Evgenia Arbugaeva's cinematic images of an abandoned lab and its dedicated caretaker
Amani is the latest body of work from Siberian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, which tells the fascinating story of the once lauded, now semi-abandoned Amani Malaria Research Station in East Africa, through the experience of its devoted former lab assistant, John Mganga.
Suspended on a hilltop in the northeastern reaches of Tanzania, lies a tranquil expanse of forestry famed for its rich biodiversity. It is here that an immense botanical research centre was founded by German colonists in the late 19th Century – complete with imported gardens and coffee plantations. After the First World War, the British slowly converted the station into the leading malaria research site in British Africa, hosting scientists and researchers from across the world in their quest to better comprehend, control and prevent the conditions that breed Malaria and other tropical diseases.
To aid their developing studies, the scientists enlisted the help of villagers to support their work. Many of whom felt naturally wary of these new inhabitants and mistrustful of their 'modern medicines', which they regarded as supernatural. But others, like Amani’s protagonist John who became a lab assistant there, the station came to symbolise a world beyond village life, a place of dreams and innovation, a space they would cherish long after the end of British colonial rule and the labs' desertion by the scientists in the 1970s.
Working with the anthropologists of the 'Traces of the future' project (ESRC), Evgenia spent two months photographing the now defunct lab, the modernist buildings and its library. Through the eyes and guidance of its loyal caretaker, John, she captures both the significance of the centre and his role there, revealing the rituals and routines of a once ordered existence and its subsequent demise.
Combining documentary with magical realism, these twelve beautifully observed, sensual and cinematic compositions seamlessly merge fact and fiction, symbol and myth, personal and public narratives. Blending the mundane with the supernatural, Evgenia focuses in on themes of isolation and unfulfilled promise, using John and the objects as pictorial metaphors for the stories and aspirations of the people and the science that was once pioneered here.
Each image hints at its wider context: European trees and medicinal plants, complete with their Latin labels are shown nestled between local species; a colony of (lovingly tendered to) white mice act both as fairytale characters and laboratory evidence; scientific instruments and a fully stocked library stand poised for use in the hopes that one day the scientists might return. The quiet, gentle presence of John is felt in every shot, his care and attention, hopes and dreams realised explicitly and implicitly without sentimentality.
Evgenia Arbugaeva: Amani is on show from 5 May until 18 June at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. For sales enquiries contact their Print Sales Gallery on [email protected].
Main image: Evgenia Arbugaeva – Untitled #51 from Amani, 2016 © Evgenia Arbugaeva. Courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery