What is a soulscape? Inua Ellams on art, travel and belonging

The Dublin I lived in between 1999 and 2002 was a place of contradictions. Deeply religious yet braggadociously secular, piously conservative yet drunkenly liberal, fantastically racist yet disarmingly welcoming. This is how it appeared to me, at least, a 15-year-old boy who had just arrived from London.

Nothing was quite what it seemed. At school, my English teacher was also my basketball coach. He was fantastic at both. In the classroom, he drilled into us an appreciation of poetic precision. He would home in on a line, break it down, encourage us to consider its metre, musicality, cadence, syntax and its contribution to the whole verse. On the basketball court, he was just as precise, explaining the crossover, how to stand, where to position your feet, when to bounce the ball in order to send your opponent in the wrong direction. He demanded excellence, everywhere, from all of us.

I took in as much as I could of his teaching, creating universes in my imagination, expanding and practising until, in my penultimate year at school, I developed asthma and could no longer play the game I loved. So I left the court behind and gave what was left of myself to our English class.

We were studying the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, who, I learnt, was a contemporary of Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore. She was an American raised in Nova Scotia, Worcester, Boston and Florida. A nomadic “third-culture kid”, one could call her — a term that describes those raised in countries (and cultures) other than their parents’ homeland — as I am.

A photograph of three Black figures with their backs to a vast sea, standing knee-deep in the water
Mónica de Miranda, ‘Sunrise’ (detail), 2023 © Courtesy of Mónica de Miranda AND Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid

We were reading Bishop’s poem “The Bight”, which she published in The New Yorker in 1949 with the subtitle “On My Birthday”. In it, she studies a bay at low tide — the “crumbling ribs of marl”, the chicken wire, the gangly pelicans crashing into the water “like pickaxes, / rarely coming up with anything to show for it”. At the end of the poem, there’s a suggestion that all this — 36 lines of vivid description of an ugly inlet — is in fact about her writing desk. The line, “The bight is littered with old correspondences” lifts the poem out of pure literal description and into a vast and intricate metaphor for her life and work, as though taking stock of it all on her 38th birthday.

The last two lines of the poem speak to both concepts: “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” Reading the poem, I had never considered it possible that by describing objects and scenes one could express one’s inner thoughts and feelings. Near the beginning of the poem, Bishop mentions the name Baudelaire, who, I learnt, was a French poet who had a deep belief in this idea that the external material world can describe and correspond to the inner human life.

Years later, drilling into my third-culture kidness, trying to accept the nomadic call in me, I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. In the book, he explores the idea that a traveller can feel uneasy when isolated in an unfamiliar landscape, and that this very isolation and strangeness can allow them to reflect on and strengthen their connection to their own identity, in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

I’m a poet and playwright, and I travel a lot for work. Whenever I’m travelling, if I’m not hunched over my laptop, I often find myself looking out of the window for hours, thinking about my self and its possible connections to the landscape flashing past. I hold in my mind the objects I’m drawn to and wonder why.

A photograph of a person wearing a hoodie, his back to the camera. He appears to be resting on a fallen log and looking on to the placid lake in front of him that is surrounded by trees and shrubs
Jermaine Francis, ‘A Pleasant Land J, Samuel Johnson, & the Spectre of Unrecognised Black Figures’, 2023

And so, when I visited Soulscapes, an exhibition of landscape art at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London that opened this spring, I played this out. I wandered from room to room, studying the works on display, searching for myself.

Curated by Lisa Anderson, Soulscapes is a major survey that aims to expand and redefine the genre of landscape. It brings together contemporary artworks in a variety of mediums ranging from painting, photography and film to textile art and collage by artists including Hurvin Anderson, Phoebe Boswell, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kimathi Donkor, Isaac Julien, Michael Armitage, Mónica de Miranda and Alberta Whittle. All of them are from the African diaspora, and we are invited to understand the world through their eyes, through their particular concerns of belonging, memory, joy, transformation. Concerns that have been shaped by the tangled histories of colonialism, slavery and migration.

It was not until I stood before these wide-ranging, searching works that I considered that all I knew, all I had ever thought about my relationship to landscape, had been inspired by white artists and thinkers. Not until then had I considered that Elizabeth Bishop, Alain de Botton and many of the other writers who have shaped my thinking would have had a very different relationship to their environments than I have to mine. As much as they travelled, ventured forth, I imagine they were able to centre themselves in their world, in their landscapes, in a way I cannot.

a colourful painting of a cassava plant
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, ‘Cassava Garden’, 2015 © Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner, Photo: Robert Glowacki

I am a first-generation immigrant, born in Nigeria, raised in Dublin and London, who came of age scorched by England’s hostile environment policy and the nationalist and racist rhetoric that underpinned much of the discourse around Brexit. And there is a wound in me. Those difficult years created a particular wound I hadn’t been conscious of before. I was unaware that I never centre myself in any European landscape. In my mind’s eye, I’m always off-centre, a blur, travelling through places, because I have never felt safe enough to stay still. I have built a career around travelling because I feel safest when I’m in motion.

Soulscapes is full of pictures of Black people in stillness, contemplation, repose. It brought the startling realisation of this scar I carry — and it offered healing, a glimpse of other ways of being, of who, should I be brave enough to try, I might yet become. In Kimathi Mafafo’s embroidery piece “Unforeseen Journey of Self-Discovery”, for instance, we see a Black woman emerging from a cocoon of white muslin, peering out at a verdant field of flowers and foliage. In Isaac Julien’s “Onyx Cave”, a still from a film shot in a giant ice cave in Iceland, a Black figure just . . . stands, dwarfed by the backdrop.

A painting of a Black woman emerging from a cocoon of white muslin, peering out at a verdant field of flowers and foliage
Kimathi Mafafo, ‘Unforeseen Journey of Self-Discovery’, 2020 © Courtesy of Kimathi Mafafo/Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery

But the work that spoke to me most deeply, a work I stood in front of feeling confronted and stupefied, was Mónica de Miranda’s “Sunrise”, a three-panel photograph of three Black figures with their backs to a vast sea, standing knee-deep in the water. Behind them, a horizon stretches as wide as the Earth’s curve, and a wave rushes towards them, unseen. They wear neutral expressions, neither happy nor sad, not at ease nor uncomfortable. They are simply present.

But all that is implied in the photograph is clear. The Mediterranean migrant crisis, the Empire Windrush, the transatlantic slave trade, the souls of Black folk thrown overboard. And perhaps also, the afro-futurist mythology of Drexciya and the Yoruba water deities Oshun, Oya and Yemoja. Standing there in the gallery, it was as though all these people and souls and otherworldly beings were calling me to bear witness. And looking at them, I began to see myself in the landscape, too.

“Soulscapes” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery to June 2

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