The Otolith Group. In the Year of the Quiet Sun. 2013. Video (color, sound), 33:57 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2023 The Otolith Group

The Otolith Group’s In the Year of the Quiet Sun screened here November 1–15, 2023. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views, screening later this month.

For more than two decades, the Otolith Group has created poetic moving-image works and cinematic collages influenced by science fiction, political philosophy, and anti-colonial struggle. Named after a structure in the inner ear that senses balance and motion by orienting the body to the Earth’s gravitational field, the Otolith Group is a joint venture between the artists, curators, and theorists Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun.

In the Year of the Quiet Sun (2013) takes its name from an astrological phenomenon that occurs every 11 years, during which the surface of the sun cools enough to allow observatories to study solar activity. In 1964 and 1965, numerous countries—including many newly independent African states—commemorated the occurrence by issuing stamps that celebrated the first scientific study of the sun’s surface. In the film, Sagar and Eshun explore the output of the Ghana Philatelic Agency, a New York–based company that designed stamps for Ghana from 1957 until the military overthrow of the nation’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, in 1966. For the artists, the final year of Nkrumah’s leadership marked a moment in which the astronomical and political calendars of the Earth intersected, and the global ambition of Pan-Africanism was not only a dream but a material reality.

Recently, I sat down with Sagar and Eshun to discuss how these stamps were both “moving images” that enabled the infrastructure of burgeoning African states and agents in the making and unmaking of the Pan-African project of independence.
—Gee Wesley, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art

Gee Wesley: This work tells a continent-spanning narrative through commemorative stamps, a form of disposable material culture that often goes overlooked. How did you come to see stamps as a key entry point into conveying what you’ve described as an “epic political project to change a continent and thereby change a world”? Where did this story start for you?

Kodwo Eshun: When you visit Accra, Ghana, as we did in 2013, you’re struck immediately by its independence architecture. Built between 1957 and ’61, these monumental structures, like Black Star Square and Independence Arch, are the most evident signs of the founding of the new nation-state of Ghana. But they also throw into stark relief the fact that there’s very little public or visual or material culture reflecting the founding of the First Republic of Ghana in 1960. That’s because the military coup in 1966 destroyed the material and public cultures of the First Republic. The absence of these visible signs is deliberate and not just a question of time, history, or age.

Our idea for this work began with an effort to think about how Ghana functioned as what American writer Richard Wright considered the pilot project for the new Africa. This eventually led us to realize that the military coup could not destroy the commemorative postage stamps that had been issued beginning in 1957, since they were already dispersed around the globe.

Postage stamps from this period confront you with the fact that Pan-Africanism was a genuine project that entailed the liberation of specific countries, which was a stage towards the liberation of the continent, which in turn was a stage in the unification of the continent. So what Pan-Africanism entails is an expansion of the political imagination about what is possible for African people to do and to become.

Part of the aim of this work is to reimagine the future of Pan-Africanism, which was terminated, and to reconstruct the values of that project. Once we clarified this intention, we began to assemble the postage stamps in order to narrate the imagined United States of Africa. That’s what you see in the video.

Anjalika Sagar: I think the expansion of Pan-Africanism exists in many forms. The postage stamp is a traveling image which enables us to think about a wider field of images and sounds that were linked to the pictorial sense of the nation—its mountain ranges, its rivers, its waterfalls, its birds, its flowers, its heavy industry, its airports, its universities. The stamps also depict an international kind of state system that is new, and full of hope and potential. We came to think about this work as a result of a longer project linked to our interest in Third Cinema, the essay film, and the histories of our families being socialists and communists, and exploring these ideas in Ghana and in India. I think of the postage stamp as a moving image that left Ghana, left various countries in Africa, and traveled.

The Otolith Group. In the Year of the Quiet Sun. 2013

The Otolith Group. In the Year of the Quiet Sun. 2013

What you get is an understanding through which you confront the interruption of the future that Pan-Africanism tried to imagine.

Kodwo Eshun

In the Year of the Quiet Sun

In the Year of the Quiet Sun

Can you talk about the ways this piece works with and against the idea of linear historical time to tell a more complex narrative about memory and the past?

KE: These stamps were part of an annual cycle of remembrance, commemorating the founding of the nation, the founding of the republic, Nkrumah’s birthday, and particular conferences and charters. So the stamps themselves were their own timeline.

What the video does is reimagine the links between the date and the occasions the date commemorated. Because postage stamps are issued by governments, they have a kind of official optimism to them. Postage stamps show infrastructure. They show bridges, they show airports, they show ships. But they themselves also are infrastructure. They’re not just images, but a part of an entire communication infrastructure that presupposes an envelope and a post box, and an entire organization of political geography, like a house on a street with an address and a postcode.

Therefore, stamps are a source of pride because they show that that infrastructure is functioning and that you are in a modern state. What we wanted to show was the kind of everyday functioning of their First Republic. We reimagined these official state infrastructural images without any of the certainties of the optimism that they carry, because we live after them.

What you get is an understanding through which you confront the interruption of the future that Pan-Africanism tried to imagine. You also get these emotions that most political documentaries struggle to evoke: not triumph and victory, but introspection, quietism, and uncertainty.

On stamps, everything stands in for another thing. An eagle stands for a charter, or a country, or for liberation. This aspect also makes postal systems suitable vehicles for one-party states. There’s only room for one head, one dominating figure. It’s as though they’re built for the purposes of dominating political tendencies. In that sense, these objects are not just witnesses to history, but infrastructural agents that are participating in the centralization and unification of newly independent states, sometimes in the service of dictatorship. These stamps are not to be celebrated naively. They are to be studied for their capacity to unify, to generate what we call instant ancestry, and to create legitimation. Because only governments issue stamps.

I’m interested in how this work situates images as central to the projects of state-building and nation-building. Can you talk about how this work shaped your thinking about these two concepts, and also the third concept of world-building, which is typically thought of in the space of speculative and science fiction, but perhaps has a crucial role in the formation of civic and political imagination?

AS: Can civic consciousness and political imagination be formed by people who understand that the reality of cosmopolitanism is based on convivial antagonisms? That sounds idealistic as now these fragile visions of that transnational effort at collective worldbuilding are being violently erased by multiple forces. As a born Londoner my city for example is now gentrified and lifeless with increasing poverty, yet, it has been created out of the labor and capital and culture strung together in the context of and against Empire . Sadly, one is not living in a city anymore that is imbued with the people and the cultural inheritance that was generated there, hence some of us sense we need to create that inheritance. For me, the inheritance is about opening a visual and sonic world that people can enter and build communities, as opposed to nationalisms and states. In this way we are committed to language, because language is so easily captured and manipulated, one must be resistant to the way it is used by institutions to divide and rule..I think there joy in non-conformity.

KE: When we made this work in 2013, there wasn’t so much sustained, serious attention to questions of Pan-Africanism, at least not in the political sense. When you talk about world-building and world-making, our effort was to draw out what we thought of as the epic dimension of that. That’s what led us to this notion of the quiet sun, which we did not know about before embarking on this project. It’s only when we started buying and looking at the stamps that we realized that there was a scientific project to get closer to the surface of the sun, because every eleven years the surface of the sun drops in temperature so you can send satellites.

The work embodies this fascinating moment where the astronomical calendar crosses the political calendar, and you get this amazing intersection of scale between scientific planetary dimensions and the politics of new nations. If you can hold these dimensions of the planetary and the national in play, you start to get at that dimension which is intimate yet simultaneously immense. That’s what we were aiming for.

In the Year of the Quiet Sun

In the Year of the Quiet Sun

Media and Performance at MoMA is made possible by Hyundai Card.

Major support is provided by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director’s Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art.

Generous funding is provided by the Lonti Ebers Endowment for Performance and the Sarah Arison Endowment Fund for Performance.