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Issue 198

Evan Ifekoya: Liquid Imagery and the Abundant Legacy of Black Sound

At Gasworks, London, the sea is an archive of disaster, but one containing depths of potential 

BY Tendai John Mutambu in Music , Reviews | 30 AUG 18

Evan Ifekoya’s ‘Ritual Without Belief’ presents an oceanic imagery of sensuous, flowing movement. At its scenographic heart, a printed floor vinyl of submarine patterns rises to a ceiling-high crest at one end of the gallery: once-stable ground that has given way to voluptuous liquidity. The exhibition’s cornerstone – a six-hour audio track of multilayered sound – pulses with techno, underwater samples and a vocal track drawn from literature and theory, conversation and personal reflections.

Much has been said of the seas as a swirling archive of disasters in whose calamitous wake we live. The histories of colonial passages, global capitalism, illegalized migration, ecological crises and the transatlantic slave tradeare all part of its protracted catalogue of horrors. But some, like Ifekoya, have sought to pivot from this morass towards the ocean’s reparative potential. 

Evan Ifekoya, No.1: Start from a place of Abundance, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Gasworks, London; photograph: Bernice Mulenga

The word ‘abundance’ takes on the force of a ritual incantation in this work. Ifekoya deploys it to counter the facile presumption that more information is all that stands between the oppressed and their liberation. What if – as Ifekoya posits – black, queer artists began from the plenitude of lived experience, resisting the deficit-model that prescribes which forms of knowledge are most valuable in the lives of those furthest from seats of power? And yet, the most direct verbal reference to abundance is overlaid with other commentary in an echoing overlap that pushes the bounds of audibility. Our attention is being tested here. By impeding our desire to hear each word distinctly, ‘Ritual Without Belief’ elicits a different kind of listening: drifting in and out, attending to the subtle cues of disturbances in vocal inflection, little breaks in phonation exposing an entire field of emotion. (Much of the exhibition’s audio has been accrued over years as streams of consciousness recorded in voice notes on the artist’s phone.) 

At one point, an injunction to ‘take strength seriously’ comes over the show’s bespoke sound system (assembled collaboratively by the artist and a group of London-based peers). The words are consonant with the sensuously brawny Bodybuilder with Bra (1990) – the exhibition’s solitary image of a human body. Placed in the narrower of Gasworks’ two galleries, where the breaking wave of the floor vinyl forms a barrel, the photograph is exhibited publicly for the first time since it was shot. Taken by Ajamu X – an artist, activist and longtime chronicler of queer Black British S/M circles – it connects Ifekoya to a longer countercultural history. 

Evan Ifekoya, ‘Ritual Without Belief’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Gasworks, London; photograph: Andy Keate 

So too does the canopy of black, silver, white and orange balloons lining the ceiling overhead: a nod to the audiophile, David Mancuso, whose underground dance party, The Loft, was inaugurated on Valentine’s Day 1970 as an inclusive alternative to the stinging repression and injustices of New York City’s mainstream nightclubs. What Mancuso created was a template for collective being, one that has endured to this day. Yet for the queer artist, ‘night life’ as subject matter is, by now, a cliché. Ifekoya makes the reference subtle enough that the uninitiated might amble contentedly beneath it, without so much as a hint of its provenance. 

While reclining on a pair of soundproofing foam mats, I recalled the Detroit electro music duo Drexciya – a favourite of the artist’s, I have since learnt – named for an imagined underwater civilization populated by the descendants of pregnant African women cast overboard from slave ships. Theirs is a speculative fiction churning under the force of tragedies visited on the black body; but like Ifekoya, they found joy in the abundant legacy of black sound.

Main image: Evan Ifekoya, ‘Ritual Without Belief’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Gasworks, London; photograph: Andy Keate 

Tendai John Mutambu is a curator and writer based in London, UK.