What is the sound of the Black Atlantic? It depends not only on where you are, but also on what you are prepared or open to hear. Moving freely from Reggae, Jazz, Salsa, the Blues, to Hip-Hop, Northern Soul, and Samba, Black Atlantic music relates as much to specific historical, social, political, and local contexts as it does to genres. The exhibition Listening to Echoes of the South Atlantic at Oslo Kunstforeningtraces these complex stories told trough sound.
The notes vary in extremes. An ongoing performance by Cássio Bomfim (Salve Exu Motoboy) draws on funk carioca, an eclectic musical style born in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, with rap lyrics about the hard and violent life there. In a video work by Dawit L. Petros (The Sea in its Thirst is Trembling, 2019) the sunlit turquoise of the San Juan River in Cuba serves as a backdrop for musicians from the Ashé Olorun group assembled on a small fishing boat, singing a tranquil and mellow song that connects musical traditions of Cuba and the African continent. In Camille Norment’s Prime (2016/2020), situated in a seventeenth-century ballroom on Oslo Kunstforening’s ground floor, five handcrafted benches vibrate with deep chants issuing from speakers under the seats. While this installation seduces with its repetitious trance-like notes, the subtle noise of everyday life seeps in from the street outside and reminds of a given here and now.
This temporal disjunction between the immediate context of the work and the preceding influences which inform it is repeated throughout the exhibition. It invites us to see these musical performances as vessels for bringing the past into the present, and to reflect on how or in what form that past is narrated. The concept of history that emerges from documents and texts differs from the one that is implied in oral tradition in terms of the interpretive tools it requires. Marked by slavery and colonisation, the history of the Black Atlantic exists mostly outside of written discourse, as Caribbean intellectual historian Anthony Bogues remarks. Its archives are based on dance, music, or oral stories; they comprise a collection of practices that, in order to exist, require repetition and reenactment. In history told through sound, the linear concept of time loses its meaning. An important reference for the exhibition is British historian Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic Modernity and Double-Consciousness (1993), in which the author recalls the words of musician Quincy Jones: “Times are always contained in the rhythm.” And a rhythm can’t be linear.
The decolonial perspective asks us to critically examine the records of the past and notice what is left out. The act of re-reading – or rather re-painting – history understood as a story given in words manifests in William Kentridge’s video Second-hand Reading (2013), where he transforms a book into a moving image using a time consuming stop-motion technique. Through incessant application and erasure of charcoal marks, Kentridge comments on the potential alteration of what is perceived as apparent at a given time. A related concern is expressed in Jeannette Ehlers’s video Black Magic at the White House (2009), in which the artist, camouflaged as wallpaper and wooden floor, performs a vodou dance in Marienborg Manor. Ehlers’s ghostly migration through the empty rooms of the official residence of Denmark’s prime minister – a building with historical links to the slave trade – to the beat of drums, recalls the animistic religions which slaves were forbidden to practice, emphasising the eradicative function of such prohibitions.
The works in the exhibition are all accompanied by long explanatory texts in the leaflet, and there is also a catalogue available for download. Prompting the audience to read risks interfering with the immersive appeal of the works. This blurriness, however, is consonant with the exhibition’s ambiguous intention. On one hand, it wants visitors to participate in the gestural transaction of Black Atlantic culture, to get submerged in the sounds, rhythms, and atmosphere of the performances. On the other, it wants them to reflect critically on issues like slavery and a colonial past that echoes in the present. That double aim is already conspicuous in the first work one encounters on entering the exhibition, Anita Ekman’s video Tupi-Valongo-Cemetery of the New Blacks and Old Indians (2018).
Ekman’s title refers to a place nearby Valongo Wharf, the port area of Rio de Janeiro. It was the landing site for thousands of enslaved Africans at the beginning of the 19th century, and many of them were buried there on arrival. The video includes a short clip of Marielle Franco, Brazilian politician, feminist, and human rights activist who was brutally assassinated in 2018. The rest of the video shows a stage sinking in darkness as Ekman stamps her body with red urucum, a pigment used by the Indigenous People of Brazil. While the performance captures our attention, a voice calmly asks: “The dead cannot say a word, but if they could, what would it be?” Ekman’s work serves as a reminder that the price of words remains painfully high.