Nikesha Breeze’s new exhibition, “Four Sites of Return: Ritual, Remembrance, Reparation, and Reclamation” recently opened at Form & Concept contemporary art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and will be on view until June 15.
The collective memory of America is fraught with tales of Black aquaphobia. Long before the perms and segregated pools of the 60s, we inherited a healthy aversion to all things seafaring. Somewhere between the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the cargo hull of slave ships, our worst nightmares of drowning had become a living, breathing reality. A trigger. In stark contrast to the conventional connotation of boats, even arks, as being affiliated with a destination. Or perhaps, as in Noah’s case, “a fresh start.” A future. One might even say a “new world.”
Enter Sun-Ra and George Clinton. The idea of a “Mothership” seems to be a simultaneous epiphany circa 1974. What if the maritime morgues that brought us to these shores was actually a capsule of time travel? What if these ships worm-holed all the way around until we witnessed the back of our own heads emerging from the womb...breaking through? Whether recognized as a “landing” or a “(re)birth” both are accurate. In fact, boats are both spine and keel, like wombs they carry life by way of preserving our precious need to breathe.
For Nikesha Breeze, art is a way of breathing. In fact, it is like one … long … breath. Around the halfway mark of our podcast conversation Breeze describes the progression of pieces in their upcoming exhibition not as a “collection of works,” but rather as a work … of art.
“At this point in my life, I’ve had so many hats,” says Breeze, “I’ve lived so many different lives, in what I’ve given and the ways that I have shared myself with the world. And now I realize that it’s all one thing. Everything that I do. All the pieces of things that I’ve made. All the performances, the sculptures, the paintings, it really all is one thing. It’s just inevitable, so this is an opus. It’s an ending, but it is also just a moment in the road. It’s continuing. The body of work that I am doing is one body of work, and I think it will always be no matter what medium I am working in.”
I am struck by (and stuck on) Breeze’s interpretation of an ark as a return to ourselves and our Blackness. This challenges the generally accepted narrative that the relationship between Black folk and boats is one of “leaving,” “going,” “being stolen,” or “taken away from.” One of mother ship versus mother land, making obvious the intergenerational dynamics that make our shared African American experiences synonymous with an out of body experience. However, her upcoming exhibition Four Sites of Return: Ritual, Remembrance, Reparation, and Reclamation is more than a hand-etched, patinated, copper plated life-size boat covered in Afro-futuristic codecs that nod to stolen languages. “There is film, there is literature...there’s sculpture, there’s installation,” says Breeze. “There was an eight hour durational performance that’s part of it. There’s painting.” So yeah, it’s all one thing.
Similar to the homophonics at play, Breeze’s artistic arc forges forward both towards the unknown and a place of unquestioned knowing. In line with my admitted naivete and not so discreet infatuation with watercraft, my first question for Breeze on our podcast was “Have you ever built a boat before?” To which they responded:
“I’ve never built a boat before. This is the first boat I’ve ever built. I taught myself how to build a boat through this process. There’s nothing really out there that you can find, in ‘boatbuilding handbooks’ for a copper boat made of mesh. You know, hand sewn … but I learned a lot. Studying boatbuilding videos and things like this to try and understand how they’re built, all the structural pieces. Beyond all that though, what struck me was this creature-like quality to the boat that began to emerge right away. There’s the spine and then the ribs. There’s the skin. Then, there’s the inner parts that are holding so much, and the outer shell...the sinew and the muscle. The boat, as it’s grown from the very beginning, it really was built like a body. And it feels like it breathes at this point, especially because the skin that is the outside is all these copper plates. Almost like dragon scales. Each one hand etched. Each one prayed into, etched with prayers and symbols. All these pieces put together produce an impenetrable dragon skin. So the boat itself feels like a living creature.”
Like your preferred collective noun for dragons (i.e. a flight of dragons, a thunder of dragons, a doom of dragons, etc.), Breeze doesn’t fly solo. In addition to the performance artists who joined Breeze for the eight hour durational performance, the exhibition features 20 never before seen hand tools of Black liberation created by artists of color who responded to an international call for “yet-to-be-imagined objects.” This is the kind of exhibition that doesn’t just illuminate (and/or ruminate on) “the problem of the color line,” but rather provides resources for reclamation in addition to reparation, ritual and remembrance.
Breeze is looking forward and backward at the same time. Our podcast delved into considerations of time travel, time distortion, time oppression, time deliverance, time justice and time off. How ritual is born of frequency and pattern (i.e. repetition, number of times), as well as nuance and finer points of C.P.T. (colored people’s time). In other words, little revolutions of time. Both how we resist time and how we record it. Breeze’s mutiny of morning: a Black appropriation of Heart of Darkness is evidence of this. With three simple rules, Breeze frees the ancestral casualties marooned beneath the deck of Nellie (the fictional British ship in Joseph Conrad’s text). For Breeze, it wasn’t enough to simply ask whether Heart of Darkness was a critique of Colonialism or an example of it? The more urgent question for Breeze was “who was silenced and how can art give them voice?” Breeze’s text is a “piece of work” that will stick with you, much like the ark except you can actually take this piece home. You can even practice with it...hone your skill for genuinely listening to all too often erased and buried Black voices. Or, you can even practice excavating your own.
I told Breeze that the blending, mixing, cutting, chopping and screwing of such a dated text into something wholly new; born of those original ingredients but with a new twist is … quintessentially hip hop. Old records brought together in the present to make music for future generations. Breeze said, “I hadn’t thought of it quite as hip hop or mash up, but it really is.” Which, like the Earthseed Black Art Alliance that Breeze co-founded to elevate and connect the work of Afro-Indigenous artists, somehow makes our generation of Black talent both the descendants and the ancestors of Butler, Dumas, P-Funk and Sun-Ra … simply trying to communicate … with the present. - hb
“Four Sites of Return: Ritual, Remembrance, Reparation, and Reclamation” runs from April, 26 - June 15th, 2021 at Form & Concept Art Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Author Bio: Hakim Bellamy served as Albuquerque’s Inaugural Poet Laureate from 2012 - 2014. Besides poems, he has written and continues to write other things like songs, play scripts, musicals, radio news scripts, short stories, flash fiction, music reviews, book reviews, newspaper articles and blogs, like this! Meet Hakim at www.beyondpoetryink.com.