Tanoa Sasraku. Terratype soaked in the Sligichan river. Video still, 2022. Image courtesy the artist.
Spike Island, Bristol
28 May – 17 July 2022
by DAVID TRIGG
Tanoa Sasraku has a deep and personal relationship with Britain’s rural landscapes. The young British Ghanaian artist (b1995) grew up in Plymouth, not far from the remote expanses of Dartmoor, where she found solace and a sense of freedom during her unsettled youth. The windswept moorland informs much of her thinking in this compact exhibition at Bristol’s Spike Island, which showcases newly commissioned works on paper, photographs and bronzes. Infusing her work with the materiality of the landscape itself, Sasraku maps unexpected connections between rural environments, emotional memories, buried histories and idiosyncratic mythology in a show that is at once captivating and perplexing.
Tanoa Sasraku. Red Gate (Terratype), 2022. Image courtesy Andy Keate.
The core of the exhibition revolves around a series of wall-mounted works on paper that Sasraku calls Terratypes. Each one comprises multiple sheets of newsprint, which she stains and stencils with earth pigments foraged from the countryside, including yellow ochre from the Isle of Skye and rich orange pigment from Dartmoor. She then machine stitches the sheets together and soaks them in rivers, seawater or bogs before carefully tearing away strips of paper to reveal coloured and patterned strata beneath. Although each rip is carefully considered, the friable surfaces of works such as Red Gate (Terratype) (2022), with its exposed orange, brown and deep ultramarine layers, appear to have been violently slashed. Sasraku describes these ragged amalgamations combining painting, drawing, printmaking, textiles and sculpture as “earth photos”, and they could indeed be considered as a kind of landscape art. But there is more going on here.
Tanoa Sasraku. Blue Gate (Terratype), 2022. Image courtesy Andy Keate.
The torn surfaces of the Terratypes reveal a recurring geometric pattern, a subtle motif derived from a Scottish tartan and rendered variously in granite greys, rusty oranges and, sometimes, embossed relief. Inspired by her Caledonian partner, the blocky design has a strong personal significance for Sasraku, though the wall text informs us that it represents “a pixelated or digitised flow of energy or electricity, linking the works in the exhibition in a circuit, which at points oscillate in velocity and intensity”. Curious allusions to electronics continue with titles such as Blue Gate (Terratype) (2022) and Transformer (Terratype) (2021), which respectively refer to the primary building blocks of circuits (gates) and the components that transfer electrical energy from one circuit to another (transformers). While all this could perhaps be construed as a concern with the encroachment of modern technology on ancient landscapes, the rest of the show suggests that Sasraku’s ideas belong to a more arcane realm.
Tanoa Sasraku. Grey Wet-Cell, 2022. Image courtesy Andy Keate.
Hung alongside the Terratypes are several small, rectangular wall-based sculptures called Cells. Made from cast bronze, each one sports a striated relief pattern that is interrupted by Sasraku’s tartan motif and embedded with fragments of stone. The dark, patinated surface of Red Dry-Cell (2022) is punctuated by a piece of red ochre found in the northernmost peninsula of the Isle of Skye, while the muted Grey Wet-Cell (2022) features two chunks of graphite collected from the village of Fremington in Devon. Contrasting organic forms with human-designed structures, these works seem at once ancient and futuristic, as if they were the product of some long-extinct yet technologically advanced civilisation that could draw energy from rocks. It is no surprise, then, to find that Sasraku found inspiration in the mysterious Baghdad Battery, a rudimentary 2,200-year-old artefact discovered in Iraq and thought to be the oldest known electric battery in existence.
The sci-fi atmosphere at Spike Island is amplified by five enormous floor-standing sculptures called Liths. These black structures recall the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, though, we are told, they refer to the numerous mysterious standing stones found in landscapes significant to the artist, including Dartmoor and the Scottish Highlands. Each one displays a greatly enlarged image of a paper fragment torn from a Terratype, allowing for closer inspection of the delicate material. But the kozo paper on which these images have been printed has sucked their vitality, leaving them soft-focused and subdued. The sense of mystery initially conveyed by the Liths crumbles on closer inspection, their painted chipboard construction suggesting flatpack furniture rather than megalithic constructions.
Tanoa Sasraku. O’ Pierrot, 2019. 8mm film still. Image courtesy the artist.
The most poignant work is Mire Horse (2022), a configuration of Terratypes that individually take their form from a pixelated image of a horse’s head. It honours an affecting childhood encounter in which, losing her way in the mist on Dartmoor, Sasraku stumbled into a bog and came face to face with a dead horse. Pigments sourced from a fossilised tree result in a muddy brown palette that, combined with Dartmoor bog matter, offers a sobering contrast to the rich hues seen elsewhere. Speaking to the cycle of death and decay that is essential to life on the moors, it, too, is filled with mystery, though confirms an inkling that Sasraku is at her strongest when foregrounding autobiography. This is exemplified by earlier works not shown here, such as Swaling Gorse (2018), a large flag exploring her Ghanaian heritage, and the films Whop, Cawbaby (2018) and O’ Pierrot (2019), which speak to her experiences of racism within wider histories of colonialism and black British experience.
While Terratypes sees Sasraku shift her focus to more personal territory, her work has become correspondingly cryptic. There is much to admire here, but her mythologising risks leaving viewers cold. Like the British landscape, the works in this show cannot really be known; rather, they must be experienced to be appreciated.
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