Oreka James’ Untitled 1 sculpture features fabric stretched over plywood fastened to a brushed aluminum anchor. The sculpture bursts out of star-shaped soil to come to a star-shaped point. The structure spins continuously, flashing between two abstract paintings that evoke the beginning of life. As the pulsing sound of the motor mimics the relentless tide of the ocean and fills the room, I am moved to a beginning when our life was first dreamed up and summoned out of primordial sea. I see the sun as it shines down and pulls earth up from out of the abyss and strikes it to make black Earth. Breaks the earth apart to give way to new life. As the evocative midnight purples meet life-bearing reds that then spill past James’ sky to meet earth, green life pulls through to give way to us. Before me, time and space break apart and I see that we were many things. Once we were birds the size of trees and trees who reached up, pressed into the tent of the endless sky and dared it to burst. In viewing James’ work I am told that we were also the spirits that moved them. Now, we make our life in the grave of all our lives from before. In life, we embrace the sky, the earth, the stars and all the waters that move upon the face of it. There was no boundary between time and space, life and death, creation and destruction. Under the protection of the open sky, we exist in the space between human and alien, alien and animal, animal and spirit and move boundless, formless over the face of Earth. But the prophets of death who betrayed the land and summoned our end and made us fear it. The fear demanded that we turn away from our own gaze, the one that affirmed our unity with all life, and direct it outwards. And this In search of safety, we adorn the place with the Gods we’ve made and make and make and make. In our feeble attempt to evade death, we make it and waste no time destroying the land, emptying the sea and replacing it with the things we’ve deemed undesirable and poisoning the air.
James channels these visions of the origin of life in their work and thus provide their audience with an opportunity to see themselves as coherent with our evolutionary and spiritual origins. In their oeuvre, Black people are beings that emanated from the earth and continue to exist in tandem with natural life. When recognizing this as true, what responsibilities do we have to ourselves, as Black peoples, and to life around us to recognize and then nurture our spiritual beginnings?
In another untitled painting from their Fantastic Passage show, they envisage a figure in motion, whose face is shrouded in both light and shadow, locked in fated struggle with a snake that enters the frame from the border to contort its body around the figure’s leg. On its back, a grim eye looks out at us. and we are confronted with our long, slow descent into ecological collapse. It seems the earth and all life on it turns itself against us and us against each other and we edge ourselves into war for the future. Here, we use our heel to crush the head of the serpent god of death that sought to tear our flesh from our bones. After, we find ourselves, under the dark side of the moon after the light has left us and most life has gone out of the room. We embrace our own death and must bear its weight that crushes our bones and distorts the body. It is the shadow to the left of us that no light can break apart. This is the end that brings the beginning.
In haste, we join forces with non-human life to preserve what’s left of the end and embrace sacred union. Together, as in the scene from the other Untitled painting, on horse and in a cloud of smoke and ashes, eyes red with determination we race towards the Sun. We go up from the earth and enter the embrace of the effervescent blue of a sea. They, the knowing spirits among us, herald our second coming, our return from the edge of death, and remind us that we were never the vessel, only that which remains in it. The vessel is still the Black Earth that opens its soil and asks, declares and demands, that regardless of if the other sees you, you must see yourself and emerge from the place some call death. Outside, the omnipresent hum of the universe that moves over the face of the earth and brings us to face our shadow. After we no longer battle with the shadow of destruction, life brings us close, down to our knees on all fours and draws upon the commitment we made time upon time immemorial to care for all creation. We remember and we accept it in blood.
A home is forged out of the ground in the dome that is central to James’ work in Fantastic Passage. From the back of the papier-mâché, semi-circular dome, a neon yellow light shines through and lands on the ground before me in the shape of James’ signature star burst. When I stare into the light before me, a whisper cuts through the hum of the universe and folds into time, into space, and births new creation, summons new faith. The millennia after, we make ourselves new Gods and sacrifice the Gods of old that fed us death and destruction. We make ourselves again out of the soil to which we return, and pronounce ourselves holy, made over now in the image of our one true God. The prophets among us tell of a world broken apart by irreverence and has still come back together a million times over. They sing from the tops of the very trees that we once were, and still are, and say our world is still with us and there is still much left. Every beginning necessitates an end. Inside of us bubbles up the question – do you still know God? When we gaze upon the face of the water and the water gazes back, it asks only once – do you see yourself? In the case the other does not see you, what do you become?
As in Softly, dusk whispered into my ear, AWAKEN, the body meets the sun, meets the water and the sky and new gods prepare a meal for us of signs and symbols. They drew us a map though the door of no return and asked how we might come to know ourselves through the other. In the aftermath of this death of our own making, we come to touch the stars like we did before. Stretch our arms upwards into the ethers and pull back fragments of past and future selves. We descend inside the earth and upon our return pronounce ourselves holy made in the image of the one true God. Announce that we’ve conquered our fears, killed them, and took down the small but vicious gods who made them and surrender to the truth we’ve always known.
Upon our resurrection we feel into our bodies and all its parts and collapse into the crevasse of time. There is no need to wait for dusk for all time is ours. We dare now to move towards the sun.