It was in The Black Book, edited by Toni Morrison, that I first learned that before Christopher Columbus ever thought of my part of the world, the Caribbean, as new, Africans had already been there. Not as enslaved people but as traders and warriors. Among the many things stolen by Columbus and his men from the Arawak, Taíno, and other populations of the Americas were spearheads made of guanín, an alloy of copper, silver, and gold. When asked about the origins of these rather beautiful and sophisticated weapons, the indigenous leaders told Columbus, according to his journals, that they had come from Negro people from the south and southeast. Later, when enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas to replace the worked-to-death, massacred indigenous population, many chose death over enslavement. They were reported to have run into the sea saying, The water brought us here. The water will take us away.
The work of Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum makes me think of water, both the clear water of rivers and the azure, aquamarine, and turquoise swirl of the sea. The intricately layered cerulean world contained in the skirt of the woman in The Incense Burner makes me think of the water orisha Yemayá, who, like the Virgin Mary, is often associated with the color blue. The shapes rising behind her, the beige and brown hills, and the rose-quartz and black backdrop bring to mind something Sunstrum shared at a May 2018 artist talk at Artpace San Antonio, where she was in residence. “When I’m drawing, I think I’m often telling myself stories,” she said. This makes it easier for us to keep telling ourselves stories, old and new, about the bodies, objects, and landscapes in her work.
We see the Yemayá blue again in Buffalo, in the sky behind and the waters swirling beneath the feet of the figure. Sunstrum explains that this image was inspired by formal studio photographs from the early 1900s, for which the photographed would sometimes choose their own elaborately painted backgrounds—seascapes, foliage, or other landscapes. Interesting to her were instances where the edges of different backgrounds peeked out from behind the subject, creating something akin to pentimento, which is another effect we get from these drawings.
There’s something about pentimento that mirrors life. We add on layer over layer of experience until, hopefully, some things become clearer. I couldn’t help but think while looking at Buffalo of Yemayá, now perhaps wearing more casual garb, sitting and watching us while oceans swirl and volcanoes erupt, and seasons become less and less relevant, and trees keep dying, silently asking with her piercing eyes what the hell we are doing with our world, her world. To me, this is a drawing about our forgetting that nature is part of us. I see it as a piece of art about climate change. Nature and its intrusions and destruction are also evoked via deer and birds and carcasses in Electric Eel and Retribution. Sentinel I see as a work about inequalities, where a king and queen (or is it a modern pietà?) sit comfortably on dry land while others are trapped by a large boulder beneath the water. Are these two sentinels watching over what’s left of the land, or are they oppressors crushing dissent? It’s also possible that those beneath the waters are the people who walked into the sea saying, The water brought us here. The water will take us away. And we, like those two figures, are the descendants of those they left behind.
At the heart of all these drawings, though, is a feeling of community. Even the solitary figures somehow don’t seem alone. We nearly expect someone to reach into the frame and pick up the white hat of that elegantly dressed gentleman in Husband. The linked and separated hands of the women in All This Wringing and Clutching and the seemingly young people—family? friends?—in Kwame remind us that together these individual pieces create a community of the seen and the unseen, the present and the past.
The doubling, twinning, and triplet-like effect of the figures in works like Pop and Double-Cross remind me of Sunstrum’s video work A Short History: Starring Asme as Herself. Sunstrum, performing as her alter ego Asme, appears lost in a lush green field, until two more versions of herself emerge: one breathing clouds—rather than the fire that frankly I was expecting—into the two others. Like Sunstrum, each of the figures in these drawings here seems to have their own Asme, a physical and spiritual twin, or a mirror image like the kind they might find staring back at them from a river or stream.
At the Artpace talk, Sunstrum said that she sees bodies as carriers of mythologies. Her own mythologies, both in the use of her body and her body of work, remind us that in fact, by choice or circumstance, we are all transient, travelers, itinerants of space and time, between this world and whatever might come next.