A signature fragrance seems to permeate the galleries housing “Indigo Waves and Other Stories: Re-Navigating the Afrasian Sea and Notions of Diaspora.” The visitor’s first impression on entering the exhibition might be the sweet floral scent of citrus leaves and frankincense. Yet its source is encountered only about halfway through the space, where Thania Petersen’s Rampies Sny, 2022—a meticulous grid of perfumed organza satchels filled with botanical cuttings—spans the walls of a narrow corridor between two larger rooms, stretching from floor to ceiling. The work is based on the Cape Muslim tradition from which it takes its title: a celebration in which women and girls gather fresh herbs into linen bundles while reciting poetry, songs, and blessings to honor the Prophet Muhammad. The ceremony’s name—a combination of Afrikaans and Malay words—attests to the cross-cultural practices in the region, as Petersen blends allusion to this celebration and modernist abstraction with a nuanced exploration of memory, identity, and ritual.
Petersen’s installation exemplifies the curatorial focus of “Indigo Waves,” which gathers multifaceted expressions of cultural hybridity rooted in the colonial and migratory histories of the vast Indian Ocean world. Curators Natasha Ginwala and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung pay homage to the manifold histories of this watery expanse, which connects Africa’s Swahili coast with the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, Southeast Asian archipelagoes, and Western Oceania, between which mercantile goods, religions, languages, and forcibly conscripted bodies have flowed for centuries. This geographic scope is articulated in the cartographic photomontages of Malala Andrialavidrazana, whose series “Figures,” 2015–, layers textile patterns, banknotes, and zoological and ethnographic illustrations over archival maps, reflecting on the uneven circulations of knowledge and power via networks of colonization.
The sea emerges as a potent metaphor for cultural fluidity and creolization. The photographs of Akinbode Akinbiyi, for instance, document the presence of Afro-Asian communities in Kampala, Uganda, and Durban, South Africa, as evidenced in Arabic food stalls, sari-clad pedestrians, and iron gates decorated with Sanskrit symbols. The exhibition also acknowledges the contested politics of water, as a site of historical trauma and an arena for the policing and trafficking of Black and brown bodies. Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose’s audio work eBhish’, 2021–, named for the isiZulu word for beach, is based on interviews focusing on many Black South Africans’ unresolved hesitation and fear about the ocean, stemming from apartheid-era segregation; it takes on added poignancy here, in juxtaposition with Akinbiyi’s images of leisure in eThekwini, Durban’s seaside coast. Hasawa’s installation Silent Poets, 2022—activated by a performance on the show’s opening night—assembles driftwood-and-rope “guardians” to honor the mixed cultural and spiritual practices of Réunion Island. Oscar Murillo’s surge (social cataracts), 2021, inspired by Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, asks what dark histories lie beneath the water’s surface. The Impressionist painter’s renderings of Giverny owe their trembling brushwork to his declining vision in old age, while Murillo’s oil-stick waterscapes, scrawled over patches of repurposed linen, instead propose that our political awareness is clouded by the lingering specters of racism and colonization.
The strength of “Indigo Waves” lies in its resistance to didacticism and its emphasis on intimacy, memory, and family stories. Sancintya Mohini Simpson and Isha Ram Das’s Vessels, 2020, deploys materials such as soil, ash, salt, and clay to explore the Simpson family’s experience of indentured labor and migration, while Shiraz Bayjoo’s Lamer Vide, Later Ruz, 2022 (a shrine to the political resistance of fishing communities in Kalk Bay, South Africa) was produced in dialogue with storyteller Traci Kwaai. But, for me, Petersen’s Rampies Sny best exemplified the sifting of macrohistories through the intricate sands of lived experience, subtly yet powerfully bringing forth the artist’s personal associations, while creating new scent memories that viewers will carry onward in their bodies.
— Allison Young