ReMixing Possession: Dreaming Futures Past in the Work of Jim Chuchu
|Jim Chuchu, Pagans, 2014|
THREE WORKS BY JIM CHUCHU
1.Video: “To Catch a Dream (215) https://vimeo.com/116848487https://vimeo.com/116848487
2. Photographic series: Pagans (2014) http://superselected.com/images-pagans-2014-by-jim-chuchu/http://superselected.com/images-pagans-2014-by-jim-chuchu/
3. Video: “Invocation (Part One/ The Severance of Ties; Part Two/Release (2015) Currently on display in Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle, WA, MAY 7 – JUNE 13, 2015
(For purchase in Collector's Edition only)
I recently attended an opening of Kenyan artist Jim Chuchu at the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle, WA. Chuchu manages to traverse territories of experience that are simultaneously ancient and contemporary, rediscovering in the heart of cosmopolitan hipness startling dreamscapes that open up unexpected chasms, into spiritual zones half-forgotten or long eclipsed.
In the new video work, “To Catch a Dream,” by Chuchu and his NEST collective, a young woman (played by famed Kenyan supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana) is plagued each night by the dream of her dead lover, as she sleeps in her fashionable urbane home. Catching the dream in a bag she travels into the Land of Dreams to return the soul of the dead to a deity (another beautiful female figure, perhaps an alter ego of the dreamer) who claims the soul as her own. Her quest takes her across water and through canyons, into a distant African past that remains sharp and stylish. Caught between the lands of the living and of the dead, between waking and sleep, she makes a profound choice, embracing love and union with Mystery, leaving her metropolitan home quiet, still, and empty.
In “Pagans” (2014) and “Invocation,” (2015) Chuchu takes us on other profound and dizzying journeys of psycho-spiritual time travel, spanning distant African pasts and potential Afro-futures, In so doing he remixes the popular religious experience of spirit possession—the penetration of the human body, at times willful, at times unbidden, by the vast, invisible forces of the universe. In many communities in African and its Diaspora, spiritual presences are summoned into the body of the novice through dance, music, chanting, masking and other disciplines. The initial experience of possession, many devotees explain, is often terrifying, experienced as a kind of dreadful, incapacitating illness or sense of freefall. Seeking healing, the possessed often join secret societies or “cults of affliction” that promise them relief from the terrors of the possessing other. In striking contrast to many Christian and Muslim traditions, the goal of ceremonial action is not to exorcise or cast out the spirit out. Rather, the rites establish productive alliances between the living worshipper and the spirit, so that that the mysterious power becomes a source of life-enhancing strength, binding the once troubled soul into an empowered community of “wounded healers.”
“Pagans” ( 2014)
In his Pagans series, Chuchu evokes and remixes these enigmatic moments of possession, of intimate, radical encounters with spiritual entities that are both terrifying and life-fulfilling. The possessing forces are glimpsed by the dancer in the form of lightning, wild animals, or the celestial energies of a nocturnal starscape, wrapping itself around and through the body of the worshiper. Starting in Images 7 and 8, the ancient spiritual novice blast off to become, in images 9 through 12 a far future “Afronaut” —flying through galaxies as yet uncharted, becoming, in the flash of a supernova, at one with the cosmos. In many African spiritual traditions, trees are understood as abodes of the ancestors and divinities, providing their human charges with medicines and spiritual tools (including wood for mask making) that connect the living to the invisible powers. Appropriately, in Pagans 8,10, and 12, the devotee seems to grow branches out of his eyes or arms, transforming his body into a kind of world tree—conducting the chaotic, creative energies of the universe between sky and earth in great arcs of light.
We witness a more intimate process of possession in images 13, 14, 15. In 13, three female adepts are bathed in the glow of a sphere, perhaps a distant planet, that seems to pulse with spiritual energy. In 14, the power of divinity selects out a singular worshiper, descending towards her with the lightness of a feather. Her eyes are now dramatically animated; she has become fully awakened. In 15, the electrical explosion of Spirit has merged with her being, the sphere now radiating out of her skull as the released currents leap skyward.
In image 16, I am guessing, we have reached a new level of consciousness. Perhaps, following their celestial odyssey the Afronauts have landed on a new world. Here, the worshippers-turned-deities are connected to the sky not through blinding lightning bolts but through thin, graceful lines of transmission. The floating feather is no longer a dangerous source of uncontrolled power but rather a gentle element of spiritual potency, to be played with in the breeze. Here, suspended somewhere between most ancient past and future farscape, the Afronauts have come home.
Invocation. (Video installation, 2015)
Rites of possession in Africa have long been associated with alternate forms of personhood and connection. In many tradition-based communities, persons who feel oppressed within the lineage or clan into which they we were born may be born anew into the collectivity of the secret society, made up of those who have learned to live productively with their possessing spirit.
In “Invocation,” Chuchu remixes this ancient template to envision a much more radical separation. In part one/the severance of tie, a swirling young male body dances, to the movement and rhythms that in other times would be associated with spirit possession, with the summoning of an invisible presence into visible flesh. A disembodied male voice pronounces, to a beat that is simultaneously ancient and techno: I am not your son. I am not your blood. Letters and a pulsing curser flash across the screen, alluding to duty and love and evil, perhaps traces of an anguished, emailed correspondence between father and son.
Are we to infer that the young man has come out to his father, and that the father, in homophobic rage, has cast out his son? Now, in this novel, psychedelic rite of techno-possession, the young man pronounces his own separation from the bonds of biological lineage and compulsory heterosexuality.
As in ancient rites of possession in Africa, this act of invocation, while emerging out of pain and unexpected injury, is transformed into a purposeful occasion of strength and empowerment. The body, swirling like a Sufi devotee seeking oneness with the Godhead, pulses with growing energy, growing the multiple arms of a Hindu divinity, emerging out of a chrysalis towards some other form of being.
Although the young man has been rejected and cast out, he is not facing an entirely solitary future. He is guided after all by the clapping rhythms of a line of young men, who would seem to stand in solidarity with him. Like the ancient initiate, he loses one family only to gain another one. We share the hope that like the soaring Afronauts of the Pagans series he too will, in time, safely land on a new planet, a new home, a new Nest offering love and dignity and harmony.
In the video work's conclusion, Part two/Release, we are allowed a glimpse of this more optimistic future. Two male figures in silhouette move across the screen, rising and falling from our field vision; they hold their heads upwards, and from their mouths columns of smoke billow skywards. Presumably, they are expelling a lifetime of stigma and stifled longing, perhaps even self loathing and externalized oppression. One figure falls below the screen and a new one, evidently reborn in a fuller, more integrated form, appears to the left. He moves towards the second figure, and they momentarily embrace and intertwine. Rejected from one set of ties, the traveler, at long last, is coming home.