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Imaging South Africa: Collection Projects by Siemon Allen

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Imaging South Africa: Collection Projects by Siemon Allen

August 23 – October 31, 2010

Artist’s Vast Collections Illuminate South African Identity

On view at VCUarts Anderson Gallery this fall, Imaging South Africa: Collection Projects by Siemon Allen examines the changing image of South Africa through a series of expansive installations. Filling all three floors of the Anderson Gallery, this exhibition offers the most comprehensive presentation to date of Richmond-based, South African artist Siemon Allen’s collection projects.

Imaging South Africa: Collection Projects by Siemon Allen will run concurrently with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’  exhibition,  Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa since 1950—a portion of which will also be on view at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.  To celebrate these two compelling andcomplementary exhibitions, all three venues will host public receptions on Friday, August 27, from 6-9 pm, with free transportation provided between sites.

Over the last decade, Siemon Allen has created installations of various mass-produced materials—postage stamps, newspapers, audio recordings—that he has methodically acquired and catalogued. He approaches each project like an archivist, researching and assembling artifacts to disclose underlying narratives about their production, dissemination, use, and message.  Through the social critique that arises from his work, Allen investigates what he describes as “the contradictory and complex nature of South African identity.”

In Stamps, a massive inventory of over 50,000 stamps released in his native country from the colonial era to the present, Allen probes the official construction of an idealized national identity often at odds with social realities. In Newspapers, he examines another image of South Africa, but one constructed externally through the filter of the US news media.  With Records, his most recent project consisting of over 2,000 items, Allen has built an extensive ongoing collection of South African music and audio artifacts, with the intention of establishing a web-based archive of this material.  The exhibition will also feature a room-sized installation woven out of videotape that he considers a precursor to his collection-based projects.

Allen began assembling Records three years ago when he purchased a 1965 record by the exiled South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba. Struck by the overtly political nature of the album cover’s liner notes, he began to investigate how these artifacts disseminated an anti-apartheid message.  Allen has now acquired a nearly comprehensive inventory of international recordings by Makeba, numbering over 400 records,  that reveal the global reach of her image and music.

Allen will also show a new series of monumental prints, created from scans of individual records, that uniquely reassert the primacy of music in South African cultural history.  Nearly seven feet square, each image powerfully conveys the distressed, topographic surface of the vinyl record on which it is based.  “The damage on each record was for me a further marking by unknown authors who have unwittingly contributed their history to the object,” explains Allen. “The images capture not only the historical audio visually in the forms of lines and grooves, but also the scratches, damage and repair work done by subsequent owners.”

Artist’s Biography

Siemon Allen studied at the Technikon Natal in Durban, South Africa, where he received his Master’s Degree in 1999.  While in Durban, Allen was a founding member of the FLAT Gallery, an artist’s initiative that operated during the mid-1990s. His work was included in the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale as part of the exhibition Graft, and also in the Vita 93 and Vita 98 exhibitions. Stamps has been presented at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, Artists Space in New York City, and the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC. Newspapers was included in The American Effect at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and in A Fiction of Authenticity at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. Most recently, Allen’s collection projects, including Records, were shown in solo exhibitions at the Durban Art Gallery and the BANK Gallery, also in Durban. This past spring, selections from Records were featured in the 2010 Johannesburg Art Fair.  Now based in Richmond,  Allen currently teaches in the Department of Sculpture + Extended Media at the VCU School of the Arts.

Free Public Programs

On Wednesday, September 15 at 6 pm, Siemon Allen will give a gallery talk in his exhibition. Two weeks later, on Wednesday, September 29 at 6 pm, the Anderson Gallery will host In the Groove: Collecting and Curating African Music. For this conversation,  Allen will be joined by Bill Lupoletti, WRIR world music director and host of Global A Go-Go, and David Noyes, WRIR host of Ambiance Congo and co-host of The Motherland Influence. This event is co-sponsored by WRIR 97.3 FM Richmond Independent Radio.

Imaging South Africa: Collection Projects by Siemon Allen will remain on view through October 31.  A catalogue with a lead essay by South African curator Clive Kellner and an interview with the artist by Anderson Gallery director Ashley Kistler will be available. Support has been generously provided by the Office of the Dean, VCU School of the Arts and media sponsor WRIR 97.3 FM.


For more information, please visit the Anderson Gallery’s website:


The Anderson Gallery is the exhibition facility for VCU’s top-ranked School of the Arts,

located in Richmond, VA at 907½ West Franklin Street.

Gallery hours: Tuesday–Friday, 10-5; Saturday and Sunday, noon-5; closed Monday

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