As part of The Soul Expanding Ocean #3 on show at Ocean Space, Dineo Seshee Bopape experiments with video, audio and physical objects to tell stories of and from the water
Entering Ocean Space, in San Lorenzo’ s desecrated church in Venice, the first element that strikes you is a mixture of sounds. With a few steps, viewers then find themselves immersed in Dineo Seshee Bopape’s artwork, part of The Soul Expanding Ocean #3.
As part of the South African artist’s work, scenes of water fill three big screens occupying most of the room. A series of objects surrounds them, giving the viewer an embracing feeling. In the background natural sounds and chants keep accompanying the experience. In a matter of seconds, it is easy to forget what was left outside the door and enter Seshee Bopape’s world.
Spending time with the Ocean
«It all began with Chus’ [Martínez, the curator ndr.] invited to go swimming in the Solomon Islands on a boat», Seshee Bopape recalls. The time on the boat, «was the first time spending that much time with the Ocean».
Growing up in a South African coastal city, there were still more than ten kilometers separating Seshee Bopape from the Ocean, so the water was not always close. «Having it so close, sleeping on it, smelling it daily, was different: an intimate relationship».
The experience of being inside the water was crucial. «I was not such a confident swimmer so I would have to be tied to a better swimmer» for safety. On one of the occasions, one of the crew members took the artist snorkeling: «it was my first experience seeing life inside the water». The crew member was the captain of the boat, «a white South African man».
Which was meaningful, due to the history of South Africa and Apartheid and colonialism. It was about «engaging with the history of South Africa with a white South African man helping me in the ocean». Being immersed in the water. Sharing these moments, was where the whole artwork now on show at Ocean Space started taking life.
The experience reminded Seshee Bopape of her past: «hearing all the sisters and cousins speaking about falling in love without having ever experienced. And then suddenly experience it for oneself, seeing inside of the ocean was the same; like seeing a new world which, although I had seen it in documentaries and on tv, I just did not think it was real». When it comes to the ocean, direct knowledge is just different. All senses are involved.
Messages from the water
During that first trip, Seshee Bopape recounts of receiving messages from the waters, «about intercontinental slave trades». Messages came through visions she was having while on the boat, looking at the water, as well as from talking to islanders.
At that point she felt the need to research the history of slave trades. The artwork thus became a mixture of observation, direct experience of water, research and drawings, which she began making at the same time. Other pieces were also born, like an animation piece she showed at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond.
A series of art pieces made by transforming soil samples; clay from Virginia, Louisiana, Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa into material for sculpture and video. Following the slave trades.
The history of the water
When we talk about history, we tend to focus on land, its distribution and geopolitical transformation. Oceans and water history are often disregarded, but they should be entitled to stand on their own and have their story told.
Seshee Bopape focused on the people that were taken as slaves from the African continent to think about «what the ocean remembers of them».
The notion is reversed. No longer about what we, as humans, remember of the land we inhabit, but about what the ocean remembers of us.
In all its forms, it contains ancient knowledge. Among the stories she researched there was one that proved this memory. «The sharks that followed the slave ships from West Africa to America». The ships sometimes threw people off board, so the sharks used to feed on them along that route.
The pathway then became a habit for the animals for hundreds of years, and they are still following it today. Slave trades are constantly remembered by the sea through sharks’ routes.
Jamaica: the land of wood and water
When the invitation to be a part of The Soul Expanding Ocean #3, Seshee Bopape «knew I had to spend more time close to the sea». She then went to Jamaica at the Alligator Head Foundation, founded by Francesca von Habsburg. In Jamaica, «I was housed on a land that had been bought back by descendants of enslaved people».
Coming into contact with that particular story «supported the research I was doing» says Seshee Bopape.
«I was not clear what I wanted the work to be, but I knew it would connect all the other works I had been doing around oceans and the history of African people and the US diaspora».
Most of the beaches in Jamaica have been privatized by now. Seshee Bopape went to the few public ones that still exist, and spent her time talking to local people, which enriched her art. «Spent time hearing about their lives» which contributed to the genesis of artwork.
During these conversations, she also found out that Jamaica is known to be the land of wood and water; coming from the etymological meaning of the original name, Xaymaca. Local history and politics made the experience in the Jamaican space «both interesting and challenging».
Spirits in the water: role of ancestors
Seshee Bopape recounts the value of «connecting with spirits and ancestors» who are «trying to heal, but also to heal the water». Learning from ancient traditions, embracing magic and other dimensions, to build a more conscious present.
Healing in this context also means relating to others and to stories of the past; in order to confront parts of ourselves and improve. One of the messages Seshee Bopape came across was «the need to put things out in the open rather than keeping them in».
When the process was happening, the murder of George Floyd also played a part as it «broke something in our collecting consciousness».
Everything is connected, even the events we cannot make sense of. In a similar way, looking at the slave trade and try to address contemporary sociopolitical issues as well as internal or personal wounds.
Seshee Bopape also took into consideration the impact of other nations; «in different roles and at different times» on the slave trade from South Africa, and how they have affected the whole world in different ways. Some of them can also be considered positive contributions.
Such as the spread of music, enriching the global cultural scene. The question for Seshee Bopape was «what to do with that pain» and how to deal with the sense of betrayal. «Experiences like George Floyd, but also Covid, showed our wounds».
The scientific and spiritual elements
They are often seen in contrast, but science can be in harmony rather than in opposition with the spiritual element: «there is intuitive knowledge and then there is scientific knowledge». Some things are intuitively known, and some are the realm of science, but the two often intersect.
One example is looking at the sky: the planets are known scientifically, but the sky is also often linked to spiritual messages. There is also both human and environmental knowledge. The notion that we investigate and know the environment, but the opposite also happens.
Vibrations beneath the ground or in the air can be as real as science «although science often seems to be scared of the things it doesn’t seem to understand; whereas the spiritual accepts that there is a part that is unknowable, and that is not a threat».
The role of music, video and sound
«When I was in Jamaica a song came to me in a dream» Seshee Bopape says, «so I decided to go and record it in a local studio».
Before then, in Senegal, after being in the Solomon Island and while she was researching the history of slave trades, she «had bamped into some musicians» who invited her to their studio.
The invitation was in prompt and they ended up improvising together and singing «a freestyle song that was like a prayer». She repeated the same in Jamaica, with the song from her dream. During the first boat trip, an islander asked Seshee Bopape to sing a song.
The first that came to mind was called Slave, by South African reggae musician Lucky Dube. Sound is a founding element of the artwork. The filming «happened during the last week of my stay in Jamaica» after spending about a month there. It’s about giving gift to the water – an act that she had done times and again before, but without recording it.
As a way «fir the hand to tell a story». Water is also present in clay: «there is an African saying about molding clay as it is wet». Earth goes back to water. Molding something and releasing it back into the water was also filmed.
The combination of video, material objects on show, and the immateriality of sound, all contribute to the final shape taken by the artwork, conveying a feeling the water, the science, the spirituality, the history.
Dineo Seshee Bopape
South African multimedia artist. Using experimental video montages, sound, found objects, photographs and dense sculptural installations, her artwork ‘engages with powerful socio-political notions of memory, narration and representation’.