Commissioned by the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, A SEASON IN SHELL (2013-2016) has performed as a multi exhibition piece that details duel trade journeys of Red Sea Abalone and the resulting art works across cultural institutions, together with the transnational flow of goods and people involved along the way.

A SEASON IN SHELL began with the collaborative engagement with the Bull, a Somali businessman and asylum seeker they met in the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, a nexus of low-end globalisation (Mathews 2011), between 2013-2014. At first observing then assisting the Bull in setting up an office for a North Sudanese mining company, the artists soon began to document the passage of his side trade in Red Sea Abalone, the collection of 600 metric tonnes by Somali fishermen organised the Bull into co-operatives who studied Japanese ama abalone diving manuals, and the selling of the meat onto informal dried seafood markets and restaurants in Hong Kong and the shells to processing factories in China. Originally performing as a real time field report and with the aim to activate and make complicit the museum space within the trade route, their exhibition A Season in Shell in the basement gallery spaces of the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich joined the geographically disparate value adding chain, whereby the artists and the Bull, using his contacts in the self declared sovereign state of Somaliland, moved two metric tonnes of the abalone shells as they travelled from Berbera to Dubai (to Zurich) and onwards to China.

Confronted with the scale and overpowering smell of two tonnes of abalone shell in the basement gallery space invited the audience to contemplate and interact with the forms and textures of shells passed through so many hands, and ask the question which seems to arise when seeing exhibitions use copious amounts of material, where did this come from, and what will happen to it all afterwards? Accompanying the waves and piles of shells, documentary footage and a Chinese banquet table describe precisely where the shells came from, how they were acquired and then, as part of the work, make transparent where they going. Following the ‘temporary storage’ of the shells at the museum, they were to be shipped onwards to Hong Kong after the exhibition and sold to buyers in China where they were to be treated, polished and refined into mother of pearl and sold at profit by the Bull to Hong Kong jewellers and Swiss watchmakers for ornamental use.

In an attempt to cohere their research, experiences and subjectivities, a ten-part prose poem was penned by Bisenieks, initially published in folder format for the museum and later as a film essay. It performs as a tapestry of entwined narratives, including the lifecycle of the abalone, the value adding chain of the abalone, the migration journey of the Bull, the artist and the Bull’s working experience, which are all woven with the sympathetic, experiential framework of the French surrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s poem A Season in Hell, a writer and text who the artists paralleled with the Bull’s own biography and the challenging experience shared together in moving and trading the shells in question.

Following the disappearance of the Bull from Hong Kong soon after the Zurich exhibition in 2014, the artists were left with the two tonnes of shells to forward onto China where over the past two years decided to process some of them to extract the raw calcium carbonate and use it to make a porcelain glaze for a 230 pieces of banquet tableware, following the invitation to exhibit the project in Suzhou, China as part of ‘Suzhou Documents’ and as a sister exhibition to their exhibition ‘Mutual Aid' at the Johann Jacobs Museum in 2016. Finally arriving back in Hong Kong to join Parasite’s ‘Creative Operational Solutions’ group show at the end of 2016, the recent configuration finds a smaller pile of remaining shells and the Suzhou porcelain tableware encased in the abalone shell glaze precariously balance upon and flow out of a metallic structure-creature echoing shells of spaces the abalone has passed through on its passage to Hong Kong, the bellies of ships, a Chinese banquet table, Qing Dynasty export art furniture designs and more recently the porcelain kilns of Jingdezhen, seeking to challenge the audiences senses to contemplate the physical waste, alienated labour, decadence, life and death and levels of complicity in global production.
2013-2016, A Season in Shell, two-tonnes of abalone shells, 230 piece Red Sea Abalone calcium carbonate glazed porcelain dinner service, table, chairs, 2-channel video installation, dimensions variable

Excerpts from the poem


We met the Bull in a china shop. It was full of exiles and itinerants, so mindful of their movements so as not to make the porcelain tremble by their presence. A well-spoken gentleman, quick to impatience and with a penchant for verse, he hailed from the Horn of Africa, from a family of poets and was the son of a military general. He had spent his childhood in Saudi, attending the same school as Osama once did. Upon his return home he became a nationalist and when the Coptic flags eclipsed the White Star, he did what any nationalist would do; he became a traitor. He began selling rockets to the army, “ so we could drive those bastards from the country.” He reminded us of a man that lived 150 years before him, of a poet in self-imposed exile, an enterprising nomad travelling through the desert, who one day sold 2000 Remingtons to Menelik II and used them to kill Italian colonialists in Adwa, and then went on to wander the terrains of Yemen, Somalia, Dijbouti and Ethiopia for 17 years, trading ivory and guns. The Bull still trades in shells, but of a different kind. His talent for drawing channels now high wires fresh connections where ‘cockroaches of the sea’ find new life in the highest echelons of potent, therapeutically endowed cuisine and aesthetic adornment, flags of social status waving from hilltops in Asia and Europe. He recalls how the Omanis would pay 100 dollars for 1 kilo and the fishermen were happy because for them, it was money for collecting “trash”. The Omanis would sell those reticent molluscs to the seafood dealers from Hong Kong for $600 a kilo. Then the Bull charged, prices were matched, and a new industry was hatched, with the guidance of Japanese ama audiotapes. Soon, the Omanis were driven from the seas and the fishermen prospered. This is how you play the game.


Some spend a considerable amount of time searching for an ideal habitat before metamorphosing, but others may settle on the nearest suitable substrate. The Bull told us one day that “ there was a time when all I wanted was to die in one piece”. He had left Kampala a day before a bomb exploded in Kabalagala. Something told him to get out, but sure enough that very move soon gave him fresh legs, albeit ones of prey and a new game was born. Shucked and dried out. He found himself sleeping in a corner in Dubai airport, and decided he might have better luck on an island in the South China sea.


The settlement may be followed by a searching phase, looking for an appropriate place to metamorphose. A condition of the Bull’s exile in Hong Kong was that he could not work. But if you pick up a phone and call a man from China and order some goods from him, and a man in Dubai pays for them, and then they are shipped to Sudan, have you “worked”? It’s late afternoon, and I sit in a luxury hotel with the Bull and an elder Somali businessman whose personal history and situation couldn’t be more different from the Bull’s. He is where the Bull wants to be. Bespoke in a suit, a crisp shirt and nursing an espresso, columns of sunlight that fall through the faint scratches of window tinting behind us glint off the Bull’s thin, wire rimmed spectacles as he checks his Rolex. He gives himself the impression of a high flyer that detracts from a stifling boredom and everyday sameness of his status and to almost evoke, transform himself with the power of a suit, into that very impression, aspiration, he is cultivating. Behind us a plump Middle Eastern gentlemen in the company of a kowtowing colleague is enjoying high tea, small sandwiches, petite cakes that are crumbling easily through his stumpy fingers. We are entangled in conversation about distribution channel moguls for Asian goods flowing into North Africa but I see the Bull prick his ears to listen to the conservation behind us. When the time becomes right, he stands up and walks over and introduces himself.