Keioui Keijuan Thomas
This text is one of several commissioned responses to PAUSE & AFFECT; a series of curated artist-in-residency duos across 2018/19.
Keioui Keijaun Thomas, PAUSE&AFFECT, Photo credit pending.
‘I dreamt of the ocean, and of us building rafts to keep each other afloat’
Seeing the work that Keijuan Thomas made during her residency at
]performance s p a c e [ led me to wonder about the difference between flotsam and jetsam. I knew them as two terms used for things found floating in the sea, but as I sat there I realised that I had no sense of what they meant or how the two were different. They were just words that I knew, words that surfaced as I sat, listened and watched the work-in-progress installation, words that came back again and again as my eyes followed the trailing border of tumbled stones that had been carried by the artist back from the beach.
When I got back home, long after sitting in the room and hearing Thomas talk through the process of creation during her time in Folkestone, I looked that difference up. It turns out that flotsam is from wreckage, the traces and remains left from some traumatic disaster on the ocean. Jetsam is distinct and specific, a word that refers instead to things deliberately thrown overboard to prevent the boat from sinking. A broken mast from a drowned ship is flotsam, cargo abandoned to lighten the load jetsam. One is remains, and the other evidence of an attempt to avoid the worst.
My interest in that distinction emerged because Thomas’ installation was made up of relics from the sea. Stones from the beach, buckets from the seaside and small plastic trash that had been tossed on the waves. In a narrow room of ]performance s p a c e [ it had been gathered, piled and left to be looked at whilst accompanied by the calm narration of the artist’s voice. A series of recordings that detailed her hopes, desires and fears for the future, broadcast aloud as a soundtrack to the objects. The flotsam in the room (those things found in the sea) were accompanied by what I’ve now started to think of as the jetsam of living – the feelings and memories abandoned in the hope of keeping it all afloat.
The text was of affirmations and acknowledgements of horrors, abstractions of experiences that leave stains that are hard to remove. Those that make you angry or that leave you ashamed. An intimate, interior monologue broadcast out of the speaker suspended from the roof, beamed through from the phone on which they were recorded in the bathroom upstairs. Thomas explained that some of these texts were old and some were new, but they’d been brought together here for the first time as a series of intimate poems deployed in service of this combination of sea, stone and queer black body. Overlaid in projection was an image of Thomas dancing, shaking their body to unheard music, submerged within the objects dangling in front. The image seemed to flow in and out like a tide, becoming indistinct as I focused on the plastic buckets or dripping water from their base, or resolving into clarity when I watched with purpose. The constantly moving projection mottled the light like a reflection on water. The physical installation dragged the audio down to the ocean floor.
‘I know the night terrors, when an unwanted hand is on your thigh’
This line stood out as a dread known by too many people. As has been and continues to play out in the endless parade of news stories and revelations, countless people have been left to deal alone with unwanted advances, with clueless attack or thoughtless comment, taking their shame deep inside or casting the memory away in order to live. Living is in part going through these things, but each person filters them through the individual experience of their own body, mind, and the history inside and out. Each person’s experience is their own, and the significance changes according to the context in which it takes place. Hearing fragments of another’s experience here whilst seated on the concrete floor of the gallery before this seaside altar felt like being present at the release of something held close for a long time. For Thomas’ experience is one rooted in their body. The text encompassed everything, their gender and their sexuality, their class and their race. It explained how the artist is seen, and how they express their personality and their definition of self. It is an experience different to my own, one that comes from a different country and a history distinct.
‘It is so black its blue. It is so fucking queer it is detatched’. It is complicated and it is blurry, and it is rooted in the history of my people.’
Yet I recognise the sentiment. The installation was a jetsam release to the ocean of the internal thoughts weighing down, a meditative sacrifice of deep held memory to the quiet of the deep. Thomas explained that their time at ]performance s p a c e [ during the residency allowed them to pause, to catch their breath in a whirlwind year. Seated in the installation it was clearly the sea that had been the context that allowed this to occur. The calm of the beach, and the consideration of it as a transitional space from individual islands to the same sea that flows over the surface of the planet. The sea which knows no boundaries of nation or race, no gender or sexuality, and raises slowly to swallow us whole.