After inheriting his grandfathers African Butterfly collection, photographer Isaac Blease began to notice the similarities between the ideologies and techniques of butterfly collecting and that of colonialism. The ethics and ideas practiced are remarkably similar, the need to control obtain and somewhat preserve all reflect the history we are familiar with. But with this familiarity, Blease invites one to look again, to look closer, to re approach history and explore the methods practiced by colonialism and butterfly collectors. What is interesting about Blease’ work is its main motives. Not only is this work about exploring the relationship two different acts can have, but bringing to the foreground a family history. As his grandmothers Dementia worsens, Isaac felt even more determined to bring this story to life.
With the camera acting as a firm pin into the body of a larger and more complex creature than the butterfly, Charaxes Imperialis taps into parts of history that may have been forgotten by some, by carefully and poetically addressing the issue through a family archive and photographs taken by Blease. The project itself is broken down into four key stages that are implemented when collecting butterflies, Expedition, Manipulation, Appropriation and Preservation. With this, the world of butterfly keeping and colonialism is broken down into easier chunks, which in effect make the world more accessible to a wider audience.
The photographs within ‘Expedition’ map out the landscape. Lush green jungle and jaw dropping waterfalls occupy the photographs, and one is shown to an extent the lengths and trouble people go through to collect rare breeds of butterfly, and the lengths people go through to colonise and impose their own ideologies upon native people. This thick jungle we see before us, couldn’t of been easy to navigate if you’re a stranger to the area, a maze of mist and vegetation. The photographs themselves are beautiful, not a word that people like using when talking about photography, but here it is appropriate to use. The beauty and splendour the landscape within these images imposes the thoughts colonists and butterfly enthusiasts may feel about Africa, a lush land, plenty for all.
Once the land has been surveyed and mapped out, the next step is manipulation, to control the environment around oneself. This is an important part of Butterfly collecting and Colonialism. Without the ability to manipulate your surround, you are somewhat left to the elements and control is taken out of your hands. Within these images we are introduced to a butterfly garden, where man controls the temperature, vegetation and humidity. And this level of control is felt within Bleas’ work photograph after photograph. The thought that goes around my head is how we can continually apply butterfly keeping to Colonialism, and although it is a very poetic way of talking about Colonialism in Africa, in away, this approach is more accessible and easier to digest to a larger audience.
With the following stage of appropriation involve scenes of a staged city, small rooms and crudely painted city suburban scenes occupy the walls. Think of the painted landscapes of jungles you see in gorilla enclosures, but this feels like it has been made for people rather than butterflies. The final stage is preservation, where eggs are stored and looked after by the workers of the butterfly houses. White eggs and shots of butterflies resting upon them occupy this stage of the project. The camera is angled upwards and towards the floor, helping us to scan each room looking for the butterflies.
What can be taken away from Blease’ fascinating body of work is how two connecting themes can work together as parallels of one another. Whilst looking at images of white eggs, our minds race to the white westerners who occupied Africa. Riddled with metaphors and subtle nudges, this is a direction in which documentary photography is slowly edging towards. And with Isaac only recently graduated from Newport University, the future of this talented photographer is as bright and colourful as the wings of the butterflies in his work.
Article by Harry Rose
See more of Isaac’s work here