Charlotte Jansen

Jul 24, 2023 3:18PM

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Sinner Get Ready, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery.

In an ancient underground temple below the heart of London’s financial district, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum has built a mystical pantheon—a wooden structure housing an arcade of five animations from the artist’s archive. Each film explores origin stories, using the narrative archetype of the hero’s quest. Titled “The Pavilion,” the artist’s first U.K. solo exhibition is open from July 27, 2023, through January 13, 2024, at the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE.

The London Mithraeum, now an archeological site, was once a temple for a cabalistic Roman cult to the god Mithras. The site’s spiritual history, now preserved in archeological artifacts, sets the tone for Sunstrum’s artworks and her persistent inquiry into the genesis of our earthly existence.

Portrait of Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum by Lotte van Uittert. Courtesy of London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Wallflower, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery


Though Sunstrum, 43, has always moved freely between animation, installation, drawing, painting, and performance, all of her works can be viewed as part of the same ongoing saga, in which familiar motifs and a phalanx of female characters—such as the artist’s alter ego, Asme—recur. Each work, Sunstrum suggested in an interview, is a fragment in pursuit of the same theme: “How history is written and implicates power, and how it affects national and cosmic, as well as personal stories.”

In the animation Spin (2013), for instance, Sunstrum appropriates images from Eadweard Muybridge’s motion-study photograph series as part of a fantastical origin story for the sky and earth. In Polyhedra (2016), meanwhile, she looks into the earth’s molten center—with references to early 20th-century photographs of volcanoes by Tempest Anderson, a British surgeon who traveled the world to photograph eruptions and their aftermaths.

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, still from Spin (2013). Courtesy of the artist, Galerie LeLong & Co., and Goodman Gallery

Like these photographic pioneers, Sunstrum, too, studies the world and its structures through images. Her exploratory, iterative approach initially was the result of “not necessarily sticking to one medium,” seeing her studio practice instead as a research space. As an undergraduate at the University of California, she said, “Drawing wasn’t something that came easily to me—I found it really hard to represent figures in this language. It was always a struggle.” She turned to collage as a solution. “It had this wonderful urgency. I could quickly splice this vision together.”

From her early collage works, which used anthropological textbooks, glossy geographic magazines, and “coffee-table books that took you on these strange ethnographic journeys,” she began to make hand-cut animations such as A Short History: Starring Asme as Herself (2007). She said she was inspired by the work of Eva Hesse, Kiki Smith, and Louise Bourgeois, and “thinking about ideas of selfhood…how it might be something that shifts, explodes or implodes, and separates to come back together through time and across space.” The film’s rough aesthetic is the result of hand-cutting each photograph and animating frame by frame. Although she did this initially because she “didn’t know any better,” now that she’s mastered digital technologies, Phatsimo Sunstrum continues to insist on “working in a ‘dumb’ way, touching each frame by hand—it conveys something about touch, residue, and time.”

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, still from A Short History Starring Asme as Herself (2007). still from A Short History Starring Asme as Herself (2007)

Sunstrum’s life experiences have also informed this distinctive patchwork aesthetic, also seen in her recent oil and pencil paintings with their tapestry-like surfaces; as a child, her family moved often, from Botswana to Canada, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Malawi, and Panama. “Certainly the way I grew up, moving so much and finding ourselves as family against so many political and cultural backgrounds—trying to make sense of yourself against that constantly changing backdrop, you develop a position of an observer looking around to find signals of what you find to be true about the world,” Sunstrum said.

In 2010, after completing her BA at the University of North Carolina and an MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art, Sunstrum began a residency at the acclaimed Bag Factory in Johannesburg, whose alumni include prominent South African artists such as David Koloane, Sam Nhlengethwa, Tracey Rose, and Bronwyn Katz. It was a time, she recalls, when international interest in African artists working on the continent was on the rise. She was offered a solo exhibition in London at Tiwani Contemporary in 2016, and in 2020, she joined Goodman Gallery; a solo exhibition, “You’ll Be Sorry,” will open at the gallery’s Johannesburg space in October. (The artist is also represented by Galerie Lelong & Co.)

Liza Ezzers, Goodman Gallery’s owner and director, remembered meeting Sunstrum when she was in residence at the Bag Factory, and being struck by her “compelling storytelling techniques” and the way her work “speaks to significant global conversions including migration and histories of colonialism.”

Installation view of Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Mumbo Jumbo and The Committee (2022) in “Liverpool Biennial 2023” at Tate Liverpool. Photo by Stuart Whipps. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial and Galerie Lelong & Co, New York.

Sunstrum’s installations often grapple with these themes by restaging the heavy, imposing furnishings and interiors of the British imperial era. At the current Liverpool Biennale (through September 17th), her installation Mumbo Jumbo and the Committee (2022) includes authoritarian, Victorian-style hardback wooden pews. Meanwhile in London, “The Pavilion” is based on Victorian cabinets of curiosities, commonly used in instructive environments such as churches, schools, and museums. Rebuilding these structures around her own stories is a renegotiation of the power and hierarchy inscribed in and perpetuated by Victorian design. “I’m bedazzled by it,” she said. “It entices you but it also molds you; it reminds you of your place.” Placing her own works within these rigid structures is a way to find where “there might still be some agency, where there might still be space to usurp that larger system.”

At the end of last year, Sunstrum moved again—this time to join her partner in The Hague. Her studio is now in a 14th-century building that was once the Spanish Embassy. While she’s still feeling her way in the city, there have been moments where she has recognized the impact of Dutch history: “not only the early Dutch colonialism of the southern parts of the [African] continent, but in my own family,” she said. “I was born in a building that was a Dutch Reform Missionary Church, and my grandma was an elder in the first Missionary Church.” One of the striking things she has noticed is “a machine of a bureaucracy…centuries-old archival systems documenting every aspect of life. Yet from the receiving end of that colonial history, that information is very difficult to access.”

For now, these connections are still percolating, but all of Sunstrum’s surroundings eventually seem to be absorbed, digested, and reshuffled in her works: an attempt to make sense of where she is and how that connects out, as far as the stars. But she’s not fixated on finding an answer. The pleasure is in the inquiry. “The real power lies in the liminal, in-between spaces,” she said. “When you’re uncapturable within one rubric, that poses the greatest threat to the system.”

Charlotte Jansen