Part of the
exhibition

Freedom of Movement Municipal Art Acquisitions 2018

25 Nov 2018 until 17 Mar 2019

Mini story — 23 Nov 2018

Danielle Dean’s interdisciplinary work explores the way that media technologies and the aesthetics of advertising continue the project of colonization. Born in Alabama to a British mother and a Nigerian-American father and raised in a working-class suburb of London, Dean’s multinational background informs her work, which engages with the unique social and historical contexts of various places in Europe, the United States, and Africa. A stint working as an art director at a London advertising agency also led Dean to consider how race, class, and gender are constructed through targeted marketing strategies, a theme that recurs throughout her work.


Her two-channel video True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle) takes the history of the titular castle as its starting point. Built in 1482 by Portuguese traders on the coast of present-day Ghana, Elmina was hastily constructed from pre-fabricated materials shipped from Europe and established as a trading post for gold. It was eventually used by the Portuguese—and later the Dutch—as a depot for holding slaves before their transport to the Americas. Now in ruins, the castle has become a popular pilgrimage site for people of African descent to connect with their ancestral past.

Danielle Dean, "True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle)", 2016-2017, HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 39 seconds, courtesy the artist.
Danielle Dean, "True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle)", 2016-2017, HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 39 seconds, courtesy the artist.

In her film, Dean relocates the castle to Cuney Homes, an affordable housing community in Houston’s historically black district, Third Ward, where her younger sister Ashstress Agwundobi lives. A cartoonish, cardboard rendering of the castle serves as the film’s central set, with a bright red design inspired by Nike’s “True Red” line of sneakers. Dean casts herself as the castle’s site manager, and the film’s narrative revolves around her attempts to convince local residents—played by Agwundobi and her friends—of the benefits of the building’s presence in their community. Employing the strategies of a marketer, Dean’s ever-smiling character knocks on doors, offers menial jobs, and promises an improved local economy, providing a humorous parallel between the fifteenth-century project of castle-building and present-day issues of gentrification and corporate imperialism. The film culminates with a community-led revolt and destruction of the castle, mirroring an actual uprising by Elmina’s villagers during the original castle’s construction.

Danielle Dean, "True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle)", 2016-2017, HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 39 seconds, courtesy the artist.
Danielle Dean, "True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle)", 2016-2017, HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 39 seconds, courtesy the artist.
Danielle Dean, "True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle)", 2016-2017, HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 39 seconds, courtesy the artist.
Danielle Dean, "True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle)", 2016-2017, HD video, color, sound, 9 minutes 39 seconds, courtesy the artist.

For Dean, the castle is both a physical structure and a media technology that directly supported the transatlantic slave trade and thus increased European wealth and cultural dominance. She regards the castle as a precursor to Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century Panopticon, a penitentiary designed to be built in a circular form so that all inmates could be monitored from a single, central vantage point. Towering above the local village, the castle and its observation towers provided an architecture for surveilling the local population, casting the villagers as would-be criminals. However, Dean does not limit her critique to technologies of the past, and her video also considers how contemporary networked media—particularly smartphones, which both Agwundobi and Dean use to record themselves—influence self-representation and expression while also serving as new tools for surveillance and control. Recurring intertitles reference progressive generations of cell phone technology, advancements that starkly contrasts with a recent upsurge in socially regressive policymaking in the United States. With True Red Ruin (Elmina Castle), Dean insists upon a wider understanding of how media contributes to the production of social constructs and, ultimately, the subjection of communities of color.

About the artist

Danielle Dean (b. 1982, United States) studied at Central Saint Martins in London and the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, and participated in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum in New York. She has been in residence at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Her work has been shown at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Lafayette Anticipations, Paris; The Drawing Center, New York; Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Geneva; Sculpture Center, New York; Goethe-Institut Nigeria, Lagos; DiverseWorks, Houston; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and Tate Modern, London. Her work is held in the collections of the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.