Embodiments is Narration Group’s third research project.
That bird is wise
For the present,
What is best from ancient eyes
Then steps forward
To meet the future undeterred *
A Kayper Mensah
As part of Narration Group’s Embodiments project, in August 2020 artist Barby Asante led an intimate and reflective workshop via Zoom, inviting Narration Group to create a quiet ritual space in their homes with fragments of a memory in the form of an object, word, smell or taste.
Connecting fragments of memory and refusing the authority of the archival document, drawing from our streets, record collections and mythologies, Barby Asante and Narration Group explored a reading of the Adinkra communicator, Sankofa, from a Black Feminist perspective, together, creating a collective piece of writing. A declaration.
Looking at Sankofa from a Black Feminist perspective formed part of Narration Group’s Embodiments research project which explores the ways Black and Brown bodies hold histories, how these histories are pressed upon them and how they can corporeally connect with the past, present and future.
The workshop was documented below through a transcribed conversation between Narration Group members Amy Leung, Leah Morris and Ufuoma Esi.
Barby Asante is an artist, curator, educator and healer in training. Her practice is concerned with the politics of place, space and the ever present histories and legacies of slavery and colonialism. She resists the idea that the stories of ‘Other-ness’ are alternatives to dominant given narratives. For her these stories and narratives are interruptions, utterances, presences that exist within the dominant, that are invisible, unheard, missing or ignored. By making these narratives and stories visible, asking questions and making proposals she is interested in what these possibilities offer as we examine our present and envision our futures. To address these ideas in her work, Barby explores memory and archival injustice through re-collecting, collating, excavating and mapping such stories and narratives, through collective writing, re-enactment and creating spaces for transformation, ritual and healing. With a deep interest in black feminist and decolonial methodologies, Barby also embeds within her work notions of collective study, countless ways of knowing and dialogical practices that embrace being together and breathing together.
Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund
Amy: This is Narration Group; my name is Amy.
Ufuoma: I’m Ufuoma.
Leah: I’m Leah.
Amy: And we are de-briefing about a recent workshop that Narration Group took part in, led by artist Barby Asante on Saturday 1 August 2020. So before the workshop we were asked by Barby to bring a fragment of memory we could work with.
“These might be objects, some words, a smell, or a taste. We will be connecting fragments and memory, refusing the authority of the archive or document; drawing from our streets, record collections in mythologies.”
So, Barby is inviting us to explore a reading of the Adinkra communicator, Sankofa, from a black feminist perspective. Thinking about the egg on the bird’s back and its potential for imaginings of possible futures.
With our objects there was this sense of looking backwards and thinking about where they’ve come from, our journeys, our ancestors’ journeys, our connections looking back. But, also, the workshop really focussed on how can we be together in this Zoom virtual space, whilst also being in our homes?
Ufuoma: I burnt some Californian White Sage because that is a smell that makes me feel really calm and relaxed and helps me get into a relaxed state. What about you Leah?
Leah: I had this candle, which is daisy and buttercups, and Barby asked us to have a glass of water or herbal tea.
Amy: I also tried to find a space that was quiet Barby mentioned, finding a space that can be made to feel like a ritual space. That was really helpful for me, because so often we rush into Zoom meetings and we’re just thrown in front of this camera, just a few minutes of preparing your space can change the experience completely.
Barby also asked us to have something to write with, and to write in; so, a notebook and pen and to prepare a fragment of a memory that we could work with. Most of Narration Group chose objects, photos or something that had a smell or a taste.
At the start of the workshop Barby showed us two Adinkra cards, one of them had the Sankofa symbol, which is associated with the proverb: It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.
Leah: Barby had also sent us a poem before the workshop called ‘Sankofa Whispers’.
Amy: Would you like to read it out, Leah?
Leah: Yeah, sure. Okay.
That bird is wise
For the present,
What is best from ancient eyes
Then steps forward
To meet the future undeterred*
A Kayper Mensah
Amy: I don’t know if anyone else is familiar with the Adinkra symbols as a way of communication? No? I wasn’t familiar with them either but I like this idea that Barby presented to us, of the bird looking back, sometimes it is depicted with an egg on its back and this concept of learning from your previous states or experiences, which, I feel is really relevant in this time. I feel like I’m constantly thinking or ruminating about the past.
And so, that leads us onto the writing activity that we started with.
Leah: It was kind of a check-in with our-selves. How did you two find that activity?
Amy: It was a nice invitation to jot down some things, to reflect upon how you are really feeling. And then, with the opportunity to share, you realise that lots of people are feeling similarly. For our feelings to be completely valid within the space, was a really important element of the workshop because anything that came up was…was totally valid. And, actually, to some level, like, I guess everyone could understand where you’re coming from because we are all going through this really strange, sort of lockdown state.
Ufuoma, how did you find the first bit of writing?
Ufuoma: I found it really good to grant ourselves time to check-in with ourselves. But also, it was really great to hear how everyone else in the group was doing. We hadn’t physically seen each other in five months so it was nice to know where everyone was in this space and then throughout the whole workshop, that was something that really connected us.
Also, just taking time to be still was just very important. Something that I found very important throughout this whole, lockdown period is just taking time to be still; it set the tone of the workshop and made us all feel relaxed. Because it can be quite difficult sharing digitally.
Amy: We then listened to a poem called ‘God Is The Water’ by Lila June on a podcast called For the Wild: https://forthewild.world. The title is an extended metaphor of humans being stone and God being water and what can happen over life times of being human.
Leah: From listing to ‘God is The Water’, I wrote this quote: nothing is under control.
The poem made me think about creation and destruction. But there was something so, like…gentle and fluid about it.
Ufuoma: Yeah, the same, one thing that really stuck out to me was a quote: you will succeed in trying; whatever you do, that is what you will definitely succeed in, is trying. And I thought that was really important to just remind yourself that you will succeed in trying.
Amy: We went on to our objects, or our fragments of memory, which Barby had invited us to bring. And we had a real mixture; maybe we could share what we brought?
Leah: So…I brought my Buddhist beads with me and I was talking about how I had, had them since I was little. Usually once you get older you change your beads to more mature ones, but I never have. My experience with Buddhism is something that I’ve had introduced to me from my Mum it’s a really valuable thing that has been with me all of my life.
Amy: I chose a shell, which I had picked up when I was little from one of my trips to Mauritius, where my mother grew up. So I was only allowed to choose one thing from the beach to take, and I was really interested in this kind of form of the shell, its up-and-down pattern and, thinking about the simplicity of how we spent our days on summer holidays, and the rhythm of daily life there.
The shell prompted me to start trying to remember the kind of food that we would eat; a lot of street food and how my brother and I would play with our cousins and visit family, who weren’t really necessarily blood related, but it was quite important to call everyone, auntie and uncle.
Ufuoma: I chose pictures, from a photo album of my Mum, when she was a teenager, living in Nigeria. The pictures of my Mum really connected me to the reading I was doing around images and archives and personal archives that we maintain and how those images connected me to her, and also my own history, ancestral connections and my family.
Seeing everyone’s memory objects made me think of Tina Camp’s Image Matters: Archive, Photography, And The African Diaspora in Europe. The book is looking at the black diaspora in Europe through pictures; and that really resonated with me with a lot of what Barby talked about.
The processes of memory and fragments directly related to the image that I chose and why I chose it as well. Looking at how people move across the Atlantic across continents, migration and what they bring with them, what they leave behind; and the image is a very central way of remembering and archiving themselves, the past, the lives they leave behind and the lives they create for themselves.
And so, I guess, selecting the photos of my Mum, but also hearing about what Barby’s workshop was going to be, it really fed into ideas that I’d been trying to develop throughout this project.
Amy: Barby introduced us to two different texts or prompts which she read out. One written by Barby herself entitled Embrace The Mess and a text entitled ‘Human Being As A Noun’ by Alexis Pauline Gumbs from her book Dub. Again, it was the act of listening collectively, which was really powerful.
I really enjoyed being read to by someone else; whether they are reading their own work or someone else’s words, I find that really impactful; like, someone’s voice filling the space. And it set the tone for thinking about our own writing. Did anyone have anything to say about the two texts?
Leah: I just wrote down one line, which was, Embrace the mess, which just resonated with me because it’s just been a really weird year so far for everybody. And I think it does help when you just kind of embrace it and see where it takes you.
Ufuoma: There was a bit Barby read out which was: Call the people you make room for. That was a real, poignant line. I remember writing it down and thinking, yeah, and then she mentioned about making room for people and making room for yourself as well, which I also noted down. I’ve been thinking about actively doing that as well as actively listening and then, also, using that in other ways to connect to people.
Amy: I also wrote down those two points; Embrace the mess, is it one of the last lines that she read out before we started writing ourselves. So it became this kind of permission to allow whatever had come up in conversation or from the podcast or from the readings, or just whatever had been brewing in our minds over that time, just to come out onto the paper.
And it is such a…it was such a beautiful invitation just to allow all of it, however messy or out of control. Ideas of control came up at the very beginning. How do you control something when it is just like, out of your control a lot of the time?
Like you said, Leah, in this time where we don’t really know what is going on, that’s a really good point. And, something that maybe I want to take on more in my art practice and in my every day, just embracing all aspects, in whatever form they come in, not everything has to be compartmentalised and ordered for me to start making or start considering making. Things can be really tangential and messy.
Ufuoma: Barby then invited us to collectively and individually to create a long piece of writing. I felt more comfortable writing the second time around. I don’t know why, but I think I felt like a bit more, I guess relaxed at this point because I’d gone through the whole stages of the workshop and so I felt like I could write anything.
I wrote down everything that I wanted to, without really having a purpose for it. At the beginning of the workshop I felt like I had to write things that made sense, or that I had to put them together in a way that was easy to understand. But the second piece of writing felt more, I felt there was not a real structure that I had to follow, so I felt I could write more freer in that sense. And I actually wrote a lot more the second time around.
Leah: I was quite hesitant to start, and then eventually things started to flow a bit more.
Amy: After that activity we then collectively wrote a declaration in the chat function of Zoom, taking elements of what we’d written individually, we popped them into the chat and it was a nice way in which thoughts were just dropped in.
Initially I was like, oh, do I have to respond to something someone else has said, or, do I have to find something that is relevant out of my work to connect up with theirs. But then you realise through the shared experience, there are so many connections like obvious or really subtle, and that collective piece of writing was really…
Leah: …It’s all connected, sorry, I cut you off…
Amy: …No, no, you finished my sentence, it’s brilliant.
Ufuoma: When Barby read the collectively written piece back to us, it really flowed together. It was really interesting what she said about how we were “all guests on the same page in that sense”. So, we all had very similar ideas and interconnecting ideas of what we were writing. The piece reads very like… fluid, everything made sense even though it was put together very sporadically.
Amy: Yeah, sporadically, because of the nature of typing and the nature of the Zoom chat function, it is not like we’re all scribing together at a desk. I’ve been thinking what would be the in real version, if this workshop was in real life. Would it be little typed pieces deposited into a box?
Maybe it’s an idea if we read out the poem?
Amy: So, we’re going to read out our collective declaration.
Amy: Our bodies seeped…
Leah: Being held and comforted…
Ufuoma: It’s okay not to control the energy and just feel it instead.
Amy: Relax, it is not in your control.
Leah: The rhythm of time washed in music, water and the surfaces of shell on my fingers’ trace.
Ufuoma: Evil spirits don’t really exist, but are traumatised, unrested, unfulfilled tricky spirits.
Amy: Our heart beats a rhythm, a pulse, it slows.
Leah: Rest there. Soak in the sun.
Ufuoma: Something so heavy with emotion can feel so light.
Amy: Check your reality. Come join me for a dance.
Leah: Let’s eat together…
Ufuoma: This comfort…
Amy: Charcoal comforts…
Leah: And as I walk in the forest, taking in the scent of the cedarwood trees, I wonder about great trees and how they live so long.
Ufuoma: It sits with me.
Amy: History is fragmented but never forgotten. Re-created within ourselves.
Leah: Fear of anger will teach you nothing.
Ufuoma: How can I live with this death so close?
Amy: Keep a loving, careful, watchful eye…
Leah: We observe the clouds together.
Ufuoma: Tuning in.
Amy: You ask me if I believe in life after death?
Leah: But I won’t be consumed by you.
Ufuoma: Times like these, I know another world is possible.
Amy: Even if I have five minutes of life left, I will live.
Leah: Loving across boundaries and borders; caring for everyone as though they are kin.
Ufuoma: A garden of love that is constantly tended.
Amy: We are kin…
Ufuoma: We can show the way.
Amy: We create paths…
Leah: Embryonic energy.
Ufuoma: Writing is a practice…
Amy: Quietening the nation.
Leah: We are way showers.
Ufuoma: We are becoming good ancestors.
Amy: Bodies of water…
Leah: In the transportation of memories, there is always something that gets lost, there is always something that you lose.
Ufuoma: Time ticking away.
Amy: Reading that back, I feel like there is a sense of distance from it. Reading it back in the workshop it was just so fresh.
Leah: It made me feel really emotional just now.
Ufuoma: It feels even more connected now, everything makes sense, everything follows together.
Amy: We were all writing separately and it all just, fits and connects.
Leah: Shall we try our own, now?
Amy: Yeah, shall we try a mini developed version in the spirit of what we did in the workshop of writing individually for five minutes and then using the chat function to piece it together?
Leah: Uh huh.
Ufuoma: Yeah, it sounds good.
Pause in recording for writing.
Amy: So, this is our, new declaration, our collective writing poem.
Amy: This is a quiet time…
Ufuoma: Fragments of ourselves.
Leah: A state of calmness or tranquillity that I can’t quite replicate.
Amy: A time to reflect and a time to grow.
Ufuoma: Lost in transit through waters and earth.
Leah: Touching water…
Amy: Dreaming of rivers.
Ufuoma: Seeing a lightness and lightness in others.
Leah: Fragments of memory.
Amy: Never forget the light shining out of you, even if it is small.
Ufuoma: Hold onto the history.
Leah: Perhaps time isn’t as linear, controllable and as ownable as we think. Perhaps the mess of time is to be embraced.
Amy: The image keeps us together and reminds us of ourselves. The memory is there to constantly remind us of what we’ve lost in our wake.
Ufuoma: How did you find collective writing this time?
Leah: It was a different experience. It did feel different, but, through our conversation, it has put me back in that mindset again. Yeah. How did you guys find it?
Amy: Yeah, I found it a different experience and, perhaps because we’re a smaller group that was quite helpful in feeling not…overwhelmed by, not overwhelmed in a negative way, but by the amount of content that was coming out, it was a different pace.
Ufuoma: Yeah, I agree. I think, if I did this a week before Barby’s workshop I wouldn’t have had much to write. I wouldn’t know how to start writing, one thing I’m really grateful for is that, it’s kind of unlocked this…this kind of sense of urgency to write again, or start writing.
And, sort of, when you said Amy, okay, let’s break off and write, it didn’t feel like, oh, what am I going to do. It just kind of flowed naturally. And that is something that I have never really done before. And I really wanted to try writing but it’s something that I never really do and so this is something that I think I will take from this moment and the workshop, the ease…the ease to write things down.
Amy: I definitely feel the same way in that this time writing, whatever came out, I wasn’t second-guessing myself or second-guessing my words and trying to edit it, and over-thinking it. Just being like, this is how I’m feeling. I am going to embrace this. Also, not feeling shy or embarrassed with what comes out in terms of writing, because it is all definitely valid and it is all definitely worthy of taking up space in your brain or your notebook or conversations.
Ufuoma: Yeah, and I agree with that. Sometimes it is difficult to write things down, and especially…to share it, and knowing that I don’t have to overthink it. It can just be words that I just put together and that’s enough and not…I guess, always having to intellectualise it. Even if it’s just for fun, even though what is coming out could be impactful, still, just doing it, is enough. This is how I’m now going to approach writing.
Amy: Great, so does anyone have any final thoughts to close this conversation?
Leah: It’s been really nice to talk through the workshop again, but also, to just be in this collective writing space with you two again.
Ufuoma: Yeah, same. I think it’s been great to put the tools, that Barby gave us into practice again, revisit writing and take it forwards as a collective.
Leah: Yeah, more collaborations.
Amy: Perfect. Okay, thanks guys.