Delia and the dispossessed

Three Parts, One Whole

My decision to work with images from slavery arose after I was faced with the portrait of a half-naked, young woman, who confronted the camera, and all of us who would gaze on her stark, frozen likeness, for generations to come. Everything about the image was stunning – the light, the detail, the soft blur that looked like tears in her eyes, the disarray of her hair and garments, the feeling of traveling a century and a half through time, in a split second.

This portrait was not a pleasant image. There was something embarrassing about it. Something shameful about her, stripped to her waist, sitting still and looking bold. I wanted the image to move on with a heavy clank as another slide took its place, center stage in the bright glare of the projector’s spotlight. But it did not. I sat there, face to face with Delia, her name then unknown to me, connecting painfully with her, she and I, the only two African women of the Americas, in the room, while the lecturer, having long since lost interest, droned on and on about some other unrelated topic. She stayed there staring out of the closed book of history at me, and sinking into my consciousness.

Inwardly, I screamed to the auditorium of people,

“Cover her up! Don’t you see her there? Don’t you see that IT is real? That it was real? DON’T YOU SEE HER? Don’t you see me?”

Delia’s haunting portrait and the forum in which it was introduced to me knocked me off the fairy-tale track of a sense of belonging and back to the road of a less kind but more obvious reality. I could not pretend that we were all here under the same pretexts and with the same assumptions and expectations. I had to accept how the maafa, the catastrophe of the transatlantic slave trade, had impacted every facet of modern reality and what my walking down those corridors, through these streets, everyday truly meant. The unacknowledged burden of the catastrophe though invisible at first glance was as ubiquitous and overwhelming as the oxygen we breathe each second.

My choice to work with these images through historic printing processes came about after I had gathered low-resolution, internet versions of several of the images and began experimenting with them in cyanotypes.

Castle Crossroad

The turning point


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