Orleans House Gallery Exhibition on Victorian explorer who searched for the source of the Nile

An exhibition is opening at Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham on 19 November, inspired by Sir Richard Burton’s expedition to find the source of the Nile.

New images by artist and poet Himali Singh Soin, in collaboration with historian of science Alexis Rider, reinterpret collections of the 19th C explorer and scholar.

A famous and controversial figure during his time, Burton is known for his journeys across Asia, Africa and the Americas, and translations of The Arabian Nights and Kama Sutra. 

He went to school in Richmond and the borough is now home to his tomb, which has since become a Grade 2 Listed building.

Singh Soin said: “This historically distant character I felt connected to in a way, with his combination of curiosity and desire for discovery.”

She added that there was something eccentric and charming about Burton’s character and pursuit of knowledge, despite the expeditions’ relationship with colonialism.

Burton is said to have learnt over 20 languages, including Arabic, Hindi and Swahili.

“He really studied – he made translations, he spoke to people and it felt like this is somebody going beyond that surface level of ‘is this land ripe to plant our potatoes in’,” she said.

The exhibition incorporates a variety of mediums, such as photography, text and music, to interrogate ideas of exploration, colonialism and the environment.

Singh Soin noted how the search for the source of things was a Victorian and colonial obsession.

However, 16 different vignettes in the exhibition, all naming a different source of the Nile, challenge this idea of conquering and measuring the river.

Singh Soin also highlighted vegetation on the Nile called Sudd that grows automatically, actively obstructing you from voyaging along the river.

She said: “The exhibition is proposing that perhaps if we leave nature be, it’ll do its thing.”

Relating to this understanding of the river, the exhibition is fluid and interactive. Visitors can move the texts and images around, such that every time they might see something different.

The Orleans House Gallery opened in 1972 and provides art exhibitions, live events and educational experiences. Credit: Orleans House Gallery

Given Orleans House Gallery’s location, visitors are further encouraged to consider their relationship with the Thames and its parallels with the Nile.

Spokesperson for the gallery, Katherine Martin, said that a family activity trail is planned, encouraging people to think of the Thames within the context of scientific discovery.

Martin said: “A big theme at Orleans House Gallery is looking at issues around climate and social activism and allowing the public to engage, explore and make up their own mind about things in different ways.”

‘Brow of a God/Jaw of a Devil: Unsettling the Source of the Nile’ runs from 19 November 19th to 13 March 2022.

The opening night’s launch event will include a performance by violinist Blaize Henry of a new work, Beyond the River, inspired by the collection.

Feature Image Credit: Satellite and Chandelier (2021), Himali Singh Soin

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