. You know there was a sense of liberation.

NH: How interesting. As you talk about this element of skin, it calls to mind one of your earliest works, Thin Protective Coverings (1986). Could you tell me about the origins of that work and how it conveys your distinctive approach to photography?

HC: When I was a student in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship, I saw a lot of photographic imagery, so I was very aware of the history of it. When I was on my Fulbright, I did a lecture at the University of Nebraska, and they had many 19th-century photographs in their collection. I was looking carefully at them, at the surface detail, but I was actually a painter. I began to want to reflect my surroundings much more closely. When I began, I was in a sort of existential crisis; perhaps this often happens to people in their late 20s. I wanted to bring the body into the work.

My studio was on Martello Street, London Fields, near to Broadway Market in east London, which has now entirely changed and is full of great restaurants and bookshops. But, at that time, it was dark and dingy and empty. There were a lot of missing streets. There would be street names but no streets. Because of all the bombing during the war, a lot of streets had been destroyed but not rebuilt. I was a non-consumer, so being surrounded by all this industry and packaging, which was true in that area, made me want to bring it into the work.

I got hold of a plate camera. I made an arrangement with cardboard from the street and then photographed it using the movements on the camera. That work was actually double the size of my studio. So what you see on the wall never existed. One point of the photograph was to both invent and record a space. When I first showed that work at Matt’s Gallery [in east London], I painted two words, “Sleep” and “Consume”, on the wall. The wall beyond the image then became more of an environmental concern. So it makes sense.

NH: Yes, it does. It calls to mind the notion of the expanded field.

HC: Yes. It was about expanding the sense that it made. I suppose I was looking at the performance artists …Vito Acconci, and also Robert Rauschenberg. I was always interested in film, too.

NH: Can you highlight any influences from the history of photography and film?

HC: Within photography, I used to love James Fenton’s work. I liked his wall pictures and things on shelves, because they were so plastic and so present. I liked Diane Arbus because she presented you with a different range of emotional possibilities. I never liked the idea that you would go into a gallery and see rows of pictures in frames on walls. So, no support, no frame, no anything – just a nail in the wall and that was it.

NH: I found that the work Thin Protective Coverings called to mind the architecture of homelessness and displacement. I also looked at the image of Nelson Mandela’s hut, where he spent his teenage years, alienated from his family. Could you tell me about why the idea of the home interests you, perhaps in relation to the idea of the lived experience?

HC: Yes, I think that, during our lifetimes, we are always in transition. There is a lot in this exhibition about transition as a state of being, as you can see in the room that has the work In the Course of Time. The Road to Auschwitz (1995/2013) and the piece on the Amazon, The Fertile Forest (2013-15). In the case of Nelson Mandela, I wanted to do something about effect. It belongs to a series called The Road to Mvezo. Mvezo is the place where Mandela was born. It is difficult to go to his birthplace, which is a five-hour drive over dirt roads in a hazardous part of the Transkei in South Africa. I did go there, and there is another picture about the place itself. But I also went to the village where he had lived in this hut as a teenager.

There was something about the nature of the hut. First of all, it was like a history painting. I liked how, within photography – not in a hard-edged, classical way, but in a painterly way – you are relating to the recounting of history. I suppose I was thinking, how do you recount history, and what is the impact of any place or action? The image is a wall with books on the shelves. The books look as though someone put them there recently. There is a pair of recently left underpants. There are things in the image that have nothing to do with what it says it is, but it is that thing. This picture is about the recounting of things.

NH: It is a good juxtaposition to place the work next to The Violin Player (1988).

HC: That is also an early work. I always thought that I would never be able to make prints again once the photographic medium changed. Now, the materials I used to make large, thin silver prints don’t exist. Eventually, I realised that digital imagery has amazing advantages. For technical reasons, it was very difficult to print some images when I first made them, such as Family (1988), the image of loudspeakers. Now, as a digital image, it has another life. In this show, we have juxtaposed images made in many different ways: handmade colour C-type prints and big pigment prints made on cotton paper, and a whole series of smaller, gelatin silver prints, in The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy (2014).

NH: That is interesting. I’m keen to talk about the installation The Interior and the Exterior – Noah Purifoy and the motif of sound. Why did you choose this subject?

HC: I usually make things where I have encountered something – a place, an issue, a person –and the encounter stays in my mind and won’t go away. I taught at the University of California for a short period. I had spent time in California because of that and had encountered images and places connected to the particular period that Purifoy’s work speaks about. I went out to Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in the Mojave Desert and saw Purifoy’s sculptures. I was moved by it, I felt a call and this was my response. So part of the work was a kind of self-questioning.

Purifoy was an African American, born in Alabama to a sharecropper family, so he began life in the south under the rule of Jim Crow. Racism and lack of opportunity are all around us, and particularly today. So one of the questions I asked was, how can I deal with this without becoming part of the problem? So that was one of the challenges of making that work. My first idea was to make a film.

Purifoy had four degrees. He worked first as a furniture designer, then within social work, and he sat on the California Arts Council, creating policies that were forward-looking. Towards the end of his life, he went out to the desert and made this work. I suppose, to me, it was slightly biblical. He had a strong religious background. There is a sense of exodus. The desert in California appears a lot on film, the Blaxploitation films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and others. It was work that should be done now, as the people on the soundtrack are all very old, and many people whom I would like to have interviewed have died.

On the soundtrack, there are voices of artists who worked alongside Purifoy, such as John Outterbridge and Judson Powell. What emerged out of the work was the recounting of a series of events, such as the Watts Rebellion in 1965. Through the interviews, I explored issues that I knew little about. One could spend a whole lifetime exploring those issues, and others have. What came out of it was a sense that, at that time, it was possible to take action, which now seems unbelievably difficult to do. So it was a period of immense activity and that was reflected in the work that Purifoy did at the end of his life.

The other amazing thing about that work is that it was all done in 15 years. He was more than 70 when he began the work. He lived in a trailer at the site. The effort involved in it was moving to me. So I stayed out there at the site, which is supported by the Noah Purifoy Foundation. I photographed it over a weekend. I had a sense of being for 24 hours a day in the desert. These structures exist alongside the cactuses and the wildlife. Purifoy was intimately involved with nature.

Among the people I interviewed were early Black Panthers. I interviewed Samella Lewis, who is an African American intellectual and artist with a very powerful, lifelong engagement in issues. She really made me sit up and think. LA Rebellion film-makers talked about the era. I wanted to surround the photographs I had made with a cultural context and a possible series of readings. So it is a layered, choreographed soundtrack, which I worked on with Chris Forrest, who has a sound studio in San Francisco. I was lucky in that I had worked with Chris on another project of mine, called La Mina (2001-04), and he understood the work and the issues that this work raised.

The sound makes you feel your distance and, at the same time, allows you to relate image to image. So it gives you a much more three-dimensional sense of the space that you are in and the way in which the images respond to one another and some of the subject matter. Actually, I began with one understanding of the subject matter, but by the time I had finished that work, I had a completely different understanding of it.

NH: How did your understanding change?

HC: During the interviews, key moments seemed to appear in a timeline, such as when the photograph of Emmett Till appeared in the African-American weekly Jet Magazine. Till was a boy of 14, who went to stay with his uncle in Mississippi. He was murdered by the family of a white woman whom he supposedly cussed in a store, and the body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. When his mother saw the unrecognisable corpse, she had an open-casket funeral, which was incredibly unusual at that time. In other words, African Americans were dying, but there was no image previously as to what happened to them. So that image was published in Jet Magazine and it went out to all the Forces. African Americans in the Forces saw this picture and just stopped. They began to resist. Many people on the recordings mention seeing Jet Magazine and the way they reacted to it.

There was a southerner, a music producer who is on the soundtrack, who has Alzheimer’s disease. He can still remember southern songs, and sang with this amazing rhythm about the American south. The work also describes migration. Ed Ruscha describes the power of Jim Crow laws when he was growing up in Oklahoma. It is really interesting to make a work that is completely within culture, because most of my work is a line between culture and the world.

NH: I read that, after studying in the UK, you lived for about 20 years in Spain. I understand that you have also travelled to the Middle East and eastern Europe, and more recently South America in your pieces about the Amazon. How do you think your experience of living in different places has affected your artistic output?

HC: I lived in Barcelona for many years. In fact, I was Spanish, in my sense of being. I had gone there in 1989 before the Olympics. I think I allowed it to take me over. It made me less clear about hierarchies by which things are valued and cultural norms for living. I would not be doing the work I do if I hadn’t gone to live in a different society for a number of years. I had much more access to Mediterranean history and culture by living in Spain. My relationship with South America comes through my relationship with Spain. Starting to show my work in South America meant that I travelled in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador and Colombia. So it has given me access to other ways of thinking that I appreciate.

NH: How do you think travelling has transformed your artistic process?

HC: I always feel lighter when I travel. So I always think my mind is more mobile then. The project in the Amazon,The Fertile Forest, came out of a number of visits to Colombia – I had a retrospective exhibition at the Museo de Arte de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá. I began my first trip on the Amazon in Leticia, the capital city of the Amazonas province. During my visit, a Ticuna tribal member guided me. We were walking in the forest and I felt very lost and overwhelmed in the beginning, by the sheer scale of it all. My guide made a cut in a tree and lit it with a match. The tribe use the tree to guide their way. It was a tree with natural oil that seeped out and kept the flame alive. I had a sense of the power of humans and nature to interact, which I felt I didn’t understand in any meaningful way.

So I went back and stayed within another tribe near to Ecuador. Colombia is war-torn and inaccessible, and many of the tribes have been left alone. So I stayed with the Cofán tribe, with a very old shaman, and explored the forest with him each day, looking at the plants they used. The tribe use the plants for everything, aside from the occasional piece of clothing: eating, drinking, medicine and spiritual journeys. I looked at the plants with the shaman and took photographs of them.

In the room that has The Fertile Forest, there is a conversation between the shaman and me. There is a big gap in understanding between us; there are things that he knows to be true within the forest that are the result of experience, it’s another language. I asked the shaman: “When you die, what happens to your wife?” I think I wondered about this because he was married to someone much younger than himself and they had a great complicity. They were closer than I had ever understood in a western relationship and they had a very good time together. He said: “Well, the shaman turns into a jaguar when he dies.” So I said: “OK, what happens to his wife?” And he said: “Well, he comes back for her.” That is the barrier between the home and the exterior, or this life and the next, or the edge of the forest and the sky. I am always interested in the edge of something.


1. See introduction in Finding, Transmitting, Receiving by Hannah Collins, published by Black Dog Publishing, 2007.

Hannah Collins is at Camden Arts Centre, London, 4 July – 13 September 2015.


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