A Poetic of Living
Installation // Dimensions variable // Soil from Pen Park and Farmington Country Club, Celosia, fungus // 2021. Photos courtesy of Wellcome Gallery. Photos taken by Stacey Evans.
"What would it mean to consider Black aliveness, especially given how readily- and literally- Blackness is indexed to death?" - Kevin Quashie, Black Aliveness, Or a Poetics of Being
A Poetic of Living uses soil as a material that speaks to Black aliveness and resilience given how closely Black people are indexed to death. We remain through the soil. Soil holds trauma, displacement, memory, and history but is also a place of regeneration, possibility, and future.
Pen Park’s Recreation park, formerly known as Pen Park Plantation, has a golf course. On the golf course are forty-three unmarked slave graves. At Farmington there is a hanging tree where John Henry James was lynched in 1898. There are no forms of acknowledgement within these two spaces.
This work explores amnesia and how it is built into our quotidian spaces and influences our concept of history, stories remembered, things preserved, maintained, unaltered, or allowed to remain still. As you enter the space, the smell of wet mildew infiltrates the body, and uses repulsion as an aesthetic strategy. Yet, this smell derives from soil being what it is and asks the question: what would it mean if black people could just exist without the fear of corporeal violence? The viewer then has to walk over the soil to enter the space. In this action, they no longer become a spectator without agency, but rather, have to confront the soil to continue.
I am interested in these hidden histories and using a gesture of what it means to memorialize that is not linked to an Enlightenment framework of what it means to remain, such as a monument. In this installation, I use my body made from soil and place them in the soil from Pen Park and Farmington Country Club, two locations that are linked to past and present traumas and erasure. I place the soil body back in the earth, as an alternative monument that is made of our ancestors. One that grows life while seemingly unable to do so. Celosia, a plant native to East Africa and presumed to be brought over during the transatlantic slave trade along with fungus are then grown on the soil bodies. Through the eventual disintegration of the soil bodies, only the celosia and plants will remain. In this gesture, I ask the audience to consider systems of labor and loss enacted on the body as well as the food, plants, and knowledge transferred by enslaved people that has given root to what we see and know of beauty, intellect, technologies, and the sustenance we eat today. Soil becomes a way to speak to this notion of Black aliveness despite death and the ways one can care (through the act of growing and tending to these plants) that accounts for a possible otherwise despite the terror. The fungus and celosia simultaneously speak to the capacity of Blackness to evade capture and supersede the confines of whiteness.