Continuing the Drexciyan myth, initially created in 1990s Detroit by the homonymous Afrofuturist techno duo James Stinson and Gerald Donald, The Otolith Group (Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun) welcomes us into the subaquatic speculative space of A Sphere of Water Orbiting a Star at HANGAR — Centro de Investigação Artística. Curated by Margarida Mendes, the exhibition connects the Drexciyan countercultural legend to the historical and present reality of the transatlantic slave economy, where insurance deals allowed enslavers to be compensated for murder. A critical investigation including a semi-fictional archival space, a multi-channel installation, and a weekly screening of Hydra Decapita (2010), A Sphere of Water Orbiting a Star attempts to further this mythology by bringing a speculative Afrofuturism into current postcolonial, decolonial, and abolitionist realities.
The show begins with an archive featuring semi-fictional elements of the Drexciyan counter-culture movement, with records, texts, and posters and its non-fictional counterparts, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Ian Baucom’s Spectres of the Atlantic. In this way, A Sphere of Water Orbiting a Star creates a speculative archive which speaks of the mythical Drexciyans—the subaquatic descendants of unborn babies of enslaved African women who were thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade—tied into the historical reality of, to use Kodwo Eshun’s words, “the graveyard that is the Atlantic.”
Opposite the library hangs a printed The Wire article, “Drexciya: Fear of a Wet Planet” by Eshun, who is here referred to as “mythmaster”. The essay continues his work together with Anjalika Sagar by connecting the Drexciyan myth’s musical, artistic and critical expressions with its sociopolitical meaning. “The Drexciyan cycle plumbs the remotest depths of the Black Atlantic, pursuing its 'processes of cultural mutation and restless discontinuity' to extreme ends,” he writes. “As theorised by British cultural critic Paul Gilroy, the Black Atlantic is the 'webbed network' between the US and Africa, Latin America and Europe, the UK and the Caribbean along with information, people, records, and enforced dematerialisation systems have been routing, rerouting and criss-crossing since slavery. ... Drexciyan fiction exacerbates this dehumanisation, populating the world with impalpable hallucinations that get on your nerves."
This sets the scene for an exhibition whose artistic inspirational nodes lie elsewhere—in Detroit, London and Liverpool—but which acutely concerns the Portuguese reality in its coming to terms with its colonial past and present, with speculative futures being the entry-point of going beyond the limitations of Western-based realities. It is this speculative position that forms the basis for the main installation of the show, placed in the back of the dimly lit room. On the left, a large-scale screen shows a clip filmed by Galway, Ireland. A site-specific 8-channel audio installation plays a short snippet of an 8-hour-long interview with Remnant of a Hydrogen Element (supposedly, and seemingly, one of the original Drexciyan mythmasters) conducted by The Otolith Group. On the right, the audio's words are being transcribed onto an equally sized screen.
In the uncannily choreographed installation—the voices being heard clearest from the left, the text written out on the right—the interviewee is asked about the geography of Drexciya. Answering, he says how everything was conceptualised and created “with the sea in mind, with the ocean in mind. … Totally marine emotion, for lack of a better word.” If there is any geography, he explains, then it would be the sea floor. The dissonance between the two screens mirrors the space of the transatlantic, creating a subaquatic exhibition space in between. From this locus, we are asked to ponder if we can access a different reality from the land mass on the earth’s surface. Or is the “geographical” surface part of our planet already so coerced in the imperialist web that we need to go beyond history, beyond geography, beyond reality to even begin to imagine a different kind of world—a world without enslavement?
A longer version of the interview that serves as the basis of the installation is also part of The Otolith Group’s Hydra Decapita, which served as the preamble of the exhibition. The 2010 film contextualises Drexciya by combining longer snippets from the interview in the installation, oceanic scenes, a song, and a read-out transcription narrated by Novaya Zemlya, who has become enveloped in transcribing the Drexciyans’ voices. “Speculatively speaking,” of course, to borrow a phrase from the film. According to the story told here, previously unknown hypnotic voices have been picked up at Novaya Zemlya—the location of one of the USSR’s major nuclear testing sites. It is Novaya Zemlya itself (or herself) who serves as the transcriber of their story of the Zong, the ship from which 130 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard as drinking water began to run low as a result of navigational errors by the Liverpool-based slave trade syndicate in November 1781.
While Novaya Zemlya speaking might be a speculative reality, the Zong massacre is a real historical event which would have gone unnoticed (like many other massacres of transatlantic slavery) had there not been a judiciary aftermath, as the enslavers requested their insurance company to pay for the lost—murdered—enslaved people. To put it bluntly, the Zong saw a crime of massacre scale rewarded with money. The court ruled in the favour of the enslavers, before a subsequent appeal—now with attention from anti-slavery campaigners and media—where Britain’s Lord Chief Justice ruled in the insurance company’s favour. Some 60 years later, the topic became of interest to J. M. W. Turner, who painted The Slave Ship (1840), which John Ruskin, who was gifted the painting by his father, commemorated in Modern Painters, vol. 1 (1848), also featured in the exhibition archive. Both served to commemorate and draw attention to the massacre, formative in building the foundation of Drexciyan mythology from a visual arts perspective.
A Sphere of Water Orbiting a Star is thereby caught between fiction and reality: the Zong massacre is real, the Drexciyans speculative; Novaya Zemlya, as the basis of nuclear experimentation of a communist state, mythologically suitable as the centre for transcending communication between worlds. The Otolith Group, just like other Drexciya mythmasters before (and after) them, are here creating a subaquatic space beyond geography where healing, understanding, and empowerment is possible. And while it may be difficult to convert the meaning and criticality of the exhibition to the notably absent Portuguese colonial context, it may be best seen as an invitation to play out these historical and present realities in a speculative space beyond geography. Perhaps speaking speculatively is the only way forward.
Maria Kruglyak is a researcher, critic and writer specializing in contemporary art and culture. She is editor-in-chief and founder of Culturala, a networked art and cultural theory magazine that experiments with a direct and accessible language for contemporary art. She holds an MA in Art History from SOAS, University of London, where she focused on contemporary art from East and South East Asia. She completed a curatorial and editorial internship at MAAT in 2022 and currently works as a freelance art writer.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
The Otolith Group: A Sphere of Water Orbiting a Star. Exhibition views at HANGAR, Lisbon, 2023. Photos: Ana Garrido. Courtesy The Otolith Group and HANGAR.
Most notable was the inclusion of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) and Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (1993), DeForrest Brown Jr.’s Assembling a Black Counter Culture (2022), Rivers Solomon's The Deep (2021), Ian Baucom’s Spectres of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (2005) and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra (2000).
 Interestingly, considering the Portuguese media context, there is currently an ongoing debate around a much-needed memorial to the victims of slavery consisting of a field of sugar canes painted black and designed by artist Kiluanji Kia Henda. Organised by DJASS (Associação de Afrodescendentes; Association of African Descendents), the memorial was approved for construction by the city council in 2017, but has since been delayed by the pandemic and bureaucratic procedures. In June this year, however, a proposal by the council to move the monument from its intended location at Campo das Cebolas, a clearly visible square, to the entrance of Docas da Marinha by Terreiro do Paço—forcing it to scale down and be redesigned—was widely criticised, with DJASS going as far as to accuse the mayor of Lisbon of boycotting the monument. See: “‘Câmara de Lisboa não quer memorial às pessoas escravizadas’, Djass”, Bantumen (30 June 2023): bantumen.com/djass-memorial-pessoas-escravizadas/.