Repairing Our Past: Adama Delphine Fawundu’s Mende Woman Appears on the Turner Plantation
By Niama Safia Sandy
The Transatlantic Slave Trade occupies a massive amount of space in the Black collective consciousness. From the written word, to the canvas, through the lens and every medium in between, black creatives have grappled with the stories of the men and women who were stolen from Africa, forced to endured unimaginably horrible conditions everywhere from Boston to Bahia. There is no escape from the fact that all of us, and all of this - from the money and opportunities often just out of our reach, how we speak, how we move, the music we make, our flavors both literal and figurative,and so much more - exists because they endured. We aim to tell their stories, to restore their humanity and by extension we augment and reclaim our own as black people continue to strive against the yoke of white supremacy - and its incessant violences and erasures.
One of the most moving recent examples of such work is New York-based West African photographer Adama Delphine Fawundu’s 2014 series A Mende Woman Appears on the Turner Plantation. Captured on the restored Southampton plantation where Nat Turner was born, Fawundu presents herself adorned in the garb of a Mende woman who mysteriously appears on the grounds of the property - retracing the steps of the countless souls formerly enslaved on the plantation.
We can choose to see the Mende woman as a visitor to the plantation, bringing to bear the distance in time and space between those who were taken and those who stayed behind. Her appearance is reunion, reclamation, rerouting. Describing the process Fawundu wrote:
"The ground upon which my body lay remembers and I felt it…my feet remained bare as they guided me through the space in which Nat Turner was born. I couldn’t help losing brief intervals of consciousness within gazes into the endless paths of serene greenery and the wooded forests….With no words to describe the true essence of what I felt, I meditated and allowed my body to move with the surrounding energy. I manifested this energy through art."
The images are in tension with Black Optimist and Afro-Pessimist ideas of blackness and its limits - metaphysical, ontological, philosophical, and otherwise. As and in Mende Woman, Fawundu stepped into the void, irrupting and disrupting the canonical accumulation of erasures of Black humanity. If the Door of No Return at Elmina is the delimited point of both disembarkation and disembodiment in keeping with the thinking of Afro-Pessimist scholars, then we can see Mende Woman’s eruption onto the Turner Plantation as a metaphysical conduit, a transfigural doorway, a portal for their restoration and spiritual return.
Of her choices of where to stop and shoot, Fawundu said, “I saw the places I stopped as possible communication points.” Embodying what Fred Moten calls “the temporal paradox of optimism,” Fawundu steps out of time to confront and perhaps arrest the relentless assault on the personhood of the enslaved. To borrow from Caribbean poet and novelist M. Nourbese Philip’s idea of ex-aqua, which can be loosely described as the retrieval of bodies of Africans who drowned at the hands of their captors or of their own volition, Mende Woman endeavors dis- and re-interment of the bodies into a space more befitting their humanity.
Simultaneously, this work is eulogy - or what Afro-Pessimist thinker Christina Sharpe calls “wake work.” In her recent text In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, Sharpe defines the “wake” as multitudinous space or act of “keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness (p. 17-18)” based on “the afterlife of being property” as an economic, psychic, political, and socio-historical fact of Black life after the Transatlantic Slavery. Sharpe endeavors to understand “slavery’s continued unfolding...the contemporary conditions of spatial, legal, psychic, and material dimensions of Black non/being as well as Black aesthetic and other modes of deformation and disruption (20).” Being in the wake, “is to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding (p. 13-14).”
In these images, Mende Woman literally stands watch; waiting in the fields in the dense woods of Southampton. In several of the images her hands are positioned in possible supplication for, or in offering of protection for those who once walked the grounds. In another of the images, Mende Woman wields a machete, wearing a defiant and fearsome facial expression that we can imagine as one mirroring that of the enslaved persons who rose up against the tyranny of captivity.
Sharpe and other Afro-Pessimist thinkers insist there is a non-status, non-being, a no-citizenship for Black people and yet Black life insists and persists in spite of this. I posit that this no citizenship actually gives way to Mende Woman’s ability to transcend to a unification, to a hyper-citizenship in Blackness. This allows Fawundu as Mende woman to critique the level of agency imbued to Africans in the histories of the Transatlantic Slave Trade on both sides of the Atlantic - in the past, present and future. Standing defiant, with that machete she is saying “these are my people. And this can never happen again.” Fawundu has remarked:
"As I walked the grounds I thought of the stories that people had told each other...What’s strong in my mind is the other story. You hear of the chiefs who apologized for their complicity in the trade but you don’t hear the stories of the people who lost loved ones. I don’t know of many investigations into that. I thought about the separation of families, people who there and those who lost people. I have thought about how to approach reuniting them, honoring those losses. Once that unification - owning those ties socially, politically and economically - happens something like this can never happen again."
Niama believes that we personify the wildest dreams and joys of our ancestors. Simply put, this is the core mandate her work. She sees her role, as an anthropologist, curator and writer, as that of an agitator - one who endeavors to simultaneously call into question and make sense of the seemingly arbitrary nature of modern life and to celebrate our shared humanity in the process, while developing critical and creative modalities grounded in histories of the global Black Diaspora to enable others to do the same. She is fascinated by the ways in which history, economics, migration and other social forces and constructs have shaped culture and identity. Niama's aim is to use the visual, written and performative arts to tell stories we know in ways we have not yet thought to tell them and to lift us all to a higher state of ontological and spiritual wholeness in the process.
photo credit: Michael Edwards