Over the past two years Nanna Debois Buhl and Brendan Fernandes have treated the life of author Karen Blixen, also known by the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, as a point of departure in considering the effects of migration and language on identity. Born in Denmark in 1885, Blixen lived on a coffee farm in Kenya for 17 years before returning, at age 46, to her childhood home (now the Karen Blixen Museum) and writing her classic memoir Out of Africa. Buhl and Fernandes, who hail from Copenhagen and Kenya, respectively, wove the narratives of their own itinerant lives with that of Blixen’s in the six works comprising this exhibition, titled “In Your Words.”
In the ground-floor library, which houses permanent wall texts about Blixen and copies of her works, Buhl and Fernandes installed three glass vitrines containing Thirteen Index Cards (all works 2011). The cards featured short, idiosyncratic texts related to 13 key terms: bird, flee, fly, ghost, journey, letter, mother tongue, name, parrot, silence, snow, stranger and word. Written by hand in a mix of English, Danish and Swahili, and in collaboration with the Danish poet Mette Moestrup, these texts provided an “associative glossary,” as the artists called it, through which visitors were meant to engage the exhibition.
On the second floor the controlled mood of the museum was ruptured by Farah’s Letter—a flickering neon-light parrot with a soundtrack of Blixen’s servant Farah Aden affirming that a French-speaking parrot, which he had brought to the author from the French Congo, would naturally adjust to speak English and Swahili in its new surroundings. The words, spoken with Aden’s thick Somali accent, situate the bird as a surrogate for the effects of colonialism on humans.
Down the hall, in the main space of the exhibition, two video projections, To flee/To fly and At Sea, drew an analogy between flight and desire and set the stage for the large-scale video animation at the center of the room, In Your Words. This last work presented a visual correlation between highly stylized images of birds moving in flocks across the screen and the letters of their names clustering together, piling up into a dense fog of text and then breaking apart and becoming legible again. Accompanying this shifting field of words and images was a polyphonic voice speaking simultaneously in English, Danish and Swahili, falling in and out of the realm of intelligibility. Behind the projection hung a set of curtains printed with a pattern of migratory birds, the fabric layering a symbol of the travel that marked Blixen’s life, and that continues to mark the lives of the artists, onto a signifier of domestic space. The installation served as a poignant representation of personal experience, in which place becomes inscribed on an individual through language.
Photo: Nanna Debois Buhl and Brendan Fernandes: Farah’s Letter, 2011, neon sign and sound; at the Karen Blixen Museum.