An Essay by Jamila Prowse
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CONTENT WARNING: Transatlantic Slavery
The colour blue lingers in the cultural imagination. When I think of blue I recall Derek Jarman’s all encompassing screen, the contemplative reminiscence of Joni Mitchell’s chords, the resurfacing preoccupation of Henri Matisse. In Maggie Nelson’s 2009 book Bluets, across 240 numbered points ranging from a sentence to a paragraph in length, she muses on her obsession with blue: “And so I fell in love with a colour – in this case the colour blue – as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under in turns.”
It is fair to say that Joy Yamusangie and Ronan Mckenzie’s long-term creative exchange also materialised from the colour blue. Beginning informally – as messages sent back and forth via WhatsApp of artworks, photographs, films and music – blue sat as a perennial thread weaving the references together. In their independent practices, blue re-surfaces as a familiar friend, or returning character. For Yamusangie, blue sometimes recurs clearly, providing a backdrop for the curved figurations that are their trademark. Other times it sneaks in: the outline of blue glasses across multiple canvases in the series Blue Glass Fortunes (with said glasses making an appearance once again in WATA). Described as ‘a series of dreams visualised, revealing subconscious anxieties, hopes and desires’ are the blue glasses spectres, repeating motifs that rear their heads within dream sequences? What does the blue glass hold?
Blue always feels to me to be the home of contemplation. We come to blue to feel out the complexities of our interiority. We cannot, after all, disconnect the blues from the musicality of a meandering sax, or the curiosity contained in a piano key. Miles Davis wasn’t solely blue, or wholly blue, he was Kind of Blue, and in those tentative opening chords of So What it is as if he says, “where am I going”, “where will the beat take me next”, as he teases that full crescendo. If blue is contemplation then a blue glass reminds us of the fragility of all those inner thoughts we hold dear to us. A blue glass might be half full or half empty, a pessimist or an optimist, or it might “kind of” be. A transparent container presenting all that is usually hidden, now for the world to see, upon the suspended canvas of a gallery wall.
When I think of Mckenzie’s blue I always think of it as a stand in for expansion. A sky, a boat, a seascape, a doorway. In Leissy and Kim, the turquoise landscapes are a framing. Each photograph contains this blue encasement, not simply a backdrop, but an encapsulation. Here, as with in the series Nya in Melissa Eakin, Mckenzie tilts her camera towards the bright blue expanse of the sky in a technique which is familiar to her craftsmanship. Horizonless, Mckenzie’s skies really do expand out. If they are a framing, they are a framing with no beginning and no end. Within Mckenzie’s blue skies, we find ourselves considering how life extends out in all directions, how it beats ceaselessly on: expansive, free, uninhibited. Browns and whites are perhaps more prominent within Mckenzie’s oeuvre (coming together with blue to make up the trio’d colour scheme of WATA), but it is in the blue skies that I find what her practice epitomises. Mckenzie takes the lens and uses it to indicate that there is no horizon. In her artworks, just as in her creation of space and community, Mcknezie’s creativity is limitless. No borders, no horizons, no restrictions. If blue is expansion it is where Mckenzie and Yamusangie meet. Neither artist plays in the language of scarcity or lack. You do not look upon a Mckenzie or a Yamusangie work and think of what is missing. Instead you take your time, give your attention slowly and carefully to the abundance of meanings which fill the canvas in front of you.
The colour blue is a character in its own right within WATA, as is the sea. We open underwater. Glittering pockets of light float across the scene. A figure moves through the water. First we see their midriff in the distance, a white belt, as they swim upwards. Then a blue skirt, blue beads, blue straps of a top. And finally we come face to face with Mami Wata. Her eyes are framed in turquoise shadows, her finger nails coloured the same hue, as she gestures her hand in a part-wave-part-dance in front of the screen. Then her figure fades and we find ourselves eclipsed in the stretching expanse of crystallised water once again. We catch a glimpse of another figure, swimming through the waters searchingly. Is it Mami Wata he desires? So it follows, that we open on this separated but interconnected underwater dance between Mami Wata and The Musician.
The sea is a character but it is also an embodiment of Mami Wata and her powers – a water deity traced back to West Africa, Central Africa and the Caribbean. In Mckenzie and Yamusangie’s interpretation of her story, she is drawn into a dance with The Musician, a traveller who is tantalised by Mami Wata’s jewels. Throughout the film Mami Wata and The Musician engage in this dance, which is sometimes a power exchange – swapping sides, resisting each other – but finally meets in a merging of the two. Though The Musician’s aim is initially to bring Mami Wata’s jewels to the surface, he eventually transforms from the role of desirer or possessor (seeking to find and take), instead to becoming an appreciator and collaborator with all that Mami Wata is.
Mami Wata and The Musician’s final combining of worlds mirrors Paul Gilroy’s theory of “the Black Atlantic”. Black Atlantic scholars, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, contributed to a new concept of identity formation, which proposed the Atlantic as a specific site through which traditional theories of mono-culture would not uphold. In his seminal text Gilroy builds upon the anthropological discourse of James Clifford, who argued for a concept of the “scattering” of identities; a specific identity formation taking place as a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Within his theory, Gilroy proposes the Atlantic as one single, complex unit, which produces a transnational and intercultural perspective. Gilroy recognises that hybrid identities are formed throughout the diaspora, where a “scattering” of peoples, leads to a “scattering” and merging of identities. The theory of “The Black Atlantic” compels us to think beyond fixed expressions of identity formation, by instead perceiving how within the diaspora we are likely to encounter ‘mutable, itinerant forms’ which ultimately ‘redefine the idea of culture through reconciliation with movement and dynamic variation.’ Gilroy thus proposes that a reassessment of identity will lead us to redefine what it means to be ‘a modern person.’ In their combining of worlds, it is this ‘modern person’ – a hybridity of ancestral roots, cultural influences and interior worlds – that Mami Wata and The Musician represent.
I always come back to blue. Whether it’s the outpourings of different hues in my wardrobe, or indeed my favourite album of Joni’s which I always do return to, turning the phrase “Then we both get so blue” over and over in my fingertips. In Bluets Nelson writes ‘The blue was beating’, when speaking of her friend who is in hospital after getting in an accident, and can only move her eyes with their blue irises. The blue was beating, the blue was beating the words keep coming back to me. In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue: the title of an un-produced play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney which was later turned into the critically acclaimed film Moonlight. When Mami Wata and The Musician do their dance in blue, The Musician embodies this line. At the midpoint of WATA in the black backdrop where their exchange takes place, his body shifts into luminous shades of blue. In the moonlight, under the cover of night, Black boys find their blue; outwardly wear their melancholy, embrace their softness.
Maybe I also come back to the phrase In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue because of the presence of the sea in Moonlight. As with WATA, in Moonlight the sea is a character in its own right. A young Chiron stands in front of an expanding seabed, the waves cascading back and forth in calm. The whole scene is tinged with a blue veneer – contemplative – as we, along with Chiron, look out to the horizon. His bare back faces the camera, his shoulder blades protruding, reminding us of the smallness of his frame (still only a boy). Then there is the archetypal scene where Juan teaches Chiron to swim, by holding him suspended in the sea’s water, supporting the weight of his body. A gesture of parental protection or uplifting friendship, the unspoken promise that I will not drop you.
Within the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, the colour blue alludes to weighty connotations. On November 11th I was scrolling the internet, when I stumbled upon @autotheoryqueen’s tweet ‘the sea is an archive of slavery’, and in that moment, in the serendipitous connections of URL I found a seven-word-summary of all I have been thinking about since watching WATA in March of this year. The sea is beating blue and blue and blue. The sea is an archive. The sea contains an archive of so many beating hearts stopped short. The sea contains messages and stories of our ancestors which we will never come to know the details of intimately. I can’t get away from blue just as I can’t get away from the sea. Can’t help but think as I look out on a waterbed, of all the lives that have been carried across or lost in those waves. Of all those journeys, all those routes, which I will only ever know as a distant echo. Selina Thompson’s play Salt was born of a journey she took, retracing one of the routes of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica, and back. This urge, this connection, to follow the routes of our ancestors, to trace the outline of the forced migration which spanned 400 years. So many centuries. So many lives. So many routes which brought us to here, to this generation. To this home, where we may have been born, but which continues to feel so foreign.
In the second scene of WATA we move above sea level, to find “the WATA souls” floating upon the water’s surface. Some have their eyes open, a directed gaze looking straight at us, while some eyelids remain closed, drifting serenely in meditation. All give into the gentle ebb and flow of the sea, letting it encase them, hold them, carry them. The sea is a mother, a nurturer, an ancestor. When we all come back to the sea we do so with the knowledge that it will carry us home just as it first lulled us across its surface. We were born to the sea, and its the sea we will return to. If the sea is a site of mourning, Yamusangie and Mckenzie acknowledge its other role – as a creator, the root of hybridisation – where we can trace back the roots of cross ancestral “scattering”. As children of the diaspora the sea is what unifies us. It is where our ancestors met and crossed paths, and though we mourn those journeys they took and those who did not make it to the other side, we also celebrate the hybridity of cultural connections they left in their wake.
Edit, 18th November 2020 (5 days after first writing)
A few days after writing the first draft of this response to WATA, Ronan told me a story. The film, and in particular the scene where “The Wata Souls” float on the water’s surface, was in-part inspired by Ronan’s auntie Alletta. In 2019, Ronan reconnected with Alletta in Barbados, after over a decade of being out of touch. On one of the days they spent together, Ronan and Alletta walked down to the beach. As told by Ronan, ‘while sucking on green tamarind and salt in the sea, Alletta began to float. It looked to me like she was standing, but she was floating.’ Alletta then proceeded to demonstrate to Ronan the different positions she could float in. When Ronan asked her how she could float so easily, in so many formations, Alletta responded something to the effect of ‘I just look up to the sky and the clouds passing, and I’m not afraid to die, this ocean will carry me.’
When we all come back to the sea we do so with the knowledge that it will carry us home just as it first lulled us across its surface.
It is strange what we intuit, what organically drifts over to us through the work. Art is always up for interpretation. And yet, some works speak so clearly, akin to the crystallised water of the opening scene of WATA. Their jewels find their way to you even if by allusion. I know I’ve fallen in love with a work if I can’t get it out my head. And what causes me to fall in love in the first place? I think I love a work if it compels me to look long, look searchingly, look again, scouring the waters for hidden secrets, knowing that with each new discovery I might find myself closer to the artist’s intent.
@autotheoryqueen, ‘the sea is an archive of slavery’, Twitter, 11th November 2020
Clifford, James,The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography Literature, and Art, (Cambridge, MA, 1988)
Davis, Miles, Kind of Blue, (Colombia Studios, New York, 1959)
Jarman, Derek, (Dir.) Blue, 1993
Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London, 1992)
Jenkins, Barry, (Dir.) Moonlight, 2016
Mckenzie, Ronan, Leissy and Kim,
Mckenzie, Ronan, Nya in Melissa Eakin,
Mckenzie, Ronan, and Yamusangie, Joy, (Dir.) WATA, 2020
McCraney, Tarell Alvin, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (unpublished)
Mitchell, Joni, Blue, (A&M Studios, California, 1971)
Nelson, Maggie, Bluets, (Wave Books, 2009)
Thompson, Selina, Salt, (Faber and Faber, 2018)
Yamusangie, Joy, Blue Glass Fortunes series, 2019