‘Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. How does it feel to be a problem?’
W.E. B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
Ballasts of Memory as a title sets precedence for John Akomfrah’s collection of films screening in the BALTIC space. Akomfrah’s choice of wording is intentional, ‘ballast’ being a heavy material placed inside a ship to give it stability. On ships in the Transatlantic Slave Trade these very ballasts served as signifiers of colonial horror and abuse; the ballasts used as counterweight for human cargo. African slaves travelled on ships, to be bought and sold like commodities in Europe and the Americas. ‘Precarity’ (2017) and ‘Unfinished Conversation’ (2013) recall memories of unjust migration, strife and subservience—factually portraying the painful histories of Black people, casualties of white imperialism, superiority, racist rhetoric and ideologies. It is estimated that the Transatlantic Slave Trade transported nine to ten million slaves from Africa to Europe and around the same number to the Americas, and an incalculable number died as a result of this transaction. The total figure is much higher according to UNESCO, who say that twenty-five to thirty million people, men, women and children were sold into slavery. At the root of Black oppression and from its beginnings, is journeying across waters. Looking at migration more widely, in three centuries of vast social change, water was crossed in order for migrants to call a strange land home, a land where one does not always feel they entirely belong.
The film installation on three screens in the first room at BALTIC is called ‘Precarity’ and tells the life story of Black cornetist Buddy Bolden born in 1877 in New Orleans, Louisiana through highly stylised portraiture. Bolden was pivotal in the birth of ‘Jass’, or as we now know it ‘Jazz’. Many claim he is the father of the genre. The jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong identified him as one of the most powerful jazz icons. As with the exhibition title, the artist packs an abundance of meaning into his title. ‘Precarity’ is the state of having unstable employment and hence insecure finances. Black people at the time of Bolden are seen to be ‘precarious’ workers, their colour synonymous with low paid and sometimes backbreaking labour with no regular contract. Nina Simone makes reference to the Black condition in her 1962 tribute song ‘Hey Buddy Bolden’. As she sings, Bolden ‘woke up the working people and kept the easy living, call on Buddy Bolden, call him Buddy Bolden’. Jazz musician Charles Mingus voiced his own experiences of ‘precarity’ in his liner notes: ‘Had I been born in a different country or had I been born white, I am sure I would have expressed my ideas long ago. Maybe they wouldn’t have been as good because when people are born free—I can’t imagine it, but I’ve got a feeling that if it’s so easy for you, the struggle and the initiative are not as strong as they are for a person who has to struggle and therefore has more to say.’ The title of the work also explores mental ‘precarity’. What is it as Pan-Africanist, historian, sociologist, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois asked, to really be ‘a problem’ to society? Not only was Bolden Black but alcoholic, creating an assembly of problems. He was deemed psychotic and became institutionalised by the age of 30, which ‘Precarity’ displays through scenes of Bolden in the Louisiana asylum. The musician died in incarceration at 54. Whether, Bolden was schizophrenic is hotly debated. Was the mental health label actually proof of the societal diminishment of ‘Black Genius’, or was Bolden similar to many jazz greats that came after him, highly creative and mad?
Little is known about Bolden, a historical ghost, Akomfrah’s depiction of him is dream-like at times, in its visuality through the protagonist’s consciousness and collective memories. Bolden’s rare photographs swirl around in water. Water connects to Du Bois’s use of Arthur Symon’s poem, in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, where he writes ‘The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea, O water, crying for the rest, is it I, is it I? All night long the water is crying to me.’ Here, the remembrances and anguish of the slave ship are drawn upon. Through tableaux of screens, through film, Bolden’s legacies are shown to us, in the past, the present, and for future insight.
In the second room at BALTIC, the theme of memory is omnipresent. The ‘Unfinished Conversation’ is what can only be described as the ‘memory landscape’ of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s archive. The film takes us chronologically through defining political events of the last century and Hall’s personal histories; his migration from the colonies of Kingston, Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation, to 1950s Britain. The assembly of problems in The ‘Unfinished Conversation’, or as Hall refers to it, the ‘social crisis’, brought about by the arrival of ‘the enemy within the gates’. The immigrant, who failed to conform, whose identity did not fit within ideals and values of ‘Britishness’, was perceived to be an immediate threat. The darker underbelly of this ‘crisis’, is that race became the lens through which to examine people, a crisis of colour where ‘Blackness’ became a standout problem. In the film Hall mentions Frantz Fanon’s 1952 key text Black Skin, White Masks, an exploration of the properties of racism and the systematic dehumanisation of Black people. Fanon subjects Black people to psychoanalysis, suggesting they appropriate and copy the culture and behaviours of the coloniser. The ‘Unfinished Conversation’ resonates with this through Hall’s examples of his parents’ prejudices. Hall describes his sister Patricia who wished to marry a Black Doctor despite their parents’ objections. Patricia had a nervous breakdown and was made to undergo electric shock therapy, from which she never quite recovered. Hall reminisces about the xeno-racism of his mother, who said of Black people: ‘They should take a long walk off a short pier’. This seems shocking yet captures the self-loathing Hall’s parents and minority others felt (and continue to feel), as products of conditioning desperately trying to culturally assimilate themselves. Regarding lighter shades of skin as indicative of higher class, status and level of education. The film incorporates the music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, reflecting how Hall obtained a sense of belonging through listening to the indisputably ‘Black’ genre, countering his sense of the inferiority of his ‘Blackness’.
Perhaps the greatest articulation in The ‘Unfinished Conversation’ is that identity is a social construct. Hall expresses that he doesn’t ‘think identity is a kind of essence which exists inside of all the other things’, rather ‘identity is always constructed in a conversation between who we are and the political ideologies out there. Although it feels like it wells up inside of you by something which is absolutely yours, it’s the product of an endlessly ongoing conversation with everybody around you. You are partly how they see you.’ And so, we arrive at Akomfrah’s title for his film—identity is ‘The Unfinished Conversation’. Both Akomfrah’s films challenge illusions of ourselves—the only thing that remains stable is the power of the white colonial authorities (or in the present the populist far-right) to automate the weight of oppression.
Ballasts of Memory, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 6 July – 27 October 2019.
Sara Makari-Aghdam is an independent curator, workshop facilitator and arts writer from Stockton-on-Tees.