New exhibit uses natural elements to highlight pain, experiences of enslaved people

From left: Institute for Contemporary Art Associate Curator Amber Esseiva and Dineo Seshee Bopape, the artist of “Ile aye, moya, là, ndokh...harmonic,” describing the pieces of artwork as attendees observe different parts of the exhibition. Photo by Jon Mirador

Sahara Sriraman, Spectrum Editor

A 25-minute video displayed on a projector shows close-up images of soil and dirt while playing sounds of singing, crying and wind blowing — setting the tone for Dineo Seshee Bopape’s exhibit, titled “Ile aye, moya, là, ndokh…harmonic conversations…mm.”

Bopape’s exhibit opened at the Institute for Contemporary Art on Sept. 25 and spotlights the experiences of African Americans who were traded, enslaved and mistreated during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These themes are represented through different mediums of art such as video, sculpture and animation.

Bopape visited the places where she got the natural materials for the exhibit in order to strengthen the connection between her and the art.

She said that this exhibit highlights the connection between the past and the present, emphasizing that the pain felt by her ancestors deserves to be acknowledged.

“How can we heal the wounds that we have, even people who think that they’re not involved,” Bopape said. “It somehow affects all of us.” 

“Ile aye, moya, là, ndokh…harmonic conversations…mm” uses materials made from soil and water that were taken from plantations, ports and trading posts in places where slaves were traded and worked, including Virginia, Louisiana, Senegal, Ghana and South Africa. The exhibition itself is meant to honor enslaved people who fought for their freedom.

The first part of the exhibit’s title translates to “earth, wind, fire and water” in different African dialects. “Ile aye” translates to “earth” in the West African dialect Yoruba; “moya” translates to “wind” in South African dialects Nguni and Sepedi; “là” translates to “fire” in the Ghanaian dialect Ga; and “ndokh” translates to “water” in the Senegalese dialect Wolof. 

The exhibit itself, however, is transcendent beyond languages, cultures and dialects, honoring the experiences of those who escaped enslavement and those who did not through the universal form of art as a form of communication, according to Bopape.

The walls of the exhibit are made out of different kinds of clays and soils that originated from multiple parts of the world, appearing in various colors and textures. Handmade sculptures are scattered around the room; some Bopape worked to create out of Virginia bricks from demolished houses. 

Bopape said that she was inspired to create an exhibit like this, one that included the physical materials of land that used to be where enslaved people lived along with the historical backgrounds of those places. She believes it’s important for people to visit this exhibit and learn about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“It’s clear that there’s many things to work through,” Bopape said.

She said she also wanted to create an exhibit that honored the scars of those who suffered, including an enslaved man, Gordon, whose photos became famous because they showed the extent to which slaves were beaten and whipped. Also known as “Whipped Peter,” Gordon was a slave who escaped before becoming a symbol of the cruelty shown toward African American slaves at the time.

“The scars on Gordon’s back looked to me like water and made me think about how flesh expands and contracts,” Bopape said. “And what can we do about the pain of the past, the pain that’s still with us.”

Bopape said she wanted to work with soil and water because they’re parts of the earth that always remembers the past, no matter how much time has passed.

Associate Curator at the ICA Amber Esseiva, who also curated the exhibit, said that the work provides an all-encompassing understanding of the world and its history.

“This show really gives you a global picture of how these sites are connected and how these moments are not really isolated,” Esseiva said.

Esseiva said that the natural material, no matter how accessible it might be, always carries a historical significance and it’s up to the artist to utilize it in a way that conveys that significance in a concise and powerful way.

“The texture and the possibilities of what you can do with a material that people kind of look over often, you know, dirt is dirt,” Esseiva said. “Dirt can become paint, it can become video, it can become sculpture; that multifaceted nature of that material feels really important for the show.”

Jennifer Schooley, an attendee at the exhibit, said she thought it was amazing that Bopape actually visited the places where she got the materials, making that connection between the artist and the work even stronger. 

“She visited these places to have a spiritual connection with the place, the earth, the water and the animals,” Schooley said. “It’s the intersection between the conceptual and the real, turning that thought process into something material.”

Andrew Clarke, another attendee at the exhibit, said that he wants to take in all aspects of the exhibit, overwhelmed with all of the different sights and sounds. He said he’s trying to comprehend that the materials of the art surrounding him are connected to his ancestors.

“This art was made from the soil of my ancestors, it makes me feel connected to African Americans and all the stuff that came before me,” Clarke said. 

He said he’s amazed that Bopape was able to utilize the earth’s elements to create an exhibit like this, especially because they are not something he thinks about on a daily basis.

“Like, we walk on soil every day and we never think about it,” Clarke said. “To utilize that as the medium to create art, so we’re all in here looking at it.”

He said the exhibit validates the experiences of his ancestors who suffered, making him feel more connected to the message Bopape is communicating through her art.

“As a Black man living in Richmond, it’s dope to realize the liberties I take for granted today wasn’t available to those before,” Clarke said.

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