Maria Ahmed — Heaven Speed The Chameleon

Often, the kind of visual chaos work like this employs can be difficult to grasp initially. It can be hard to comfortably know what it’s doing at a glance. Such opaque work can be said to feel a certain way, but this is often based in intuition; it feels indescribable, and so nothing can be said. Sometimes, we can only learn by describing in the micro so as to understand what is happening on the macro.

It’s hard to take each page of Ahmed’s Heaven Speed The Chameleon as a single image — comparisons with Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, or consideration as a series of collages seems more appropriate. Better yet, as “plates”, like the illustrations and print reproductions often included in history books for the implication of the collection, the archive, and the colonial museum that this term can evoke.

Taken separately, the images and motifs within these plates don’t seem to signify anything in particular; they work as a whole, interacting with the other elements on each page, and with one another across entire spreads. When I write “elements”, I don’t just mean “subjects” in the way we photographers are often liable to think, where we see through the photograph as though it is a window frame, or conversely, where we isolate a single thing in the frame and take that as the basis for understanding what the photograph is about. The overlaid colour filters, frames-within-frames, and digital distortions feel like strata — a series of layers, like a medical cross-section model, where organs, muscles, fatty tissue and skin peel back. These elements structure the relationships between subject matter as diverse as tribespeople, hands, and breast implants. At the same time, these plates don’t have much of what could be called a structure — they don’t seem amenable to being filtered through a particular system of interpretation where each individual element can be studied in fine detail and assigned a fixable meaning or purpose. Rather than these elements denoting things – that is, rather than pointing to them and giving them a fixed purpose or name – everything devolves to connotation, to secondary, cultural associations that lie behind & between these subject matter.

If we think of a traditional page layout, where a photograph is printed in the center of a white page with a border as a “hard” image, then the images that are reproduced & layered within these plates are soft images. The line between the physical and the intangible is blurred, with Photoshop-inserted makeup smudges and digital brushstrokes interspersed and layered over other images within these plates. Unlike this hard photograph, which has a strict and clearly-demarcated relationship with its paper substrate, that layering Ahmed uses lets our eyes search not just horizontally upon and around the surface, but also vertically — they carry a feeling of depth, where images float within images within pages, like dust motes in the air. Softer images can be read more variably, they can be made into unfixed and contingent meanings; harder images are more confined, more rigidly set in relation to one another. 

Stock imagery and digitally-rendered 3D medical models intermesh with anthropological images of tribes intruded upon by the colonists. A grid of vague models, but the grid is wonky, the colours inverted, some indistinct. As such, it can hint at a taxonomical logic, but it doesn’t really commit to being of anything; structure, but devoid of clarity. The grid, the taxonomy itself, can be a subject.

A group shot of the tribespeople, their faces nearly all obscured by shadowy, thumbprint-like ovals. Some resemble a sack over the head, like a kidnapping; simultaneously, the thumbprint can be a means of identification and tracking, or more literally just a mark to spoil, a mark to spite. They denature and degrade the human figure – here seen almost only as colonial subjects – until they are masked and obscured. Excepting that, the human body is seen only in part or passing reference; the medical model, the breast implant, almost hand-like line drawings placed with close proximity to a stock image of a bleeding fingertip. 

So: Heaven Speed The Chameleon’s logic isn’t representable or reducible to a singular element. On one hand, this could be commentary on archives, on image culture alone. At the same time, the patterns that exist throughout the book hint towards an impaired perception owing to the overflow of the different ways that we can see photographs, and the technology/organising systems we use order and view them — a technology that distorts and “rewrites” everything it touches, analogous to the colonial logics that also overwrite the cultures that they encounter.

That is: an impaired ability to classify images and what they show. Such an impairment suggests the arbitrariness of such classifications, and the hierarchies they impose upon individuals and civilizations — hierarchies used to justify colonisation.

Ahmed has drawn from vast collections of images of bodies, of things that would become part of our bodies, and the bodies of victims of colonialism. These images were made to be references, they were made in favour of particular kinds of bodies, of particular standards of bodies, of different ways to categorise bodies and body parts. They are born from bodies and systems of thought: race, science, the flesh, ownership, digital & analog, image & representation, photograph & subject matter.

These, paired with these marks, hint at a world in which there are systems that produced these references, which used rigid structures and logics to describe and to represent the world, to categorise it into parts and objects, to make the body an object. As I wrote before, the elements connote, they “gesture” rather than “point” at cultural associations, hints, traces. These are cultural & historical traces which permeate how images are seen at a fundamental level.

Simultaneously, colourful abstract shapes and donut-heads interrupt these forms, feeling like the meaningless advertisements designed to catch our attention every day. This kind of digital chaos is often used in a whimsical or speculative way; collaged layers and warped and smeared surfaces are often employed with joyful and experimental abandon. There, the unreal noise of the digital realm is used to trace the penumbras of bright futures yet to be realised — of new horizons and wonders humankind is yet to uncover.

This kind of vision of the future doesn’t recognise how and why these taxonomies developed. It is a vision that doesn’t account for what kinds of failed and broken systems we have created, and doesn’t see how they layered into our ways of thinking. This future vision is made in ignorance of how distorted this idealised rationality works in the minds of colonialism’s beneficiaries today.

In Heaven Speed The Chameleon, we are shown a vision of history & culture in which we can see the artefacts and contradictions of these failed systems. This is a world in which those who are descended from the people who invaded oppressed, taxonomised, classified, studied, murdered and enslaved the victims of colonialism cannot truly perceive the traces and logics still embedded in their cultural history as they try to engage with it. The descendants of those colonists inherit these ways of seeing, but they cannot – or struggle to – recognise them. On a cultural level, we who benefit from these colonial histories both learn from and feed into these ways of thinking, even when such ways of thinking are subconscious or gradually waning in contemporary thought. We are both the recipients and the senders, trapped in and feeding into it. Just as one must search into soft images in order to find the traces of these logics, really recognising and seeing through the traces these colonial histories have left in our own thinking — the visual/cognitive filters we have inherited — must then be an active and sustained interrogation.

Maria Ahmed

All Rights Reserved: Text © Callum Beaney; Images © Maria Ahmed