Fall 2017

A Temporary Inhabitance: The Ghosts in Jamilah Sabur

Jamilah Sabur considers Commodity (2017) to be a digital ensemble between herself, Ricardo Dominguez and the late Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. Sabur overlays her electronic scoring with Sumac's "Chuncho" and sings words inspired by "The Ante-Chamber of Revolution" by Ricardo Dominguez.

In Jamilah Sabur’s solo show If defined, then undefine, on view May 25 to September 10, 2017, at Dimensions Variable in Miami, Florida, one encounters plaster and burlap sculptures that feel like data arrays personified, standing indices. One finds rows and stacks of pressure-treated wood and the encapsulation of time and gravity, bits of data held in plaster drips—not pointing downwards but sideways—always in motion. The installation feels pregnant and ripe like fruit, packed with cultural and familial data. The air in the Jamaican countryside echoes from a portrait of a little girl pinned to the back of a plaster-lath burlap wall, a digitally recreated almond tree rustling inside of a computer simulation drawn from her mother's own memory banks, now not so disembodied and faint in memory, but inhabited and three-dimensional. In the abstraction of the data, the tree and the memory are no longer in Jamaica or in Miami but just streaming, running—global.

The rawness of the materials, the cultural facets, allowed me to reflect on my memories of growing up in Miami and having immigrant family members who were construction workers, electricians, or domestic workers. There is a familiarity in Sabur’s work: a feeling of a “can do make do” attitude comes through. It makes me think of the Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Haitian refugee communities in Miami that I’ve grown up around—people who can build anything anywhere, legally or not, solid or temporary, but always with improvisation and movement.

Jamilah Sabur. "If defined, then undefine," 2017. Installation view. Image courtesy of Dimensions Variable.I kept returning to how the gallery space felt like the digital space in her work. The use of historical figures, degenderized,De-gendering strategies at the level of identity and IT involves exposing and stressing the contingency of the process that relates technology to gender identities, and the relationship with other types of identities such as racial, class, or sexual orientation identities. See Veronica Sanz, “Gender Structure, Gender Identity, Gender Symbolism and Information Technologies,” in Emerging Digital Spaces in Contemporary Society: Properties of Technology, ed. Phillip Kalantzis-Cope and Karim Gherab-Martin, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 299.deployed as media information. In this case Simón Bolívar is summoned. Through the digital degendering Sabur becomes the data or the computer, shifting from a man, to a woman, to a statue, to a tree. There is power in that because, even if she inhabits these forms temporarily, no one can stop her or tell her she can’t. She becomes media, she abstracts it, she can become Toussaint L’Ouverture, or Bolívar. She can become an event: like a ghost or a spirit, a temporary possession or inhabitance with and through digital technology. What remains is a trace of the passage: a plaster cast. Following the tradition of sampling, appropriation, and recontextualization, she degenderizes and repurposes both symbols and meanings that might have been used against her. She abstracts them, cuts them up, strips away meaning and power and reassigns them, like a programmer recasting a variable in a program.

Jamilah Sabur. Untitled (Cheryl Annmarie and Simón José Antonio in Kingston) (2017). Detail. Wood, plaster, burlap, archival inkjet print on cotton rag. Image courtesy of Dimensions Variable.

We’re in a time where a lot of things need to be unlocked, degenderized, and decolonized—cutting and pasting history, memory, and historical data, recasting meaning, people, and places.

Jamilah Sabur, "If defined, then undefine," 2017. Installation view. Image courtesy of Dimensions Variable.I met Sabur earlier this year in a group show we were both in at History Miami. She later asked for my help in designing the almond tree animation on view in her solo show at Dimensions Variable. The opportunity to interview Sabur came up then. The conversation below was conducted over email and expands on MICE Issue #3’s theme of Ghost Intimacies.


Juan Maristany: I would like to begin with the idea of space as I understand it but also from my limited exposure to your previous work. Right away, seeing the show up was drastic. All the negative space around the work feels like a perfect flow from your digital intervention to your physical construction. There is weight in the negative space. It feels thick and packed with ghosts. What is left unsaid, or the space not filled, still speaks. Can you tell me more about ghosts and channeling?

Jamilah Sabur: Lately I find myself in a space where I’m wanting to give to the spirits that gave for me to be. I cannot see the future but I can see the faces and the words that once were. I want to remember and honour lives of the past. With respect to channeling and summoning, haunting has always been an ontological space for me. That state of being that is always returning and unforgettable. I conjure up memories as a material form and, in this case, embed it within historical manifestations or echoes. The process of applying the plaster to the lath and burlap in the wall structures at Dimensions Variable involved a lot of waiting—musing. Gaston Bachelard’sGaston Bachelard. The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994). Originally published as La poétique de l’espace (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1958).conception of the house structure as a metaphor for the body is something I think a lot about. Bachelard is a sort of talisman. Generally, in my practice, I arrange channels between elements that belong together in order to allow interdependent co-arising.Interdependent co-arising is a term most easily described as cause and effect.I create by feeling my way through relations. The work is a system of things that belong together and that evolve out of it. It’s circular and, in this case, it creates a channel between my mother and Bolívar. My mother, who was born Cheryl Annmarie, and Simón are absolute equals and carry the same value.

JM: People leave a temporal residue on structures. I’ve always felt that there are certain tree spirits, nature spirits, everywhere. So many people have lived before us. There is no void, there are spirits standing around us. It’s crowded.

JS: My mother’s house was not up yet during Bolívar’s exile in Jamaica in 1815, but I am certain the almond tree in what became her front yard was there, which was about four miles away from where he stayed. The tree and the land were bearing witness, holding memory.

Jamilah Sabur. Soberanía Solidaridad (2017). Installation view. Wood, plaster, burlap. Image courtesy of Dimensions Variable.JM: Why is BolívarSimón Bolívar, by name The Liberator or in Spanish El Libertador (born July 24, 1783), Caracas, Venezuela, New Granada [now in Venezuela]—died December 17, 1830, near Santa Marta, Colombia), is a Venezuelan soldier and statesman who led the revolutions against Spanish rule in the Viceroyalty of New Granada. He was president of Gran Colombia (1819–30) and dictator of Peru (1823–26).important to you?

JS: The desire to summon Bolívar as a mediator, to speak through, came about during a trip I made to Tijuana last year, where I visited shelters. There was an exodus of Haitians leaving Brazil after the government collapsed last year. There was a policy in place in the United States, which was abruptly suspended in September 2016, that motivated Haitians to travel the brutal 7,000-mile journey. It was upsetting to realize that there was little possibility for Haitians to participate and exist as whole beings in South America. Economic inequality breaks along racial lines in such a drastic way there. And racial inequality can’t be erased if economic inequality remains. According to a recent report issued by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world.

After his exile in Jamaica, Bolívar traveled to Haiti in 1816 and, under President Alexandre Pétion, he received significant military support from Haiti in the fight for liberation from Spain. Pétion convinced Bolívar to expand the fight for independence to include the liberation of slaves in South and Central America. The racism there is a demon I am not sure can be extinguished. The high level of corruption feeds it. We are in a deep spiritual crisis. What is sovereignty without solidarity? What is solidarity without acknowledging the fullness and dignity of all human beings? The process of liberation is still in progress. How do we destroy racism at the cellular level? It is located at the cellular level. Until we create a new system to self-replicate within, these cells will continue to metastasize like a virus or cancer eating entire bodies until they’re all dead.Jamilah Sabur. A crying Simón Bolívar with Alexandre Pétion (2017). Animation. Image courtesy of the artist.

JM: I would like now to talk about your film Playing Possum (2012), which you’ve described as being a love letter to death. Writing about your show at Dimensions Variable, I talked about the concept of remixing and collage. I really enjoyed seeing material fragments from Playing Possum appear in the show. The flag in the film is made from the same wood lath you used in constructing the walls and your mask is made of plaster. Can you talk about Playing Possum and how it relates to what’s on view at Dimensions Variable?

Jamilah Sabur. Playing Possum (2012). Still. Single-channel video. Courtesy of the artist.

JS: Playing Possum is part of a trilogy with Moon Tendon (2015) and Medical Gaze (2013). It relates to the show at Dimensions Variable in many ways, but mainly through the notion of survival. I am casting out memory. Lately I’ve been reflecting on the conception of memory not as loss but as a way of seeing the possibilities of what could survive.

There is so much in that piece for me. Elijah Rock by Mahalia Jackson was playing in the studio when I worked on that film. I truly disappeared into a state of trance. I remember bits of that moment very vividly now. So much darkness, so much sadness, so much rebellion and resistance. Within my practice, my process is a constellation that speaks to survival, improvisation, and changing speeds. I am actively zooming in and out from the personal to the structural, shifting between materialities and geographies.

I have found a spiritual existence in the state of nothingness. When I think of the vastness of the universe, where Saturn can fit in 764 Earths, I have an agency that allows me to get inside of all of this, where exploding moments into static bits becomes possible. I talk about the idea of portals and overlapping history. I manipulate time within the work. Time collapses and I dissolve into time, and then burrow and extrude through endless dimensions. I’m in a perpetually shifting state of matter. When a possum is under threat, it plays dead to avoid getting killed. I was exploring a lot of Butoh at that time and found a language that helped me articulate some of my thinking. To search within my body, in Hijikata’s words, for “the body that has not been robbed.”SondraHorton Fraleigh. Dancing into Darkness: Butoh, Zen, and Japan (University of Pittsburgh Press), 1999.In Playing Possum, I became a body underwater on the moon.

Jamilah Sabur. Untitled (convex struts) (2017). Detail. Wood, plaster, burlap. Image courtesy of Dimensions Variable.