Evgenia Arbugaeva’s cinematic images of an abandoned lab and its dedicated caretaker

Amani is the latest body of work from Siberian
photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, which tells the fascinating
story of the once lauded, now semi-abandoned Amani Malaria
Research Station in East Africa, through the experience of its
devoted former lab assistant, John Mganga.

Suspended on a hilltop in the northeastern reaches of Tanzania,
lies a tranquil expanse of forestry famed for its rich
biodiversity. It is here that an immense botanical research
centre was founded by German colonists in the late 19th Century
– complete with imported gardens and coffee plantations. After
the First World War, the British slowly converted the station
into the leading malaria research site in British Africa,
hosting scientists and researchers from across the world in
their quest to better comprehend, control and prevent the
conditions that breed Malaria and other tropical diseases.

To aid their developing studies, the scientists enlisted the
help of villagers to support their work. Many of whom felt
naturally wary of these new inhabitants and mistrustful of
their ‘modern medicines’, which they regarded as supernatural.
But others, like Amani’s protagonist John who became a lab
assistant there, the station came to symbolise a world beyond
village life, a place of dreams and innovation, a space they
would cherish long after the end of British colonial rule and
the labs’ desertion by the scientists in the 1970s.

Working with the anthropologists of the ‘Traces of the future’
project (ESRC), Evgenia spent two months photographing the now
defunct lab, the modernist buildings and its library. Through
the eyes and guidance of its loyal caretaker, John, she
captures both the significance of the centre and his role
there, revealing the rituals and routines of a once ordered
existence and its subsequent demise.

Combining documentary with magical realism, these twelve
beautifully observed, sensual and cinematic compositions
seamlessly merge fact and fiction, symbol and myth, personal
and public narratives. Blending the mundane with the
supernatural, Evgenia focuses in on themes of isolation and
unfulfilled promise, using John and the objects as pictorial
metaphors for the stories and aspirations of the people and the
science that was once pioneered here.

Each image hints at its wider context: European trees and
medicinal plants, complete with their Latin labels are shown
nestled between local species; a colony of (lovingly tendered
to) white mice act both as fairytale characters and laboratory
evidence; scientific instruments and a fully stocked library
stand poised for use in the hopes that one day the scientists
might return. The quiet, gentle presence of John is felt in
every shot, his care and attention, hopes and dreams realised
explicitly and implicitly without sentimentality.

Evgenia Arbugaeva: Amani is on show from 5 May until
18 June at The
Photographers’ Gallery
, London. For sales enquiries contact
their Print Sales Gallery on [email protected]

Main image: Evgenia Arbugaeva – Untitled #51 from Amani,
2016 © Evgenia Arbugaeva. Courtesy of The Photographers’
Gallery

Untitled #55 from Amani, 2016 © Evgenia Arbugaeva Courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery

Untitled #55 from Amani, 2016 © Evgenia Arbugaeva Courtesy of
The Photographers’ Gallery

Evgenia Arbugaeva Untitled #50 from Amani, 2016 © Evgenia Arbugaeva Courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery

Evgenia Arbugaeva Untitled #50 from Amani, 2016 © Evgenia
Arbugaeva Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Evgenia Arbugaeva Untitled #49 from Amani, 2016 © Evgenia Arbugaeva Courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery

Evgenia Arbugaeva Untitled #49 from Amani, 2016 © Evgenia
Arbugaeva Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

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