Introduction to Playing in the Dark: Watery Experiments
Playing in the Dark engages the various ways in which blackness haunts the sea and is haunted by the sea. Borrowing from Toni Morrison, “playing in the dark” references the subdued Africanist presence which mediates imaginations of water in the wake of variegated yet entangled transoceanic slave trades but also takes seriously darkness as a subversive ecological milieu, against lures of transparency. In the works gathered here, nothing is left untouched by the confounding qualities of water and its corrosive opacities, from bodies to the environment, to the materiality of film itself. As such, “playing in the dark” also references attempts in Black experimental filmmaking to chart paths in which cameras do not write with light but probe shadows in search of “an aesthetics of turbulence whose corresponding ethics is not provided in advance” (Glissant, Poetics of Relation).
Screening Premiere: October 16, 2022 @ 4:00pm, Roxie Theater, San Francisco
Streaming Online: October 23-29, 2022
1982, 3 minutes, color, silent, 16mm
This enigmatic 16mm short by Toney Merritt contrasts a panoramic movement and a static shot to offer “a portrait of sorts” of the San Francisco bay via the specter of the Atlantic sea. Ellipsis, wit, and playful displacements characterize Merritt’s cinematic aphorisms.
1998, 16 minutes, color, sound, 16mm
The result of a series of camera-less collaborations between the filmmaker, the Atlantic Ocean, and a crab trap. For three days in January and three days in October of 1997, and again, for a day, in August of 1998, lengths of unexposed, undeveloped film were soaked in a crab cage on a South Carolina beach. Both the sound and image are the result of the ensuing oceanic inscriptions written directly into the emulsion of the film as it was buffeted by the salt water, sand, rocks and shells.
1989, 12 minutes, color, sound, 16mm transferred to digital video
N’diaye’s newly restored Aqua, from a 16mm print, focuses on the patient labor of men engaged in creating beauty out of fished and found objects through craft and repurposing. This poetic meditation and prime example of Senegalese ecocinema is part of the filmmaker’s collection of shorts Trésors des poubelles (Treasures from the Trash, 1989).
1975, 32 minutes, color, sound, 16mm transferred to digital video
A surrealist portrait of the old coral city of Suakin, a site of enslavement and colonial port throughout Ottoman and early British imperial rule, now in ruins. “Only faint traces of its ancient affluence are apparent today … a dimmed reflection in a cracked mirror; empty eyes with the stars in a different house, laughter in another room” (Hussein Shariffe, 1974). The Dislocation of Amber is an homage to a place made by water and consumed by it, as the surrounding Red sea slowly erodes what is left of the city. It features poems by the late Sudanese singer Abdel-Aziz Dawoud.
English translation by shah noor hussein and Hatim Eujayl
2017, 6 minutes, color, sound, digital video
Filmic collage, shot on location in Claude Monet’s Gardens in Giverny (France), Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) interweaves high-definition video of the filmmaker leisurely pacing along the garden’s murky waters, archival footage, and analog animation. Juxtaposition throughout gestures at proximity yet distance, probing “the precarious nature of Black women’s bodily integrity, the ethics of care as resistance work, and how class position shapes the contours of violence” (Ja’Tovia Gary). Against the violence that subtends impressionist and more broadly modernist tranquil aesthetics and desire for coherence, the film insists on the chronic instability of sounds and the moving image through noise, flickers, glitches, scratches, and split screens.
2019, 21 minutes, color, sound, digital video
In this spellbinding and wordless short by Brazilian filmmaker Everlane Moraes, hypnotized faces of Havana residents at night gesture at the presence of Yemaya, orisha of the sea. Water, a paradoxically scarce resource yet oozing from everywhere, contaminates up to the very process of exposure itself.
2006-2007, 17 minutes, color, sound, 16mm
In this final installment of a nine-year project documenting the underwater world off the coast of South Carolina, once again both the sounds and images are the result of the oceanic inscriptions written directly into the emulsion of the film as it was buffeted by the salt water, sand and rocks; as it was chewed by the crabs and fish.
2016, 5 minutes, color, sound, digital video
“When a young girl is found off the Venezuelan coast, a medical examiner will try to determine the cause of death before the body is repatriated.” – La Distributrice de films
2021, 9 minutes, color, sound, digital video
“Following the disappearance of a man in Scotland, his daughter recalls words chanted before nightfall.” – La Distributrice de films
Essay by Chrystel Oloukoï
Toni Morrison theorizes “playing in the dark” as a kind of camouflage; the false consciousness of (white American) literature which has disavowed blackness on the one hand, while employing it as a playground for the imagination on the other.1 Yet, building on Morrison’s own expansive use of the expression, one must also contend with alternate practices of “playing in the dark”—those which attempt to refigure opacity as a site of subaltern possibility.2 This program wades through this tension, bringing together works wrestling with the mutual haunting between blackness and the sea, as filmmakers experiment with water as a medium and object of representation.
The works gathered here, by Toney Merritt, David Gatten, Felix Samba N’Diaye, Hussein Shariffe, Ja’Tovia Gary, Everlane Moraes, and Miryam Charles, engage with the confounding qualities of water and its corrosive energies; from bodies to the environment, to the materiality of film itself. In purposeful contrast with imagery of water as a crystalline, transparent medium, the films dwell and revel in strange, turbid, still, abyssal, shallow, and impure waters. Theirs are burdened bodies of water that resist regimes of truth based on visibility.
Felix Samba N’Diaye’s Aqua belongs to a collection of shorts, Trésors des poubelles (Treasures from the Trash, all 1989), that confront the afterlives of literal and metaphorical waste in Dakar’s urban environment. On the other side of the Atlantic, David Gatten’s What the Water Said Nos. 1-3 (1998) and Nos. 4-6 (2006-2007) stage an encounter between marine ecologies and film emulsion, as unexposed rolls of black-and-white and color film are immersed into a crab cage—at different dates, times, and tide levels—to be written upon by underwater organisms. While the works of N’Diaye and Gatten have been explicitly referred to as a kind of “ecocinema,” I would argue that an attentiveness to forms of nonhuman agency, ecological time, and a concern with layered histories of environmental damage and reduced lifeworlds pervade many of the other featured works. This is true of Everlane Moraes’s Pattaki (2019), shot in Havana, in which the ubiquity of water—in buckets, in aquariums, oozing from skin, atmospheric, reflected in gazes and lighted surfaces—only emphasizes its actual sparseness. Water functions as both a spiritual signifier, evoking the presence of Yemaya, orisha of the sea, and as an indictment of an aging and inadequate water infrastructure, faltering under the effects of a decades-long, US-led geopolitical blockade.
In a different genre of ecocinema, Ja’Tovia Gary handpresses organic matter, such as leaves, on clear strips of film in Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017), evoking Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963). Yet, her gesture is not merely about the potentialities of a direct cinema, but also a critique of botanical science and its orientation towards visual capture. Such orientation is most evident in practices of classification in which visualization played a central role—from intricate hand-drawn botanical illustrations to macro photography—as well as in other botanical processes of inventorying, collecting, sampling, and planting. Giverny Garden, the botanical garden established by Claude Monet in the eponymous French village at the turn of the 20th century, constitutes one of the main settings of Gary’s film. The garden, with its placid, lily-covered waters, immortalized in several Impressionist paintings, is subtended by an imperial violence which necessarily sutures its aesthetics.3
Effects such as flickers, split screens, overlays, static noises, and glitches insist on a fundamental sonic and visual disharmony. In tension with the botanical metaphor of rooting, Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) feels like a record of turbulence and instability—of the inextricable entanglement between places and bodies that exist far apart but in a common state of displacement.
Collectively, Playing in the Dark: Watery Experiments engages with (often violently) intimate cartographies of water, channeled through webs of relations. Bodies of water are not deterritorialized or abstracted in the selected works; rather they are embedded in particular geographies and histories. With a camera often focused on hands at work, patiently fishing for and reassembling elements such as turbid waters, rocks, fishes, discarded bottles, sand, and algae, Ndiaye’s Aqua centers labor, as Dakar’s urban artisans craft small-scale water worlds out of urban waste. The temporal arc of the film—which follows the process of creation in a linear way—elicits a sense of duration and achievement. The whole enterprise, with its results proudly exhibited on the street, feels gratuitous, playful, and a touch tragic.
Playfulness also traverses Gatten’s gesture of plunging film rolls into the waters of Seabrook Island, a place charged—for the artist—with memories of childhood play and the delight of return, summer after summer. Toney Merritt’s By the Sea (1982) offers a “portrait of sorts” of the San Francisco bay, filmed by the Bay Area artist from his apartment. Filled with enigmatic humor, the film reports on a ship lost in the wild Atlantic Ocean. Yet, a massive, slow-moving vessel occupies the frame, so large that it even exceeds it in length, never fully captured by it.
Hussein Shariffe’s Dislocation of Amber (1975) is also, primarily, a portrait of a place. This poetic homage to the coral city of Suakin—a site both made and unmade by water—insists on the element’s generative, sculptural, and erosive powers. Until the construction of Port Sudan in 1905, which ended Suakin’s centuries-long dominance over the Red Sea, the city thrived on the trade occasioned by travelers to Mecca, as well as, later on, the slave trade. Decay, as well as furtive traces and memories, outlines the contours of not just an abandoned city, but also of a Red Sea traversed by routes of terror, subjugation, and forced migration. Collectively, the expansive water maps drawn by each artist in the program testify to the extent to which no body of water has been left untouched by interconnected histories of slavery, colonialism, and illegalized migration. Indeed, the selected works invite viewers to take particular locations as well as their entanglements with polymorphous bodies of water seriously—from the muddiness of the bottled water in Dakar to the foam pathway left by the wake of a ship in Miryam Charles’s Towards the Colonies (2016).
Playing in the Dark
Water, in its crystalline or abyssal states, is overburdened with a series of metaphors. Ideas of transparency, opacity, and inscrutability often rehearse binaries foundational to Western thought. Such metaphors find their ways into the works at hand. Shariffe, for example, relies on the common trope of the feminization of the sea through the symbolic imagery mobilized in The Dislocation of Amber. On another register, an unavowed Africanist presence sutures imaginations of the abyss in Gatten’s What the Water Said. 4 Indeed, occasional excerpts of Western literary classics focused on the sea segment the rolls of film distressed by water, from Defoe to Melville, to Poe and Hawthorne. In all of these, the oceanic is closely associated with darkness, the latter a (Western) metaphor for terror and the unknown. It functions as an expressive surface for the figurative possibilities of blackness, insofar as representations of the rayless, stygian abyss—which “might have been mistaken for ebony”—are inextricable from a backdrop of enslavement, watery cemeteries, and conquest by sea.5
Each roll of film in What the Water Said is a unique impression of the Atlantic’s and more particularly Seabrook Island’s variegated ecosystems and tides. Yet, they also testify to the non-linear time of water. Charles Towne Landing (now part of Charleston, South Carolina), 20 miles north, was one of the major ports of the Atlantic slave trade. Its waters are marked by the toxic residues from the port industry as well as by the “residence time” of the drowned bodies of enslaved Africans—“still alive, like hydrogen, like oxygen.” 6Residence time describes the amount of time a mass or substance can remain in a specific milieu, in a dissolved, suspended or absorbed state. Christina Sharpe mobilizes this notion in relation to the Middle Passage: “Human blood is salty, and sodium, Gardulski tells me, has a residence time of 260 million years. And what happens to the energy that is produced in the waters? It continues cycling like atoms in residence time. We, Black people, exist in the residence time of the wake, a time in which ‘everything is now. It is all now.’” 7 The waters hold histories that the texts disavow, deeply buried in the Western literary unconscious. By virtue of its title and the juxtaposition of textual excerpts and oceanic “inscriptions,” What the Water Said insists we sit with the tension—and perhaps incommensurability—between the linearity of text, speech acts, projected film and the non-linear marks left by the underwater ecosystems on the film’s emulsion. If the waters do speak, they do so in excess of narrative threads and gaps, in an alchemy full of beauty but also full of terror.
As a program, Playing in the Dark is also about discontinuity; the redacted and the missing as sites of possibility. In the works of Moraes and Charles in particular, conjuring rituals and spiritual possession interweave the nonlinear times of water and ritual. They confront the violence of such temporal dislocations, rather than merely romanticizing them. In Pattaki, otherworldly presence is expressed obliquely, through its echoes and reverberations. There is a sense of kinship between the kind of disorientation experienced in water and in the dark, as both disrupt hegemonic understandings of time and space.8 Except for a brief moment not at sea, in which a red line of demarcation on the ground warns migrants not to cross, Towards the Colonies offers little sense of direction or even location, as the boat from which it is filmed does not appear in the frame. There is no land in sight, as the ocean and the sky fill the frame, and other boats occasionally appear in the distance. Yet, the movement of the water itself and the handheld but static camera gives a sense of an embodied perspective, one that looks at the water mostly from the back of the ship and, more rarely, from the side or the front. From this backward viewpoint, the wake of the boat forms a kind of inverted compass, a disappearing pathway that is both expansive due to the continuous movement of the boat and endlessly disappearing.
Water as Methodology
The unruly and shapeshifting qualities of water function as potent metaphors for otherwise ways of being/feeling/knowing, as in Sylvia Winter’s expression.9 Most of the works gathered carry the imprint of their makers’ multidisciplinary practices, which collage and confound genres, mediums, and materials. Gatten and Gary both experiment with cameraless cinema and a long tradition of direct animation. Likewise, Shariffe engages with film, poetry, and painting as entangled fields. His poems, and those of other Sudanese artists in exile, function as symbolic visual and sonic motifs in his films. Before he embarked on the project that was to become The Dislocation of Amber, Shariffe was bedridden, suffering from a psychosomatic illness related to a massacre in his native town under the Nimeiry regime. As he was lying in bed, he had a vivid vision of Suakin, left at the mercy of the corrosive work of the Red Sea. The Sufi poems that hold the film together were sung to him, as he was recovering, by his friend, the late singer Abdel-Aziz Dawoud. Scriptless and the result of a collective, undisciplined filming process between Shariffe and his collaborators, The Dislocation of Amber, springs from all of this: art as conjuration and healing, the fragility of the filmmaker’s body and that of Suakin, the histories suspended in water and the tenderness of friends.
Defiance and antidisciplinary methodology courses through these artists’ practices, but their forms also invite other modes of curating and engaging with the works. For me, it calls forth a curatorial practice which emphasizes relation, flux, and a refusal of completion, rather than a focus on discovery and scarcity.
This program is intentionally available online worldwide, against any form of geoblocking. This is also a matter of restituting to unequal and fragmented publics works that are often inaccessible. This is especially the case for Black African cinema, for which most distributors are located in Europe or the US and subject to other screening barriers. With a significant part of Hussein Shariffe’s life spent in exile in the wake of the 1989 military coup in Sudan, his early works, such as The Dislocation of Amber, have traveled quite a lot in precarious material conditions, following the filmmaker’s own forced movement in Egypt and in the UK. The first time I encountered The Dislocation of Amber, it was as a mesmerizing ten-minute excerpt on YouTube, without subtitles. I later found a full length, but unfortunately soundless, version. It took several years before I was finally able to see a more complete version distributed by Berlin’s Arsenal—sound included, but no subtitles—thanks to the curatorial work of Awa Konate’s Culture Art Society.
For many of us, Shariffe’s film has led a fragmented, dislocated existence, a fate far too characteristic of African cinema, itself often faced with the censorship of authoritarian governments, a lack of resources, and systemic extraversion. Both The Dislocation of Amber and Ndiaye’s Aqua testify to infrastructures rooted in ongoing dispossession, from systems of distribution to those of exhibition. The unruly ethics of water have long provided a template for alternative forms of artistic circulation, proliferation, and dissemination outside of institutional spaces. In the same spirit, let the waters guide us towards modes of restitution.
Edited by Dessane Lopez Cassell
Chrystel Oloukoï is a writer, researcher, and curator, broadly interested in experimental cinema, queer cinema, and Black continental and diasporic cinema. They are a PhD candidate in African and African American Studies and Critical Media Practice at Harvard University, hold a MA in Geography from the university Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and are an alumni of the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris. They co-curate Monangambee, a nomadic panafrican microcinema in Lagos. Their writing has appeared in a number of publications, including Film Comment, Metrograph, Sight & Sound, and World Records.
- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).
- See for instance, Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997); Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).
- Giverny is Monet’s attempt to reproduce orientalist imaginations of the Japanese garden. For broader critiques of the coloniality of the botanical garden in its triangulation of the idyllic, the exotic, and the savage, see Jill H. Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Yota Batsaki, Sarah Burke Cahalan, and Anatole Tchikine, eds., The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); and the exhibition On the Nature of Botanical Gardens (2020) by Framer Framed, https://framerframed.nl/en/exposities/on-the-nature-of-botanical-gardens/.
- For Toni Morrison, Africanist presence references the weight of “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify” in the Western canon. In Playing in the Dark, she tracks the forms of silence, evasions, allegories and metaphors that provide for classical American literature “a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom” without naming race as such. Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 7.
- Edgar Allan Poe, “Descent into the Maelstrom” published in April of 1841, in Graham’s Magazine.
- Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 224.
- Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 41. In the passage cited, Sharpe is referencing a passage from Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Plume Contemporary Fiction, 1987), 198.
- See for instance the similarities between Romain Rolland’s depiction of the oceanic as the feeling of “being one with the external world as a whole” in its 1927 letter to Freud and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s depiction of experience of the night as “a spatiality without things (…) a pure depth without planes, without surfaces, and without any distance from it to me.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald Landes (London: Routledge, 2012 ), 336.
- Wynter theorizes how Western hegemonic models of what it means to be human shape how we relate to the world—in the sense of how we exist, feel, and know—as well as the possibility to invent other modes of the human. See in particular Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman,’” in Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, eds. Carole Boyce Davis, and Elaine Savory Fido (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990), 355-370; Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3 no. 3 (2003): 257-337.