The Dutch-born photographer Viviane Sassen is not an artist who is easy to define, not when it comes to her art, her world view or even her sense of nationality...
Who? The Dutch-born photographer Viviane Sassen is not an artist who is easy to define, not when it comes to her art, her world view or even her sense of nationality. Having spent three years in Kenya as a very young child, her return to her native land aged six was a traumatic experience, leaving Sassen with a perennial feeling of being an outsider both in Europe and in Africa. This air of dislocation has consistently run through her work across the fields of fashion photography, journalism and art, where she creates images striking for their hyper-vivid coloration that serves to emphasize the mystery of their intent.
What? Her latest collection of images are a return to the Africa of her childhood, the place she will always consider home, and yet where she can never fit in. Titled Parasomnia, referencing the sleeping sickness that encompasses sleepwalking and the strange emotions that occur while the body is trapped between wakefulness and sleep, it is a series of photographs breathtaking for their beauty, their oddness, and their supreme ambiguity. The all-powerful African sun is harnessed to both illuminate and eradicate, with figures either burning brightly in its glare, or rendered as contoured shadows against an iridescent skyline. A disjointed arm pours a bottle of fiery orange fluid into a drain, its depths blocked out by the silhouette of an unseen figure; a small boy sat in the shade of a washing line is bathed in an unearthly green glow; a man gazes at the camera, light picking out the white of his vest, the yellow of his belt, and the unexplained blue string he holds in his mouth.
Why? This series of photographs is an entry into an inexplicable world of undefined locations, blistering colours and configurations without rational order. The viewer lingers to apply their own narrative, and then eternally questions it, for there can be no satisfactory answer. "I try to make images that confuse me," Sassen says, "And I hope they confuse others too." In the juxtaposition of the bold graphical nature of the photography itself, partnered with the impossibility of explanation, Sassen has created a fitting testament to her emotional perception of a continent where she never truly belonged.
Viviane Sassen: Parasomnia: A short story by Moses Isegawa is out now, published by Prestel. The images are also on show as part of the New Photography 2011 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which runs until January 16, 2012.
Text by Tish Wrigley