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Diana Bamimeke

Attend To It

When I visit a show I want to write about, I have to spend a long time with it if I’m going to write about it in any meaningful way. I pack my bag with my supplies: my notepad, my pencil and two pens, a black one and a blue one. Despite its unassuming tools the task of looking, really looking, is a specialised one.

I sat in Éireann and I’s living room installation in the Douglas Hyde’s Gallery 2, which adjoins Gallery 1, a space housing Alice Rekab’s exhibition Family Lines. It was a balmy afternoon, sticky, clammy; the resultant mellow of the past few days’ high heat. In the notepad I recorded everything I could see, touch, taste, hear and smell. Then—continuing to warm up my hands for writing—I drew one of the forest green armchairs before me. The sketch confirmed my poor draughtsmanship skills but anyway had primed me to look closely. From the carved high backs of the sofa and chairs, to the mustard yellow walls, to the maroon carpet and its ribbed pile. Now that I’d absorbed the most obvious features of the room I needed to get granular with its material, with the real stuff of it.

The Black experience of migration provides a conceptual frame for Family Lines and the installation. Dotted around the room are personal items from the archives of Black contributors, each with their own experience of displacement. There are handwritten letters, family photographs, carvings, cassette tapes and home videos. Everything merited close viewing and that is what everything got. By taking a forensic eye to this archival material, as different as each piece was, the universality of this migratory history was affirmed to me. Black people are no strangers to the uprooting and upending of our lives, willingly or unwillingly.

*

Have you ever been so moved by something that you can’t say anything at all?

*

The home videos rolled on the TV in the corner. Children bickered, food was prepared under a watchful parental eye, someone twanged out a melody on a glossy blue acoustic. On the tapes, a vocalist and her chorus belted out their devotion to God.

This room, this cross-section of Black life, is a site of pure animism. In the glow of rememory these items take on an almost supernatural quality.

Before I wrote this text, I scrapped my first one. It was a short story about two Black interdimensional travellers who find themselves with an unaccountably strong draw to the installation, and no clue why. They arrive at the room and find it sings to them. One character muses, “… the people in the photos look back. Everything in the room throngs with aliveness.”

Still seated on the installation’s sofa, I thought about the artist-scholar Stephanie Dinkins’ article on “Afro-now-ism”, in which she writes about “the unencumbered, undistracted Black mind”[1] and its staggering potential. “Afro-now-ism… is a wilful practice that imagines the world as one needs it to be… in the here and now”.

The framed photos show people posed, smiling, mid-speech, mid-gesture. They are with their loved ones in buoyant and celebratory ceremonies. They’re playing checkers, or dancing, or congratulating a newly-wed couple. They’re living in their “here-and-now”. And so it becomes abundantly clear to me that this installation is the result of an Afro-now-ist curation, a series of decisions that project a shared and nurturing present for all Black people here and everywhere else.

*

She hovers at the threshold, watching golden time-streaks collide and split.

*

In one of the installation’s two letters, a father writes home from prison, meditating on his Christian faith and on life’s hardships. His writing stirred me, even as an avowed agnostic. This isn’t the only mark of belief in the installation—on a glass table lies a Qur’an, inscribed with glittering gold lettering. A varnished wooden Mabinti head surveys the room from its perch on the sideboard. This is Black liturgy; the colour of faith.

By now I’d captured the installation in sound, sketch, photography and writing. I’m listening to the audio right now as I write this, and flipping through my notes. Having walked through Family Lines and coming to rest in this little room, I understood both shows as occupying the same emotional circuitry, by which I was completely charged.

The task of responding to an installation like this isn’t just looking: it’s also deep listening, deep feeling. It’s the “experience of intimacy”[2] Lynne Tillman mentions, the disintegration of the border between you and the artwork. And this experience, of the installation’s intimacy, followed me out of the gallery and into the street, like the attendant spirit of an ancestor.

 

[1] Stephanie Dinkins, “Afro-now-ism”, NOEMA Magazine, 2020

[2] Lynne Tillman, “Madame Realism Faces It”, The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories, 2016

 

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