• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Neja Tomšič: Opium Clippers

Neja Tomšič: Opium Clippers

Neja Tomšič: Opium Clippers

The text about Neja Tomšič‘s work Opium Clippers was originally published in the catalogue of the exhibition Returning the Gaze at Cukrarna, Ljubljana (11 March – 21 August 2022).

In her explicitly interdisciplinary creative practice, artist Neja Tomšič often explores suppressed and overlooked episodes in history, which she tries to, with the use of various media, actualise and interpret through a contemporary perspective. In order to achieve this, she uses various tactics and mediums of expression, such as appropriation of found images and texts, film narrative, and performative actions. Her approach to addressing historic and current social phenomena is always conditioned by a poetic narrative, which usually presents itself in a combination of words and images.

Over the past years, her work Opium Clippers (2015-2023) has proven to be her most continuous and long-term creation. Based on multi-layered performative and visual art approaches, through which she provides in-depth content, Opium Clippers has developed in various parallel forms of expression. In the current period, marked by the gradual disintegration of the social contract that has defined the Western world in the past seventy years, Tomšič started discovering hidden and suppressed historic events, which to a great extent still define the social and economic models of the contemporary world.

Neja Tomšič, Opium Clippers: Tea for Five, storytelling performance, Glej Theatre, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Jaka Babnik.

She uses selected stories to reflect upon colonial heritage, which has been, to a great extent, swept under the carpet, even though it offers answers to numerous complex issues related to current geopolitical relations. This can be seen in the connection between free market economic models and military power, which simply means that empires reenforce their economic position through military operations. From the very beginnings of colonialism, which adopted capitalism as the main economic model, material gains have established themselves as the most important, and practically only, value in which the interests of an individual always prevail over collective interests of a society. In order to understand the current neoliberal ideology, which leads to the total deregulation of the economy and relies on political and military regimes, she has turned to the past – to the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century (until 1914) – when the inevitability of the free market and the idea that endless natural resources are at our disposal for constant growth emerged.

A fleet of opium clippers on the Ganges river. Lithograph after W. S. Sherwill, c. 1850. Wellcome Images.

The work Opium Clippers addresses the period during which East Asian countries were forced to enter the global free market, which in turn meant they had to give up a substantial part of their sovereignty. The Opium Wars were triggered by Western superpowers in the middle of the 19th century. Their main goal was to force China, which was at that time an archaic empire that had not yet started the process of modernisation and industrialisation, to sell tea in exchange for opium. Opium ravaged Chinese society, which was why the emperor eventually forbade its use. Great Britain and its allies saw this as a threat to the free market, thus they attacked China and forced it to trade under their terms. Later on, opium spread to the Western world and dragged millions into addiction. However, the most important consequence of the Opium Wars was profit, for the owners of corporations kept amassing the surplus from this lucrative business. During this period the now already common alliance between the state apparatus and private corporations had established itself, contining the colonisation of the world.

Firing the Noonday Gun, Hong Kong. Photo: edwin11.

Through her artistic research, Tomšič exposed the legacies and traces of the Opium Wars in present times, for some of today’s largest banks, insurance companies, investment companies, transport companies, and trade conglomerates have built their power on the opium trade by the means of war, destroying public health, and spreading poverty. The work started as a series of Opium Clippers tea ceremonies in which the artist used visual aids and narrative to reveal the stories connected to the five ships that were important for the tea and opium trade during the second half of the 19th century. This was followed by an artist’s book in which the artist used found images and texts to showcase certain neglected historic fragments of the Opium Wars. This book also presents the cultural landscape of the contemporary world in the style of a history textbook, drawing on records from Western history and arguing that contemporary society is, to a great extent, still based on historical processes and economic models established during the period of the Opium Wars.

Neja Tomšič: Opium Clippers (Rostfrei Publishing, 2018), artist book.

This time the work Opium Clippers is presented in the form of an exhibition. Alongside the tea set, which is a prop and visual aid in the narrative performances, the artist’s book, in the form of a print portfolio, is also exhibited. The exhibition showcases the interweaving images and texts, which the artist uses to tell the story based on the documents, while at the same time displaying a transition from the factual to the symbolic level. Trade with tea and opium is linked to times past, when ideas about politics, social classes, gender, religion, and culture were undergoing a transformation, but it also relates to contemporary times as the traces of this lucrative industry are still deeply rooted at the core of numerous economic and military superpowers. This heritage has left deep and long-lasting consequences in many societies.

Neja Tomšič, Opium Clippers, Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana, 2022. Photo: Miha Vodopivec.