Sondheim Finalists 2015: Zoë Charlton's collage triumphantly reimagines an African servant if he had been able to grow up

The man depicted in Zoë Charlton’s large-scale mixed-media piece ‘Companion, Constant’ never actually existed. That is, he was never given the chance to. Drawn here in graphite, the full-grown man is Charlton’s vision of Kalulu, the young boy servant (also identified as a “companion” in writing from the time) to British journalist/explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who explored parts of central Africa in the late 19th century. Kalulu, the boy, drowned during an expedition in the Congo River around the age of 12, and Stanley was reportedly so struck by that loss that he named that area of the falls after his “companion.”

Here, Charlton’s piece is a giant, but temporary, monument to Kalulu if he hadn’t died young, if he had been able to grow up. Represented in two graphite drawings on paper, generally mirroring one another, there are slight differences between the two in their features and poses. On the left, Kalulu side-eyes the viewer. On the right, he glances down. Neither carries anything in his hands, but a colorful forest full of images of palms and pine trees, along with ducks, clouds, fish, and waves, spring out from both figures’ backpacks. The collaged elements, which are cut out on paper and vinyl and stuck directly to the wall like stickers, create a unifying umbrella of nature overhead between the drawings. It’s at this point that the drawings on paper feel unmatched by the more-direct collages on the wall. The paper is affixed to the wall with heavy metal screws and washers—which hint toward an idea of burdens or shackles, but given the scale of the drawings here, they just feel a bit out of place. Parts of the collage peel away from the wall, which is also slightly distracting. But even so, backing up from those details, you see Charlton making good use of the gallery’s expansive wall space, as clouds float above and trees lean in, and ducks fly to and from each figure.

In both drawings, Kalulu’s body is muscular, and he seems to carry the weight with ease; it feels less like a burden and more like a symbol of strength. He’s nude, and with neither traditional nor colonial clothing, he is timeless and placeless. But both figures carry modern-looking backpacks, and one wears black loafers and while the other sports bright, colorful paisley rainboots. The shoes are emblematic of colonialism, emphasizing the fact that Kalulu was uprooted from his life (the Smithsonian Institute and other sources simply say he was from Africa, failing to identify which country or region) to be subservient to a white man. Though unfortunately Stanley, who kept journals and wrote books that touch on his relationship with Kalulu (however friendly or docile), was still the one controlling his narrative and writing his history. This is clearly problematic, and it is not just a problem of the past, but one that we struggle with and need to continue to fight against today, as white voices drown out the voices of people of color. But here Charlton is triumphant; her idyllic reimagining of Kalulu gives him another chance, a new life, as his own companion, even if it’s only for a moment. 

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