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Emulating Sankofa – by Mosa McNeilly

Image credits:
Mosa McNeilly, installation artist and performer
Bones | Meditations on Middle Passage Memory
Slate, iron, wood, mirror, salt, encaustic medium, photo transfer, found objects, 84”x 108″
Photo by Janice Reid, 2021

Ruminating on the phenomenology of Blackness
I step onto the path of bones

The subaquatic archive underfoot
I make my way along the Kalunga line

Arriving at the crossroads
I steep in the materiality of stone, bone, carbon, and salt

Taken up in the swirl of Sankofa’s cosmic dynamism
I embody this emblem of freedom

Self-making through art-making through meaning-making
I become I unbecome I am the metaphysics of autopoiesis

The optic of a path of bones on the ocean floor has haunted me for decades. This installation in all its iterations, permutations, and activations is a meditation on memorializing the Middle Passage. I have been engaged in this tender labour of tending my ancestors’ bones for the past 10 years. Over time, this research has become an embodied praxis of mourning and remembrance. I have laid the bones in Yoruba, Bakongo, Vodou, and Adinkra iconographies, and invited Black community members to engage with me in these rituals of honouring the dead.

I have incorporated this assemblage into a performance I am developing, in which I play a Clown who enacts a repertoire of characters striving to decipher the encoded knowledge brought across the Atlantic. In the performance, I summon the audience to the path of bones on the ocean floor to witness its transfigurations – a crossroads, an archive, a burial ground, a portal into the liminal space of Morrisonian rememory.

This photo captures the first draft of the Sankofa iteration of this installation, depicting the Adinkra symbol known as Sankofa. I have gone on to bring this iteration to completion and it is now touring across Canada as part of Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice (2022-25), a group exhibition curated by Andrea Fatona.

Sankofa translates as “go back and fetch,” which I understand as an imperative to reclaim our cultural heritage as African descended people. I see Sankofa as a mythical bird, with an Afrofuturist spin on time embedded in its design. She looks back to the past with an egg in her beak, symbolic of imminent life, while standing in the present, while flying forward into the future. She refutes the notion of linear time with the simultaneity and circularity of her movement through time.

As an artist, I have rendered this symbol hundreds of times, which has brought me to an insight that this symbol holds within it the metaphysics Black freedom. To be free, we must emulate the Sankofa bird – we must counter colonial narratives of the past by researching, reimagining, and retelling Black histories; while simultaneously refusing white supremacy in the present by transforming contemporary expressions of Black life; while defying the prescribed construct of Black social death by visioning, dreaming, living Black futures of freedom into being.

This contemplation conjures for me hopeful imaginings of becoming, and unbecoming, towards an embodied, futurist, and free Black diasporic selfhood.

Art making, installation building, and performance are integral to my cultural production practice; while altar making, enacting rituals, and participating in ceremony are central to my spiritual practice. I recognize cultural production and spiritual practice both as embodied praxes, and within each, I understand the body as the receptor of inspiration and the transmitter of meaning. These are simultaneous realms of work that I approach with equal attention; and I dwell always in the interstices between them.

Find Mosa online: website, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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