“Yeah, I think we got it,” Ayana V Jackson, wearing a black coat and crouching on a circular seat, says with quiet satisfaction into a phone that connects her to a sound engineer.
The artist is putting the finishing touches to an immersive video installation in which Jackson herself – wearing body paint and otherworldly costumes – can be seen swimming amid coral, fish and shipwrecks. Her deep dive is accompanied by the call of whales, sonic pulses and an ethereal singing from what could be mermaids.
It is the centrepiece of From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya, an exhibition now open at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington.
The show is inspired by Drexciya, an imaginary underwater kingdom populated by the children of pregnant women who, considered “sick cargo” by transatlantic slave traders, were thrown overboard or jumped to their deaths during the Middle Passage.
Jackson, 45, whose life and work span three continents, has long framed her own body in her photography, usually in allusion to historical images of women of colour. But her first foray into video, for the installation Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller, required a new level of physical commitment.
She learned to scuba dive with a GoPro camera in Senegal, Angola and Ghana. “Then I went to Trinidad & Tobago to make new costumes, and it was there that I started to really try to get into the depths of scuba diving to shoot truly underwater, as opposed to at the surface,” Jackson recalls.
“I then realised I didn’t like the footage. It was too close to the surface, and I tried to go deeper, and that’s when I met my dive instructor who was like, ‘You are crazy. You could have killed yourself and the camera person. I’m willing to take this project on. However, we will not be doing any shooting until you at least reach the level of safety and rescue so you understand the risk that you are not only putting yourself but also your safety divers and cameraman under.’”
Limited by pandemic travel restrictions, Jackson spent 10 months in Tobago and became certified as a master diver. Then she went to South Africa and, with cinematographer Eran Tahor, filmed the underwater scenes with a full budget, safety divers and three camera operators. She went as deep as 90 feet without oxygen.
“I can hold my breath until about two minutes or so, which is not amazing for a free diver – it’s like barely a starter for a free diver. But actually while shooting, because of the drag of the costume and all these other things and then the movement, there’s hardly a single shot that’s more than 30 seconds. It was mostly between 20 and 30 seconds I could move around before needing air.”
The result, accompanied by singing from South African Nosisi Ngakane, is a haunting evocation of Drexciya, the world that was conceived in the early 1990s by James Stinson and Gerald Donald, a techno duo from Detroit, and described by cultural critic Greg Tate as “a revisionist look at the Middle Passage as a realm of possibility and not annihilation”.
Drexciya responds to the fate of pregnant African women who were thrown off slave ships to drown, or who jumped to their deaths in a final act of agency. In the myth’s telling, their babies swam from their mothers’ wombs, not needing to breathe air, and built a civilisation on the ocean floor in splendid isolation from the industrial world.
It has intrigued numerous artists, with examples including Abdul Qadim Haqq and Dai Sato’s graphic novel The Book of Drexciya; Rivers Solomon’s novel The Deep; actor, singer and rapper Daveed Diggs and his hip-hop group Clipping’s song The Deep, which described a Drexciyan uprising against oil-seeking humans firing air cannon into the ocean.
Jackson says: “I’ve always felt that origin stories are very important. As a Black American who went to Catholic school, and as one of the few non-whites in the school, when it came around to the history of learning locations, like where are you from, Lauren says Germany, Giselle says Greece, and then I say Africa.
“I remember feeling a certain amount of shame somehow, because of the way that Africa was being portrayed: it’s the 1980s, so it’s all about death, disaster, destruction, dictatorships, famine. And then also a lot of National Geographic, where it was almost this primitivised image of the Black body, of the African body.”
She continues: “I did have those moments of fragility, then later I began to think about a time before slavery, a time before colonisation, and I shifted the timeline back further to realise that my origin story doesn’t have to begin with enslavement. I think about that actively.
“Drexciya came out before Afrofuturism was even a term, but it was a philosophical way of thinking about speculative fiction and imagining other origin stories.”
She cites the example of Sun Ra, an avant garde composer who created a narrative that Black people were descended from ancient Egyptians, who in turn were from Saturn. “There’s something very important for our psyche as African descendants, or as people who inhabit black bodies, to rethink our origin story for the sake of our self-esteem, for the sake of our physical and mental health.”
Jackson began the project by considering how Drexciyans might have dressed, looking through museum archives for fabrics and fashions that could suggest 16th-century Africa and the enslaving nations of England, France, the Netherlands and Portugal. She travelled to Senegal, Ghana and Angola to collaborate with designers Rama Diaw, Olabanji “Cheddar” Arowoshola and Mwambi Wassaki to fabricate and photograph garments that can now be seen to spectacular effect in Washington.
The exhibition includes photos, video, animation, installation, sound and the scent of sacred burned offerings – there are nine recurring characters based on imagery of African deities. Portholes encourage visitors to peer in and have a one-on-one encounter with certain works. Niches display books that inspired Jackson.
An installation using CGI motion capture and sound suggests the arrival of the Drexciyans, including an image of a pregnant nude. A mannequin wears a flowing dress made of banknotes from Africa, inspired not by Drexciya but a legend passed on by Jackson’s aunt in Ghana.
She explains: “When I was telling my aunt in Ghana about the project, she said she had heard there are people that believe that when the fishermen go out to sea, they’re not actually fishing. They’re trading with banks and traders inside the ocean. She says she doesn’t know whether to believe or not believe, but there are people that do believe that.
“I went to the seaside to shoot the dress of the character and I asked the fisherman if if he’d ever experienced that and said he’s definitely been on boats where people believe that they’ve seen these traders. He said, ‘I’ve personally never seen them but some people have spiritual eyes.’ He was in earnest saying that I’m not saying that this doesn’t exist, it’s just that I don’t have the eyes.”
Jackson was born in Livingston, New Jersey, but lives in Johannesburg and also spends time in Paris. This has afforded her some distance from America’s racial reckoning over the Donald Trump era and police murder of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis.
“The benefit of it is that I do not find myself having to live certain traumas on a daily basis. I never realised how much I could escape. Not that there are not racial issues in which there is racial reckoning happening in other places, even in South Africa or Africa in general, but it is a different narrative, it’s not so close to my bloodline as that. It feels different to be away.
“I do think that we have come a long way, but we’ve been recently reaching back into a very ugly past and it’s painful to acknowledge and witness while at the same time there are definitely steps going forward. There are things that you would think would have been deleted from our way of dealing with each other but some of those things are still there.”
The National Museum of African Art’s collection of more 13,000 artworks spans more than 1,000 years of African history. From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya, curated by Karen Milbourne, is on display until next April. Jackson hopes that visitors have an experience “moving from annihilation to possibility, from trauma to relief, to have a chance to sit at the tension between those two things. To be moved but not to be scarred and to be inspired but to remember where the story comes from.”
- From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya is now open at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington until 30 April 2024