Earlier this year I was a participant on the East African Soul Train, traveling from Nairobi to Mombasa on the Lunatic Line. We were encouraged to collaborate with fellow artists in the confines of a moving train and create something that was reflective of our personal experiences. The theme of the residency which lasted a week was Kovu Safarini – My Scar.
It was challenging, inspiring and the beginning of me questioning how I as a poet you explore my work in different mediums other than performance and workshoping.
As an artist in residence at 32 Degrees East I have been exploring my scars. The theme: To be or not 2b is an exploration of Migration, Identity and Mourning. The topic is multi layered, but my jump off point was ‘Maafa’ – The Great Disaster which was Chattle Slavery commonly known as The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Many Africans know nothing about this period in history or the implications it has had on Africans on the Diaspora and continent. We don’t speak about it, but i feel it is a scar that needs to be healed. But before that it has to be exposed. The continent lost between 11 and 100 million Africans to Maafa and I want us to remember that. We all know what it feels like to loose something and now as more and more Africans are being displaced through conflict, climate change, disease, I believe that even though it may not be us who experience this directly we need to develop compassion for each other and the trauma that this loss creates. This trauma doesn’t just go away it stays with us in the bones and the blood. It is generational.
The ideas for this installations have come through my dreams or meditations. As a poet I use paper, I love writing and have a Parker fountain for that specific purpose. The other day at an event i was MCing I thought I’d lost it. I was frantic, I went back and found it laying in the aisle of the auditorium. I was so relieved I had found it. But what does it mean to loose a person you value and not know if you will ever see them again? How do we cope? Natural recycled materials are what i have chosen to work with. I have been experimenting with the creation of paper using paper pulp and cassava flour. Using mabati (iron sheets) i have moulded my pulp onto the iron sheet to create a ripple effect. This represents fluid movement and the the reality that our identities are seldom static. Constantly changing, both physically and mentally we evolve as human beings from year to year. Just like the annual migration of Buffulo across the Masai Mara we as human beings have always moved and when you think about the scale of the African continent this was always a great expedition and ultimately lead us to adapt and change as our circumstances as our environments dictated. This means we are now hybrids, Fusionist. There is more to being an African than being born on the continent. Its now about how we ‘want’ to express our ‘Africaness’, but is there an essence? What are the elements that keep us in contact with the land and each other? Now in contemporary times Africans are restricted from movement. We are unable to see the other side, to broaden our horizons, we are restricted. Immigration policies mean we have to jump through hoops in order to justify our desires to travel and often even though we are told we are impoverished we pay visa fees which if denied don’t get reimbursed.
For most of my life I have been asking who am I? So I took a DNA test which showed me the genetic similarities I have to specific African peoples. Like Cheik Anta Diop I firmly believe we are one people who have mutated into the different forms which represent Africans now. I also discovered I am Haplo Group 1, one of the earliest groups of Africans who made their migrations out of Africa into Asia. So when asked where am I from, I can honestly say I am an African even though the details of location have been distorted or lost through the global trade (not really a trade but a theft) of Africans and the misinformation we are given regarding the contributions of Africans to civilization. Maybe this is why i was searching to reconnect with those missing parts of myself I felt were lost. I also wanted to explore how other people define themselves as there is an assumption by Africans of the Diaspora that Africans on the continent know who they, celebrate their culture and will place it before anything else. Interestingly enough many of the indigenious Africans who attended the discussion felt that their cultures do not represent who they are or who they want to be and in fact they feel restricted by it. My mind was blown, what does this mean? Why is this happening? Reading C& (Contemporary and) publication ‘I am built inside of you’, the artist Helen Sibidi says ‘we own nothing….. we don’t even own ourselves’ and i see this, I see how we as Africans we are ashamed of our skin, our hair, our ancestors, we cleave to Christianity and Islam, to skin bleaching, to speaking with foreign accents, to being anything other than who we are. The seeds, our seeds are being lost to us and this is what tied us to the land, grounded us in cycles and rhythms and gave us a sense of purpose. Now we have become consumers who have bought into capitalism and expansion at the detriment of our environments. This is also why i chose bio degradable materials because i want the installation to change, decay, fade away just like I will at the end of my life. We are looking for permanence now. Also as part of my exploration of Identity I interviewed Baba T and his wife Mama T who repatriated to Tanzania. They left Jamaica for the Europe and eventually decided to settle in East Africa. The elder who is 81 gives an emotional account of his experiences which will also feature in the installation.
The paper panels I have created will feature my poetry and quotes relating to the theme. I have a soundtrack which was created by a wonderfully talented artist called Joshua Oyintareoge Egbuson and am supported by so many great creatives Patience Asaba, Nikissi Serumago -Jamo, Kaya Sanaa to create an installation that will be an sensory delight. I will also perform some of the works as a part of the activation.
As an non traditional artist I have been challenged with how to present the work. For me it doesn’t go into a gallery space because I think what I have created is like a memorial to those who have been lost and due to the artist Sunoj D who is an Earth Artist who I worked with a few years back, the installation will happen outdoors in space which reflects some of the emotions and experiences Africans may have felt as they were ‘tight packed’ on the ships bringing them into slavery. The installation is also interactive and there will be certain things people will have to do before entering and whilst inside. I realize the subject matter is heavy so to bring ease to myself and audience I have created 9 mandalas which represent my desire to heal this wound, to restore myself to balance and allow the ancestors to weep not just tears of pain but of joy, as we recognise their contributions and sacrifices so we can live and be who we want to be in contemporary Africa.