We Claim the Deep: Art & Ocean Memory
- Kathie Foley-Meyer
If I try hard enough, I can still remember the taste of the cinnamon candies my father carried around in his briefcase and the slight chemical tang in the smell of his laboratory. His work was associated with the chemical processes of a precursor to what we now call magnetic resonance imaging, or the MRI. I was born when my father was completing a PhD in chemistry at Michigan State University, and his dissertation involved a process that would allow us to see inside objects and, eventually, human beings. His work is on my mind as I complete my PhD in visual studies at UC Irvine, with research and an art practice intimately intertwined with the sciences. My dissertation project is an exploration of art that references the ocean memory of the millions of African lives lost to the sea during the course of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Just prior to my pursuit of a PhD, I became obsessed with the afterlives of the human cargo consigned to the ocean during the Middle Passage, and I completed a work titled Twelve Voyages, inspired by research I had conducted with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. This database is an evolving archive; from its contents one can contemplate the lives of the more than twelve million Africans shipped across the Atlantic between 1514 and 1866 and the estimated two million who did not survive the journey. In his 1999 volume of poetry Black Salt, Édouard Glissant writes of the ocean as a territory of “glittering death” from which transformational, abyssal beginnings are possible (98). He also marks it as a zone of collective cultural memory for people of African and Caribbean descent. Christina Sharpe, professor of English literature and Black studies at York University notes in her book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, “the atoms of those people who were thrown overboard are out there in the ocean even today” (2016, 40). She utilizes the term residence time, which is the amount of time it takes for the ocean to completely consume something, and she explains that the human body, composed largely of water and salt, could have a potential residence time of 260 million years (2016, 41). I create art with the knowledge that my ancestors still abide in residence time within the depths of the Atlantic, and I am charged with illuminating their presence. As an artist, I want the freedom to make work about any subject, including those unrelated to my ethnic or cultural background, but one of the pleasures of a PhD is that it can allow for the pursuit of knowledge in a field related to a particular aspect of one’s identity.
Part of my dissertation research has focused on the work of American artists Ellen Gallagher and Lorna Simpson. Gallagher’s creative practice has centered on sea life and Blackness since her early years in Providence, Rhode Island, and her ongoing Watery Ecstatic series continues that tradition. In her 1997 work Drexciya, Gallagher presents her version of an undersea territory of superhuman Black beings spawned by the bodies of pregnant African women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. The oil, ink, and gesso painting on canvas features the population of Drexciya as tiny heads of Black women with flip hairstyles and protruding tongues. Without bodies, their existence is powered only by their brains. The later works in Watery Ecstatic are oil, watercolor, and cut paper on paper, depicting a fantasy blend of sea creatures and floating women’s heads trailing long sheaves of white hair.
Lorna Simpson’s work explores similar themes. Her “Everrrything” exhibition, on view at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles in 2021, featured large, mixed-media canvases of land and seascapes, including huge rock cliffs partially composed of photographic images of Black women. In one work they appear as wig-style photographs (an image type also used by Gallagher), which, along with columns of text, appear to be part of a gigantic blue wave rising in front of a brown land mass. In another, a superimposed photograph depicts calmer waters with a rising land mass and columns of text referencing womanhood, where words such as “Queen” and “Eve” are visible. Photographic strips of Black women’s faces blend into the rocklike structure, while another Black woman sits atop the land mass, gazing out across the water as if in vigil for a ship depositing more Black bodies into residence time. The phenomenon of women waiting by the sea for men to return is a common motif in drama and literature, but this woman is waiting for something else: for the end of voyages of human cargo, for the recognition of Black lives lost, and for the emergence of abyssal beginnings that are centuries old.
The artwork of Jason DeCaires Taylor, another focus of my research, is an evocative blend of art and science. The British sculptor is best known for his underwater Museo Atlantico, an installation series composed of marine-compatible, pH-neutral, and non-toxic cement intended as a countermeasure to the effects of climate change. Taylor’s installations become hosts for colonies of coral and other sea creatures over time. When his piece Vicissitudes, depicting a circle of twenty-six life-sized figures of boys and girls holding hands, was installed in Grenada, some perceived the work to be an homage to the Middle Passage because the boy figures appeared to be of African descent. This was not the artist’s original intent, but the interpretation nonetheless speaks to the desire for commemoration of lives lost to the slave trade.
My artistic and research journey has led me to the Ocean Memory Project (OM), an art and science collaborative that considers how environmental change may be recorded “in physical and chemical traits within the dynamic structure of the ocean itself” (Ocean Memory Project, n.d.). If the ocean does have memory, then it must include the residence-time presence of the bodies deposited during the slave trade. As I write this article, I am also working on two grant-funded collaborations with my OM colleagues; one, entitled Descent & Transformation, is a multimedia experience of the human body in the ocean depths, and the other, Old School, is a mixed-media project on climate change that incorporates 3D printing, weaving, cassette recordings, and a pop-up book.
As Sharpe writes, “Human blood is salty, and sodium [. . .] has a residence time of 260 million years” (2016, 41). As the ocean recycles up to ninety-five percent of deposited tissues, the residence-time presence of my ancestors in the ocean will, in a sense, outlive me. From the moment when they were jettisoned into the sea, my ancestors became subject to what Calvin Warren, in The Psychic Hold of Slavery: Legacies in American Expressive Culture, calls black time: “a temporality outside of physical time; it is time that fractures into an infinite array of absurdities, paradoxes, and contradictions (Colbert et al. 2016, 56). He goes on to explain, “The temporal vectors of past, present and future are inadequate to capture the event, and the event fractures these vectors as we attempt to squeeze the event into them” (Colbert et al. 2016, 59). Warren labels slavery an “event horizon” that “structures western thought itself,” and he suggests that, without it, western society would not have established the basic elements of modernity (Colbert et al. 2016, 56).
As I consider the implications of the residence-time presence of my ancestors, I am also inspired by the methodology of scientific discovery. In 2018, a new type of viral DNA was discovered in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Dubbed Autolykiviridae by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the name refers to Autolykos, a character in Greek mythology noted for his trickster tendencies and elusiveness. As Dr. Kathryn Kauffman, one of the researchers, noted, “When we’re studying viruses anywhere, [. . .] the methods that we use change what we find. We become blind to them if we keep on using certain methods” (Unpublished interview with author, September 30, 2021). Similarly, modification of the processes of art-making can intrinsically alter the final product, resulting in a revelatory outcome. Autolykiviridae struck me as a perfect parallel to my ancestors in the ocean: alive in some diffuse form of alternative existence, consumed by the animals and microbes of the ocean, remaining unseen for centuries, then revealed through a new way of seeing. Grainy enlargements of images of Autolykiviridae from the study became my inspiration for a series of photographic prints evoking existence in residence time.
As I incorporate oceanography into my art practice and look for methods of elucidating the presence of my ancestors, I feel that I am following in my father’s footsteps in creative experimentation. My father’s work led to technology that allows us to see inside ourselves, and I view the creative and scientific exploration of ocean memory and my commitment to understanding humanity through the prism of Blackness as working in a similar vein. I remain intrigued by the concept of Black bodies in residence time and will continue to explore the temporality and territoriality of Blackness via this lens. The interplay between art and science may finally compel western nations to come to terms with this incalculable loss of human life.
Colbert, Soyica Diggs, Robert J. Patterson, Aida Levy-Hussen, Douglas A. Jones, Jr., Calvin Warren, Margo Natalie Crawford, Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, GerShun Avilez, Brandon J. Manning, and Michael Chaney. 2016. The Psychic Hold of Slavery: Legacies in American Expressive Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Glissant, Édouard. 1999. Black Salt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Ocean Memory Project. n.d. “Home Page.” Accessed June 6, 2022. oceanmemoryproject.com/
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press Books.