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Zinzi Minott

Fi Dem II

The Douglas Hyde is delighted to present the eighth of the screenings of Art from the African Diaspora as part of Alice Rekab’s multi-platform project FAMILY LINES.

Aiming to platform the voices of Black artists and artists of colour and to represent intergenerational legacies of self-representation in the production of film, writing and visual art, Alice Rekab and The Douglas Hyde have invited Holly Graham to co-curate the screening series by selecting a film that influenced and/or inspired her. Graham has invited artist Zinzi Minott to screen her work Fi Dem II (2019).

Fi Dem II is part of the continued investigation into Blackness and Diaspora, as part of a body of work that will be made annually on the anniversary of the Empire Windrush docking in the UK 22nd June 1948. Minott reflects on the first National Windrush Day which sits in the middle of UK Pride Month and seems to get lost amongst its longer established contemporary.

Considering the crossovers between Petname: Momma . Me Mudder . Sis . Brodder . Sweetie . Carmen . Plummy and Fi Dem II, Holly Graham has created the below introductory text to accompany Zinzi Minott’s film.

Tongue-Tie and Loose Ends

by Holly Graham

Part 2

 

Repeat Encounters

“We are here because you were there.” – Ambalavaner Sivanandan

This text is an introduction to Zinzi Minott’s film Fi Dem II, screening online as part of Alice Rekab’s FAMILY LINES programme at the Douglas Hyde Gallery. It’s a summary of how I have encountered the work, touching on some of the things the film made me think about. It is also the second half of a sort of two-part essay; with the first part – which you can read here – reflecting on a work I developed some years ago titled ‘Petname’, that was screened last month as part of this same programme.

That text references in turn another essay I wrote a few years ago. This is because I’ve been thinking about many of the same things for years, turning them over and over in my mind, stabbing at them from different angles of attack to try to get under their skin; dissect them; figure out what they’re about, and what’s drawn me to them. So, in that essay – not this one, or the last one, but the one before that, one titled To Us, It Just Looks Like A Lemon, in that essay – I’m thinking about family, relationships with my grandparents, migration, and food. I say something about an unravelling of names and pet names and cross-generational care; a care that is “knitted together and suspended in the frothy web of transatlantic crossings.” I go on to say:

“The routes and roots intertwined in this Caribbean heritage are sticky. […] That the curve of the narrative arc later drew subjects of these far-flung islands to the small country that provoked many of these initial movements is then not wholly remarkable. […] This legacy of sugar leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.”

I first came across Zinzi’s work in an open call to participate in a workshop and discussion event with a focus on sugar back in 2017. I’d been doing lots of reading and research around histories and legacies of sugar and slavery at the time myself, and a number of friends who were aware of this interest spotted the opportunity to be part of Zinzi’s workshop and nudged it in my direction. It was a specific call seeking African diaspora individuals with familial connections to Anglophone Caribbean Islands to be part of a session that would involve “Sugar, as a food stuff, medium, [and] point of discussion as well as discussing the Atlantic Slave Trade, consequence, farming, plantation life and bodies”. The event was part of Serpentine Gallery’s Radical Kitchen: Recipes for Building Community and Creating Change programme. A small group of us met, and over the course of an afternoon, we talked as we squeezed and pulped sugar cane with our hands, twisting it in fabric and pounding it rhythmically in large wooden mortar and pestles. We boiled it down into molasses, that then burnt and smoked. We shared our findings at a public event in the Serpentine Pavilion the following day. After the event, Zinzi and I stayed in touch loosely, sharing books and resources in an email thread in those initial weeks that followed.

I encountered the first Fi Dem film via a link in one of Zinzi’s mailouts. It’s a video shot and edited in the vertical dimensions of a phone screen. I remember watching it. It stayed with me. When Alice Rekab asked me about works that resonated with my own practice and interests, Zinzi’s work came to mind. The notes I made watching this first film back as I prepared to write this intro read: Fi Dem I, 2018, 5 minutes, 55 seconds. iPhone dimensions, portrait. Glitch, water, extracts, laughter, dance, movement. Welcome the UK border, passport control, cane fields. Small square self-portrait. ‘ship’, duppy house, plane map. Title as tribute. Dominoes, eyes keeping watch. Black and white family portrait. “I’m listening to ya”. Waves, water. Screenshots. Continuation of sound afterwards, after screen fades to black.

The work was made in the context of the Windrush Scandal, and the title acts as a dedication. I was struck by the commitment in the work. This first film is just one part of an ongoing series. Zinzi has said she’ll make one film every year, that builds on this collection. When I approached Zinzi to ask if she’d be happy to show one of the videos within this body of work, alongside mine as part of Alice’s wider invite, she suggested Fi Dem II, which features her own grandma, in her nurses’ uniform.

Conductive Channels

“…a method of encountering a past that is not past.” – Christina Sharpe

On a trip to Jamaica last year, I spent countless hours filming the water on my phone. It mesmerised me. I framed the water so it breached the screen’s edges, full bleed, cropped; as if it would continue forever if it wasn’t for the limits of the phone’s frame. Boundless. The sea in your hand.

Fi Dem II opens with a similar shot, likely also filmed on a phone. Landscape this time, wide. A soundtrack of sloshing waves, calypso music and the sound of a domino game in action floats on top of the image. Then the water splits. Lines are delineated, spliced. I read the water as a direct reference to ‘the transatlantic’ as history, as experience, and as geography.  Water as temporal, relational, a comms route, a conductive channel for entering into dialogue with those who’ve come before.

I think of my trip to Jamaica last year, on my first visit back to the place my dad was born. I think back to my stint on a “party boat” racing in leaps over sprawling Caribbean sea. On the boat, reggae and bashment blared from the speakers, and a small deck-top bar served rum punch in plastic cups. The vessel cut through the glittering turquoise blue, and I was star-struck. The party boat was not strictly part of the original plan. I had gone over to join my younger sister, who had flown out two months prior on her own journey of self-discovery; following an anxiety-ridden 2020, punctuated by the strains of the Covid-19 pandemic and a long summer of black square Instagram debates and BLM marches. My sister wanted to think about what it meant to feel at home, and to think about what it was to be black ‘here’ and to be black ‘there’; to inhabit blackness in a black-majority country, and to weigh it against her diasporic lived experience as an ethnic minority in the UK. Together, we plotted to undertake further family interviews, retracting a shared lineage to better understand some of the sinews that tethered our distant lives in England to another island across the Atlantic. Our plans were ambitious. Ten days to cram in an itinerary fit for a migrant descendant returnee, an artist-researcher, and a first-time tourist. Ten days at the start of hurricane season, bringing winds and rain that disintegrated hillside roads, sending them mud-sliding down steep drops and rendering travel risky. We were also navigating the second year of Covid; fuelling hesitancy around meeting with older and more vulnerable relations, hemming us in with 7pm curfews, and ultimately curtailing our trip prematurely with an abrupt lockdown. In our last days in Jamaica, I watched back the videos I’d taken on my phone of the dancing water the week before.

Zinzi’s water conjures a familiarity of my own iPhone camera roll holiday footage, retracing a previous generation’s transatlantic journey in reverse. But it also speaks to earlier forced migrations, with murmurs of death and loss undulating beneath the body’s surface. I think of the Zong slave ship and of the dead thrown overboard (1781), as memorialised in works by artists NourbeSe Philip in her longform poem Zong! (2011) and Sondra Perry in her installation Typhoon Coming On (2018). I still viscerally recall seeing that work – being surrounded by and submerged under the projections of purple 3D-rendered waves lining the walls; wrapped in and engulfed by the swelling and rippling skin of J. M. W. Turner’s mid 19th century painting The Slave Ship – also less concisely though aptly titled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon Coming On. I think of writer and theorist Christina Sharpe’s framing of ‘the wake’ – both in terms of death and mourning, and in terms of what’s left behind, the path carved out in water behind a ship; used to frame an understanding of contemporary lived experience of black people, and the continued institutional and casual everyday racism that permeates elements of that lived experience, as being situated in the wake of slavery: “the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present.”

I think also of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Dub Finding Ceremony, and its immersion in water. The ecologically conscious text is steeped in the ocean, absorbed in the sea. Her Atlantic currents reverberate with a recognition not only of genealogical origin through tangled bloodlines – enslaved and enslavers – but also via a more expansive understanding of kin. The poem speaks to and of indigenous practices of living as part of our organic surroundings, calling for us to acknowledge our non-human ancestry traceable back to oceanic biomatter. Corals speak; whales sing in chorus – the dub ‘rhythm and riddim’ of the text fluctuating in inflections and interpretations of Sylvia Wynter’s writing on kinship. Salt and seaweed become actors; voicing provocations to us, as their perhaps not-so-distant cousins, to challenge our breadth and depth of history-making and future-building.

For me, all of this floats in Zinzi’s water. Registers of past, memory and lineage reverberate in a low hummm.

Interruptions

…Then the water splits. Lines are delineated, spliced. The calypso song and domino game are interrupted by a smart-sounding voice: “It’s a piece of real socialism. It’s a piece of real Christianity too,” says the voice, speaking of the NHS. Applause. Glitch. “British Nationality Act 1948: An act to make provision for British nationality and for citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies and for purposes connected with the matters aforesaid.” Glitch. Water and sky and British Nationality Act share the screen. Black and white family photograph overlaid by glitch. Something like an old-school TV glitch. Something close to static, but not. Related but not. Foghorn. Black woman, glasses, nurse’s uniform. Clipboards and documents behind her. Overlaid on water. Radio excerpts – news reports and dancehall tracks. Two heavy, forthright syncopated basslines vie for attention. Glitch.

The film is an assemblage, a cut and paste collage. It’s angular and restless in form.

“OUR JAMAICAN PROBLEM,” headlines British Pathé… “The large influx of coloured people from commonwealth countries has created several problems.” Repeat. Collision of echoing digital sounds. Siren-like sounds, electronic distortions. “RUN IT – BUN UP!” Arcade alarms. Stylised gamified gun-shots. DJ’s air-horn – “bah-bah-ba-bahhh”. Archive footage of black people dressed in Sunday best, descending from a ship. “Fiiiiire” “Pull-up, Wheel up, Run it”. “6 or 7 to a room”… “G-G-G-G-G-Government.” “DDDDDown here.” “Pull-up, Wheel up, Run it.” Glitch – foregrounded by a smiling selfie of Zinzi and grandmother – “the autobiographical example,” says Saidiya Hartman. Sit-down little boy! That one here, grab them!

The soundtrack is fragmentary. Chopped and cut. I think again about the music on the party boat, the “Wheel up, Run it” of the DJ. I think about the “Dub” in the title of ‘Dub Finding Ceremony’. Dub, a precursor to – or elder of – dancehall; a successor to ska and rocksteady, the genres that birthed reggae. Dub-reggae, music sub-genre born in the late 60s and early 70s, in the wake of Jamaican independence not so long before in 1962, and amidst of an accelerated relinquishing of colonial control over neighbouring Caribbean islands in the years that followed. Dub as a version or ‘double’ of something that has come before, pressed onto the B side of a record. Dub with its sonic strategies of citation, variation, remixing.

“I am sampling the emphasis and breaks of Wynter,” says Gumbs. “Influenced by the promiscuity and prolificity of dub music, the confrontational homegrown intimacy of dub poetry, and the descendants thereof […], this work depends on and disrupts rhythm and riddim, the impact of repetition and the incantatory power of the spoken broken word.”

Dub! Echo, reverb, splicing, edits. Stretching and layering. Piecing together. Re-working.

As per the genre, in Fi Dem II, there are no lead vocals, no lead voice-over; or at least any attempt to lead is interrupted, spoken over. The voices in Zinzi’s work vie for space as DJ or ‘toaster’. There are sound effects, riddim emphasis. There is glitch.

Writer and curator Legacy Russel meditates on ‘glitch’ as form and strategy in her manifesto Glitch Feminism. She speaks about glitch as “an error, a mistake, a failure to function,” as “machinic anxiety”, as “a form of refusal”. She talks of the glitch in the context of queer and racialised bodies, straddling intersectional and muti-dimensional identities: “As glitch feminists, this is our politic: we refuse to be hewn to the hegemonic line of a binary body. This calculated failure prompts the violent socio-cultural machine to hiccup, sigh, shudder, buffer.” This framing of glitch disrupting dominant oppressive systems, recalls Christina Sharpe’s call to “rupture the structural silences produced and facilitated by, and that produce and facilitate Black social and physical death.” She calls for us to embrace “re/seeing, re/inhabiting, and re/imagining”, slicing vocabulary in a visual deconstructive gesture, a small-scale practical enactment of the instruction to take things apart. Practice what you preach. “We must become undisciplined,” she says. The glitch prompts both pause and movement, provocative in its disruption of activity. It demands attention.

I think about all of this in relation to Zinzi’s work – the film’s resistance to smooth linearity, its layering, stuttering, intentional repetitions; and I read these as in line with this same refusal to the violent socio-cultural machine, to presents suffused in the salts of murky transatlantic histories. But, in an email exchange with Zinzi, she tells me that her relationship to glitch is different, not operating as defined by Legacy Russell: “that is fine if that is your reading,” she says, but “that’s not how I am using the word. To me it is the racism [that is] the glitch. It is the interruption.” I think about the work again. The so called “JAMAICAN PROBLEM”, the “piece of real Christianity”, the British Nationality Act, splice across the other activity in the film, inescapably present. I turn over these understandings of glitch in my mind; interruption as the language of racism vs. interruption as an appropriated strategy of resistance. I often think of collage within my own work as a method for bringing together different strands of narrative, refusing singular or binary readings. True to form, I feel the assembly of fragments in the film quiver restlessly, offering themselves up to varied and multi-layered interpretations.

Loose end

“we would like it if your wrote us poems. we would like it if you wrote us long life sentences. we would like it if you broke sentences and gave us more life than you or we were told could be contained. we would like it if you remained. we would like it if your showed up every day.” – Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Last month, in April 2022, the Douglas Hyde Gallery held an in-person screening of both Zinzi’s Fi Dem II, and my film Petname. I gave a short introduction to the work that touched on several of the thoughts outlined in this text, and in the one that precedes it; dwelling on inter-generational communication, familial relationships, silences, ocean histories, multiplicity, and fragmentation – themes that I feel are integral to both works in different ways. In the Q&A someone noted that they were struck by the contrasts in tone between the two works, with ‘Petname’ quiet, gently probing; and ‘Fi Dem II’ a full assault on visual and aural senses, insistent and direct.

I found it interesting to watch these two works alongside each other. Petname opens up one-to-one dialogues with family members, and invites the viewer to sit in on these; while Fi Dem II has a broader conversational remit. They operate discursively in a similar socio-historical sphere and against a contemporary backdrop of the UK Home Office’s hostile environment policy, introduced in 2012; but the temporal context of the birthing of the Fi Dem series is particular to the unfolding injustices of the Windrush Scandal in 2017/18. While in Petname, the wider social and political events that shape the speakers’ lives exist largely off-screen, in the subtext of the narrators story-telling, and in the margins; in Fi Dem II, all of these things collide visually, within the viewfinder frame. The material qualities of Fi Dem II gesture towards abstriction, but the fragments themselves within the work are specific, and detailed; signifiers of concrete lived experience. The selfie at the close of the film is anecdotal, it’s the autobiographical detail mentioned by Hartman – a counter to the potential violence of abstraction, of removal, of a proposed objective distance.

Fi Dem II can be viewed in the context of a larger family of films. Formally, the work bears some resemblance to its siblings, while maintaining a distinct character of its own. The refusal and resistance I read as present in the earlier works seem maintained in Fi Dem III: Ancestral Interference + Fi Dem IV: An introduction on becoming unruly, as referenced in their stubborn titles. But elements of the visual languages shift, with the works absorbing CGI aesthetics. As a series the Fi Dem wider body of work is fragmentary by nature, a collection drawn together to make up a whole.

Not dis-similarly, I had initially thought of Petname as potentially involving some form of seriality to it. The full title for the work is: Petname: Momma . Me Mudder . Sis . Brodder . Sweetie . Carmen . Plummy, the idea being that each segment could be independent in its own right, and with the potential of the series being open-ended for possible new additions to be added. I had hoped my trip to Jamaica last August might offer a chance to build on some of those existing conversations through further interviews with family members. This wasn’t to be. But the encounters I did have with family, the reflections on place, and of course my short stint on the party boat, are marked indelibly on my mind; and now doubt, will be revisited in some way, shape, or form, in future work.

I see Zinzi’s commitment to Fi Dem – for them, to them, to extending this growing body of work – as performing what Christina Sharpe refers to as “wake work”; a dedicated and attentive “ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention), an ethics of seeing, and of being in the wake as consciousness”. The acts of care in Fi Dem push back against creative works as singular, static, or complete. The series is open-ended. It carries a temporal and personal investment. There’s a promise of more to come. The DJ / ‘toaster’ speaks over the track: “Pull-up, Wheel up, Run it…”

References

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Dub Finding Ceremony, Duke University Press, 2020

Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Verso, 2020

Sondra Perry, Typhoon Coming on, Serpentine Galleries, 2018

NourbeSe Philip, Setaey Adamu Boateng, Zong!: As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, Wesleyan University Press, 2008

Patricia J. Saunders, Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman, Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies, Journal: Vol. 6 : Iss. 1 , Article 7. 2008

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press, 2016

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