Marked with white tribal body paint, the American photographer, filmmaker and installation artist Ayana V. Jackson swims fluidly through the undercurrents of the ocean with an undulating danced movement. The oceanic sounds, accompanied by excerpts read from Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage” and Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ meditation Undrowned, create a fitting ambiance for entry into the mythic Drexciya, the underwater realm populated by the children of the pregnant women who during the trans-Atlantic slave trade jumped or were thrown overboard.
On slave ships sailing the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the so-called New World, enslaved men and women, crammed into the unsanitary hull, were fed foul beans meant for horses and mixed with flour and seasonings to disguise the wretched taste. Slave ships were constructed with nets to capture those who might try to jump overboard to their deaths rather than endure the three-to-four-month journey of the Middle Passage. The only moment when such an escape was possible came during the humiliating ritual in which the enslaved were forced to dance on the deck as exercise, so they would be in good physical condition when they reached land.
“From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya With Ayana V. Jackson,” currently on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, invites the audience to imagine the possibility of a deep-sea metropolis where the descendants of the escaped are a thriving populace coexisting with oceanic plant and animal life.
Three large screens fill a single room of the exhibition and immerse the viewer with the 13-minute film “Journey of the Deep-Sea Dweller: Who Among us Has Killed an Albatross.” In the accompanying large-format photographs, Jackson assumes the role of a stoic, inserting herself into moments from pre-colonialism to the antebellum period and into the future, capturing what could likely be the sentiments of the real-life Black women who endured the horrors of those brutal times.
Jackson, who studied sociology at Spelman College and critical theory and large-format printing at the University of Arts Berlin, turned the camera on herself. “I felt it would not be appropriate to traumatize or ask another person to work with these kinds of traumas,” she says. “I felt as I was working through my own, I may as well do it myself.”
“From the Deep,” her first solo museum exhibition, features photographs, costumes, installations and films complemented by the sensory use of scent and sound to create a speculative world that imagines, among other things, an ingenious and resilient society of Drexciyans who adorn themselves in garments made of items scavenged from their watery surroundings.
Blue iridescent light, mimicking rippling waves at night, lures visitors into the exhibition space. Rich dark-blue walls capture the eerie calm of ocean depths. The viewer is submerged in the sensation of being beneath the surface where the secrets of the inhabitants’ lives are revealed.
“So much of what I see in her is stopping us in our tracks in the here and now,” says the museum’s Karen Milbourne, the museum’s senior curator and acting head of knowledge production, who organized the exhibition. “And saying, ‘Don’t take it for granted, don’t whitewash the history. Stop and look at what happened.’ And it’s signaling that time period when it all started through Elizabethan garments.”
The Drexciyan myth originated with a Detroit techno band who in the 1997 release of their compilation album, The Quest, described in the liner notes the Afrofuturistic tale. The band continued to create music with three follow-up studio albums between 1999 and 2002 and several more compilation albums until 2013.
Jackson heard about the Drexciyan myth from her best friend, artist Ingrid LaFleur, and discussed the idea with the late cultural critic Greg Tate. To reconcile the implausibility of a dying woman giving birth, Jackson interjects the realm of African water deities—Oshun, who populated the Earth with her sweet and powerful waters; Yemonja, a patron saint especially to pregnant women; and Mami Wata, who brings good fortune actualized in the African ways of life.
Growing up, she had heard of the feminine water deities of African spiritual belief systems from her father, who was part of a local New Jersey band and dance ensemble that would perform at cultural events around the state. “The first times I heard anything about Santeria, Candomblé, Voodoo,” she says, “was through my dad’s studies and the music he was playing.”
“Introducing the sacred into that is so important,” says Milbourne, “because I think that there’s been a cultural suppression of the sacred in a secularist kind of narrative that this was more multifaceted than that, that there is this incredible divine presence and retribution in this entire shared travesty.”
Jackson received the blessing to create the exhibition from Gerald Donald, the living member of Drexciya duo (James Stinson died in 2002), and Underground Resistance, the production company for Drexciya’s music. “I just felt it was important to pay homage to them before I started,” she says.
The producers recognize that most of the artists who are creating in response to their initial Drexciya concept are women. Jackson unabashedly contributes feminine energy to the myth. And her interrogation of it offers beauty in the wake of horror.
Jackson employs costumes that reflect the fashions of the times when her narratives take place. She previously rented costumes for her photography, including for several of the works in “Archival Impulse,” her 2013 solo gallery exhibition that depicts women in buttoned-up shirts and voluminous skirts in photographs reconstructing and reclaiming archival ethnographic footage from white photographers of the 19th and 20th centuries, giving them a fresh, new perspective.
But in this exhibition, Jackson worked with designers to imagine what the clothing of an underwater Black civilization would be like from the Elizabethan period and on into the future. Costumes are displayed in the exhibition space, so viewers can see up close the details of these opulent creations, crafted by such renowned designers as Rama Diaw from Saint-Louis, Senegal; Mwambi Wassaki from Luanda, Angola; Olabanji “Cheddar” Arowoshola from Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana; and Robert Young from Trinidad and Tobago.
“When Karen and I started working together on the exhibition, we knew that part of what we were wanting to do was exhibit the actual artifacts of costumes,” Jackson says.
As a Smithsonian artist research fellow, Jackson was able to access the Smithsonian archives to inform her art practice. Using the archives across the institution from the National Museum of African Art, to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to the National Portrait Gallery, Jackson studied the fabrics and fashions used in 16th-century Africa and in enslaving countries around the globe.
The ingenious quadtych of photographs The Rupture Was the Story I-IV is an arresting array that hangs gallery-style and features Jackson wearing a bodice made of spoons and a skirt constructed of plastic flip-flops. This artwork, like others in the exhibition, speculates that Drexciyans live sophisticated and opulent lives. Like Africans across the diaspora, they are resourceful with what they are afforded.
Jackson’s narrative is not solely sequestered to the Americas. The filmmaker traveled throughout the African continent and to the Caribbean to create footage for her underwater scenes, traversing the waters where the unnamed pregnant African women perished. Some two million people did not survive the crossing.
“She doesn’t embody the spirits, but to me, she’s a very expressive vessel,” Milbourne says. Jackson is extremely convincing in her roles as the personages she creates. As an underwater species, she moves and breathes in the depths as if she was born there, having become certified as a Divemaster, plunging more than 100 feet underwater. The photographer and artist’s gaze is strikingly profound.
“From the Deep: In the Wake of Drexciya with Ayana V. Jackson” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art through April 2024.