Fall 2007

Bodily Memory #1

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Keywords: ancestral memory, arts, healing, embodied, slavery, slave trade, Middle Passage, women's spirituality

This piece was done after seeing August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean. A character in the play takes a figurative journey through the experience of being captured and brought to America as a slave after passing through the “City of Bones,” an underwater city built from the bones and memories of those who perished in the Middle Passage – the transport of men, women and children from Africa across the Atlantic ocean by slave traders. Also on my mind was a scientific experiment I had read about that presented evidence that memories could literally be stored in individual cells of the body. The backbone of the figure is the skeleton of a slave ship, giving reference to Wilson’s allegorical City of Bones. My question in this piece was: What kinds of ancestral memories might be stored in my body, and how do they affect how I carry myself, physically and spiritually?

From my own spiritual practice I know that emotional experiences are stored in our bodies. As such, I wonder how these emotion-memories are passed down the generations through our bodies. Is the legacy of slavery, for example, in my bones? If it is in my body, how then has it contributed to my mother’s depression, which becomes my own depression? This painting does not represent an answer, but raises many questions. I believe that we all have an infinite number of mysteries stored in our bodies. The more we go into ourselves, the more we discover how ancient and inseparable from all time we truly are.

The woman in the painting senses that some burden is there on her back, but she cannot see it clearly from her viewpoint. The viewer of the painting can see for her what we cannot usually know about ourselves. But even as we are witness to the legacy of slavery on her body (our body), perhaps we can never know exactly what it has meant for her life or for our lives.

The woman, however, is not beaten down by this. She is in a state of curiosity, that which precedes discovery and then, healing. Her physical discomfort is a signal for her to look within in order to understand the ghosts of the past. Likewise, the emotional discomfort one may feel while looking at the painting invites the viewer to do the same for herself, to discover what is stored inside her own body.