Tyson/Bombardier and Untitled (Sofa) (Tate P20268) belong to a series of eleven photographs taken in Dakar, Senegal collectively titled Phantom. The series was commissioned by Tate Liverpool for display in the gallery’s Project Space in spring 2003. The maritime centre of West Africa, Dakar is a modern metropolis combining French colonial architecture with more recent hybridised African styles. Dakar and Liverpool have historic links through colonialism and the slave trade, but Dakar is now considered a fashion and culture capital, and so relates to contemporary Liverpool on a more positive level. Describing the series as ‘a personal interpretation of the paradoxical situations brought about through the concrete reality of modernity’s urban vision’, the artist wrote:
The built manifestations of a city suggest a specific way of urban dwelling, yet what are the possibilities for entering and potentially transgressing that space? In my work I try to illuminate the poetics of space and search for the entry points into the psyche of the city, which allow a free-fall into the metropolis of one’s imagination. These photographs of Dakar try to articulate the different ways of building and inhabiting a city, and suggest the possibility of a transfer of urban knowledge.
(Quoted in Rut Blees Luxemburg: Phantom, [p.4].)
Blees Luxemburg photographs unnoticed or neglected areas of cities at night, using only the available ambient light and long exposure times. Streetlights, neon signs and other incidental light sources produce synthetic lime greens, fluorescent yellows and sulphuric orange which glow out of the surrounding darkness. These colours have become characteristic of her work. Blees Luxemburg moved to London from Germany in 1990 to study photography at the London College of Printing (1990-3) and the University of Westminster (1994-6). Her early series feature deserted streets in the City of London and London’s East End. Photographs taken in the mid-1990s transform such modernist structures as tower blocks, 1960s council estates, car parks, empty sports grounds, urban motorways and building sites into magically illuminated sites of mystery. In her Liebeslied series (1999-2000), in images such as Viewing the Open 1999 (Tate P78570), she focuses on small details within a larger scene, revealing the power and beauty of nature in abject urban sites.
Tyson/Bombardier presents a large billboard advertising a Senegalese wrestling match between two heavyweights, Mohammed Ndao ‘Tyson’ (named after the American heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson) and Sérigne Dia ‘Bombardier’, on Christmas Day 2002. Brilliantly lit by the streetlight above it, the billboard shows the two muscular men naked to the waist, highlighted against a background bearing, among others, the logo of the petrol company Shell. The topic is political: wrestling has been a traditional village activity in Senegal for centuries, a non-commercial form of entertainment, (peacefully) demonstrating one village’s power over another in a manner that encourages bonding between individuals and tribes. In the 1980s, in an attempt to make the matches more spectacular, the Senegalese Wrestling Federation introduced some Western boxing moves and techniques including fist boxing (albeit without gloves). Although the wrestlers still wear traditional loin cloths and oil their bodies, they may also wear trainers and tracksuits as the matches are now sponsored by American sneaker companies (there is a significant Senegalese immigrant population in the United States). Large cash prizes are also now at stake. The wrestling or boxing ring, with its baying crowds, violence, colour and showmanship, funded in this instance by the ubiquitous, multinational corporation Shell, provides an ironic comment on the connection between Western culture and colonialist clichés of Africa. The only humans visible in the Phantom series, the wrestlers have a powerful physical presence. Framed within the geometry of a Western billboard, standing in African soil next to a manufactured concrete light post, they exemplify the paradoxes in contemporary global culture, in which extremes of nature and culture may dramatically combine.
Tyson/Bombardier was printed in an edition of five plus one artist’s proof. Tate’s copy is the first in the edition.
Michael Bracewell, London – A Modern Project: Rut Blees Luxemburg, London 1997
Liebeslied: Rut Blees Luxemburg/ My Suicides: Alexander García Düttmann, London 2000
Rut Blees Luxemburg: Phantom, exhibition pamphlet, Tate Liverpool 2003, reproduced [p.1] in colour