b. 1971, Durban, South Africa
Siemon Allen was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1971. He received degrees from the Technikon Natal (now Durban University of Technology) in 1992 and Technikon Natal School of Art in 1999. He was a founding member of the FLAT Gallery, Durban, an artist initiative that operated from 1993 to 1995 and produced alternative exhibitions, performances, and multimedia events. Allen's practice involves the presentation of historical and cultural artifacts, which he uses to examine national identity in the face of consumerist branding and what he refers to as "imaging."
Allen's work is preoccupied with film and the moving image, slyly stopping the action and physically integrating VHS and 16 mm film strips into accumulations of still images in large, architectural installations. When enumerated, the woven strips create sheer enclosures or screens that affect the viewer's visual perception of other works in the gallery, which the screens either enhance or obscure. This body of work is founded on Allen's interest in employing high-tech materials to create works using low-tech processes. In The Birds (2008), Allen wove the entire reel of film from a rare copy of Alfred Hitchcock's famed 1963 movie into one planar form; the finished screen lacks the movement inherent to film, instead creating a static matrix of images. The use of the grid as a means of display and analysis can also be seen in Allen's collection-based works, including Stamp Collection (2001), where he amassed and presented an inventory of government-issued stamps spanning the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 to the present. The display collates how the nation has represented itself over time through a government visual as disseminated to the people. Similarly, Newspapers (2002) also begins with the act of collecting and cataloguing information from an everyday item; however, instead of researching an internal construction of identity, it examines how an external image of South Africa is cultivated through foreign newspapers. Continuing the investigation into how perceptions of nationality are constructed, The Land of Black Gold (2004) looks at how Les adventures de Tintin (The Adventures of Tintin, 1929–83), a Belgian comic book, represents an image of the Arab world to a Western audience. Using two versions of the same comic, one printed in 1950 and the other in 1971, as well as later works in the series, Allen maps the comics' divergence from near-identical opening panels through marked changes in setting, plot, and narrative that reflect the varying political climates of each publishing date. As the visual patterns aligned by Allen shift and deviate from one another, the overarching grid emphasizes the stories' differences as well as the power of the media as an arbiter of cultural identities.
Allen was an artist in residence in sculpture at the Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, in 1995–96. His work has been installed in solo presentations at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2001); Fusebox, Washington, D.C. (2002); Anderson Gallery, Drake University, Des Moines (2004); and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town (2011). His installations have been featured in group exhibitions at the Johannesburg Biennial (1997); Kulturhuset, Stockholm (1998); Institute of Contemporary Art, Maine College of Art, Portland (2000); Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2003); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2003); and the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (2012). Allen lives and works in Richmond.