No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne wrote Meditation XVII in 1624, just five years after the first enslaved Africans were sold at Jamestown. Great Britain had just declared war on Spain, seeking to gain control over Puerto Rico and the other islands strategically located between the two American continents. The major European imperial powers battled over territory once controlled by Native peoples for the next century, until the former British colonies that had become the United States asserted their hegemony over the remaining Spanish colonies and, in so doing, became an empire. Throughout this period, the danger of human disconnection that Donne laments was a horrific reality for the millions of kidnapped Africans who survived the transatlantic slave trade’s Middle Passage.
When Africans arrived in the Americas, colonial slavery was already decimating Indigenous populations, including the Guale people of the Sea Islands off the coast of what is now Georgia and South Carolina, and the Arawak peoples throughout the Caribbean islands. These disparate groups survived by merging into new communities of color, which in turn created hybrid cultural forms that evolved over generations as their descendants endured unrelenting forced labor. Today, the persistence of colonialist attitudes and exploitative economic practices tests the cultural tenacity of the Gullah Geechee Black folks of the Sea Islands, descendants of Guale and West Africans, and the Afro-Taíno-Latinx communities living in Puerto Rico or stateside.¹
In their reparative performance art practices, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz and Sheldon Scott materialize and animate the diasporic consciousnesses that are foundational to the cultural texture of communities of color in the American South. The New York–born Raimundi-Ortiz lives and works in Orlando, Florida, and maintains strong connections to her Afro-Latinx family in Mayagüez and Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Scott was born and raised in a Gullah Geechee family on Pawleys Island, off the coast of South Carolina, and spends part of each year in Washington, D.C. Both emphasize embodied presence as a way to honor the dignity of their communities in the present and reconnect to their ancestors. They draw on the visual and gestural vocabularies of Black performance art while incorporating site-specificity and contextual references to ground their work in a history of trauma and healing. Through their performances, Raimundi-Ortiz and Scott seek to reestablish interpersonal connections, making unique interventions into cyclical histories of violent separation to remind their audiences that “no man is an island.”
Scott and Raimundi-Ortiz were both commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to make performances as a part of “Identify,” an ongoing performance art series intended to represent the people who are absent from most of the works in the museum’s collection due to histories of repression and exclusion. Scott’s Precious in Da Wadah (2016) activated the spaces of the museum’s Kogod Courtyard and Great Hall to create a moving portrait of the kidnapped Africans who brought their agricultural ingenuity from their homelands to the Sea Island rice plantations. Scott enlisted dozens of collaborators to symbolically enact the planting of rice shoots in the courtyard’s fountains before having himself bound to a rice mortar. The following year, for her Pietà performance, Raimundi-Ortiz cradled thirty-three men and women of color in her arms for 3 minutes and 33 seconds each—a duration referring to Jesus’s age of thirty-three at the time of his death. The tender gesture was meant to soothe the overwhelming fear of loss that people of color carry with them due to their children’s vulnerability to state violence.
Late in the summer of 2019, Scott and Raimundi-Ortiz each created new works in the South that recognized the epigenetic pain of their respective Gullah Geechee and Puerto Rican island communities. In their works these artists amplify John Donne’s entreaty, honoring the ways that island bound, African-descended communities have retained their spiritual and corporeal integrity so as not to be swept out to sea like a clod of earth with no meaning, no matter, no elegy to lament their passing.
On a hot August day, from sunup to sundown, over a span of 12 hours, 20 minutes, and 57 seconds, a single video camera recorded Scott as he knelt in an overgrown rice field near his family home on Pawleys Island. Wearing a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, Scott labored continuously before the camera’s lens, hulling grains of Carolina Gold rice by hand. As the sun slowly crossed the sky, he sought shelter in the shadows of the moss-shrouded trees, communing with grasshoppers, white egrets, and a swarm of fire ants crawling at his feet. Each return of his hand to the bag of fragrant heirloom rice at his side—rice that was originally grown in the Senegambia region from which his ancestors were forcibly taken—intensified Scott’s corporeal and empathic connection to the soil beneath. This performance, Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down), conjured enslaved men of Scott’s family who labored on the old Brookgreen Plantation. A “number 1 man” in the parlance of slavery was the most valued object on a list of human property.
Over the course of that August day, the artist worked to limit the movement of his body either to kneel or stand while hulling the rice. Despite the extreme heat of the South Carolina summer, Scott wore the black suit that has become essential to his performance practice. Within the African American community, black business suits have long signaled the masculine respectability that is so often denied Black men in their daily lives. It is for this reason that Civil Rights activists in the late 1950s and early ’60s, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, always wore suits; it is also why Pope.L chose to wear them in his Crawls, to exaggerate the abjection of his prone movement along the dirty city streets. Scott was also barefoot, so that when he stood he could feel the damp earth between his naked toes. The artist has explained that his choice to go barefoot in his performances is intended to refute the myth that people can rise from poverty by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” “But what if you have no shoes?” asks Scott—then what do you use to ascend the social and economic hierarchy, to climb “up from slavery” like Booker T. Washington?
Most enslaved people were never provided shoes to protect their feet. Some African-descended communities saw the vital contact between skin and earth as essential for communion between the living and the dead. Scott told me that he felt his feet absorb the sweat, pain, and suffering from bodies that had once walked upon African soil before they were put to work on Pawleys Island. This energy, he said, occasionally made his breathing difficult, as did the presence of the ancient trees that surrounded him, living witnesses to the pain of previous generations.
In its act of “bearing the weight,” Scott’s work recalls the endurance art of Sherman Fleming, such as the performance Something Akin to Living (1979), in which Fleming stood between two columns and adjusted his body to support a growing number of wooden slats wedged between him and the columns by audience members until he finally walked away. But Scott’s connection to site takes this gesture out of the realm of metaphor and gives it concrete historical meaning. He labored in a space of brutal beauty and past agony, amid the presence of his Gullah Geechee ancestors, still unsettled and roaming what was once a vast carceral agricultural complex covering most of Pawleys Island. In moments of whiteout, Scott felt the spirits of the enslaved men and women who had performed the highly specialized work that his own ceremonial work was now honoring. Work that was physically and mentally numbing. Work that was done six days a week, from sunup to sundown—a rhythm invoked by the performance’s duration. Work that is mirrored in the continuing struggle of the working-class descendants of the enslaved to retain meager homesteads in the face of encroaching golf courses and resorts built for and occupied by the new ruling class.
A month later and 450 miles farther south, the sound of metal debris being dragged across pavement announced the presence of Raimundi-Ortiz in Orlando’s downtown arts district. She was resplendent in a long, ruffled dress—an unruly wearable assemblage of bright-blue construction tarps, orange plastic temporary fencing, and other bits of detritus. She had scavenged these materials with her own hands from the thousands of emergency home repairs that followed Hurricane Maria’s destructive path across the island of Puerto Rico in 2017. A red, white, and blue Puerto Rican flag fluttered atop Raimundi-Ortiz’s back, and her long skirt spread out in a swirl around her ankles. At the center of her chaotic costume, she resembled the eye of the hurricane itself as she serenely strode up to the front door of a local performing arts center and into the central salon.
Once inside, Raimundi-Ortiz greeted a band of musicians by walking a circle before them and a crowd of onlookers. In lifting the hem of her skirt, she initiated the bomba, a dance form that for centuries has been central to Black self-expression in Puerto Rico. In bomba, musicians, singers, and dancers all interact with one another in exchanges derived from West African dance and drumming traditions. The drums are accompanied by maracas and cúa, the Taíno Arawak musical instruments endemic to the island. For centuries, a gathering for bomba was one of the few creative outlets that allowed the island’s enslaved to resist the social death engendered by their relentless labor on the sugar plantations that have long characterized much of the Global South. When contemporary African-descended Puerto Ricans like Raimundi-Ortiz dance bomba, they use their movement to both honor and embody the spirits of their ancestors.
To perform bomba is to champion the anthem of the displaced. To sing its verses is to remember ancient histories. Entering the circle made by the musicians and the crowd is to be transported back to the space of the batey, the plaza found at the center of the living areas for the enslaved on colonial sugar plantations. Bomba reminded the African-descended people on plantations of their true origins. Today it does the same for contemporary Puerto Ricans living in Florida and throughout the South. “Just because you live here,” Raimundi-Ortiz told me, “does not mean you are from here.” Like Shaun Leonardo’s performance El Conquistador vs. The Invisible Man (2004–07), in which the Afro-Dominican artist mobilized a popular wrestling format to explore the challenges of being seen as both Black and Latino by a dominant culture that fails to comprehend much about either, Raimundi-Ortiz’s work serves as a reminder that the histories of the Global South are rooted in complex individual identities.
Raimundi-Ortiz’s performance in downtown Orlando, Exodus|Pilgrimage, was a refusal to allow the horrific destruction of Hurricane Maria, and the displacement that it caused for so many Puerto Ricans, to go unseen by those living stateside. The bipartite title evokes both the biblical departure of the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt and the journeys made by believers to holy shrines. For each Floridian who lost power for a week after the hurricane, there were hundreds of Puerto Ricans who lived without electricity for nine months or more. After desperately needed relief from the federal government failed to materialize, the immense hardships that came with Hurricane Maria forced thousands of Puerto Ricans to leave the island. Exodus|Pilgrimage draws on Puerto Rico’s deeply imbricated histories of Taíno Arawak genocide, African enslavement, labor exploitation by the sugar industry over centuries, and the continuing colonial status of the island as a neglected territory of the United States. As Raimundi-Ortiz proceeded through the streets of Orlando, she was dragging more than just the trauma of Hurricane Maria, woven as it was into the detritus that trailed behind her. She was pulling the weight of the island’s contemporary experience of oppression and the exodus of those who had fled its unchecked destruction into the field of vision of those who had long been shielded from that reality by virtue of their economic and geographic position—comfortably middle class, residing stateside.
This use of elaborate costumes and markers of Latinx femininity conjures Coco Fusco’s Better Yet When Dead (1997), in which the artist cast herself as dead predecessors like Frida Kahlo and Ana Mendieta, whose fame came in part through the visibility of their suffering. Fusco turned the gallery into a site of elaborate funerary services, invoking the West African spiritual beliefs that spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America during enslavement under the guise of the permitted veneration of Catholic saints. Santería, Espiritismo, Candomblé, the cult of María Lionza, and other diasporic practices that have their roots in West African religions remain essential to the integrity of many Latinx communities both in and outside the United States. They have evolved over centuries of attempted suppression and demonization. In the spiritual practices of Ifa, which originated with the Yoruba people of Nigeria and spread throughout the Americas with the growth of the African diaspora, blue and white—the colors of Raimundi-Ortiz’s bomba dress—are associated with worship of the orisha, or deity, Yemaya. While the Yoruba people believe that Yemaya makes her home in the rivers, in the context of the Americas she is associated with the ocean and white flowers. In Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, she is worshipped in the aspect of Our Lady of Navigators. On New Year’s Eve, believers bring offerings of white flowers and candles to Brazil’s beaches in hope of good luck for the coming year. In Cuba, she is one with the Virgin of Regla, who makes her terrestrial appearance as a Black woman in a blue gown holding a white child, a trenchant reminder of the forced maternity endured by enslaved women who were also made to nurse the children of their oppressors.
If Yemaya’s benevolent dominion over the rivers, oceans, and seas is believed to have protected the Africans who endured the Middle Passage, this power was thrown into doubt when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. “Right now, I have a problem with Yemaya,” Raimundi-Ortiz told me after I remarked on this connection, expressing her frustration that the orisha had not protected her spiritual children in their time of need. Even so, the artist’s embodiment of Yemaya in Exodus|Pilgrimage, like her embodiment of the Virgin Mary in Pietà, reveals her continued investment in the promise and possibility of divine intervention that these holy figures represent to the faithful.
Raimundi-Ortiz and Scott reveal the enduring presence of Afro-diasporic culture and spirituality within the contemporary consciousness of the American South, both stateside and throughout Latin America. When Raimundi-Ortiz embodies Yemaya to dance bomba, and when Scott dons a black suit to peel grains of rice, each artist evokes a tender retrieval of the millions of lives that have been wrested from natal lands or taken from their families through state violence and neocolonial exploitation. The artists and their works offer respect to the spirits of the dispossessed and the deceased, both ancient and immediate, by confronting the painful truths of our reality. The presence of the past within the present is honored by these reparative performances, as are the legacies of resilience that characterize all African-descended communities—and, indeed, all mankind.
Thanks to Sheldon Scott for speaking with me at length about his practice from his family’s home on Pawleys Island on June 19, 2020, and thanks to Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, who did the same from her backyard in Orlando on June 23, 2020.
1 For more on the Gullah Geechee communities of the Sea Islands, see Patrick J. Holladay and Amy Lotson Roberts, Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles, Mount Pleasant, S.C., Arcadia Publishing, 2019. For more on Afro-Caribbean identity in Puerto Rico and stateside, see Patricia Reid-Merritt and Michael S. Rodriguez, Race and Identity in Hispanic America: The White, the Black, and the Brown, Santa Barbara, Calif., ABC-CLIO, 2020.
This article appears in the November/December 2021 issue, pp. 68–73.