Very few photographers straddle art and fashion photography as successfully as Viviane Sassen, a fact London’s galleries are very much aware of at the moment. The Dutch photographer has only just seen the end of In and Out of Fashion, an experimental show at The Photographers’ Gallery which used large-scale projected slideshows moving quickly across large, temporary walls in the dark space to the accompaniment of a melodious and hypnotic soundtrack. Yet today the ICA is opening another show of Viviane’s work, entitled Pikin Slee.
The exhibition consists of a series of photographs taken in a remote village of the same name in the small South American country of Suriname. It’s a long way, both geographically and figuratively, from the sets, lights and studios of her commercial work – the village is unreachable except by canoe, and the Saramacca people who live there have neither electricity nor running water.
“I was instantly in love with the village,” Viviane told us. “I lived in Kenya when I was young, in the early 1970s, and the villages I knew from back then were also secluded. There was no electricity, maybe one dust road. It was this kind of very simple way of living. I think Suriname triggered memories from my own childhood.” Stepping into a simpler way of living was a welcome change, she explained to us. “The first time I was in Suriname I was actually editing the book In and Out of Fashion, and it’s just a bombardment of images and ideas and colours. I was kind of longing for something more simple and still. So I went to the village, I thought, "Ahhh!’”
The change of pace is almost tangible: the textures, forms and subtle shadows come from a far more quiet and organic place than we’re used to seeing in Viviane’s work. “I just naturally felt like I wanted to do black and white pictures again, and I hadn’t done that in years.” The change of environment altered how she went about making the photographs too, she continued. “I didn’t want to intrude too much, so there are hardly any staged pictures: just a few.” It makes for a compelling collection. Two large scale digital prints naturally dominate the space, while a selection of other black and white images, shot through with her customary bolts of vibrant colour from the collection – of young villagers playing together, or pots left out on the ground – capture the Saramacca’s uncluttered way of living. As changes of pace go, this one is very, very beautiful.
Viviane Sassen: Pikin Slee will be on display at the ICA London until 12 April.