I hear the sound of waves crashing. A lone figure walks purposefully down a wide boulevard flanked by white marble obelisks and perfect trees, trailing a long dark cape sparkling with geometric patterns. The figure is female, her body covered by the undulating train billowing out behind her for eight or ten feet on the ground, where patterns on the dark cloth catch the light. The camera follows as she moves toward Buckingham Palace in London. The Victoria Memorial gleams in the distance, a gilded winged statue standing atop a globe in celebration of Queen Victoria and the might of the British Empire, flanked by classical marble symbols of justice, truth, and motherhood.
The sparkling patterns are the byproduct of an earlier work of art, “Aberash, You Give Light” (2018), by Tsedaye Makonnen where intricate shapes were laser cut to resemble Coptic crosses and Christian iconography, symbols that actually predate Christianity and reference Black spiritual practices and religions from the Congo, West Africa, Haiti, the Caribbean, and Brazil, as well as Black churches in the American South. Makonnen is the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, part of a large community in Washington, DC, where she lives and works.
The artist affixed the negative shapes to long columns of fabric that became four new works, “Astral Sea I – IV.” In each, dark bluish textiles represent water and the mirror bits symbolize Black lives lost at sea during historic and contemporary migrations. Makonnen often drapes the cloth over her body in ceremonies, combining sculpture, fiber art, and performances that address the endless history of dehumanization that Black and brown women face every day, not just those whose premature deaths have been grossly normalized, but all those who literally have no safe place on earth. Makonnen focuses her work in particular on people migrating from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, historically and in the present day, drawing parallels between the two.