Photography has a checkered history: the instrument of colonial pseudoscience, the medium has also served the studio portraiture that provided its corrective. Ayana Jackson treads this double-edged reality deftly. Her work has long confronted the historical representation of black women’s bodies, deconstructing the ideologies by which they have been racialized and sexualized. But her recent series, Take Me to the Water, bypasses the familiar narratives central to earlier bodies of work, Archival Impulse and Intimate Justice, for more wondrous terrain.
In this work, Jackson embodies African and diasporic deities, recovering them from historical obscurity. All water spirits, and all women, they appear to us in human form. What comes across first, if you’re encountering these goddesses unversed in African religions, is the profound presence behind each of Jackson’s enactments. They are all, to borrow Michel Foucault’s terminology, “subjects of communication” rather than the “objects of information” to which black bodies have so often been reduced in photographs.
It may not be necessary to know these aquatic spirits by name, but Jackson’s project hinges, to some degree, on the recuperation of this mythology. We are left to our own devices, however, to learn that Olokun is ruler of all bodies of water, or that she wears a mask, a helpful key to deciphering the artist’s photographs. Jackson appears to re-create Olokun in her Sighting in the Abyss triptych, in which she moves authoritatively, face covered, through netting that mimics the ocean surf, her bracelet roped to the depths.
Mame Coumba Bang is a river goddess worshiped in Senegal who is customarily paid a tribute of cereal or millet, split in two parts, upon the birth of a baby. Jackson’s figure in Black Rice holds two such sheaths of leaves. Yenanja is patron deity of the Ogun River. Dressed in white, the color associated with the spirit world, she dons cowrie shells. Is Jackson’s shell bracelet in Cascading Celestial Giant I and II therefore indicative? We are left to guess.