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"And the waters rolled on,

and what was old was new, and what was new never came to stay,

but to skim the gates of change,

forever new, forever old and new:

Once-upon-a time,

Never the same, Always at last the same"

[Kwesi Brew, ]

As this poem evokes the activities of all living beings and of all phenomena, celebrating the continuity of life throughout the past, present and future, so too does Virginia Ryan?s work, inspired by a kind of ?transcultural? reflection, recall the tide of change and transformation. It captures an old world and reinvents a new one suspended between reality and illusion, as it builds on a series of experimental possibilities and projections. This exhibition represents a response to the ?local life-force? of the west coast of Africa, a place of slavery and gold, which has become a focal point for transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, linking the organic with the inorganic, and fusing borderlines of land and sea, history and culture.

Virginia Ryan well knows, given her experiences of translocation, that there are many ways to interpret reality. Her artwork becomes a kind of elegy for a vanishing inner world, subject to the erosion of time and reinterpretation, as well as a critique on an external reality. This collection of images, which is a veritable palimpsest of experiences, sensations, privileges and memories, provides a framework for her life as well as a context for her work. Ryan?s interest in both individual and collective memory, and the evidence that is left behind, narrates a place and legitimises life, giving it purpose and significance. Her desire to reconceptualize history, be it personal or cultural, is the backdrop to a story of discovery, of experiences, and ?artefacts?, a genuine treasure hunt into a local culture conducted with determination, and from this corpus of objects she attempts to make sense of an experience, which is both intimate and sociological. One can imagine that the temptation to over indulge in sentiment is strong, and yet it is this process of ?recovery?, with its nostalgic pull to unravel the past and rework its significance in the present, that revitalizes both the artwork and the artist.

These ?gilded? objects and choreographed images are recontextualized within the historic walls of Foligno?s principal museum. From a place that has borne the brutality of colonisation with the stripping of its mineral wealth to the enslaving of its people, Ghana reasserts its sense of self in the context of this extraordinary installation. Situated in Palazzo Trinci, where the upstairs accumulation of European culture and its three millennia of prized ?possessions? are proudly displayed, the legacy of the past, with all its mutilations and the weight of its wisdom, is cleverly juxtaposed with a kind of African ?salon des refusés? installed in its downstairs rooms. Remnants of an ancient culture enslaved by another, and still living under its influence, symbolize the closeted debris of the simple life of the locals living alongside tourism and globalisation. The process of ?harvesting forms? and facilitating the transformation of images - in situ- defies a single perspective and challenges us to find meaning in the context of the present.

Invoking five centuries of European influence, Ghana's ghosts are nonetheless active players in her current reality. Tracing the ?internal landscapes of desire?, while attempting to make sense of it all, is indeed a challenge for any artist. What gives life meaning within the ?slow and relentless vitality? of change? Ryan?s method of highlighting a symbol, idea or human figure by changing its context, casts a corresponding spotlight on our modern and European perceptions. Collecting memories and recreating stories to overcome a feeling of uprootedness, makes an otherwise invaluable object or image equal in value to the ?treasure? that is life's own supreme condition. To those who fail to grasp its message, however, its worth is reduced to its functionality or lack thereof.

If art is to provide a stimulus that activates our highest potential, then it must come to terms with its own past as it forges a future. It is this kind of archaeological dig, excavating the meaning of one?s existence and dealing with the cultural remnants and ?environmental data? of our history and our origins that reworks a definition for this form of contemporary art. Ryan?s work provides a relativist twist on what is cast-off, disposed of, squandered or exhausted, and what is yielded, sacrificed, surrendered and relinquished. All of which is played against what is valued, conserved, continued, and exalted. In this tide of use and refuse, with its ?abandoned debris?, she has constructed images of the exotic and the unusual. If we look closely, they are part of the same environment and indeed all matter, and there is union in the duality, which is projected everywhere (black/white, treasure/ litter, wealth/poverty, etc.).

African aesthetics generally has a moral basis, aimed at both beauty and virtue, and often appears in contexts that deal with the vital spiritual concerns of the human condition. Interestingly, this work contrasts the remnants of an everyday life that struggles to shake off the contaminating effects of ?eco-tourism?. Ryan?s ?castaways? are reconceptualized and resurrected. Each piece has its own history, its own continuing story, on which one can speculate endlessly. By relocating them in another world we can retrace their value and give them new life, albeit an artistic one. Perhaps this intuition comes from the premise that nothing is actually destroyed or created, only recycled.

Since one's life is always an interaction between external conditions and inner tendencies, the same conditions or place experienced by one person as unremitting misery may be a source of exhilarating challenge and satisfaction for another. Our ability to resist and even transform the most difficult of conditions has always been the human dividing line. Ryan?s collection ?under glass?, which objectifies natural objects as well as the activities of human beings, calls into question the ?carcasses? of our value systems and plays on notions of elegance and disgust, resistance and surrender. This is further illustrated in her written descriptions of the natural environment and the locals. In precious few communities, indigenous peoples live in deep respect for their natural surroundings, preserving the riches of nature and gaining protection and sustenance in return. Increasingly, in developed areas where consumerist needs predominate Nature is devoured, with catastrophic effects.

While the global debate on human rights and progress highlights many conflicting value systems and worldviews - modernity vs. tradition, East vs. West, economic and social privileges vs. civil and political rights - ultimately, all these issues, including those that do not use a common language, are based on some understanding of human dignity. More and more, the notion of dignity as the basis for prerogatives over nonhuman nature is being supplanted by the idea of special responsibilities towards nature and one another. Invariably, our ?wastelands? of existence are returned to us in the backwash of our collective consciousness.

© Rosa Maria Falvo, September 2005


Photographs by VIRGINIA RYAN


Commentary by Dr Esi Sutherland-Addy

Chair of African Studies,University of Legon, Accra

13th August 2007

This book is a textured dialogue flowing through several media. From the babble of voices in conversation with Virginia Ryan at the beginning, to the photographs capturing moments of her life among Ghanaians, the text transforms into her reflections with Steve Feld interspersed in his erudite essay.

Virginia?s decision to discuss the issue of her own sense of visibility actually awakens us to many perspectives and invokes many voices even some within ourselves which we may be ignoring.

Among the important ideas expatiated upon is the presumption that White is normative and the standard against which everything must be compared, therefore requiring no justification. The headings of the various sections of the essay draw you further into it. The one which I found most arresting is ?White is a Color? .

The section itself packs in powerful ingrained ideas which one could spend a very long time unpacking.

Another issue is raised for me and that is the issue of the White Woman?s Body and the near deification of it. Virginia, by showing herself often in very close proximity to the African people with whom she is photographed -crouching among them or in other instances getting a coiffure or being massaged breaks some very strong psycho-social norms which have lead to many a lynching ,much ink flowing and great angst. I wondered whether she deliberately shared these photos to help us all question the long-held prejudices of this nature.

As Feld has rightly pointed out, even though they have written very little about it., people of African descent have been forced to focus on White people and their world and thus have become experts on them. This is an age in which issues of identity are clearly taking centre stage. People are taking on identities in the virtual world or seeking to preserve dying languages or migrating to distant lands. This constitutes moreover a moment in history in which the certainties of identity are being badly shaken and the concept of whiteness is not the least of these.

This pictorial essay elevates subjectivity to a level where it is legitimate to engage in an active process of self discovery, while seeking to engage in getting to know other people on their own turf. One of the strengths of this book is the consistency with which Ryan, interrogates her visibility and position of privilege and seeks to form alliances for exploring the reality of existence. By so doing, she provides alternative ways knowing and being.

'Portraits of Absence'.

Critic for installation 'Cento Passi - One Hundred Steps'

Enrico Mascelloni

from Catalogue Cento Passi

Shoes never lie.

Virginia Ryan pursues an ethic of Truth, which she sees embodied in these shoes, and tells us that there may be more verity in them than written ora the faces of those who once wore them. And in fact, in these works the shoes have become portraits, acting as the very image of a time when art has abandoned images of the Face, perhaps as a reaction to having seen it devoured by media representations, by the technique of post-modem camouflage, by the so-called 'surgical' bombing with which the Millenium draws to a close.

These shoes, transformed into an art work, set out in a complex pattern and ai times arranged in space as installations, powerfully re-propose questions about what is 'rea)', which is the crux lor perhaps, more appropriately, the constant spectre I of the art of this century. Modernism, wc should not forget, was borra with Vari Gogh's straw chair at a time when portrait painting was stili possible, which be replaced with an object -a 'thing'- which became a negative representation, so that the chair carne to represent the very body of the person who had previously rested upon it.

And now, when such portraiture has become an impossibility, Virginia Ryan proposes once again the negative. The shoe, even more concave than the chair, is also more of an wrapping: it is the negative which re-covers a part of an individua) whilst allowing him or her to move in the world without harm. And for precisely that reason in those shoes is deposited, as in no other clothing, perhaps in no other 'thing', the fatigue of being in-the-world; and for this it also condenses, like little else, the characteristics of each individua] - a precise Someone - and of a period - a precise period. The works are realised in a varied visual language [object trouvee, painting, photography] but in each and every case that which besieges, dresses, searches and shadows is the Real and its eterna) semblance: the human being. Hence the person who once wore them and the potential Someone tout court inhabit the same space, although not without tension.

As in Van Gogh's chair, these humble shoes, now dramatic vessels, indicate a new desire for the Real. Virginia Ryan creates Brama at the same time as giving these objects a new aesthetic. The sublimation of everyday objects is of course a well-established practise in contemporary att. Meret Oppenheim imprisoned shoes in an erotic labyrinth wherein pleasure could no longer be separateti from extreme constraint. Ori the other hand Jiri Kolar dressed them in all manner of image, perhaps in an effort to appease, although never forget, the memory of piles of clothing seen at Auschwitz.

In one of the 'Cento Passi' series, a pair of women's shoes, elegant despite having been impregnateti in white paint, with heels of a sufficient height to set in motion fetishist references, are placed one upon the other as in a crucifixion and fixed by a huge iron nail. We will forgo all possible interpretations of this unexpected liaison, present in all potent imagery, and instead underline the way in which reality, at the same instant in which it is fiercely and tautologically 'nailed', is here once again freed under a hailstorm of meanings ? and that, perhaps , is the Latin aspect of Virginia Ryan.


'Women looking at Women'

Palazzo Miralli, Viterbo 2002

Martina Corgnati, Milan - 2000, for exhibition 'Autoredonna'

(Palazzo Pasquilini, Casiglionecello, Italy)

"The bodies painted by Virginia Ryan can be deeply disturbing- monumental bodies with a suggestion of facial features recalling, on occasions, the painter Munch.

What are these bodies doing, these bodies of women, these figures which might appear to be basking under the hot midday sun?

They are doing absolutely nothing, one could even doubt that there exists within them any form of life at all. One could look for evidence of death, for example, embodied in a certain bloated quality, as if they had been drowned. Or, on the other hand, one can simply imagine that they are overwhelmed by sleep, weighed down by the heat of that very sun and have lost all consciousness.

If we look more closely, however, we might discover that these women are in fact levitating, rising up without losing their substance (unlike Yves Klein's Anthropometrics which may come to mind), suspended in a space which is positively radiating, a space of accession and of control.

These works, compact and most original as a series, recuperate some suggestion of shamanic qualities, perhaps as a distant reference to the Aboriginal cultures of her native Australia these are mysterious works which define and incarnate female power, a potential body to inhabit the shoes so constant in her previous works".


Anna Cocchetti, catalogue for exhibition "MM ANNO DiVino"

(Palazzo Balleani, Jesi - Jolly Hotel, Rome 2001).

"It is the female figure, a great 'divine body' which is the protagonist of the canvases and drawings in which Virginia Ryan repeats a sequence of 'Portraits of the artists as an Atopian'- bodies whose immobile suspension in a deflagration of time and space, and become a clamorous sign of the extreme nature and contradictions inherent in the female human condition.

Here body substance, flesh and veins, enters into a symbolic symbiosis of intoxication with the 'sacred liquids', the 'live blood', of 'drinking at the source', set against the blinding yellow of the sun".


Ghana@50, Worldbank Central Atrium,Washington,2007

Marina Galvani,introduction to publication, Art Program,World Bank.

........Virginia Ryan applies a strong personal interpretation to the 'Object trouve'.Her commitment to the enviroment is strikingly manifest in her work.......


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