A SEASON IN SHELL (2013-2016) recounts the artist Royce Ng and anthropologist Daisy Bisenieks collaborative engagement with the Bull, a Somali businessman and asylum seeker they met in the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong between 2013-2014.

At first observing then assisting the Bull in setting up an office for a North Sudanese mining company, the artists soon began to document the passage of his side trade in Red Sea Abalone, the collection of 600 metric tonnes by Somali fishermen who studied Japanese ama abalone diving manuals, and selling the meat onto informal dried seafood markets and restaurants in Hong Kong and shell processing factories in China where they are treated, polished and refined into mother of pearl and sold at profit to Hong Kong jewellers and Swiss watchmakers for ornamental use. Originally performing as a real time field report, their exhibition A Season in Shell in the basement gallery spaces of the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich joined the geographically disparate value adding chain, whereby the artists and the Bull, using his contacts in the self declared sovereign state of Somaliland, moved two metric tonnes of the abalone shells as they travelled from Berbera to Dubai (to Zurich) and onwards to China.

Following the disappearance of the Bull from Hong Kong in 2014, the artists were left with the two tonnes of shells to forward onto China where they decided to process some of them to extract the calcium carbonate and use it to make a porcelain glaze. Ensconced in waves of abalone shells and replete with Chinese porcelain tableware encased in the abalone shell glaze, the shell of the boat echoes the spaces in the abalone’s passage to Hong Kong, the bellies of ships, a Chinese banquet table, Qing Dynasty export art furniture designs and more recently the porcelain kilns of Jingdezhen, seeking to challenge the audiences senses to contemplate the physical waste, alienated labour, decadence, life and death and levels of complicity in global production. The accompanying film essay and poem is a tapestry of multiple entwined narratives, including the lifecycle of the abalone, the value adding chain of the abalone, the migration journey of the Bull, the artist and the Bull’s working experience, which are all woven with the sympathetic, experiential framework of the French surrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s poem A Season in Hell, a writer who the artists paralleled with the Bull whose verses formed waves to carry the shells, showing where came from, how they were acquired and see where they are going.

A Season in Shell was commissioned by the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, Switzerland as a part of a series of exhibitions looking at the economic relationship between Asia and Africa.
2013-2016, A Season in Shell, two-tonnes of abalone shells, 230 piece Red Sea Abalone calcium carbonate glazed porcelain dinner service, table, chairs, 2-channel video installation, dimensions variable

The exhibition is accompanied by a ten-part prose poem published in folder format by Daisy Bisenieks which describes her impressions of working with the Bull over the course of six-months and references Arthur Rimbaud's 'A Season in Shell'.

THE SWEET SMELL OF CARRION

We met the Bull in a china shop. It was full of exiles and itinerants, so mindful of their movements so as not to make the porcelain tremble by their presence. A well-spoken gentleman, quick to impatience and with a penchant for verse, he hailed from the Horn of Africa, from a family of poets and was the son of a military general. He had spent his childhood in Saudi, attending the same school as Osama once did. Upon his return home he became a nationalist and when the Coptic flags eclipsed the White Star, he did what any nationalist would do; he became a traitor. He began selling rockets to the army, “ so we could drive those bastards from the country.” He reminded us of a man that lived 150 years before him, of a poet in self-imposed exile, an enterprising nomad travelling through the desert, who one day sold 2000 Remingtons to Menelik II and used them to kill Italian colonialists in Adwa, and then went on to wander the terrains of Yemen, Somalia, Dijbouti and Ethiopia for 17 years, trading ivory and guns. The Bull still trades in shells, but of a different kind. His talent for drawing channels now high wires fresh connections where ‘cockroaches of the sea’ find new life in the highest echelons of potent, therapeutically endowed cuisine and aesthetic adornment, flags of social status waving from hilltops in Asia and Europe. He recalls how the Omanis would pay 100 dollars for 1 kilo and the fishermen were happy because for them, it was money for collecting “trash”. The Omanis would sell those reticent molluscs to the seafood dealers from Hong Kong for $600 a kilo. Then the Bull charged, prices were matched, and a new industry was hatched, with the guidance of Japanese ama audiotapes. Soon, the Omanis were driven from the seas and the fishermen prospered. This is how you play the game.



BECOMING SHELL

Some spend a considerable amount of time searching for an ideal habitat before metamorphosing, but others may settle on the nearest suitable substrate. The Bull told us one day that “ there was a time when all I wanted was to die in one piece”. He had left Kampala a day before a bomb exploded in Kabalagala. Something told him to get out, but sure enough that very move soon gave him fresh legs, albeit ones of prey and a new game was born. Shucked and dried out. He found himself sleeping in a corner in Dubai airport, and decided he might have better luck on an island in the South China sea.








BECOMING MUSCLE

The settlement may be followed by a searching phase, looking for an appropriate place to metamorphose. A condition of the Bull’s exile in Hong Kong was that he could not work. But if you pick up a phone and call a man from China and order some goods from him, and a man in Dubai pays for them, and then they are shipped to Sudan, have you “worked”? It’s late afternoon, and I sit in a luxury hotel with the Bull and an elder Somali businessman whose personal history and situation couldn’t be more different from the Bull’s. He is where the Bull wants to be. Bespoke in a suit, a crisp shirt and nursing an espresso, columns of sunlight that fall through the faint scratches of window tinting behind us glint off the Bull’s thin, wire rimmed spectacles as he checks his Rolex. He gives himself the impression of a high flyer that detracts from a stifling boredom and everyday sameness of his status and to almost evoke, transform himself with the power of a suit, into that very impression, aspiration, he is cultivating. Behind us a plump Middle Eastern gentlemen in the company of a kowtowing colleague is enjoying high tea, small sandwiches, petite cakes that are crumbling easily through his stumpy fingers. We are entangled in conversation about distribution channel moguls for Asian goods flowing into North Africa but I see the Bull prick his ears to listen to the conservation behind us. When the time becomes right, he stands up and walks over and introduces himself.