A person with short hair and dark skin looks through a shiny black rock towards a screen projection of blue sky and vegetation

Nolan Oswald DennisSpecifications for a Reverse Archaeology (2022 - 2023)

Photo Anthea Pokroy

Nolan Oswald Dennis is an para-disciplinary artist living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. They hold a BA degree in architecture from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and a MA of Science in Art, Culture and Technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their practice explores the material and metaphysical conditions of decolonisation, questioning the politics of space (and time) through a system-specific, rather than site-specific approach. 
Nolan Oswald Dennis is the recipient of the 2016 FNB Arts Prize and has exhibited in various solo and group shows including at the Young Congo Biennale, Boras Biennial, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), Architekturmuseum der TU Mūnchen and Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology (2022 - 2023)

film & mixed media installation

Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology is a set of para-fictional devices and a speculative film that enact a reverse archaeology of the Mapungubwe Complex: a collection of botched excavations, gold artefacts, surveys, misinterpretations, metallurgic symbolism, mythologies, material and spiritual histories surrounding the sacred hill and ancient capital of the precolonial Mapungubwe state. Reverse archaeology refers to the artist’s refusal to treat the past as a resource to be extracted (from the earth). Instead this work performs a series of alterations to the instruments, structures and technologies of archaeological practice in order to prepare them for a more radical trajectory.

Drawing from indigenous techno-spiritual histories Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology imagines a series of non-extractive engagements with the material and ethereal world connected to Mapungubwe. Against colonial imaginaries of landscapes primed for extraction (of gold, of diamonds, of history, of ancestral bodies, of knowledge) the para-fictional devices in this work engage a landscape primed for return. Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology reengineers techniques, instruments and practices toward a different relation to deep time, black space and the anticipation of an alter-future. 

The work of artist Nolan Oswald Dennis engages with current discussions around remediating the contentious colonial heritage of technical and science museums – asking whether a non-imperial and de-colonial approach to these types of museum collections unearth other dispositions, lines of possibility and potential histories. For the acquisition Dennis further complicates these concerns by posing questions around the discipline of archaeology and its techno-political bonds with other histories of extraction as conventions of colonial practices. These questions are being actively posed in the context of the Netherlands, placing Dennis’ research enquiries right in the middle of historical museum practices that need to be rethought and reimagined.

— Gabi Ngcobo

The first presentation of Specifications for a Reverse Archaeology takes place at The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP), on view until December 2023.

The work was selected by the Commissioning Committee 2021/23 and acquired through the Hartwig Art Production | Collection Fund. It will subsequently be donated to the Dutch state, becoming an integral part of the national art collection (‘Rijkscollectie’), available for institutions in the Netherlands and abroad.