Deep Sea Dwellers: Art & The Afriscape

“Afriscape” (is a) critical lens we can (use to) interpret the images presented to us in a way that makes clear their affinity with African metaphysics. –

Still from Khalil Joseph’s film “Until the Quiet Comes” Water/Kalunga

Still from Kahlil Joseph’s film “Until the Quiet Comes” Water/Kalunga. Courtesy of Duane Deterville

I found resonance in different texts and art about water as a medium for transportation, communication and as a space for re-invention. For example, in The Journey Home (Future): Drexciya and Cyber-Africa from Ben Williams’ Black Secret Technology, or in Duane Deterville’s The Afriscape Ghost Dance on Film (parts one and two). Deterville uses the Afriscape to describe a way to view the moving image in much the same way that Williams explores Black American electronic music.

In The Journey Home (Future) Williams writes about how the electronic music group Drexciya combined the “faceless, underground, anti-mainstream media stance with mythological, sci-fi narratives, to help heighten the dramatic effect of their music.” Their music was in the style of Electro (electronic-funk), punctuated with elements of 1980s Detroit Techno, with occasional excursions into the Ambient and Industrial genres. Their music tracks were mostly centered around the TR-808 drum machine, with bass, melodies, and synth textures ebbing and flowing in time.

Drexciya / Deep Sea Dweller - A

Drexciya. Deep Sea Dweller, Side A (1997).

The duo called Drexciya: late James Stinson (top left) and Gerald Donald (right, bottom).

The secretive duo called Drexciya: the late James Stinson (top left) and Gerald Donald (top right, bottom).

Fast forward a couple of decades to Until the Quiet Comes which includes a recent collaboration between experimental multi-genre music producer Flying Lotus and film director Kahlil Joseph (not to be confused with the actor). FlyLo’s album draws on African percussion and psychedelic (see Electro) musical influences, human-subconscious and dream world concepts, and different mixing techniques. Deterville writes that Joseph’s award-winning film short is part of the Afriscape, a “contiguity of African cultures that acknowledges commonality viewed from varying subjective critical lenses and sensibilities.” These sensibilities give artists the ability to map meaning in their images, “gradually unpacking the deceptively simple and oblique narrative to reveal the cosmic scope of their implications.” In Drawing Down Ancestors: Defining the Afriscape through Ground Drawings and Street Altars Deterville describes the Afriscape as the “act of drawing on Continental African cultural ethos, contemporary technology, and artistic actuation is what creates a self-determined, representational space.”

Deterville applies the lens of the Afriscape to Joseph’s film as a “perfectly appropriate approach when used to describe cultural expression in the Black-Atlantic diaspora.” Williams draws parallels between Drexciyan mythology and Paul Gilroy’s concept of the Black Atlantic. Artist Ellen Gallagher explores how the Drexciyan origin myth of the Black Atlantic/Atlantis becomes a creative space for exploring cultural hybridity.

Drawings from her ongoing series, Watery Ecstatic, feature enchanting marine creatures. Only up close do we see the collaged African faces—an homage to slaves who were thrown overboard on their passage to the New World. –Sara Angel for Flare Magazine

Ellen Gallagher. "La Chinoise, (detail)" 2008. Pencil, ink, oil, watercolour and cut paper on paper. Photo: Studio E. Gallagher.

Ellen Gallagher. “La Chinoise, (detail)” 2008. Pencil, ink, oil, watercolour and cut paper on paper. Photo: Studio E. Gallagher.

In a 2012 article I wrote about how artists whose works use the environment as their canvas help to provide a theoretical framework to understand Blackness and African Diaspora as a heterogenic culture produced by western discourse, as a rhizomorphic, fractal structure shaped as an intercultural transnational formation.

Ellen Gallagher.

Ellen Gallagher. “Watery Ecstatic,” 2006. Gesso, ink, watercolour and cut paper on paper 75.5 x 100 cm / 29 3/4 x 39 3/8 in. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Howardena Pindell. "Autobiography: Water/Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts," 1988–1988.

Howardena Pindell. “Autobiography: Water/Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts,” 1988–1988.

Also of note is “neo-soul” musician Maxwell’s Embrya, Ellen Gallagher’s Watery Ecstatic series (see Art21 season 3 Play), Howardena Pindell’s Autobiography, Mami Wata, Simone Leigh, performance artist Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez’s Digital Anthropophagy, and interdisciplinary artist Sanford Bigger’s Shake. Also of note is Ramos-Velasquez’s collaboration with electronic musician A Guy Called Gerald who produced Black Secret Technology (see Ben Williams) and Sanford Biggers’ concept band, Moon Medicine.

Maxwell's "Embrya,"; Drexciya's "Neptune's Lair," 1999, by Abdul Qadim Haqq; Khalil Joseph's "Until the Quiet Comes," 2012.

Left: Maxwell’s “Embrya,” 1998; Top Right: Drexciya’s “Neptune’s Lair,” 1999, by Abdul Qadim Haqq; Lower Right: Khalil Joseph’s “Until the Quiet Comes,” 2012.

In Digital Anthropophagy Ramos-Velasquez invites the audience to deposit offerings in her Anthropophagic Boat to Yemanjá. Then she calls up a spiritual center of the Yorubá religion in Brazil via Skype to ask for their blessing to put the boat in the virtual sea (video screens with video of ocean recorded in Rio de Janeiro). In Shake a Brazilian actor walks from the favelas to the ocean in Sao Paulo, Brazil before transforming into a silver-skinned avatar (a Nommo fish-spirit from West African Dogon myth, perhaps?).

Deterville notes that the image of water symbolizes the barrier (Kalunga) between the living and the ancestors. Kalunga is Kikongo for “threshold between worlds” and is often associated with the Atlantic Ocean. The Kalunga line (see image above) is a line under the Atlantic Ocean where the living became the dead and the only way back to life was to recross the line. Some religions today make reference to the Kalunga Line believing that the soul of an African-American travels back to Africa upon death and re-enters the world of the spiritually living although the body has passed on. Drexciya and artists like Ellen Gallagher create sounds and images to explore amphibious (origin) mythologies.

A diagram of the KiKongo Cosmogram found in Central Africa, with an emphasis on the Kalunga line. Image courtesy of Duane Deterville.

A diagram of the KiKongo Cosmogram found in Central Africa, with an emphasis on the Kalunga line. Image courtesy of Duane Deterville.

The inner sleeve notes for Drexciya’s The Quest is a map divided into four stages: The Slave Trade, Migration Route of Rural Blacks to Northern Cities, Techno Leaves Detroit, Spreads Worldwide, and The Journey Home (Future). The image below visualizes the concept of a intercultural, transnational network by showing the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from their homeland, as well as the newly established bonds that transform identities and cultures.

Drexciya. "The Quest (liner notes)," 1994.

Drexciya. “The Quest (liner notes),” 1997. Courtesy Ben Williams.

The Drexciyans are water-born, the children of pregnant African slave women who were thrown (or jumped) overboard during the Middle Passage. These deep sea dwellers are mutated beings, cyborgs, or hybrids that now live among us, creating art in alternative spaces. In Until the Quiet Comes the dancer Storyboard P (who refers to his style as mutant) moves in this space.

The oblique narrative created by this film sequence underlines how closely death dwells with life – and tragedy with ecstatic joy – under the constant reminder of police helicopters as ubiquitous as the summer sky over L.A.’s Nickerson Gardens projects. –Deterville

In other examples objects and actors/avatars take on new forms such as in Sanford Biggers’ Ghetto Bird Tunic (see below). Using Drexciya’s The Quest as inspiration I imagined the following works as part of an Afriscapist narrative:

Sanford Biggers. "Ghetto Bird Tunic," 2012. Courtesy the artist and MOCA LA.

Sanford Biggers. “Ghetto Bird Tunic,” 2012. Courtesy the artist and MOCA LA.

Storyboard P in “Until the Quiet Comes”.

One nation under a groove: Storyboard P in “Until the Quiet Comes”.

Sanford Biggers. "Shake," 2012. Courtesy the artist.

Sanford Biggers. “Shake,” 2012. Courtesy the artist.

Drexciya. "Aquatic Invasion," 1994.

Drexciya. “Aquatic Invasion,” 1994.

Much like a storyboard for The Quest we can also trace a path from life to death, or transcendance:

  • In Ghetto Bird Tunic – the shaman’s costume to reference the flamboyance of masculine ghetto display and its masquerade of power () and the constant presence of the “ghetto bird” (police helicopter).
  • In Until the Quiet Comes – the realization of what has happened to (the actor) sets in with the revelation of a bullet entry wound as he rends and tears at his blood stained t-shirt in an effort to dance his way out of his constrictions (as a path to freedom). –Deterville
  • In Shake – the silver-colored avatar (wearing platform boots George Clinton might wear) as an incarnation or manifestation that directly connects the actor and the artist the homeland (Africa). –Art21 blog
  • In Aquatic Invasion – the events that the black “wave jumpers” face/go through/overcome before they/we can begin the journey home. –Stephen
  • In The Day We Surrender to the Air Antonio Guzman compares DNA data to trace his and others’ roots back to Africa (see The Journey Home):

Even rapper/entrepreneur Jay Z references the Black Atlantic/Atlantis in his latest project Oceans from his concept album Magna Carta Holy Grail:

It’s back again to that duality, you know. It’s a celebration of where we are now on some big yacht, throwing champagne in the water but the undertow of the thing is like this same water is the water that brought us here, you know. Originally, you know, as slaves, so it has this whole duality. And how we are rewriting history, you know. The stories we were told about the history of America. I’m anti-Santa Maria talking about these stories. The only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace… –Jay Z

The point here is that the key to understanding these works lie in understanding the connective threads that transcend physical geographies and link diasporic philosophies. These personal narratives/meanings challenge conventional modes of thought, genres, standards, and practices. Deterville’s Afriscape (as a critical lens) is parallel to Afrofuturism and Rayvon Fouché’s techno-vernacular. The Afriscape creates an opening to a broader way of thinking about the resonances of the African Diaspora in contemporary art, music, and technology.

  1. #1 by jamele on July 3, 2013 - 5:17 pm

    this is dope!

    • #2 by nettrice on July 3, 2013 - 6:37 pm

      Thanks Jamele.

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