Michelle Piergoelam, Songs in a Strange Land

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Lecturis (here). Softcover, 21 x 28.8 cm, 36 pages with large fold outs, with 46 color and black and photographs. Includes an essay by Alex van Stipriaan. Design by SYB. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Michelle Piergoelam, a Dutch visual artist, often incorporates cultural myths, dreams, and memories, drawing on her own family history and upbringing. Piergoelam’s parents both moved to the Netherlands at a young age from Suriname, and despite her Surinamese heritage, she still hasn’t visited her homeland. In her artistic projects, Piergoelam uses hints, fragments, and traces to create a vision of the country. Her images, both true and fictitious, encourage us to awaken our imagination, and she makes “conscious use of native stories to tell the cultural importance as a way to witness culture and history”.

Piergoelam’s ongoing multidisciplinary project titled “The Untangled Tales” sets its goal to visualize “stories of hope and resilience, and the ways in which these traditions allow us to glimpse at the years of slavery.” Songs in a Strange Land is the second chapter, and centers on the role of water in the lives of the enslaved, as embodied in rowing and work songs.

Its sophisticated and unexpected book construction definitely draw attention to Songs in a Strange Land. At first glance, it looks like a slim publication, with the title embossed on the cover and a landscape photograph in the background. It opens to flaps with archival photographs, and while the left side contains pages with an essay, the right side unfolds into five long stacked foldouts. Each fold out has a sequence of images printed on black paper, and the outer side has texts of the songs with images in the background.  

The book takes us to the Suriname rivers, the place where the enslaved used to row for long hours in boats. Surinamese rowing songs were an essential part of those trips. They used an African call-and-response technique, where one person sings and the rest of the group responds with a similar phrase. These songs are filled with the fighting spirit and the sorrow of the enslaved. An essay by Alex van Stipriaan titled “Row, row, row your boat” sets the tone of the book, stating that “slavery in Suriname is unimaginable without taking into consideration the role of water.” The enslaved were brought across the Atlantic (and for many, the ocean became their grave), but water was also always a predominant element in the everyday life of country. “Strange as it may sound, rowing a tent boat was one of the many occasions the enslaved people took advantage of to sing together.” 

As we unfold the pages, they contain fragments of the rowing songs, placed against the images of grass and trees taken at night. In a way, the book itself flows like a river. As we unfold the first layer, there is a sequence of eight images. These vertical photographs, all shot at night, have a strong blue hue. Portraits of a young man appear next to shots of a boat moving through the river, tall grass, and a paddle gently touching water. Each photograph is simple, focusing on a single subject, and this simplicity is powerful. 

The next sequence of photographs consists of four images focusing on a man’s hands, also photographed against a dark background. In these pictures, close up hands make gestures while the leaves of trees appear in the back. Then, there are color photographs of a man in a boat moving through the river, followed by a hand holding a lamp, tree branches lit by its light, and the back of the man rowing. 

As the fourth and the final spread unfolds, a profile portrait of a man singing takes up most of the frame. The photographs of him singing are mixed with the images of cane sugar and wooden paddles. For Piergoelam, the night river photograph symbolizes Surinamese history, as it becomes the site of memory. “At night, light and dark come together and show you what is forgotten by the day.” Emerging from the darkness, the river is the holder of life and the spirit-world.

As context to Piergoelam’s work, a number of contemporary diasporic photographers have explored bringing their family roots in their practice. Frida Orupabo, who is of dual Nigerian and Norwegian heritage, creates striking collages of archival imagery that assertively reassemble and reclaim Black bodies, exposing the multifarious legacies of colonialism (reviewed here). And most recently, Keisha Scarville, a Guyanese-American photographer, explored her family history in her photobook Lick of tongue, rub of finger, on soft wound (reviewed here). Piergoelam’s series is a welcome contribution to this conversation. 

For the final chapter of the project, Piergoelam plans to travel to Suriname and spend time studying life in the jungle, again referencing the lives of the enslaved. This photobook stands out, with its clever construction reinforcing its concept and narrative. Piergoelam, while still in the early years of her career, has a thoughtful vision and cultural awareness. It will be exciting to follow her practice, and to see the completion of the wider project and the next steps in her career.

Collector’s POV: Michelle Piergoelam is represented by ROOF-A Gallery in Rotterdam (here). her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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