After my visit to a state prison in North Carolina, the hollow, trapped eyes of the men in worn out prison uniforms stayed with me along with the miles and miles of chain-link fence, the layers of enclosure that separated them from the rest of life. I could have drowned in the bleakness of their interminable sentences and the withering boredom of their days had I not been able to resurrect a semblance of hope for a more humane fate for so many citizens of this nation. Searching for some balance in the face of overwhelming odds and research that yielded stories each more emphatically unjust than the last, I knew that my upcoming piece had to represent more than despair. It had to represent a possibility…
From the chain link fence that encloses, segregates, denies and makes invisible the massive population of prisoners in this country, I cut a purposeful diameter, a space leading into that which we cannot yet, or will not yet permit ourselves to see. As though it had blasted this circle through the fence, providing us with the way through and out, the symbol known as Nkisi Sarabanda was revealed in the traditional white of a chalk drawing – circular, stark and graphic – on the floor in front of the fencing, a diameter equal to the space in the fence.
A horizontal line: denoting the watery division between the world of the living and the world of the dead. These are the worlds inhabited by us – the living, and the departed – ancestors and spirits.
A vertical line intersecting it: bridging the two worlds, permitting passage from one realm to the next. Each line ends in opposing arrows that point to the four winds of the universe.
The perpendicular lines are enclosed in a sweeping circle: the cyclical connector between the worlds, the circumference of continuity.
These are the elements that constitute the symbol, Nkisi Sarabanda, an Atlantic derivative of an ancient symbol from the Kongo tradition, slightly modified in its transition from Africa to the Americas. It signifies the ‘seat of the spirit’ and is a portal between the spirit world and the material world, between the living and those gone before us. Whatever or whomever stands upon its center is open to these two worlds. In a traditional ceremony, the sounds that would be chanted while the cosmogram is being inscribed in the ground would help to concentrate the power of the spirit onto the center of the symbol. Sarabanda, often syncretized in the Americas with the Yoruba deity, Ogun, is the Kongo deity of war.
The person who enters the diameter of Nkisi Sarabanda in the installation, “A Possibility” would experience the incantation that gives power to the symbol, pouring down upon them in a clamor of voices from the parabolic speaker above their heads. The voices, filled with the urgency of people escaping another overwhelming, inhumane and seemingly indestructible system, chattel slavery, speak the words of Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Rev N. R. Johnson, in fragmented narratives of freedom, rebellion and resistance, retold in contemporary voices from around the world. The stories of courage and escape were on continuous replay, audible within the 3-foot diameter of the symbol and immediately falling to silence outside of the charm.
In selecting a symbol from an African system of belief, juxtaposed with the conspicuously Christian-centered, vocal testimonies another aspect of colonization and hegemony came into play. The Christianity imposed by the slave master was transformed into a tool for the dismantling the system of enslavement. Nkisi Sarabanda, in its syncretist, rather than “root” form, represents another aspect of resistance of Africans in the Diaspora. The survival and adaptation of systems of belief become another means of subversion. Culture is an important part of resistance.
I have drawn on the ancient belief system of the Kongo nkisi, which transforms ordinary ground into a space of awareness and empowerment, and combined it with historic experiences, to theoretically bring one who interacts with the installation, to the realization that he or she too can effect transformation of the current system of injustice.
[i] My gratitude is extended to Robert Anthony Young and Sophia Balagamwala whose contribution to the installment of this piece at the Gary Snyder Project Space in May, 2013, was invaluable.