Seas and oceans were spaces of circulation and connection in this history, and dystopian spaces of liquid cemeteries – thousands of slaves throwing themselves in the waters to escape enslavement, their bodies thrown to the sharks that always followed the slave ships. – Françoise Vergès
Vergès’ quote above foregrounds my oceanic reflections as I begin to write this text – the drama is domination, imperialism, healing, resistance, slaves on board, slaves on ships, slave routes, refusal, trade routes, maritime law, dissent, aquatic life, deep time, deep space, deluge, middle passage, time travel and the Black Atlantis. There is darkness and danger that looms above the seas but there is also freedom.
The sea or more broadly water has played a role in the practices of five artists I want to reflect on: John Akomfrah, Paul Maheke, Buhlebezwe Siwani, ruby onyinyechi amanze and Bouchra Khalili. I admit, this is an unlikely assemblage but these artists and their practices can help us in thinking through image, sound, death, rebirth, play, the surface and the depth of the ocean, duality and freedom. They catalogue histories and futures where water functions as an artistic method. Each of them, either directly or indirectly, engage the sea to think through and explore themes of migration and movement, territory, borders and boundaries as well as placeness and home. In the specific works chosen below the sea is repurposed and reimaged as a theatre stage upon which much drama unfolds.
Water is often referenced as a powerful symbol in Buhlebezwe Siwani’s practice. Siwani uses performance, sculpture, photography and installation as means through which to interrogate the patriarchal framing of the Black female body and Black female experience within the context of South Africa. I’m looking at a photograph. Siwani is wearing a white dress against the backdrop of crashing waves. Her eyes are closed, her body a strong force resisting the turbulence. Apart from the colourful belt around her waist, the photograph is completely framed by different intensities of blue and white—the dense clouds settle between the blue sky and the rugged mountain. The clouds, a form of water and ice crystals, fold and coil to resemble the waves. Hydrogen. Oxygen. The photograph is titled Igagasi 1; meaning wave in isiXhosa. It creates a sense of unease, of force, of a tilt from equilibrium. Through this imagery, the sea is a site of contestation where possible decolonial futures can be debated, mapped and considered.
It is impossible to consider the sea without considering its edge; the place where the land becomes water and water becomes land. Here Rachel Carson’s book, The edge of the sea (originally published in 1995) is instructive when we contemplate what can be seen and what can be learnt from that edge. She notes:
The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth, it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. She elaborates: Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow, as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental margins warps up or down in adjustment to strain and tension.
It is within the framework of an edge that warps and shifts in adjustment to strain and tension that I situate ruby onyinyechi amanze’s work. In her practice, we square up against the language of space as well as that of theatre through dance and movement. Her drawings are often presented on an expansive stage upon which various forms of dances are performed. The works are architectural and tend to be grounded in form, and yet we also often find objects floating, drifting and flying as if to mock the very laws of physics (you looked for a beginning but there was none, 2019). Animals and humans are kinsfolk (Ada and Audre, 2015), birds and humans fly and dance alike; The one that feels like air and laces cakes with edible gold, 2018 and bird dance #1 (structural), 2018. In the artists’ own words; the sky and the ocean are the same ([Twin]… the sky and an ocean are the same, 2015). Here, conventional spatial-temporal reasoning does not hold. amanze collapses the binaries of land/sea, dry/wet, up/down, embracing that strange and beautiful place in between. There is no edge, border or fringe because there is no up and down, no beginning or end. The land is sky is water is space.
John Akomfrah is an artist and filmmaker who is known as much for his powerful and arresting imagery as he is for his uproarious soundscapes. In the three related but separate video installations, Vertigo Sea (2015), Purple (2017) and Four Nocturnes (2019), water is a recurrent theme. The films are a meditation of loss, memory and fragments within the broader question of humanity’s relationship with the natural world. In Four Nocturnes, the engulfing sound of water, through tension and rhythm, pulls our senses into focus. The story of migration told through sound – it is pitched high in frequency, deepening at varying points. It is wet, cold, uncomfortable, long, drawn-out. It is haunting and risks sinking – perhaps mimicking journeys that many migrants and refugees have to take across the world.
Paul Maheke’s practice includes dance, performance, installation, sound and video. In 2017, Maheke produced a body of work, The River asked for a Kiss and In The Watery Core of those Stories. The work drew attention to the trauma of death in relation to refugees. It follows (and by extension pays homage and remembrance to) the death of a Gambian refugee which was recorded and circulated in the media by onlookers. Maheke remembers this incident through Langston Hugh’s poem, Suicide’s Note:
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
Much like the rest of his practice, this work calls upon us to consider what water holds and what it remembers. Water becomes a site of memory and an archive.
Bouchra Khalili works in film, video, installation, photography and printmaking. In 2008, she began working on a project, The Mapping Journey Project (2008 -2011). The project is presented as eight video channels where, through narrative, migrants trace the routes taken from their home countries to Europe. The project draws on elements of map-making and mark-making to tell the stories of those who have been forced to journey through borders in search of safety, freedom and a better life. A map, a marker and the migrants’ hand are the only things visible as they tell their stories of passage. Author Tobi Haslett speaks of the art of Khalili as a refusal of refusals, an art of the double negative. Working with the complexities of identity and representation of people rendered invisible, Khalili once again employs invisibility (a rejection of the rejection of invisibility) as a powerful tool of supervision. The narrators are hidden from us and maps of landscapes and seascapes become sites of personal agency.
With Akomfrah, Maheke and Siwani we come face to face with the fullness, potency and vigour of the seas (the seas have volume and they are moving), while amanze and Khalili leverage the flatness of the paper or the screen to communicate. What connects the five artists is oceanic floors, marine life, freshwater and salt waters. Over and above the various elements of what exists on the surface or depth of the oceans they are brought together by water’s sensorial nature. Through their work, with or without mass, water regains its wetness and upholds its connection to land and sky, animals and humans, you and me.