A Day Out at the Edinburgh Art Festival

Writer and performance artist mandla rae heads to the Talbot Rice Gallery, the National Museum of Scotland and the Royal Botanic Garden to take in some highlights from the Art Festival

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Keg de Souza, Blue Haze, 2023
Photo by Ruth Clark
Published 23 Aug 2023

It’s a bright, sunny day in Edinburgh and I choose to start my day off by delving into darkness. I am submerged in black, feeling my way down a corridor into Jesse Jones’ latest work, The Tower.

Created specifically for the Talbot Rice Gallery, The Tower is hypnotic. I stretch my arms out into the exhibition space, managing not to walk into anyone. I do, however, walk into a wall as I feel my way towards the bench that I read was somewhere on the left of Jones’ cave. This all-consuming darkness feels pertinent to the piece; it is uncomfortable to suddenly lose a sense you might usually have access to, but so much of history’s wrongs against women are exactly this. At the centre of Jones’ installation is a haunting sculpture of a burnt body. Projected against two walls is a poetic film charting the burning of mystics all the way from the 14th century to the Magdalene Institutions where pregnant teenage girls were incarcerated – where infants and girls alike died in isolation. Naomi Moonveld-Nkosi’s performance is mesmerising as she leads a choir of girls in community and rebellion, grotesque imagery transforming itself into tenderness – their bodies morph into each other as they are denied a freedom that should never have been taken away.

A lone performer moves through the space, first as a voice whispering through a hole in the wall. Climbing Nkosi’s ladder from the film, she kneels in front of select audience members, placing a Milagros into our hands. “It’s a gift,” she smiles and whispers to me and I feel at ease. This is a small devotional token, used for requests, protection, and good luck.

In the exhibition space over from The Tower is Turner Prize-winning Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s 45th Parallel. In complete juxtaposition to the darkness of Jones’ cave, Hamdan’s installation in the Georgian Gallery greets you with two backdrops of the painting Damascus and Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet by British war artist Richard Carline, with Hamdan’s film’s taking up the space on another side of the large painting. The monologue is set in the unique Haskell Free Library and Opera House which straddles the line between the Canada and USA border and is the only cross-border theatre in the world. Hamdan’s performer is Danish-Palestinian film director Mahdi Fleifel, who speaks frankly of how a man can shoot a young boy in the face, murdering him and still be protected by US Law. He seamlessly links this event on the Mexico-USA border to Hellfire drone strikes that have taken over 48,308 innocent lives. The library Fleifel speaks from “doesn’t have a single sign that says No Talking” because library staff say they won’t “shush you when you haven’t seen your grandma in forever.” Those affected by Trump’s Muslim Ban used the building – where visitors can cross to either side without passport control being an issue – as a space to gather with family members who wouldn’t be able to get a visa to enter the USA. I am filled with hope on hearing of this resistance and with fear on hearing these tales; borders continue to perplex me.

Jesse Jones, The Tower, 2023, photo courtesy of the artist

My second stop is the National Museum of Scotland to Rising Tide: Art and Environment in Oceania, an exhibition showcasing work by artists from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. The Indigenous people of these lands have a close bond with the natural world but are now suffering the impact of plastic pollution from the West as well as rising sea levels from global warming which threaten the low-lying islands into disappearing entirely. Climate change doesn’t seem to be phased by the invisible lines we’ve drawn on the Earth.

Similarly to the impact of the Hellfire drones on innocent lives, we see how the vulnerable are most affected by our developments in technology. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s visual poem Tell Them is a call to action; she warns us that if we do not reduce carbon emissions by 2035, parts of the Marshall Islands could be submerged under rising sea levels: “Tell them about the water, how we have seen it rising, flooding across our cemeteries, gushing over our sea walls, and crashing against our homes. Tell them what it’s like to see the ocean…level…with the land.”

In Angela Tiatia’s short film from 2015 Holding On, she lays on a rock that stands in the ocean. Wearing a black swimming costume, she looks peaceful as it begins, like she’s sunbathing as the waves move slowly around her.  As time passes, the tide gets heavier, and the artist has to hold on for dear life on either side of the rock in an image that resembles Christ’s crucifixion. It’s haunting, as the waves force her body to lay still no longer. Sea waters flood her mouth, face and hair – her body is alert to the dangers surrounding her. A white plastic cup that has no place in the ocean floats by her, its whiteness out of place in the dark waters.

Further along is Bottled Ocean, where artist George Nuku transforms plastic bottles he finds dumped on the streets into Maori cultural treasures. "The smell of neglect" hits him every time he picks up a bottle. His installation space is painted ocean blue, his giant sculptures are of plastic bottles turned into coral reefs, sea creatures and a waka (canoe) that traverses the waterworld. A Maori chant is playing in the space to represent the divinity Nuku finds in his found plastic materials: “The antidote to neglect is care.” His message and reclamation of discarded “alive and vibrating” materials is reminiscent of Jesse Jones’ work which found inspiration in a group of girls who escaped a Magdelene Laundry in Glasgow.

To end the day on a high, I head over to the Royal Botanic Garden, and get lost on the way to Keg de Souza’s Shipping Roots in Inverleith House. In this exhibition, de Souza’s detailed mind maps chart the journeys and uses of materials such as eucalyptus, wool and cochineal insects, how their travels have never really been restricted by border lines, whether by chance or as a direct result of colonialism: ‘"plants have always moved over and between land masses." This is one to put aside several hours for; to take in the detailed mind maps, to play and read the research she’s collected, to sense the smell of the eucalyptus getting stronger and stronger.