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.