While I was in Toronto with Sean and Tsitsi Jaji for the Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS) conference, I checked out Edward Burtynsky’s “Oil” at the Royal Ontario Museum Institute for Contemporary Culture (exhibition runs April 9 to July 2, 2011, and getting into the museum is pricy – $25 per person). The three-year touring exhibition is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, and features Burtynsky’s decade-long exploration of the effluvia of our love-affair with oil—from extraction to production to consumption. Included are images of herds of “nodding donkeys” (the pumpjacks used to extract oil), rows and rows of immaculate, identical automobiles in sales lots, meditations on the beauty of clover-leaved, many stranded expressways of LA and Shanghai, and the  beckoning neon fingers of Exxon, Shell, and fast-food drive-throughs in the hinterlands of America. There are also abandoned oil fields owned by the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), mountains of dead tyres, and the Miro-like patterning in the oil sands in Fort McMurray, Alberta. An image of a body of water in Northern Alberta (here and here) which has the second-largest known deposit of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia, contains a mesmerising sky of rolling grey clouds mirrored in what appears to be perfectly still water—but is in actuality a toxic pond. In the large scale of these photographs, we realise how small the presence of humanity is—if it is there at all. In Burtynsky’s images of shipbreaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh (above), clinging to the looming hulls, somewhere in the dirty reds, rust, mud, and chemicals, are the bodies of the men engaged in the process of dismantling these giants: hardly noticeable, but made visible because he has carefully enlarged the image to a scale that removes our unknowing and disinterest.

Burtynsky calls his images “the new reflecting pools” of our times. Next to his, George Osodi’s “Oil Rich Niger Delta,” images are different beasts. The crudeness and cruelty of toxic lives, enmeshed within the grand profiteering and politics of oil extraction in the poorest regions of the world are in the forefront here. Significantly, Osodi is able to avoid pity and guilt. Though his images do not have the finesse of Burtynsky’s, they are more intimate, and more immediately “lively” and living (see them here  and here).

–Neelika Jayawardane.