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Issue 221

Cecilia Germain on the Political Power of Sleep

At Botkyrka Konsthall, the Afro-Swedish artist presents new works that combine ethnobotanical research and (self-)care to make innovative use of the Black historical archive

BY Matthew Rana in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 22 JUN 21

Inside the ‘Therapeutic Zone and Community Herbarium’, installed on Botkyrka Konsthall’s second floor, I learn from a book called Hoodoo Medicine (1978) by Faith Mitchell that enslaved Africans used okra blossoms to cure sores that wouldn’t heal. It’s an apt metaphor for Afro-Swedish artist Cecilia Germain’s ‘The Dream Keeper’, a tender yet complex presentation of new work in which ethnobotanical research and (self-)care combine to make innovative use of the Black historical archive.

As the show’s title suggests, dreams figure prominently – most notably in ‘Rest and Recovery / Silent Resistance’ (all works 2021), a series of intimate, black and white photographs of Black and Brown people sleeping. Here, sleep represents an anti-capitalist politics of refusal, divination and, quite simply, repose. As Germain warmly intones in the video Taking Our Time: ‘I long to see you luxuriously snoozing. Please, take another nap.’

'The Dream Keeper', 2021, exhibition view, Botkyrka Konsthall, Sweden. Courtesy: the artist and Botkyrka Konsthall; photography: Hanna Ukura

More than dreamwork, however, this exhibition aligns with what Christina Sharpe in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) has called ‘wake work’, the practice of ‘imagin[ing] new ways to live in the wake of slavery’. Indeed, Sharpe’s conceptualization of ‘wake’ – coming to awareness, ritualistic mourning of the dead and the wake of slave ships – as a means of thinking with, yet beyond, the archive seems to orientate Germain’s exhibition, which is similarly informed by ancestors, water and consciousness. This is spelled out most clearly in Periwinkle Path, a low sculpture overflowing with periwinkle plants that winds, stream-like, through the first-floor gallery. As the exhibition handout explains, enslaved Africans in the American South used periwinkle to indicate burial sites because they were not permitted to mark their graves.

Such material histories abound: No, I did not go to Paris – trying to create an Afrocentric scent trail, chapter one is an olfactory work featuring scents connected to colonial economies such as tobacco; the installation Becoming Palmares gathers African-diasporic plants, including an okra seedling in a second-hand soup tureen, with medicinal and/or ritual uses. Nearby, a Congolese headrest on loan from the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm is presented inside a bulky vitrine. As the show’s curator, Temi Odumosu, puts it in an accompanying text, the headrest is there not only ‘because of a layered colonial history’, but also ‘to help us travel / between worlds’.

Le Jardin de Griot, 2021, cardboard print. Courtesy: the artist and Botkyrka Konsthall; photography: Hanna Ukura

Presumably, this includes the one that Langston Hughes envisioned in the 1932 poem after which the exhibition is titled. In Hughes’s version, dreams and ‘heart melodies’ are wrapped in ‘blue cloud-cloth’ and sheltered from the ‘too rough fingers / of the world’. This conceptual foregrounding of Black fragility and care – which, as Sharpe notes, thinking in the wake requires – is central to Germain’s project and is matched visually by several of the works on view. Abstract watercolours in delicate blues, cyanotype portraits of loved ones and graphic cardboard prints with titles such as Dark Bermuda and Le Jardin de Griot hang salon-style, unframed and secured with nothing but bulldog clips. Such tenuousness suggests the fluid and processual nature of a life’s work, much as the show’s aesthetic range strives to determine a language and a praxis for the wake.

In the Nordic region, where states are finally starting to reckon with their colonial pasts, this is a particularly fraught task. Not least because the important work of recovering Black (and Brown) archives risks institutional appropriation – in Sweden, at least, where recent public debates surrounding identity and inclusivity have tended to overshadow political demands for structural change. Inviting us to consider the problem in terms not of representation, but of creating a future that is hospitable to Black life, ‘The Dream Keeper’ is a visionary exhibition that is at once intimate and down-to-earth.

Cecilia Germain's 'The Dream Keeper' is on view at Botkyrka Konsthall, Sweden, until 21 August.

Main image: Dark Bermuda (detail), 2021, watercolour. Courtesy of the artist

Thumbnail: Dream Map (detail), 2021, watercolour. Courtesy of the artist

Matthew Rana is an artist and writer living in Stockholm.