Saturday, October 18, 2008

Running on empty, swimming free.

I have to laugh at how much I internalize myself and my thoughts. The second week of Sacatar we had one on one interviews to discuss the trajectory of our residency or art making. Later over lunch we shared those aspects of our plans and hopes with the other fellows. I had clearly identified the work I had brought with, projects for editing and shaping. I suggested a Salvador based food project, still nascent in my mind. Finally, I hinted at a object or offering that I wanted to make. The last idea was still tender, raw inside me. I needed some time to unravel the elements and inspirations.

I came here acutely tuned into the two anniversaries heralding the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade. This year marked the 120th anniversary for Brazil and 200 years for the United States. Brazil had celebrated theirs on May 3. Ours would be celebrated in early October, on the tenth. I came here thinking about my mother. Whenever I travel, I know that she calls out to come with. She had truly wanted to see the world. I brought a few of her ashes that I still had left.

Giving a form to these thoughts was still in question. Shortly afterwards Augusto suggested that I discuss it with Mae Stella. I had first thought that for forty days I should make a daily meditation in reference to the average length of time of the slave ship’s journey. I also wanted to give something to the sea. One gift would be gift of Sylvia, giving her a spirit home in Baia. I wanted another gift to the people who did not survive the voyage or suffered the life of enslavement. I did not feel centered yet to discuss the particulars.

When I read about the foods brought on board, I learned that it the right trade winds were not found or the seas rough, the journey could take four to five months. In preparation for the journey, some of the captive slaves penned in on coastal concentration camps were raising grain for the voyage. Several thousand pounds of cereal or grain was needed to keep the slaves alive. Rice, yams, beans and millet were often the first choices. Corn and mandioca brought back from the New World, grew quickly. Manioc needed to be milled into flour to make its inclusion worthwhile.

Like the early churches shipped pre-fab from Portugal to Baia, complete with assembly instructions stone by stone, the grains added ballast needed by the ships. Ballast for the return journey was made up of harvested loaf sugar, molasses, rum or grains for trading or the next voyage. I was finding threads.

I kept putting the project aside trying to feel my way through the form of it. I needed down time apart from the research and the writing I had brought with me. I also knew that I had not made a physical piece of plastic art in years. My work was constructed of the ephemera of fruits, vegetables, meats and fishes. I ran a bit scared on the how to part.

After some thought, I decided to solicit help from the fellows. I had started to shoot the water and waves rushing and swirling on my Lancha rides. I asked Lauri for some advice on constructing a simple video with marginal edits and sound. She suggested some free software, and said that she could help if need be. I thought that back in NY I could finalize the elements into a cohesive whole. I solicited a promise from Rahul. He didn’t know the form or nature of my goal, but wanted to help.

We decided to leave it for the final weekend. I was past spent, but I had promised myself and secured Rahul’s time. When I described the project to him, he was fully committed to my realizing this goal. He identified how much it mirrored the Hindu practice of honoring the dead.

For the gifts, I had arrived at a mixture of Orixa foods and slave rations. My raft would be made of sugar cane. I had first thought that like the offerings to Iemanja on February 2nd, I wanted my boat to float out to sea, metaphorically back towards Africa. No. It needed to sink like a stone sweetening the charnel house at the bottom of the bay. This voyage enacted for global dominance and sugar business would be anchored in the sugar boat. The ingredients would be placed in halved baby cabaças. Let them float as far as needed.

Not including the ashes there would be about one dozen gifts, Dende, Feijões Fradinho, Preto e Branco, Arroz, Cana, Tobaco, Sementes de Cabaça, Pipoca, Coco Ralhada, Quiabo entero pra Xango, Cortada pra Iansa e Cachaça for Exu; (Palm Oil, Blackeyed Peas, Black and White Beans, Rice, Sugarcane, Tobacco, Calabash seeds, Popcorn, Coconut, Okra for Xango and Iansa , finally Cachaça for Exu). Together, we had drilled one calabaça and carefully filled it with Sylvia’s ashes. The makeshift cork would be one piece of popcorn.

Rahul helped lash the canes together with fronds from the Dende palm. Lauri shot some video of me walking into the bay to deposit the gifts. In retrospect I wish I could have trusted myself to have had a camera. There was a personal view that was anchored in the release that lives in my memory.

I walked out nearly one quarter mile as the tide was coming in. The tobacco spilled as I walked, a reminder of the toll it took in her life. As anticipated the raft sank like shoes of concrete. Gracefully the popcorn drifted in mass surrounding the cabaças. Most of them headed toward the shoreline where the largest mansions in town were located. All of a sudden, the bobbing cabaça split away from the group and headed southeast as if looking for open water. I watched for nearly twenty minutes, until I could no longer see it on the horizon popping up and drifting away. I was flooded with a warmth and optimism of the possible. For me, this gift was truly emblematic of Sylvia’s spirit willing to fight any adversary, push the edge of her rainbow and believe that she and we could.

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