A new performance by multi-media artist Ashanti Harris with dancers Jessica Paris and KJ Clarke-Davis delves into the animist philosophies of Guyana and Glasgow’s legacies of slavery. Greg Thomas reviews.
The pre-performance hubbub dispersed by a fire-alarm, I sat in the portico of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art waiting to watch a new version of Ashanti Harris’s performance piece An Exercise in Exorcism. Gazing out at the rear profile of the Duke of Wellington, the statue’s obligatory traffic-cone hat seemed, from this undignified angle, to reflect more clearly than ever Glasgow’s sense of itself as a radical city. But the history of the building I’d just exited tells a different story.
Built in 1778 for a tobacco merchant who made his fortune through the transatlantic slave trade, GoMA’s site is one of a number of neoclassical piles dispersed across the city that were constructed on the profits of the Caribbean plantations. Later, the building became the Royal Exchange, the reconstruction undertaken by architect David Hamilton, where contracts for linen, cotton, and other materials – many accrued through economies of slavery – were swapped and sold. Correspondingly, as British-Guyanese writer Yvonne Singh notes, the silty coastlines of Guyana, on the northwest tip of South America, yield up a network of Scottish place-names, from Inverness to Kintyre, reflecting the country’s entanglement with western mercantile history. Many highland merchants made their fortune off the back of the former British colony’s plantations—grand country estates strewn across the north of the country continue to attest to their exploits.
Originally performed as a one-woman show at Glasgow’s David Dale Gallery, An Exercise in Exorcism is one of a number of works devised by Harris on the theme of Guyanese Jumbies, malign ghosts that often inhabit particular locations. Reimagined here as part of a series of performances supported by Art Fund and Glasgow City Heritage Trust, the work, presented in the opulent central space where the primary business of the Royal Exchange once unfolded, offers complex figurations of haunting and hauntedness. As the artist puts it in a poem composed for her 2020 performance, “the Jumbie is a dark shadow/ A haunting history’s ancestral ghost.” Who is haunting who within this slippery formulation?
Physical props include oil drum surrounded with silver-sprayed objects that look like cobs of corn, a trash can with piles of bananas, some of which have been chopped up as if in food preparation, and a set of foam mats. Between this triangular network of sites – sets of three recur throughout – Harris, Paris, and Clarke-Davis perform a series of bodily gestures by turns suggestive of incantation and exorcism, zoomorphism (particularly avian movements), and dancing in shackles—crossed wrists and arms of the type found in Cuban rumba are continually reworked motifs. In the background, sequences of reversed vocals overlap with the sounds of tides and drum beats, which seem ever more clearly to allude to sea-borne bondage. The dancers swap places periodically, possibly evoking the movements of the so-called “triangular slave trade,” and dividing the performance into three parts.
Extended monologues on the different Guyanese Jumbies, clipped from the YouTube channel of US-Guyanese presenter Netoya, form a top stratum to the soundscape. Across several personal and familial anecdotes we are introduced to the Soucouyant, a Caribbean variant of the vampire, the Bacoo, a genie that can secrete itself in household objects, and the concept of haunted trees, often seen to be possessed by the evil spirits of slave-owners. Netoya recalls scaling a tree that her grandmother had warned her “never to climb” and feeling a force pushing her to the ground. She also recounts being scratched by a shapeshifting Jumbie in the form of a jaguar, and her mother having to bargain with a “bloodthirsty spirit” who wanted to claim her as a newborn sacrifice.
This engaging piece remains broadly in the realm of abstraction—it is tempting but unwise to overlay a simple allegorical reading. But various patterns and allusions certainly reveal a complex emotional and intellectual interaction with the enclosing space: who is haunting who; what is haunting what? Have we witnessed a healing spell, a curse, a wordless history lesson? Something has been exorcised.
An Exercise in Exorcism was performed by Ashanti Harris on the 20th November, 2021 at GoMA.