January 2018

Elvan Zabunyan

Overlooking the Atlantic

Announcing a trip to Ushant to our entourage provokes strong reactions, warnings, wise advice, bursts of pleasure and joy, puzzled looks. It is about waves, wind, light that changes in a few seconds, sheep, void, landscapes. What we discover upon arrival is an atemporal and seculary consistency, a link to time that weaves itself constantly. A rapid addiction to this unique atmosphere, where setting in the Créac’h semaphore makes the experience even more special.Unprepared, our imagination running wild, we go straight up to the watch room and there, the ocean view, the movement of the slapping sea with its towering rocks, are there like a panorama to experience without ever getting enough, from dusk to dawn. 

We lay our books on the table, because coming to Ushant in January 2018 to do research, is chosing to confront our ideas, our interiority, our contemplations of a work on the memory of slavery in connection with contemporary arts. With here, in particular, a reflection on shapes that have been made by painters, filmmakers and writers when they imagined images, sounds and words, the violence of the crossing between Africa and the Americas. This Passage in the middle of the Atlantic was, during several centuries, the path to the most brutal transformations of the history of humanity and the tomb of thousands and thousands of captive Africans that were thrown overboard or jumped to escape the cruelty of an enslaved future. In 1993, Patrick Chamoiseau has a conversation with Edouard Glissant. They are both in Martinique and Patrick Chamoiseau talks about the experience of the crossing and the slave ship’s hold.[1]Glissant answers that the first chapter of this book Poétique de la Relation (Poetic of the Relationship)(1990) is titled “the open rowboat” which is, for the writer, “the experience of depth for our communities. The depth of the ship’s hold and the depth of the sea in which the dead were thrown and even the living with balls chained to their feet. And the experience of this double depth, ship and sea, is also that of the terrifying  depth of the unknown. That is to say going towards something we have no knowledge of. We have neither history nor geography. (…)” According to Glissant, that is where the experience of depth comes from for Caribbean populations. In Ushant, a shipwreck map (with authentic locations) is sold like a touristic keepsake. One can see the map of the island with places where shipwrecks happened, where ships were submerged by the sea when fogg, wind and reefs made the access to land so difficult. The story of Ushant is linked to these disappearances, to these submarine souls that navigate imaginations and beliefs. These friendly ghosts are also those that allow African memories to appear in the water currents,  project their light in each spray,  make the waves sparkle, talk to the sun, touch the rays that pierce through the clouds. These intense connections to nature are only possible because there is something other than simply a majestic landscape in the air, there are traces of depth that transcend through the grace and intelligence of artists and writers who gave them multiple forms of expressions. Among the books on the work table is an interlacing of references echoing each other: Moby Dick(1851) by Herman Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In(1953) by C.L.R. James, The Slave Ship: A Human History(2007) by Marcus Rediker and some excerpts from The Seawritten in 1861 par Jules Michelet, an author and text which C.L.R. read. In the introductory part “The sea as seen from the shore”, Michelet shares his thoughts: “For all terrestrial animals, water is the non-respirable element, the ever heaving but inevitably asphyxiating enemy; the fatal and eternal barrier between the two worlds. We need not, all things considered, be at all surprised if that immense mass of waters which we call the sea, dark and inscrutable in its immense depths, ever and always impresses the human mind with a vague and resistless awe.The imaginative Orientals see it only and call it only, as, the Night of the Depths. In all the antique tongues, from India to Ireland, the synonymous or analogous name of the sea is either Nightor the Desert.” A few pages further, one can read: “Descend to even a slight depth in the sea, and the beauty and brilliancy of the upper light are lost; you enter into a persistent twilight, a misty and half-lurid haze; a little lower, and even that sinister and eldritch twilight is lost, and all around you is Night, showing nothing, but suggesting everything that darkness,—the handmaiden of terrible Fancy—can suggest.”[2]Michelet reconstitutes these descriptions in connection with the writings of one of the pioneers of hydrography, Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873). Michelet’s “night of the depths” meets the “depth experience” recalled by Glissant that draws on the tragic story Marcus Rediker speaks of. The latter notably explains the slow mutation of sharks, originally from African coasts, that adapt to American waters when they accompany slave ships all along the journey to the New World, feeding off bodies of Africans thrown overboard in the immensity of the ocean. The chromatic elements given by Michelet, the “half-lurid haze”, “darkness” tint the violence of slavery- the social, cultural and economic construction of the biggest worldwide capitalistic exploitation. The relentless ferocity on bodies and minds of enslaved people during the Passage is retraced page after page; lifting our head from the book and our notes, we look through the bay windows of the watch room, see clouds passing by, the sky trying to touch the sea but being pushed back by waves and foam, white at sunrise, pinkish at sunset. We look at the Atlantic Ocean and we tell ourselves that it’s that same sea that helped transport almost fifteen million people in shackles during four centuries.

The night has come, we cannot see but we hear, we hear the dull and never-ending sound of streams, waves are both those of the water and of its acoustic reach. Ushant enables us to live that. We leave the work table and we climb a few stairs  to go on the terrace on top of the semaphore that overlooks the landscape. The strangely milky and crystal-clear light of the lighthouse is soothing, it lands on the waves, it lights during the seconds where the rays touch the aquatic surface, leave and come back. On the terrace, the wind makes us lose our balance, we walk tentatively, lean and watch the optical system of the Créac’h that shines like a diamond. By means of the intemporal feeling emanating from Ushant, our reflection during the stay opened us to a new perception of the sea in connection to its history, that of African and American slavery. According to C.R.L. James, his book on Moby Dickis a way to question the past to understand the present, we sneak inside this proposal and continue our research in that direction.
When we walk on the thick and green grass that covers the rocky land of the island, the vegetal density appears as if we were walking on the back of a comforting prehistoric animal, with both soft and thick hair. Off-road, we are pulled towards writing a story where the excess of slave brutality collides with an intellectual involvement and the freedom of artistic imagination. We bend but do not break. We walk against the wind, we breathe in the salty air, the air is filled with kind spirits accompanying our steps.

Elvan Zabunyan
De « l’autre côté » de l’Atlantique, face à Ouessant, (On “the other side of the Atlantic, overlooking Ushant) New York, April 2018

[1] consultation April 2018

[2]Jules Michelet, The Sea, New York, Rudd & Carleton, 1861. The title of the Book first is “A glance upon the seas”.