Artist Dineo Seshee Bopape’s latest work started with what on the surface seems like a straightforward invitation from curator Chus Martínez: come swim with me. The location was a world away for an artist from South Africa: off the Solomon Islands in Oceania. But the invitation hit close to home. “I’m not a good swimmer,” Bopape said, “but I was keen.”
Bopape ended up spending two weeks in the Solomon Islands and described her time there as nurturing. It was an opportunity to be “engaged in a conversation in water with our bodies, with our spirits as well, engaging in dream space,” she said. “There’s something in that sensual invitation, through all these layers of thought, of memory, of practice, of undoing, of rehabilitating, of trusting.”
The curatorial prompt—which Martínez said came out of “a long admiration” for Bopape’s work—was part of a residency program established by the TBA21–Academy, an interdisciplinary arts organization with a focus on supporting artists and curators in conducting research and creating exhibitions and programs that address the climate crisis, particularly in relation to how it is impacting the world’s oceans.
Martínez described TBA21–Academy as an entity “committed to expanding the understanding of the relationship between science, art, and the necessity to act in a climate emergency.” The goal in working together is “for all of us—as a curator, as an organization, as an audience, as a society, as a pedagogical enterprise—to understand, What can we do? How can we open up and see new ways that are different from the ways that were presented to us?”
The artwork that came out Bopape’s engagement with the Academy, titled Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?, is a three-channel video installation with eight speakers that is currently on view at TBA21–Academy’s Ocean Space, a home base in Venice located in the Church of San Lorenzo.
Across the three screens are various shots of moving water—deep blue, turquoise, crystalline gleaming in the sun, reddish, murky brown. They are intercut quickly, and the soundtrack begins to intensify. Soon a hand, clad in a dozen or so bracelets, dips into the water. Then two hands drum on the water, followed by various objects floating by: a cut pineapple, half a coconut shell out of which smoke rises, a sliced lemon, green leaves, a potato, pink flowers, sections of a tangerine, a bunch of bananas. At various points, the camera dips below the water’s surface and we see fish swim by the objects as they begin their descent to the ocean floor. The sound of drumming becomes all-encompassing at times.
The significance of this is ambiguous. Are we witnessing a ritual for the water, or are these meant to represent pollutants that harm the planet’s waters? When a creamy white liquid is added to the water, it creates an abstraction that feels innately beautiful—though its addition, its mere presence, is likely sinister.
The video is informed by Bopape’s experience in the Solomon Islands, where she received “messages that came from the water,” she said. One poignant moment during her time there was when a local man in a canoe approached their boat and asked Bopape to sing him a song. Immediately what came to mind was South African reggae musician Lucky Dube’s “Slave.”
“I kept asking myself why that song of all songs came to mind,” the artist said. “I sat with that for some time.”
As she was looking at the water, Bopape also recalled an infamous U.S. Civil War–era photograph of the enslaved man known as Gordon (though that was likely not his name), who sits on a wooden chair with scars from brutal whippings on full display.
“I kept seeing the lacerations on the back of the enslaved man called Gordon,” Bopape said. “In the image he has his back to the audience and these scars that look like mountains on his back but also look like water waves. Seeing the water and seeing the scars kept leaving an impression on me.”
Bopape came to the realization that “this was a message that was being transmitted for me to think about. The messages just kept coming through the site, through dreams as well.” After one such dream, she awoke crying. During the dream she heard a song, which now forms part of the work’s soundtrack. One line translates to English: “My love is alive, is alive, is alive.”
Once she completed her time in the Solomon Islands, Bopape felt that she needed to spend more time by the ocean—“to think about the water itself and my relationship with it: the water of the ocean, the water in my body, as well as the water in our collective body or collective consciousness, us all in relation to each other and to the water, and what love has to do with that, where love sits in that connection.”
She ended up visiting other bodies of water around the world, footage of which is include Ocean!. She traveled to the Pacific off of Colombia, Ghana, Senegal, Richmond, New Orleans, and, most importantly, Jamaica, where she completed another residency at the TBA21-affiliated Alligator Head Foundation, a marine conservation organization. “Jamaica became the portal through which the work was birthed—the birth canal, almost,” Bopape said.
In visiting these various waterways, Bopape soon understood that she was “tracing the trans-Atlantic slave trade route,” a new subject in her work that continues a thread that runs through her artistic practice: “the flow of memory.” She attributes that focus to growing up during the 1970s in South Africa, under Apartheid, in a culture, she said, focused on “forgetting and wanting to forget—the push for everybody to forgive and forget.”
She continued, “What things are remembered? What things are forgotten as well? How do I remember myself, with my own being? The ocean and the water have this ability to remember a person’s self or nurture or rehabilitate. What things are part of the present but ghosts almost? How do I invite my peers to hear those ghosts more clearly, to be at the level where we’re able to heal?”
“Memory, as Dineo said, is not a passive function of the brain,” Martínez said. “It’s not that you have memories, and you remember them because you have them. It’s an active act of imagination because you start putting things in the world that then becomes a memory again.”
Bopape added, “It’s a spiritual and a political rebellion to remember, to not forget what one is being asked to forget.”
The exhibition in Venice also includes a table of dozens sculptures, as well as five drawings that visitors can visualize via augmented reality on iPads. “They really add this is spectrum relationship with things you don’t see,” Martínez said. “Things you don’t see are spirits, but also problems that you don’t see. You could see a drawing, but it could be a problem.”
Martínez sees the exhibition, and TBA21–Academy’s project as a whole, as drawing out exactly what our relationship, role, and responsibility ought to be when it comes to helping ensure the continued livelihood of our waters.
“You understand that it is this infinite number of small acts that constitute a universe that you need to respect, that you need to be in coexistence with,” she said. “I think that after this 17-minute experience, you totally understand coexistence. That was my response. I thought, Wow, I am in connection, and this is in me. It’s asking for an understanding and for a commitment.”