Selene Wendt Listening to the Echoes of the South Atlantic

Nyugen E. Smith,<i>Bundle House: Where Do We Begin?</i>, detail (2019)
Nyugen E. Smith,Bundle House: Where Do We Begin?, detail (2019) | Photo (detail) © Nyugen E. Smith

Give me water, I am thirsty
Give me water, I am thirsty
I drank but I am still thirsty
That was the love in his heart
Though you drank, you were not satisfied 

Dame ‘e bebé, que tengo sed
Dame ‘e bebé, que tengo sed 
Y he bebido pero aún estoy sedienta
Que fue de su amor en su corazón
Por eso no hay ná pa’ calmá tu sed 

– Song from The Sea in Its Thirst is Trembling by Dawit L. Petros

In Listening to the Echoes of the South Atlantic, presented at Oslo Kunstforening (6 February -  4 June 2020), curator Selene Wendt brought together a dazzling array of artists responding to the deep interconnectivity between music and history in relation to “the Atlantic as a system of cultural exchanges” (Paul Gilroy). The exhibition reactivated the entangled histories of the South Atlantic shared between Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas through videos, installations, sculptures, and performance, all drawing on music as collective language of resistance and solidarity.

“Although this is only a small sampling of the whole, the selected artworks and poems clearly resonate in relation to the overriding curatorial concept of Carnival in the Making. The unsettling implications of the songs, music and poetry that we encounter along the way remind us of the inequities caused by colonialism and its continued aftermath. Each of the works conveys the importance of sonic politics on a shared journey that involves confronting the past in order to better understand the present.” 
– Selene Wendt

In response to the call of Carnival in the Making, Selene shines the spotlight on three of these artworks: Dawit L. Petros’ film The Sea in its Thirst is Trembling, Jeannette Ehlers’ video Black Magic at the White House, Nyugen E. Smith’s Bundlehouse series, presented along with poems from Kei Miller The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, and Ishion Hutchinson The Ark by “Scratch”

These works are presented below and commented by Wendt.  

Black Magic at the White House

Jeannette Ehlers
<i>Black Magic at the White House</i> – Jeannette Ehlers (2009) Black Magic at the White House – Jeannette Ehlers (2009) | © Jeannette Ehlers Jeannette Ehlers’s video Black Magic at the White House (2009) involves a radical decolonial intervention that sheds light on Denmark–Norway’s colonial history. 
 
Up until fairly recently, the widely accepted narrative has been that Norway has no colonial history in relation to Africa and the Caribbean. It wasn’t until 2017, which was the 100-year anniversary of Denmark selling the Virgin Islands to the United States for 25 million dollars in gold, that Denmark really began to acknowledge its own colonial past. The fact that Norwegian shipping and trade profited from the transatlantic slave trade has typically been dismissed under the excuse that Norway was under Danish rule during the colonial era. 
<i>Black Magic at the White House</i> – Jeannette Ehlers (2009) Black Magic at the White House – Jeannette Ehlers (2009) | © Jeannette Ehlers In fact, quite a few Norwegian merchants, investors and shipowners were directly involved in the shipment of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean as part of the triangular trade between Denmark–Norway, the Gold Coast (Ghana), and the West Indies (St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John). Although the exact numbers vary, most estimates indicate that approximately 120,000 enslaved Africans were shipped under the Danish flag from Guinea to the former Danish West Indies. Even after 1803, when the shipment of enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean was abolished under the Danish flag, Danes and Norwegians continued to profit from slave ownership and the plantation economy along the Gold Coast and in the West Indies. 


In this video Ehlers performs a Vodou dance in Marienborg Manor, which has a strong connection to the triangular trade, having been owned by several slave traders and merchants since it was built in 1744. It’s interesting to consider the implications of the fact that Jeannette Ehlers’s performance is essentially an invisible dance.

We see her dancing, but she is invisible. We see the outline of her body, but we don’t see her. She is camouflaged right into the antique wallpaper and hardwood floor. 
 
In that invisibility, essentially an erasure, she has created a bold and radical work. The insistent and rhythmical beat of the drum is equally crucial to the impact of the work. Images of a vévé being drawn suggest that she is performing a Vodou ritual. Occupying colonial space as she does, positioning her body in this space, the work functions as a powerful act of resistance. Paradoxically, she achieves visibility through her own invisibility as she exorcises the colonial demons out of the manor.  
<i>Black Magic at the White House</i> – Jeannette Ehlers (2009) Black Magic at the White House – Jeannette Ehlers (2009) | © Jeannette Ehlers Ultimately, the work addresses Denmark–Norway’s invisible, unspoken histories and relocates these histories in the centre of the narrative, right there in the residence (since 1962) of the Danish Prime Minister. As such, paraphrasing Fred Moten, the work is a forceful staging of the piercing insistence of the excluded. (Fred Moten: In the Break:The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 2003, p. 223.)

The Sea in Its Thirst Is Trembling

Dawit L. Petros
<i>The Sea in Its Thirst is Trembling</i> – Dawit L. Petros (2019) Dawit L. Petros The Sea in Its Thirst is Trembling, live performance with members of the Ashé Oloron group for Ríos Intermitentes (Intermittent Rivers), part of the 13th Havana Biennial (2019) | © Dawit L. Petros Music and musical migrations, so evident throughout Listening to the Echoes of the South Atlantic, are perhaps the most apparent in Dawit L. Petros’s work, The Sea in its Thirst is Trembling (2019).
 

The video coincides with a collaborative sound intervention that Petros conceived for his participation in the exhibition Intermittent Rivers, which was initiated by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons for the 13th Havana Biennial (2019). Petros worked closely with local musicians and artists over an extended period to create a work that links sonically the histories of Matanzas, Cuba, and Asmara, Eritrea. As Petros describes it: “The hybrid jazz sounds produced in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 1973-1979 reflect a strong interaction of Ethiopian and Cuban music traditions. Music and sound, therefore, constitute a site of complex entanglements that brought together Marxist struggles for independence in Eritrea (1961-1991), antimonarchist imperialist struggle in Ethiopia, and Cold War histories.”


Musicians from the Ashé Olorun group performed for both versions of the work (live performance and video), while an interview with the legendary Matancero sculptor Agustín Drake Aldama complements the strong cross-cultural undercurrent of the video. 

The live performance took place along the San Juan River, under a bridge, which ultimately connected musical traditions, histories, and cultures.  

The lead drummer Hiran Polledo Diaz, who was seated along the wall of the riverbank, played with and in response to the drummers Osmays Rodriguez Diaz and Reinaldo Adazabal and the singer Mayline Carballo Bidez, who performed on a small fishing boat that circled around the river and out into the bay of Matanzas. 
<i>The Sea in Its Thirst is Trembling</i> – Dawit L. Petros (2019) Dawit L. Petros The Sea in Its Thirst is Trembling, live performance with members of the Ashé Oloron group for Ríos Intermitentes (Intermittent Rivers), part of the 13th Havana Biennial (2019) | © Dawit L. Petros As I stood there listening carefully to all the sounds around me: the call of the street sellers, the sounds of reggaeton blasting from an outdoor bar situated right behind us, and the constant rumbling of cars over the bridge, I could also hear the endless cry of poetry and could feel the musicality of everything around me. I was struck in a deep Glissantian sense by the interconnectivity between all things. As the title implies, the work references Édouard Glissant’s concept of trembling thinking and the importance of cultural multiplicity and exchange.

Bundlehouse

Nyugen E. Smith
<i>Bundlehouse</i> – Nyugen E. Smith (2019) Nyugen E. Smith Bundlehouse F.S. Mini No. 1, found objects and mixed media (2019) | © Nyugen E. Smith Nyugen E. Smith is equally committed to raising consciousness about past and present political struggles. Around 2005 he coined a term for what has since become his signature, Bundlehouse series. 
 
From a conceptual standpoint, the term “bundlehouse” is understood as the act of bundling materials together to make a makeshift home.
<i>Bundlehouse</i> – Nyugen E. Smith (2019) Nyugen E. Smith Bundlehouse: Where Do We Begin? (2019) | © Nyugen E. Smith The bundlehouse form appears in paintings, works on paper, and sculptures. In some of his performances, one even gets a sense that he too is a bundlehouse as he navigates the space bundled in loose layers of clothing, evoking the enigmatic duality of the bundlehouse form as either a protective shelter or a protected individual. 
<i>Bundlehouse</i> – Nyugen E. Smith (2019) Nyugen E. Smith Bundlehouse: FS Mini No. 2, view 1 (2019) | © Nyugen E. Smith Generally speaking, the Bundlehouse works address how people are forced to pull the pieces back together in order to rebuild their lives after being uprooted due to a traumatic event. 
<i>Bundlehouse</i> – Nyugen E. Smith (2019) Nyugen E. Smith Bundlehouse: FS Mini No. 1, three views (2019) | © Nyugen E. Smith Naturally, this brings to mind the vulnerability of the Caribbean islands as a result of global warming and hurricanes.  

Mapping, and even more specifically, re-mapping is an important part of Smith’s decolonial approach, perhaps most evident in Bundlehouse Borderlines No. 3, Isle de Tribamartica (2017), which is actually a map of a fictitious island. This island is a hybrid of Trinidad, Cuba, Martinique, Haiti, and Jamaica, referencing how people have a tendency to think of the Caribbean in monolithic terms as one place with one language, culture, and set of customs.
<i>Bundlehouse</i> – Nyugen E. Smith (2019) Nyugen E. Smith, Bundlehouse Borderlines No. 3 (Isle de Tribamartica) (2017) | © Nyugen E. Smith By implementing cartography, which colonisers used to document these spaces, he is also commenting on how the colonisers got it all wrong. 

These works evoke the complexity of trying to map a place and to define what it is while also questioning who gets to do the defining. Incorporating elements from old maps combined with references to Trinidadian and Haitian culture and folklore results in captivating works that both challenge and reverse the narrative.  As is typical of his practise, multiple layers of meaning are always hiding in plain sight. The hidden narratives and the rich symbolism of his visual language, such as a sequined snake seen in Bundlehouse: Where Do We Begin? (2019), which brings to mind the spectacle of carnival processions, or cowrie shells that were used as currency during the slave trade, constantly plays with questions, and challenges Eurocentric narratives of the past (and present).
<i>Bundlehouse</i> – Nyugen E. Smith (2019) Nyugen E. Smith Bundlehouse: FS Mini No. 2, view 2 (2019) | © Nyugen E. Smith With the three Bundlehouse sculptures created for Listening to the Echoes of the South Atlantic additional layers of meaning come into play. In the transition from painted, drawn, or collaged images to a three-dimensional form, the sculptures occupy the space with their presence. Comprised of a wide range of discarded and repurposed materials including clothing, scraps of wood, feathers, and other debris, they appear both vulnerable and forceful in demeanor. In a riveving live performance at the opening of Listening to the Echoes of the South Atlantic, Smith engaged directly with the sculptures, bringing them to life in the sonic sphere.  
<i>Bundlehouse</i> – Nyugen E. Smith (2020) Nyugen E. Smith Bundlehouse: FS Mini No. 3, view 3 (2020)  

Beautifully transformed from detritus and handcrafted into sculptures, they seem to whisper about spirituality while also shouting about social injustice and strategies of survival, as well as coloniality and the need for decolonial thinking.

While You Sleep

This performance, created for the stage, is adapted from a portion of Nyugen E. Smith’s original short story titled, While You Sleep. The story was inspired by a statement from Barbadian poet, Kamau Brathwaite who spoke of the need for a ritual to keep the souls of the millions of enslaved Africans who perished in the waters during the transatlantic journey from coming back to haunt us.

The story takes place during Carnival season somewhere in the Caribbean. The main character, Ele, a young poet, has surreal nightmares every year during this season. Though each dream is full of symbols and meaning that are somewhat recognizable, Ele seeks insight on the meanings of the dreams from elders in the community. The closer it gets to J’ouvert (Jouvay), the spirt of the ancestors in the dreams become less troubled.

Nyugen E. Smith, While You Sleep (An Excerpt from a Jouvay Dream) performed at Nordic Black Theatrewith Xander Crook on percussion, Oslo (2019)

Smith was joined by Xander Crook on percussion for this performance which took place at the Nordic Black Theater, Oslo, Norway in March 2019 in conjunction with Smith’s participation in The Sea is History.

A Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion

Kei Miller

This anthology of poems is a mapping of Jamaica that is as much about the island’s landscapes, crossroads, and spaces as it is a critical reflection on Jamaica’s colonial history. 
 
The collection of twenty-seven poems features a Rastaman and a cartographer whose heated debate about maps is intermittently punctuated by poetic ruminations about backbush roads that lead to places with names like “Wait-a-Bit” and “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come”. Along the way, Miller takes captivating detours to a pre-colonised island, reminding us that “in the long ago beginning the world was unmapped”. (Kei Miller: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, 2014, p. 10.)
 
Similar to how Nyugen E. Smith’s visual mappings are also decolonial history lessons, Miller’s metaphorical map to Zion doubles as a decolonial cartography lesson, teaching “what the mapmaker ought to know”. (Kei Miller: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, 2014, p. 15.) 
 
At one point, the cartographer argues that his job “is to untangle the tangled, to unworry the concerned, and to guide you from the cul-de-sacs into which you have wrongly turned”. (Kei Miller:The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, 2014, p. 16.) It’s almost like reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities inna reggae roots vibe.  
 
Similar to Calvino, Miller’s poems are as enigmatic as they are insightful. Truth is writ large on every page, invariably conveyed with both complexity and precision. It all makes perfect sense, even the part where the cartographer tells off the Rastaman, pointing out that, “every language, even yours, is a partial map of this world”. (Kei Miller:The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, 2014, p. 45.)  If this book is a partial map of the world, it is also a book “in which every song is singing Zion”. (Kei Miller: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, 2014, p. 39.)
 
What the Mapmaker Ought to Know
 
On this island things fidget.
Even history.
The landscape does not sit
willingly
as if behind an easel
holding pose
waiting on
someone
to pencil
its lines, compose
its best features
or unruly contours.
Landmarks shift,
become unfixed
by earthquake
by landslide
by utter spite.
Whole places will slip
out from your grip.

iv.

The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
Then I will draw a map of what you never see
And guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?
 
xvi. in which every song is singing Zion

On evenings when we put pillows
to our ears, trying to mute the sermons
of a thousand deejays broadcast 
on boom-boxes across this island,
It is then that every track leads to Zion:
Bob Marley, Luciano, Junior Gong,
Wingless Angels, Delroy Morgan, Buju Banton,
All-a dem dissa chant down Babylon,
All-a dem dissa chant Armagiddeon.
We dream ourselves alone by abandoned rivers.
Oh Missa Man, will you ever understand
Why such songs spring from this strange land?

House of Lords and Commons

Ishion Hutchinson

Similar to how Derek Walcott helped us to understand that the sea is history, and in the spirit of Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s observation that unity is submarine, Ishion Hutchinson’s poetry conveys the musical depths of history and the histories that connect music. His poetry leans towards Walcott remixed in a conscious roots vibe. With The Ark by “Scratch” he invokes the magic of Lee Scratch Perry’s studio conveyed as a brilliant allegory about transatlantic history. Although poetry is often compared to music, and Caribbean oral traditions are inherently musical, the musicality of Hutchinson’s poetry extends beyond nuances of tone and rhythm. If his poems speak the language of music, they also convey the cultural, political, and historical importance of music itself. He begins Sibelius and Marley by telling us that history dismantles music. He later concedes that music dismantles history. Both possibilities ring true, echoing the long-lasting implications of what Édouard Glissant describes as “the cry of the Plantation”. 

The Ark by “Scratch”

The genie says build a studio. I build
a studio from ash. I make it out of peril and slum
things. I alone when blood and bullet and all
Christ-fucking-’Merican-dollar politicians talk
the pressure down to nothing, when the equator’s
confused and coke bubbles on tinfoil to cemented wreath.
I build it, a Congo drum, so hollowed through the future
pyramids up long before CDs spin away roots-men knocking    
       down by the seaside,
like captives wheeling by the Kebar River. The genie says build
a studio, but don’t take any fowl in it, just electric.
So I make it, my echo chamber with shock rooms of rainbow
King Arthur’s sword keep in, and one for the Maccabees
Alone, fro covenant is bond between man and worm.
Next room is Stone Age, after that, Iron, and one I
named Freeze, for too much ice downtown in the brains
of all them crossing Duke Street, holy like parsons.
And in the circuit breaker, the red switch is for death
and the the black switch is for death, and the master switch
is black and red, so if US, Russia, China, Israel talk
missiles talk, I talk that switch I call Melchizedek.
I build a closet for the waterfalls. One for the rivers.
Another for oceans. Next for secrets. The genie says build
a studio. I build it without gopher wood. Now, consider 
the nest of bees in the cranium of the Gong, consider
the next of wasps in the heart of the Bush Doctor,
consider the next of locusts in the gut of the Black Heart Man,
I put them there, and the others that vibrate at the Feast of the
       Passover when the collie weed
is passed over the roast fish and cornbread. I Upsettter, I Django
on the black wax, the Super Ape, E.T., I cleared the wave.
Again, consider the burning bush in the ears of Kalonji
and the burning sword in the mouth of the Fireman and the
       burning pillar in the eyes.
of the Gargamel, I put them there, to outlast earth as I navigate
       on one
of Saturn’s rings, I mitre solid shadow, setting fire to snow in    
       my ark.
I credit not the genie but the coral rock: I man am stone.
I am perfect. Myself is a vanishing conch shell speeding round 
a discothèque at the embassy of angels, skeletons ramble to
       check out
my creation dub and sex is dub, stripped to the bone, and dub 
       is the heart
breaking the torso to spring, olive beaked, to be eaten up by   
       sunlight.

For more, visit Listening to the Echoes of the South Atlantic digital publication