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Alka Dass On Flora & Photography

Oath presents selected works by the multidisciplinary artist from South Africa. Dass is a creative, curious, and seriously blooming talent from Durban who chats with us about identity, cultural heritage and image-making.


1) Tell us about the creative scene in Durban?

It’s vibrant, yet teeny tiny! The points of entry seem to be unfortunately less plentiful and diverse than the plethora of incredible talent here. There are only two major spaces, really—DAG (Durban Art Gallery) & KZNSA. Both are wonderfully singular, engaging spaces, but the ability of any gallery to accommodate only so many artists at a time (combined with the limited number of galleries in the city) creates a scarcity that can leave certain artists underrepresented in our commercial and public spaces. It’s a goal of mine to partner with any entities that are willing to fill that gap and become outlets for the many fearless, beautifully textured artists who speak for our local culture.

2) When and where were you born? Tell us about yourself.

I was born in 1992, in Durban. I am an artist, first and foremost; one who is enthusiastically multi-disciplined, though she has often found inspiration in that which is thoroughly undisciplined. I, like my work, am a jumper of mediums—I am an incorrigible smoker of Marlboros, an ardent lover of rain, and an enthusiastically bemused pessimist. Primarily though, I am a person unweaving the fabric of herself through her work, and in so doing, hopes to clear the way for other womxn who express their experiences and identities as ardently and urgently as I do.

3) Walk us through your practice, how do you approach image-making?

I tend to lean towards whatever I feel a strong emotional connection to. My mom is sure it’s because I’m a water sign, and is quite fond of reminding me whenever she sees a new medium I’m playing with (or an old one I’ve cycled back to). I end up interpreting my emotions through whatever medium feels appropriate, which is why I feel I cannot stick to just one. There’s an element of tactile memory I feel attached to each medium I use, and since 2019 until now, that sensation of visceral memory has resonated most with archival family photographs. The history is conveyed not just in the moment of time the picture captured, but also in the fragility of the photograph itself. I try to convey the nostalgic intimacy they stir in me by rendering the photographs either on fabric or in digital collage.

4) Why are you attracted to working with archives?

When I began working with them, I initially asked family members to please just share any photographs I could use as references, and honestly, I was surprised at how deeply I fell in love with the images. I swelled with emotions looking at them, not having ever seen anything so personally potent as my own history encapsulated in these single moments across nearly a century. I’d unfortunately already felt a lack of representation in the art world when it came to South African Desi artists, so I felt I owed it to generations of others—especially mine—who it seemed had been forgotten. In a way, I feel like I’ve started actively archiving the history of a minority community I feel has been left behind, and its all the more important to me that I’m beginning that journey with my own family.

5) What are the common themes in your work?

Memory, identity, and heritage.

6) Do you predetermine the final result of your image when you begin a project, or does it happen organically?

I think it more or less happens organically. Even choosing an image to work with sometimes happens by chance. My Nani will usually come into my studio and start telling me a story about someone she recognizes in the image, and that will spark whatever inspiration that compels me to work with that photograph. The richness of her storytelling often motivates me to choose a certain image to work with just as much, if not more so, than the image itself.

7) South Africa has a rich biodiversity. There is something harmonious in your work to connect your personal narrative to the heritage of the country, and elements of the land itself. This comes across visually by your use of flowers. This fondness for flora and fauna, where does this connection come from?

I think it comes from the thought that my ancestors were farmers who came to this country on a boat to work on this land. When they came here (or were brought here), they brought with them and nurtured many plants that were not indigenous—certain types of marigolds, chili’s, tulsi, and curry leaf, for example. Most of these plants that have become a part of South African Indian culture were brought here years ago by Indian slaves and immigrants. There’s something magical about the way a seed travels like humans do, and I think the literal splicing of the two images epitomizes my fascination of that mutual, interwoven history.

Then there’s the tactile element I spoke about earlier. The pressed flowers are completely vulnerable. They are fragile, dry, and brittle, just like the old photographs onto which they’ve been placed…and the delicate histories those photographs carry into the present. I also feel the act of drying these pressed flowers is an act of archiving in itself. Most of these flowers are inextricably bound to my culture and are quite literally grown by my Nani’s hand.

8) For our next Volume we are investigating all things relating to LOVE. As an artist who is conscious of artifacts, memorabilia, and who works with physical products of memory we want to ask you: what is your most valued possession, in sentimental stock that is? A physical thing that holds memory and an element of love in it for you?

It’s a quilt my mom made for me when she found she was pregnant. My mother is a nurse, and at that time, she mainly worked night shifts in the ER department. When I was a child, the idea of her stitching those blocks of fabric together while everyone was dreaming made me think my blanket might be magical…and secretly, I still suspect it is.