London | UK
20.12.2020   |  words by Salma Ahmad Caller

Beautiful Ruptures: Breaking bodies breaking boundaries

It is nearing the end of 2020 and I have been meaning to write this piece since the summer. Ideas began coalescing after I finished reading The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey. Then I began reading The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell together with The Visceral Logics of Decolonization by Neetu Khanna. I am revisiting Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds by Marina Warner. Warner meanders through the territories of cross-fertilisations that occurred when the so-called Old World and New World collided. Time must be found to read The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy to understand more about a culture he says is not either African, or American, or Caribbean or British, but all of these together. My imagination and my work, as an artist and art historian of mixed-race and mixed cultural origins – British, Egyptian, a little Scottish and Turkish, possibly even Tunisian – have always been fired by notions of syncretism, hybridity and multitudinous webs of cultural crossings. Those from mixed-race backgrounds can have a disruptive potency to explode categories and boundaries, opening new ways forward for how we might think about and explore identity.

In this essay I bring together some ideas from my own work and from my recent reading and begin a tentative exploration of how we perceive our ‘origins’, things to do with women, and mixtures, bodies mixing, cultures mixing, and mythologies about women’s bodies, in particular those from ‘other’ worlds or from more than one world at once.

Turning to an investigation of the somatic, the visceral, and the ‘emotional’ – explosive feelings, anger, ecstasy, eroticism, as Neetu Khanna discusses, is a way of seeking and using alternative sensory modes to understand, to excavate and destabilise power structures and to decolonise. For me it is a vital way to resist the hegemony of a European/North American hierarchy of the senses, that never made ‘sense’ to my own ways of comprehending. The optical objectification of ‘others’ and their cultures, the hierarchy of the psychic over the somatic, the written over the spoken and enacted, permits insidious perpetuation of colonial tropes. These hierarchies throw a cloak of invisibility over other sensory modes of knowledge creation.

For many years I have been working with the connections between the bodily, the multi-sensory and the ornamental, as a form of resistance and disruption, and to create alternative frameworks for understanding knowledge as thought/feeling generated from the viscera of the body, drawing on my background in medicine. Looking to the somatic, the ‘emotional’ and the biological is also a kind of reversal of the colonial trope of the racialised body that is carnal, pungent,‘primitive’ and over- emotional. The biological body, as if there is any other, has a recent history of being harnessed by some feminists, reaching beyond the limiting idea that the biological is too caught up in problematic essentialist constructions of gender and womanhood, to override patriarchal modes of containment and control. These are all ways to reclaim bodily knowledges that have been marginalised and stripped of their potency, complexity, meaning and context. The accepted language of art and cultural discourse itself limits what we can think and comprehend, so we need to find new languages and vocabularies.
Roffey and Serpell are both overtly tapping into these languages, of the visceral and biological female body, bonded together with visual and conceptual nodes from the tropes of curiosity, collecting, wonder, and notions of identities as stages in development towards completion. These concepts from European art history, literature and culture – with all their connotations of the grotesque, the bizarre, the unnatural, the incomplete, the lonely fantastical oddity, and the racial other as foil for the perfected European – are being re-purposed into radical table-turning modes of undoing and unpicking such formations. Their usage is being redefined to express the creative potential and generative potency of such bodies/selves. In The Old Drift and The Mermaid of Black Conch we find bodies that mutate, transform, mix and bond with what they shouldn’t, exude, shed, dissolve and reform, or appear to use ancient ‘primitive’ suppressed intuitions, singing, writhing, touching, smelling and feeling their way into multiple futures and possibilities.

These two women writers/magicians are drawing on mythic imagination and Afrofuturistic elements to reconnect with forgotten ancestry, and both have mixed-race heritage that is used to develop themes that muddy the waters for those who like binaries or either/or narratives. Serpell’s father is white British and became a Zambian citizen, her mother Zambian with parents from two different tribes. Roffey is a Trinidadian of mixed origins, a white British father, and a mother who was born in Egypt to parents from a mixture of French, Italian, Maltese and Lebanese backgrounds. Roffey’s parents met in Port Said in 1951 as her father was posted to the Suez Canal whilst working for the Royal Engineers. These two women and their origins are embroiled in the confluence of colonial expansion, violence, appropriations, and the intricacies of what happens when cultures cross borders and power relations and become intimately combined and entwined within the personal space of family, home, parents and selfhood. A mixing and confusion, some like to call it. The joyful meetings, the painful clashes, the synergy and the juxtapositions of oppositions. I deeply identify with this. My own parents, Egyptian father and English mother, met in Oxford, and I was born in Iraq, grew up in Nigeria, teenage years in Saudi Arabia before we all moved to the UK in 1990.

I proceed with caution regarding talking about those who have been colonised and seek to avoid ideas of a homogenous shared essence. My own experiences of cross-generational trauma are via my father and the residues in his soul, body/mind of the damage left by the British in Egypt, and knowing that fraught identities are caught in an in-between territory of resistance, radicalism, and wanting to be recognised and accepted by an arrogant Western world. The violent entanglements are complex and feelings are raw and wide-ranging. The colonial histories of Afro-Caribbean people are not mine, and I learned that there are many with European, Middle Eastern, Taino, Chinese and East Indian lineages. It would be a profound underestimation of the complexity of the impact of colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade to try to reduce concepts here or to claim any ‘expert’ insights, or uniformity of experiences.

What I can say is that these novels by Roffey and Serpell are spellbinding, that they open up many roads to explore identity and it’s untidy infinite branches and combinations. I felt freed of conventional and stifling notions. They showed me how little I know about these lands and histories. As Serpell said in one interview, she doesn’t think many reading her book will have ever read a novel set in Zambia. And how many of us know much about the ties between Africa and the Caribbean, or the Caribbean as the ‘heart’ of England’s first overseas colony in 1625, as one article I found described it, and what do we know about the Taino/Arawak, or their mythologies, or the ways in which African and Caribbean cultures might have met and mixed?

The Caribbean has been central in colonial struggles for power, imperial rivalry and European wars since 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed claiming it for Spain. Before the Europeans arrived there were three main groups of people living on the islands of the Caribbean, the Taino, the Ciboney, and the Island Caribs. Huge numbers died of infectious diseases brought in by Spanish invaders, or were killed by colonists. The Spanish, Portuguese, England, Netherlands and France all tried to establish profitable colonies there. Then followed the Atlantic/Euro-American slave trade which began in 1526. The setting up of sugar plantations, the kidnapping and forced enslavement of peoples from Africa to work on these plantations and make these colonies ‘profitable’, all led to further mixing of cultures and ways of being. These are the killing fields/crime scenes where sugar and Black Death are inseparable as described by historian of slavery Sir Hilary Beckles. A debate rages on about whether or not there is evidence of Africans sailing to, trading with, living and becoming part of the peoples of the Caribbean islands before the Atlantic slave trade or even before Columbus. Why is it so hard to conceive of Africans being able to navigate the oceans?

The formation of European ideas about personhood, wholeness and identity were often set up in opposition to notions of ‘exotic’ others seen as lower down in a narrative of progressive change towards higher more advanced or more complete forms, and in relation to a definition of boundaries so that some creatures were considered mixtures rather than wholes, incomplete aberrant forms halted in the middle stages of metamorphic change. This history of ideas was reinforced by the ‘discoveries’ of ‘strange’ lands, plants and beings of the ‘New World’, the Caribbean in particular, and the Americas in general. So began colonial ‘golden-age’ collecting of curiosities, peoples, and objects that would help uphold the hierarchical networks of labels, types and categories. Anything that did not fit in to this became an oddity. Both Roffey and Serpell develop unconventional female protagonists that are disruptive to the orders shaping those around them, their hybrid or abnormal bodies have a force that shatter boundaries. The key women in the tales often have some kind of elemental, instinctive, wild excessiveness in their natures. They are fecund, diverse, seductive, unexpected, fantastical, category busting beings that are creative and generative of otherwise unimaginable possibilities. We could call it a baroque grotesquery associated with a ‘New World’ seen to be populated by warped uncontrolled and uncontrollable asymmetric bodies, that has been adapted by these authors to instead mean potency and an efflorescence of radical unconventional identities that incorporate rather than reject all kinds of separations, dualities and binaries.

What interests me are such Othernesses, exiles, both real and imagined, transformations, transmutations, grotesquerie reclaimed as beauty, ornament redefined as conceptual and visceral meaning, sexual ambiguity and ambiguity of natures as ancient and always. Being in-between often means you are inaccessible to others. The mermaid Aycayia in The Mermaid of Black Conch has been swimming in the Caribbean Sea for centuries. She was/is an indigenous woman who has been bewitched by other women jealous of her beauty. American fishermen dredge this ancient indigenous female out of the ocean, electric, silver, bleeding, fierce. They and other men crowd around her, they are so stoked, they want her, one of the Americans wants to rape her but cannot of course, so he urinates on her instead and leaves her tied up hanging on the quay. They are overwhelmed with ‘wonderment’ at this ‘half and half’. I don’t want to reveal the whole story, but the mermaid is rescued and starts to turn back into a woman, to menstruate, her scales start to fall off. She sings ancient songs and remembers her ancient indigenous past. She enrages other women and makes men mad with lust and greed, they want either to destroy her or own her. Aycayia is, as Roffey explains, a ‘feminist rewrite of an old Taino myth’, a fantastical hybrid being, and it is her mythical and hybrid status combined that means she can exist on multiple planes. We can approach her and understand her fate as a contemporary woman, but also as the visceral incarnation of loss, of indigenous people and their cultures. Aycayia’s hybrid body, woman bonded to fish, was also for me a deeply felt bodily expression of how we are nature itself, and not as we like to imagine and pretend, outside of nature. That the fury at her fused body was an expression of that arrogant rejection by humanity of the entire population of non-human life on earth, and also a misogynistic repulsion at the visceral female body with its secretions and transitions. A violent rejection of people/creatures/beings who do not conform within a particular society. Having been condemned by both men and women to live as a lonely being, her body felt to me like a tactile memory-body, a reservoir of the trauma of humanity’s violence against itself and the planet.

And what if Aycayia had been conceived by Roffey in a later period as a mestiza of European and Taino, as well as human and fish, the child of Taino women taken and raped by Spanish men? The men were mostly killed. It is important to consider that the main way in which the Taino culture has actually been preserved, despite papers being written about their ‘extinction’, has been through generations of women, passing on their stories, sacred ceremonies, sacred dances and songs. Aycayia is always singing. What meanings, maps and histories reside within the physical sensual textures of sounds, what knowledges are held inside the vessels of words and gestures across the ages? Cultural knowledge that is transmitted ‘orally’ or as I like to call it, viscerally, cannot be so easily stamped out by genocide and ethnocide. It is a resistant form that is slippery, changing, fluid, adaptable. Curving in and out of the living bodies of generations, their flesh and DNA, from adults to children, undetected by colonial oppressors. The descendants of the Taino refuse the extinction narrative, the obliteration story. Rather they embrace the long-lived mutation and transformation of cultures over time and through the body.

The Old Drift is filled with what I call these ornamental visceral curiosities. Females of a legendary fabric, with perceived aberrations like the objects that were collected and displayed in cabinets. It is the grandmothers that are the focal point for me in writing this piece. These are women who leak, exude, bleed, shed, transmute and are not considered ‘normal’. Because they have these properties and qualities they make possible the unthinkable in their own time, and are as I have said before, generative, creating the radical mixed-race multiple origin people of the future.

There is an Italian grandmother Sibilla who is covered from head to foot in hair, like a cocoon, like spider silk, like the threads of Arachne, or is she a female Anansi? Originating in West Africa, Anansi the spider trickster tales spread to the Caribbean and America via the Atlantic slave trade. The English grandmother is a woman called Agnes who is blind. Serpell suggests she has a third eye in the centre of her forehead – intuition, foresight, or the knowledge of someone who stands both inside and outside her society? Agnes marries a black man from Zambia, she cannot ‘see’ his skin colour. A mixed-race marriage, but then he leaves her when they are in Zambia. Agnes’ world is a map of touch and smell. Matha is a Zambian woman who weeps profusely and constantly for years, her eyelashes becoming webs over her eyes. The salt of her tears ‘slid into her ears, weeping into her sinuses’ and the ‘inner membranes became so cushioned with salt that everything starts to sound like pebbles clicking at the bottom of a river’. The weeping steals her voice. She dreams of her lover drinking her tears that she has collected in empty Coca-Cola bottles. Serpell explains that she has taken the trope of Mama Africa crying for her children and turned it on its head. Matha is crying from a broken heart as her lover left her whilst she was pregnant. What are the stories and lineages of weeping abused and abandoned women? The glass lachrymatory or tear catcher has an intriguing history. But the weeping is not a disempowering weakness. Through it Matha survives and connects with women around her who support and help her. The tears eventually dissolve more than just her pain.

Sibilla’s body is covered in long flowing hair that seems to have a sensuous life of its own, extending her bodily tactile sensations beyond the boundaries of a ‘discrete’ body and out like feelers, feeling and touching the world and enhancing the way in which the world touches her body back. Erotic, shocking and both beautiful and repulsive. Serpell uses words like ‘gracile’ – a 17th century word from Latin gracilis meaning slender. Mainly now an anthropological term to describe humans with light thin bodies. Her hair ‘pythons’ around her and is ‘restive’ when captive. Serpentine hair. There are a lot of smells – Sibilla smells ‘teenagery’ and after a time her mother Adriana finds her daughter’s smell unpleasant. Lemony, melony, biscuity, purile, daunting. There is a reference to Sibilla spinning and as she spins her hair flies up and out from her body into a ‘mist of suspended strands’. Ragnatela. She hears men talk about il Africa orientale. Sibilla has an Italian father and a mother from London. As an illegitimate child she and her mother are now alone, and working as servants for a Senora. When Sibilla is unconscious and being carried by Federico her hair is still moving, and when it is scattered on the earth it makes things grow. In the end the bodies of all three grandmothers combine through their children, the mothers, and the mothers’ children, absorbing other cultures along the way, culminating in a single boy in 2024. The three grandmothers are not only the ‘origins’ of the generations to come, they are mythical origin tales in themselves.

Both these novels are tales that are bodily, complicated, visceral and ornamental in their entwined curving timelines that coil, recoil and twist back into the deep past, the colonial and mythical past and into the future. Both authors bring white women, black women and mixed-race women into the narratives, with all the entanglements of pain, trauma and histories of the colonisation and enslavement of peoples of Africa and the Caribbean. There is a strong feeling of strange and otherworldly presences, and the resurfacing of lost and forgotten ways of being and becoming but also the forceful creation of new ways of being. Nothing is binary or simple, linear narratives are disrupted by non-linear elements of past, future and myth.

Miss Rain in The Mermaid of Black Conch is a white woman living up on the hill in the old plantation great house, with its heavy and terrible history. She is also a vital part of community cohesion and strength. Roffey has spoken in her interviews of knowing these kinds of white women. Miss Rain cannot let go of her house and her land. She fell in love with an Afro-Caribbean man who cannot live with her in this house, so he leaves her. People in these tales are trapped by the traumas of colonial history and the construction of hierarchies of racialised bodies but then there are these extra-ordinary women who break the stasis, dissolving the false imposition that there is a barrier between past, present and future.

Salma Ahmad Caller for Art and About Africa


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