On November 29th, 1781, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean between the coast of West Africa and the island of Jamaica some 150 enslaved Africans are thrown alive overboard on orders of the captain of the slave-ship Zong. The ship had set sail several weeks earlier with an insured “cargo” of 470 enslaved Africans. The massacre would generate a legal battle between the ship’s owners, the Gregsons, and the insurance company, the Gilberts, and is recorded in the brief legal decision, Gregson vs. Gilbert, more colloquially known as the Zong case.
Zong!, a book-length poem by NourbeSe Philip, a poet and writer based in Toronto, Canada, is composed entirely of the words of the found text, Gregson vs. Gilbert. It is a poem about slavery and the legal system; poetry that explores the silences locked within the legal text, the precise and cautious movement that tries to not tell the story that must be told. Through fragments of voices, shreds of memory and shards of silence, Zong! unravels the story that can only be told by not telling it.
Sasha Huber and M’barek Bouchichi, you worked together on a new collaborative piece titled BACK UP that will be shown at Institut finlandais on the occasion of the group exhibition Untie knots, Weave Connections. BACK UP is a large sculptural work that is largely inspired by the Zong case and NourbeSe Philip’s poem, which you used with the poet’s blessing.You started the dialogue around the exhibition and a new collaborative piece first in 2019 when Sasha did a residency in Morocco at MACAAL. You didn’t know each other from before. How was the beginning of the collaboration? How did you work together towards finding the common threads in your respective practices?
M’barek: Simply stepping into the space of encounter/dialogue with Sasha and her practice; simply moving inside it, with curiosity, points me to possibilities of doing and of doing together. My space of encounter/dialogue floods with ideas and emotions. Hers does too.
Sasha: It was the first time that I was invited to collaborate with an artist I haven’t met before. When I got to learn about M’Barek’s work, before meeting him in December 2019, I had a good intuition about this experiment and was looking forward to what would come.
How did you first come across the poem “Zong!”?
M’barek: Poetry is a space for demands, a space which meaningfully translates our ideas and emotions. I am very much attached to this space which in itself is a matter of an oral culture such as my own. NourbeSe Philip is a friend; I met her for the first time in southern Morocco. In her I find the very first vocation of human beings: to be in eternal mouvement to be paused only by questioning that shares one’s hopes and fears.
Among many things, NourbeSe gave me Zong!, a future of a reading that expresses and now transcends itself into a visual matter to be shared.
Sasha: I was aware of the history and poetry of the Zong massacre and M’Barek’s suggestion to work with the poem immediately felt close to my heart. In 2016 I made the artwork Sea of the Lost which consists of over 200’000 metal staples which together form many waves, representing the Atlantic Ocean and also the Mediterranean Sea. The work commemorates the more than two million lost lives out of more than fifteen million uprooted Africans who did not survive the tragic transatlantic “middle passage”. The work also commemorates the thousands fleeing war torn home countries today by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in precarious circumstances, earning it the name the Mediterranean “middle passage”.
How was the creative process, from the very beginning of the conceptualization to the production phase?
M’barek: By injecting it with curiosity, using dialogue to formulate questions in an attempt of co-writing where history, silence, language and translation are shaped to measure up with reality in which we live and the one we hope for.
Sasha: In December we had a couple of days in Marrakech to connect, discuss, sketch together and I appreciated our tours around the city and markets as well. In the Spring of 2020 I was supposed to return to Marrakech to continue my residency with MACAAL to be able to be there for the production and refine the work together. We also wanted to create one more work together on location. Due to the pandemic this was not possible and M’Barek took care of the production : he shared images of technical sketches and test pieces to be able to make decisions together. This worked quite well but I felt sorry not to be there with M’Barek.
What does the name BACK UP refer to?
M’barek: It refers above all to the possibility and duty of saving. The giant staples express the power of writing, of appropriation, of reparation even.
The work BACK UP and the poem Zong! both raise the idea of a temporal elsewhere; bearing the past within us through contemporary existence. Of not forgetting. Would you say that these themes are familiar to both of your individual practices? How do these themes unfold in the choice of materials of BACK UP?
M’barek: Just like every time I’m in the presence of history, a wild desire summons me to bare myself, to discover who I am firstly in my own eyes. The idea of a silenced history probably perks my curiosity and pushes me to question this thing that slumbers under the surface: human violence. Looking carefully at Sasha’s artistic practice forms and establishes an exchange, a matter to weave.
Sasha: Our shared interest in memory and belonging made it easy for us to develop something new. We both work with a variety of media and this helped us to blend and still came up with a large and complex artwork which is new to both of us. Looking forward to hopefully continuing the dialogue.
Excerpts from the collection of poems ZONG! by M. Nourbe Se Philip
Laser cutting and chrome plating on stainless steel and brass
Photography: Aurélien Mole