Dust is particularly prevalent in Sandra Poulson‘s native Luanda. Sand too, due in part to the Angolan capital’s coastal, Sub-Saharan setting, as well as the debated deliberate underdevelopment of the country during its colonial conquest and period as an overseas province of Portugal. However, despite its potential as a reliable resource, the dust mainly serves to symbolise the demarcation of social status and the creation of a hierarchical class system surrounding its erasure or expulsion. With dusty shoes or unclean car tires an obvious indication of travel from an unpaved or unmaintained area, entire industries and economies have evolved in order to eradicate all evidence of dust’s existence. An unending and effectively futile enterprise, yet one that has come to control and compel the community. Such superficial disguise is able only to provisionally alter other people’s perceptions - serving a similar function to the fashions that first enamoured the artist - and cannot, of course, change anyone’s actual circumstances or predicament.
Poulson draws heavily from her lived Luandan experiences, where she resided until the age of eighteen, and engages directly with Angola’s socio-economic, political and cultural context in order to broach broader questions regarding heritage, history, geopolitical positioning and decolonisation. Consequently, throughout her recent residency at V.O Curations and current solo exhibition Economy of the Dust, rather than attempting to liberate Luanda from the dust’s commodified clasp, Poulson has embraced sociologist AbdouMaliq Simone’s suggestion that it instead be viewed as an accidental gift to the city, one that while historically delineating social barriers, can also break them down and even enable a certain upward social mobility.
The exhibition’s central sculptural intervention, Muro, is exemplary of traditional Angolan architecture. A crude concrete structure, constructed from that basic building material that does indeed make use of the city’s surplus of sand, appears as if birthed from the earth itself. Such seemingly unfinished forms are familiar in Luanda, standing silently as if awaiting an upgrade any time now, tools always on hand as a sign of hope should successful social mobility ever occur. Surrounding the wall and partitioning sections of the first-floor space, Poulson’s Gradeamentos replicate in cotton-covered wireframes the ornate gates that served as both literal and metaphorical barriers during the artist’s upbringing. Employed in place of doors, covering the exits and entrances to apartment blocks, these gridded gates were conceived to keep something out, but instead often signified separation, borders across which social interactions, childhood play and romantic relationships would be carried out.
Similar separations of the public and the private, denotations of domesticity, are suggested by Poulson’s Plantas. These fabric facsimiles of fernlike flora native to Angola collectively represent the plentiful plantlife that set apart her family home from its nearby neighbours and saw the artist and her sister earn the Saturday school nickname the girls from the plants. Seen by some as a sign of a particular, non-pecuniary, prosperity or plenty, as both the time to tend plants and the water to nourish them we’re typically in scarce supply, in contrast to the gates permanent reminder of prevention the plants instead instilled possibility and aspiration amid the city’s insufficiency of green spaces.
During the artist’s recent return to Luanda to carry out research for An Angolan Archive (2020), which formed her final year undergraduate presentation in Fashion Print at Central Saint Martins, Poulson found herself observed as an outsider. While her use of private taxis and overheard phone calls with English banks and businesses led to an air of suspicion, her dusty shoes were scrutinised, being seemingly incongruous with her signs of being a social mobility success story. Upstairs in the gallery’s second space two sculptural still lives - or Natureza Morta, the Portuguese with literal translation dead nature - depict those roadside sellers of shoe shines, sandal washes and instantly elevated social status. Further evidence of Poulson’s fashion foundations, each element of the intricate, elegant fabric forms is pattern cut and handsewn, and while one is rendered in the aforementioned yellow cotton, the other uses a beige floral patterned fabric that originally elicited enmity from the artist due to its resemblance to the curtains and sofa coverings of her childhood home. The suspended skirt and trouser are, however, found wanting of a wearer, perhaps another sanguine sign of upward social mobility in action.