Suspended Existence

Born in the Russian Artic, Evgenia Arbugaeva (b. 1985) often explores her homeland, uncovering and documenting remote worlds and their inhabitants through cinematic compositions which blur the boundaries of fact and fiction, cleverly weaving together personal and public narratives. In 2014, for example, she spent two weeks living on a remote peninsular in Northern Russia with meteorologist Vyacheslav Korotki, intrigued by the notion of his solitary and isolated survival. The subsequent series, Weather Man, is a romantic in its depiction of a contrastingly severe and unforgiving landscape, evocative of fairy-tale illustrations that marry juxtaposing ideals about topographies.

Now on show at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, however, Amani reveals the story of the Malaria Research Station, a former botanical research centre located in North Eastern reaches of Tanzania. The once acclaimed laboratory was established in the late 19th century by German colonial scientists and now sits within a tranquil expanse of forestry renowned for rich biodiversity. Situated upon a hilltop, the foundation was converted into a leading malaria research site when it was taken over by the British after World War I. In order to further advance their studies, the scientists enlisted the help of local villagers, many of whom were wary of the unfamiliar, modern medicines being developed. Others, however, came to see the station as an innovate space, symbolic of a world beyond rural, village life. John Mganga, a devoted former lab assistant and the protagonist of Arbugaeva’s latest series, was one such person.

Explored through the perspective of the now loyal caretaker, Amani documents the two months that the Siberian artist spent exploring the abandoned laboratory, its library and the surrounding environment, devoting her time to understanding and revealing the rituals and routines of the centre’s existence and consequent demise. Combining a documentary style with a dreamlike realism, the resulting images detail Mganga’s past routines: conserving specimens and instruments and caring for the remaining colony of white mice. Focusing on themes of isolation and promise, objects become metaphors for the aspirations of the people and events that still echo in the semi-abandoned site. Suspended in time, the library is shown fully-stocked and the instruments poised for use, waiting in anticipation for the return of the scientists. Each of the 12 photographs provides an intimate glimpse into the emotional relationship Mganga still maintains, his gentle presence apparent in every shot. Radiating a quiet sense of nostalgia, the series blends the mundane with the supernatural whilst remaining sensitive to both the present and historical significance of this intermediary place.

Amani runs until 18 June at The Photographer’s Gallery, London. Find out more:

1. Evgenia Arbugaeva, Untitled #49 from Amani, 2016. © Evgenia Arbugaeva. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.
2. Evgenia Arbugaeva, Untitled #50 from Amani, 2016. © Evgenia Arbugaeva. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.
3. Evgenia Arbugaeva, Untitled #51 from Amani, 2016. © Evgenia Arbugaeva. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery.