In our ever-expanding culture of mass consumerism, it can be hard to remember that the cycle of refined materials that pass mindlessly through our hands on a daily basis are on a constant journey. In the West, we sometimes fail to acknowledge just how much our culture of consumption influences, affects and even forces itself upon the rest of the world.
Angolan artist Edson Chagas (b. 1977) knows the dire effects of our capitalist society only too well. Responding to the seemingly unstoppable stream of foreign material ending up in his country, while the news blared about economic crises, Chagas says that he “felt like covering his head with carried bags to forget everything”.
Though Chagas’s background is one of photojournalism (he is a graduate of both the documentary photography course at the University of Wales, Newport and photojournalism course at the London College of Communication) his work has transcended its parameters and gone further into the realms of fine art conceptual photography. As such, rather than respond to the problem through a documentary effort or investigative exposé, Chagas takes a personally expressive approach.
In his series Oikonomos, Chagas presents de-personified self-portraits: in each image, he has covered his head with a plastic or tote bag, rendering him unable to see, and preventing us from seeing him. Literally stifling himself with the cast-offs of Western society, Chagas takes us with him on an evocative and introspective journey into the heart of his motherland, representing not just the blind, anonymous consumer consumed by consumerism he speaks of, but also the effects globalisation has had on Africa as a whole. Each bag in the series has symbols and logos on them that are foreign to Angola, perhaps most poignantly a label declaring America to be the Land of Hope. These traces of foreign lands and ideals, or, as he puts it, “detritus of popular culture”, stand in for the unobtainable, conglomerate-controlled dreams that are of no importance to Chagas and the people of Angola. And yet, still, they find themselves awash in it all.
By focusing on the shopping bags, Chagas communicates more clearly the nature of his protest against the West’s influence on the rest of the world.
By focusing on the shopping bags – the disposable waste that supports a consumptive culture without adding value to it – Chagas communicates more clearly the nature of his protest against the West’s influence on the rest of the world. He raises the question whether Angola – one of the fastest growing economies in the world – really still needs ‘help’ from those other countries.
Using photography as a means to communicate his frustration both to and about the Western world, he projects his perspective as an unwilling participant of this mass consumption. Through this delicate set of self-portraits, which reveals the stark realities of our increasingly corporate planet, Chagas issues a simple but striking reminder that every decision we make has its effect somewhere else on the planet. A sensitive protest, Oikonomos is a reminder that even those with quiet voices have something to say.
Edson Chagas is represented by Apalazzo Gallery.