By Southwester Staff
Drexciya is a mythical aquatopia in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean populated by babies of enslaved African women who were thrown or jumped from slaving ships during the Middle Passage.
From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya with Ayana V. Jackson at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art retells this legend through visual works of photograph, videos and sculptural representations, all set in a watery world, accompanied by readings, sound and scents.
Jackson was inspired by the world of Drexciya, created by James Stinson and Gerald Donald, a Detroit electro duo of the same name in their 1992 album Deep Sea Dweller. But while theirs is a world of vengeful warriors, Jackson takes up what was laid out by the late writer and critic Greg Tate, who described Drexciya as a “revisionist look at the Middle Passage as a realm of possibility and not annihilation.” Focusing on the mothers and spirits who reigned in this watery realm, she presents in speculative fiction and imagining an Afrofuturist world where survivors from the slave ships met water spirits.
Jackson traveled extensively to Senegal, Ghana, Angola, Trinidad and Tobago and South Africa and researched museum archives for photographs of Nigerian and Angolan ceremonies while delving into textile collections to imagine the fabrics and fashions that Drexciyans might have worn. To film herself for the videos performing at depths in excess of 100 feet (30 meters) Jackson became certified as a master diver.
The exhibit begins with a portrait gallery of photographs. The spirits with superpowers are arranged like a tribunal and represent a range of experiences. Greed, the underlying motives of the slave traders, is most powerfully presented in Reliquary: The Sea Has Nothing to Give but a Well-Executed Grave. Wearing beads traded in exchange for African lives, within her skirts are bundled the bones of the dead.
A second gallery features sculptural compositions, including a voluminous skirt formed from shredded plastic bags, a bodice of stray spoons, head gear, gowns and accessories, an exquisite hand-stitched bodice, rusting crown, intricately woven wig, and unsettling collar. Representing pieces separated from their owners that could have washed ashore, now displayed in a museum, they remind viewers that objects out of their original context in a different time and place will evoke a different meaning.
In addition, a gallery of videos includes Take Me to the Water: Baptism by Waters Both Salty and Sweet (2022) and the immersive Journey of the Deep-Sea Dweller Who Among Us Has Killed an Albatross (2022).
Drexciya’s power in sonic pulses, the calls of whales, and ambient sounds are fused with ethereal singing to form From the Deep’s soundscape. The audio includes ambient sound, instrumentals, vocalization, and narrated excerpts from Robert Hayden’s Middle Passage (1962) and Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned (2020). The scent of sacred burnt offerings and the tang of salt and wood infuse the spaces.
From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya with Ayana V. Jackson does not shy from the brutality and horror of the Middle Passage, but it uses art to turn the lens to the strength of the human beings who endured, defied, and built beyond it. Stunning in beauty and wonder, the exhibit From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya with Ayana V. Jackson is itself a work of art.
The museum’s web site features videos of Ayana V. Jackson talking about how she created
the exhibit and a virtual walkthrough of the exhibit, and is available at africa.si.edu.