Retracing migrations within the African diaspora

Jamal Cyrus presented his artworks of the BMW Art Journey about the notion of the Afro-Atlantic at Art Basel in Miami 2018. The idea of the Afro-Atlantic provides the conceptual underpinning for Jamal Cyrus’ journey.

Inspired in part by Paul Gilroy’s Cyrus examined the many diverse cultural hybrids that have emerged through protracted interaction between the continents. Such cultural hybrids – molded by forces of conquest, colonization, slavery, industry, migration, and philosophy – can be apprehended in the cultural centers Cyrus visited. These include among others the Elmina Castle in Accra, Ghana; the Theatre Champs-Elysees, in Paris, France; Brixton's Electric Avenue, in London, England; the Alhambra in Granada, Spain; and Congo Square, in New Orleans, United States.

Music Artist: Jamire Williams
Title: Midnite Boogaloo


Coming into the continent under the cover of night, Accra slowly reveals its lights
Shining nodes of a Black Metropolis.
She stretches East and West.
Lets see how she is as a mother;
How patient and nurturing she is with the infant son.
The first leg of my journey placed me in Accra, Ghana, a town of approximately 4.5 million people located on the country’s South Eastern coast. I thought it was an appropriate place to begin my journey, because it shipped out an estimated 2 million slaves from its ports, and so, is a highly probable point from which my ancestors departed this continent. Upon arrival, I WAS reinforced in the decision as I learned how close the country held its history and how deeply the arts informed its development of a national identity, how deep an influence Diaspora Africans had on the ideological development of the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Though my journey will take me to cities in Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and the Southern U.S., Africa is what I am tracking most closely. I am not seeing this first phase of my journey as a return home—though I swore I saw a slightly taller version of my sister Christine in the central Ghanaian town of Assin Manso. This journey is an effort to understand (for myself) how West African creative principles and philosophies germinated, adapted, and spread themselves throughout the diaspora, and ultimately, the world.

Hand lettered promotional concert posters, Accra, Ghana

While in Ghana, I was afforded the opportunity to meet people who are well versed in the foundations of traditional Ghanaian Art, which primarily consist of products of the Asante people, a powerful sub-group of the Akan. Their creative production forms a tight network of various disciplines, historically activated as part of their religious activities. As a result, spiritual systems informed the development of oral culture, music, dance, textiles, body decoration, and sculpture.

Wood carvings for tourist consumption, Konkonuru, Ghana

Symbolic communication was the basis of all these disciplines.

Because these art forms were most often deployed in worship and rites of passage, formally they reflect a large degree of visual dynamism, using many variations of contrasting lines, colors, shapes, and precious or spiritually-charged materials in their creation.

Kente Photo Archive, Bonwire, Ghana

Concepts are represented between disciplines: for example, the Asante proverb “the mudfish grow fat for the benefit of the crocodile” may be used in a sculpture representing the power of a chieftain, but also illustrated on the face of a flag produced by one of the area’s military units, known as Asafo. The saying itself holds multiple meanings, but mainly is a warning that serves to maintain structures of power.

More abstract examples of these kind of translations are found in the drum languages of the area.

In many Ghanaian traditions, the drum is used both as a percussion and melodic instrument. Often overlooked by many listeners is the use of pitch in African percussion instruments.

The drum can mimic elements of Ghanaian languages, of which there are 77. This opens a large range of possibilities to translate texts as symbolic rhythmic patterns.

One example of this approach, which occurred across the Atlantic, is John Coltrane’s composition, “Alabama”.

Coltrane is said to have composed this piece as a transposition of the “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the speech given in memoriam of the four young girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birminghman, aka Bombingham.

Coltrane did not produce a syllabic rendition of Dr. King’s piece; rather, he worked with the cadences of Dr. King in his slow, almost chant like delivery.

Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, Accra, Ghana

Another principle of traditional Ghanaian art is reflected in how it follows the practice of creating works to mark important events, in this case, the horrific murders of innocent victims in a house of worship.

By recording, pressing into black vinyl, and distributing this art work around the world, it has become a collective occasion of mourning.

Understanding the work and gestures of artists in the diaspora through longer art historical traditions does not make these works more powerful.

Their power is intrinsic.

However, longer historical readings do create a deeper understanding and appreciation of these works, by both audiences and practitioners.

This is especially important when dealing with an art form whose intellectual foundations are under-recognized and under-appreciated.

Ice Cream Vendor, Bunso, Ghana



AS: You were literally at the passport office today, as we begin this conversation. Tell me what are the tasks you are dealing with, and more importantly, how does it feel to be embarking on such a long and complicated journey?

JC: There are various stages of preparation for this trip, the most urgent of which was getting the necessary travel documents. Most of the countries I am travelling to do not require visas or vaccinations, but to get into Ghana I needed to get both: a single-journey short term visa and a vaccination for yellow fever. Next was taking care of financial responsibilities at home, since on this trip my family will remain in Houston while I’m gone. Then there are logistical issues involving the trip, such as the best way to pay for things in the various countries I am visiting, or best way to communicate with folks back at home. I’m also trying to prepare myself psychologically for this experience. Being away from home a month and a half, traveling continuously, can be tough, and all of the cities, other than London, are new to me. I cannot be totally sure of what to expect. I think this type of anticipation is good, because it will keep me on my toes, and make me more present and in the moment.

AS: Your journey is tied by many threads to your own biography and background. How do those connect to your interests which drove you to propose this kind of journey?

JC: Well, as I began to mature as an artist, my work started to operate as form of self-education and self-discovery, and I would say this trip is in line with that. I chose locations that I felt connected to in either direct or tangential ways—but always places where I feel invested. This is important to me, because this is how I feel I can escape becoming an outsider. Also, my activities while on the journey, are related to how I find artistic inspiration at home. I have a routine of going to museums, libraries, finding out about local musicians and musical traditions, as well as just keeping my eyes open while moving through the city, looking for examples of unique creativity in the everyday. So I suppose there is a kind of balance to the journey, in that the locations are new, but the creative methodology is quite familiar.

AS: I think at this point it would be very helpful to lay out the major destination points and activities of the trip. Could you summarize these briefly but specifically?

JC: I’m first starting out in Accra Ghana, and then moving to Cape Town, South Africa; Malaga, Spain; Paris, France; London England; Salvador de Bahia, Brazil; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and finally, New Orleans, Louisiana. All of these sites are important in a geography that scholars have termed the Afro Atlantic, or Black Atlantic. In each of these locations, I will be interviewing artists, visiting historic sites, local archives, with the purpose of acquiring a general sense of the artistic personality of each site.
This is done with the intent of coming to a personal understanding of the creative principles, themes, and dynamics which link these various locations and cultural sensibilities. This last point is related to the work of people like Paul Gilroy, and even Robert Ferris Thompson, who understand the products of Black Atlantic culture as rhizomatic, non-monolithic mutations that adapt to meet the needs of the environments which they spring from.

AS: Clearly, this is a journey with a theme. You are examining some deep cultural flows and relationships. Tell me about how you see these now, at the inception of the journey. What were your touchstones in terms of the prior thinking and writing that others have done, which have informed your notions about what you are looking for and hoping to find.

JC: I am part of a generation of Black Americans that was deeply influenced by the activities and goals of the Black cultural movement in the United States in the late 60s and early 70s. We were the children of that generation, and in many ways we performed a small reenactment of that movement in the early 90’s. So, some of the ideas related to Africa as a place or as a mindset are inherited from that group. Undoubtedly, my ideas contain some of their romanticizing about the African continent. But at the same time I am also aware of that school of thought which sees Black American culture as a distinct and unique entity, which doesn’t have much to do with Africa. So, I am not exactly sure what to expect in regards to this first leg of my journey. I am not envisioning this as a romanticized homecoming. However, I am definitely thinking about it as a form of return, but am not necessarily expecting a kind of redemption to come from this experience. Then again, I have not visited the castles yet…

AS: How does all this build on your previous body of work? And where do you think the journey will take you as an artist? What do you envisage coming out of in terms of new, different work?

JC: The journey builds on my earlier work in that artistic, historic, and political content is fused together and serve as the backbone of all of my work, and the locations in the journey are extraordinary mixtures of those elements. I cannot say how, but I am certain the experiences and information I gather from the journey will end up in the work. When it does, it may not be obviously detectable, but it’ll be there. The mentors who have influenced me would often talk about erasing the footprints that lead from your influences, or the need to be able to distill or break down your influences to their most active and basic ingredients. This is sometimes difficult, and I am not always able to accomplish, but it is a desire within the work.

AS: Of all the places you are about to visit, which one fills you with the greatest expectation? Which one fills you with the most concern or anxiety?

JC: I have perhaps spent a little too much time on the Internet, but people in a few of the cities I am visiting are experiencing extreme poverty, and sometimes that can make people desperate. That’s what causes me concern. However, sometimes people can be impoverished, and they do not let this condition degrade their ability to be human. Learning more about these survival skills is something I am hoping for during my journey. But remember, I am from the U.S., where poverty often leads to crime. So I better stay on my toes.

AS: When we last spoke, you said you don’t know exactly how the journey will play out, but you did expect it to be “life changing”. How so?

JC: Right, I think it will be life-changing, because of the intrinsic nature of travel—an intermediate state where you are able to break away from your familiar surroundings and potentially do or see something new. This journey, among other things, allows me to connect to a long list of great artists who left their homes and countries in the hope of finding new creative territory for themselves. I really appreciate that.