If These Walls Could Talk
A Visual Tribute to Carrie Mae Weems and Ghana’s Slave Coast
By Clara Mokri
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Cape Coast and Elmina Castles are two of nearly 40 castles along Africa’s Gold Coast, built by European traders in the mid-1600s. They were most notably used during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where they served as holding grounds for enslaved African people waiting to be loaded onto commercial slave ships. While the Elmina Castle was operated predominantly by the Portuguese, the Cape Coast Castle was used by the Danes, Swedes, Dutch, British and Portuguese to transport slaves to their colonial outposts all over the world.
The living conditions in the castles’ dungeons were unimaginably atrocious—each cell was damp, pitch black (with the exception of one slit for ventilation), and held about 200 people for no less than two weeks, and often up to three months. The prisoners were treated like cargo, stacked on top each other and forced to live in their own fecal matter, urine, vomit, and leftover food scraps.
Famous African-American photographer Carrie Mae Weems traveled to the Slave Coast in 1993 to document the vestiges of slavery that her ancestors once endured. Her work as a whole provokes and challenges underlying social, political, and economic structures and misconceptions of native African and African-American history through the “deadpan presentation of insidious stereotypes of race, gender, and class”, as stated by MoMA in an introduction for her exhibition at the museum. By juxtaposing both text and image, Weems is able to more directly engage her viewers in these misconceptions and stereotypes.
“If these walls could talk, what would they say?” asked our tour guide Fifi Osu at the Cape Coast Castle.
In the case of both castles, their walls have a lot to say. From the quintessential colonial arches and big windows, to the numerous underground passageways, the castles’ structures suggest a lot about the horrific events that occurred in these spaces. Both Weems and author Saidiya Hartman, author of the book Lose Your Mother, acknowledge the semblance of the buildings’ architecture to human body parts. The grotesque darkness and dampness of the dungeons—the bellies of the beast – demonize not only the colonialists but the building itself. When abstracted and stripped of context, we can see the spirits of the African ancestors remaining in the arches and twisted pathways. The layering of each level of brick represents the way that the slaves were stacked as cargo and stripped of their humanity. The rebirth of these spirits in the form of a commanding structure challenges people to acknowledge the enslaved peoples’ strength and perseverance. Weems’ photographs of windows and doors represent liminal spaces of birth, and attempt to represent these oppressive spaces as metaphors for enslaved African people who were ripped out of their own way of life, and thrown into the fire of a new life and forced into rebirth. By shooting in black and white, Weems challenges both this racial binary and the historicization of slavery, and makes use of negative space in uncomfortable yet revealing ways.
Below is my own tribute to Weems’ work, and an attempt to represent these oppressive spaces in order to better make sense of the tragedies that occurred there.
Clara Mokri ’18 is a Political Science major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.