Julianknxx in Marseille All In The Stone

WordsDebo Amon and Abigail Nkaly

WePresent has partnered with the Barbican to co-commission Sierra Leonean artist Julianknxx's new multimedia film installation “Chorus in Rememory of Flight.” For this piece of work, the artist traveled around Europe, exploring largely untold stories of Black and African diasporic realities and collaborating with local musicians and choirs. The project will be on show in The Curve gallery at the Barbican, London from 14 September 2023 to 11 February 2024.

In this part of his European journey, Julianknxx traveled to Marseille. Writers Debo Amon and Abigail Nkaly explore the untold history of this area of France.

The waves playing a melody that only she knows. She dances, sacred,
blending earth, air, and water, revealing the circle of time, as she folds history 

      — Julianknxx

In 1775 Marie-Cessette Dumas heard word that her son would be taken to France by his father, the man she was currently enslaved to and he would be selling her and her daughters to a baron. Dumas lived in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, as an enslaved African woman who had more taken from her than most of us can possibly imagine. I would love to write endlessly about her life, to glimpse the world through her perspective but the little we know of her is recorded in two documents, one confirming the “purchase” and “selling” of her, the other, confirming the “ownership” of her.

So what of the place Dumas found herself? In the 18th Century, Saint-Domingue was considered as the greatest asset in the French colonial empire, as slave-labor was used to produce 40 percent of all the sugar and 60 percent of all the coffee consumed in Europe, which helped France surpass Britain in trade. Through its port city of Marseille, France engaged in a process of extraction from their colonial empire to France itself. Even after the Haitian revolution and following independence, France decreed, in 1825, that it would only recognise an independent Haiti if 150 million francs were paid to it. Haiti agreed but this was likely because France sent a squadron of 14 brigs carrying more than 500 cannons to the “negotiation”. This resulted in a debt not completely paid off by Haiti until 1947, and is a direct cause of an underfunding of education, healthcare and public infrastructure in the country. 

But what of the boy born into slavery, then taken from his mother to a foreign land? It seems Dumas knew little to nothing at all of her son, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, once he was taken to France. Maybe she would have felt pride to know he rose through the ranks of the French army to become the first of African descent in the French military, to become brigadier general, divisional general and general-in-chief of a French army. Perhaps she would have been happy to just know of his survival and ignored bitterness that might arise from knowing he was working so hard to prove himself by helping to continue building the country and system of her oppressors.

Maybe she felt a knowing sorrow, as she was well aware of what it meant to be cast aside by a society or someone who no longer needs you and never really loved you—an experience reflected in her son’s later years, when he was abandoned by Napoleon and denied his pension, plunging his family into poverty. Would Dumas’ sorrow have deepened if she had known that her grandson, Alexandre Dumas, would also be subject to ridicule and racism, despite being one of the most prolific and widely-read French authors and playwrights of all time. 

It’s too easy to categorize these periods in European history as moral injustices but that ignores the material contribution, whether forced or given, of African and Black people’s labor, culture and resources to European wealth, society and infrastructure. Dumas was part of a cycle of brutality and exploitation that enriched and helped build France and particularly its second city, Marseille, the hub through which the French empire operated.  Whether or not recorded, her contributions, and the plethora of those like her and her children, grandchildren and so on, are carved indelibly within the stones of Marseille. A city that was built, rebuilt and rebuilt again on the contributions of African and Black people and cultures. Perhaps Dumas, or what she represents, is the mysterious figure in Julianknxx’s opening poem, her history informing our present, helping those of us who care to look to see what was taken, what we have given and what we brought with us, to these cities we now call home.

“We need to teach our stories to ourselves,” says writer, artist, Black Marseille tour curator and American in Marseille, Martin Grizzell as he speaks to Julianknxx about the impact of being able to read himself and his heritage into Marseille and its shores:

“So here [it] was the first time that I’d gotten into the sea since I was like eight or nine-years-old. I got caught in an undertow and was taken out to sea and brought back and nobody knew I was even gone. From then on, I didn’t deal with the sea. When I got here, it took almost a year for me to dip my toes in the Mediterranean. That was the beginning of my healing process and when the idea that: somebody in my line missed Elmina, Ghana, which is where I think we came out of, the castle that my descendants, ancestors came out of.  Somebody didn’t get caught there and got here. Because when I tried to get into that sea, I had all of these ghosts and memories of things that I had read and hallucinations about what happened on the Atlantic and what happened on this sea because the Arabs had trade going on here 800 years before the Europeans. So something happened with my people on this sea and I had to go through them to get into the sea, to swim in it.

That process was a healing piece for me. It also opened the door to the possibility that, OK, if history is a recurring event on some level, then something happened to me and to my lineage on this sea, and from then, I was able to heal, and I was able to begin to see the many African influences in Marseille.”

Listen to Julianknxx, “Chorus in Rememory of Flight”, Comorian Choir clip

Inheritance is for women. It’s matriarchal. In our culture women pass on. They pass on culture.

      — Fatima Ahmed

What do we sing to our children to teach them of home if our own language and stories are foreign to us? This was an issue that Mbaé Tahamida Mohamed, more commonly known as Soly, came across when he realized that his little sisters didn’t know the lullaby from back home in Comoros. It was then he and his wife Fatima Ahmed embarked on a journey to archive and pass on this heritage by starting a choir of Comorian women. For Comorians inheritance, both cultural and material, is matrilineal. A husband leaves his home and joins his wife—perhaps this way of thinking would make Marie-Cessette Dumas proud, or at least have secured the futures of her daughters. Yet, now these women of the Boras Choir sing more than lullabies, they sing of revolution and their country’s independence from France in 1975, they sing of solidarity and forced marriages, they sing of fields and fishermen, of painful realities, they sing it all to themselves and into the future, through their children.

I don’t understand Comorian, but I wonder what a revolution sounds like passed down through the songs of women who lived it, rather than the generals and soldiers who fought. Ahmed says it’s only right that it’s like this as women carry and care for the children, so of course it would be them who carry and care for their culture. If it’s all in the stone, perhaps these women—Black women—are rocks too. The bedrocks of their cultures, the foundations of their heritage. Even unseen, women such as these have held up children, cultures and countries, unsung while they sing, unheralded while they toil. Nations have been built on their backs but what do they inherit in the place they now call home?

With this in mind, Julianknxx asked Abigail Nkaly, the production and camera assistant during his time in Marseille, if she would like to contribute something inspired by her time working on the project with him. She agreed and a few weeks later she sent this to him in both French and English, a reflection on what it meant for her to experience Marseille anew, through the perspectives of the numerous contributors they spoke to and filmed. It may be too much to say what Abigail found was possibly an inheritance of sorts, but reading her words reminds me that what was taken is not necessarily lost and what we brought with us is for us to share. 

Additional Reading

Read the poem from Abigail Nkaly

Anything could happen to me 
but I am here in Marseille 
my head upside down between the land and the sea 
facing this liquid expanse as much elusive as faithful 

Il pourrait m’arriver n’importe quoi 
mais je suis ici à Marseille 
la tête à l’envers entre la terre et la mer 
face à cette étendue liquide aussi bien insaisissable que fidèle

I met Julian and Pablo one Saturday morning, we have an appointment to observe different
places-monuments witnesses of the colonial past of the city 

Je rencontre Julian et Pablo un samedi matin, on a rendez-vous pour observer différents 
lieux/monuments témoins du passé colonial de la ville 

It happens to me as a woman 
as a young person from my neighborhood 
as a mixed race person 
as everything else that I am but that I would not say 
to be afraid of everything 
situating myself in this city reassures me and welcomes me 

Il m’arrive en tant que femme, en tant que jeune de mon quartier, en tant que métisse 
en tant que tout ce que je suis d’autre mais que je ne dirais pas
d’avoir peur de tout 
me situer dans cette ville précisément me rassure et m’accueille

I didn't know why this city welcomed me 
only thought of the yellow sun and the rhythm of the passers-by 
walking quickly in the streets when the day goes by then, 
looking at the guests of the documentary I realize that there 
are many of them, that there are many Afro-descendants in Marseille who create and sing 
I wonder by what chance again 
a brilliant project initiated 
by a london artist 
 falls on me like that at the very moment when this city is calling me the most and 
these (de)colonial questions that never leave my brain anymore 

J’ignorais pourquoi elle m’accueillait cette ville 
je ne pensais qu’au soleil jaune et au rythme des passants 
qui marchent rapidement dans les rues quand le jour s’en va 
puis en regardant les invités du documentaire je me rends compte qu’ils sont nombreux, que 
les afro descendants sont nombreux à Marseille à créer, à chanter 
Je me demande par quel hasard encore 
un projet génial initié 
par un artiste londonien 
me tombe dessus comme ça au moment même où cette ville m’appelle le plus 
et ces questions (dé)coloniales qui ne me quittent plus

Rare are the moments 
on these depressive and shocking times 
where an area secures us and when a break is made 
there was a moment in this year when I thought 
here I am at home my whole being can relax 
the mind and body of a racialized person who is always in tension 
always having to prove that it means no harm, that we’re not overstepping, that we are here 
for something 
on earth 
that moment was with the Mare Mananga choir 
in Paris 
I thought : I listen to them and I’m alive 
I’m happy 
No matter if I quickly return, after the evening 
In the big waves of the storm that I am overtaking 
It doesn't matter because there was a time 
Where I was among these afro-feminist women 
Where I would have been understood 
By my mere presence among them In the middle of the songs I could disappear 
To feel the joy of an unshakeable, unbreakable solidarity 
That of voices that unite
I can be part of an audience that knows me 
Who will not hurt me 

Rares sont les moments 
dans cette époque dépressive et ponctuée de chocs 
où un environnement nous sécurise et où s’opère une pause 
il y un moment dans cette année où je me suis dit 
ici je suis chez moi 
mon être entier peut se détendre 
l’esprit et le corps d’une personne racisée qui est toujours en tension, toujours entrain de 
devoir prouver qu’il ne veut pas de mal, qu’il ne dépasse pas, qu’il est là pour quelque chose 
sur terre 
Ce moment là c’était auprès de la chorale Mare Mananga 
A Paris 
Je me suis dis 
A ce moment je les écoute et je vis 
Maintenant je suis heureuse 
Peu importe si je retourne rapidement, après la soirée 
Dans les grosses vagues de la tempête que je suis en train de dépasser 
Peu importe puisqu’il aura existé un moment 
Où je demeurais parmi ces femmes afro féministes 
Où j’aurais été comprise 
Par ma seule présence au milieu d’elles 
Au milieu des chants je pouvais disparaître 
Ressentir la joie d’une solidarité inébranlable, incassable 
Celle des voix qui s’unissent 
Je peux faire partie d’un public qui me sais 
Qui ne me blessera pas

I wonder if this is what Julian was interested in 
In the world of choirs 
Or something else 

Je me demande si c’est cela qui intéressait Julian 
Dans l’univers des chorales 
Ou bien autre chose 

Because sometimes that's what happens : i don't know if you know what I mean? 
In an exhibition or when someone tells you about something 
Some words catch our eye 
We don't know why we immediately think that's exactly what it is, 
What we were thinking about the other day 

Parce que parfois c’est ce qui arrive : je ne sais pas si vous voyez ce que je veux dire ? 
Dans une exposition ou lorsque quelqu’un vous parle de quelque chose 
Certains mots accrochent notre oeil 
On ne sait pas pourquoi on se dis immédiatement que c’est exactement ça, 
Ce à quoi on pensait l’autre jour

This questioning 
of Julian's 
To try to describe what it is like to live somewhere 
while being black 
It is and will remain his 

Ce questionnement 
Celui de Julian 
D’essayer de décrire ce que c’est de vivre quelque part 
en étant noir 
Il est et restera le sien

But it does resonate 
With my present 
With the choices I make every day 
With the glances that I receive and that I don’t explain 
With the freedom 
That I must take 
To be who i am 
To assert myself 
To allow myself to feel that i am in a good place 

Mais il résonne 
Avec mon présent 
Avec les choix que je fais chaque jour 
Avec les regards que je reçois et que je n’explique pas 
Avec la liberté 
Qu’il faut prendre 
D’être qui on est
De s’affirmer 
De s’autoriser à ressentir qu’à un endroit on est bien

I loved a city deeply and found myself with a microphone in my ears to hear why I loved it 
To understand that everything can be explained 
By history and sociology 
That this territory accepts my body and my spirit because it has always done so with everyone 
With all the newcomers 

J’aimais profondément une ville et je me retrouvais avec un micro dans les oreilles à entendre pourquoi je l’aimais A comprendre que tout s’explique Par l’histoire et la sociologie Que ce territoire accepte mon corps et mon esprit car il l’a toujours fait avec tout le monde Avec tous les arrivants 

L’important parfois c’est d’être spectateur des choses De se laisser trouver à cet endroit précis A ce moment donné Et d’écouter 

The most important thing sometimes is to be a spectator of things To let yourself be found in that particular place At that moment And to listen We walk through the city until we reach the bottom of the stairs of the station That I go down every day Until I see statues representing the past colonies: Africa / Asia 

Nous nous baladons à travers la ville jusqu’à arriver en bas des escaliers de la gare Que je descends tous les jours Jusqu’à voir des statues représentant les anciennes colonies : l’Afrique / L’Asie

The daily life of a racialized woman is to have signs everywhere of the domination of others over you but not to see them because they are denied 

Le quotidien d’une femme racisée est d’avoir des indices partout de la domination des autres sur soi mais de ne pas les voir car ils sont niés

These elongated statues remained invisible To my eyes And yet they are huge and reclining Why are they still naked? Asks Julian 

Ces statues allongées demeuraient invisibles A mes yeux Et pourtant elles sont immenses et allongées Pourquoi sont-elles nues encore ? Demande Julian 

The alternation between where we are in our own existence and the people who come to us always moves me 

L’alternance entre l’endroit où l’on se trouve dans sa propre existence et les personnes qui viennent à nous me bouscule toujours

Each artist was free to talk about his or her approach, conversed and seemed to alternate between collective vision and individuality 

Chaque artiste témoignait librement de sa démarche, Conversait et me semblait alterner entre collectif et individualité

This movement back and forth between oneself and others this is what I wanted you to feel by alternating thus the words from left to right 

Ce mouvement de va et vient entre soi et les autres C’est ce que je souhaitais vous faire ressentir En alternant ainsi Les mots de gauche à droite

On one hand the mission is to execute a project 

D’un côté la mission le travail d’accomplir un projet 

On the other, the personal sensibility which beats the heart 

De l’autre, la sensibilité personnelle qui bât la chamade 

What mistake to always believe that we are all alone 

Quelle bêtise de toujours croire qu’on est tout seuls

In Marseille, one is not, one has the choice to be, said Bwalya: She evokes in the mic the possibility of a peaceful life far from the fakeness The dream that we can chase here walking between the urban and the nature so close To think about life and to see no one but ourselves 

A Marseille on ne l’est pas, on a le choix de l’être dit Bwalya : Elle évoque dans le micro la possibilité d’une vie paisible loin des fausses apparences Le choix qu’il nous est possible de faire ici Entre se balader entre l’urbain et la nature si proche Penser à la vie et ne voir personne d’autre que soit même 

Ici il y a des morceaux de la vie des gens qui ont vacillé 
Mais le coucher de soleil rend dorés leurs cils 
Peu importe ce qui a été cassé 
Ce que vous avez laissé ailleurs dans des coeurs ou des corps morts 
Vous pourrez vivre à Marseille 
Vous pourrez vous abriter ici 
Au milieu d’autres corps forts 
Au milieu des rochers qui bordent la côte d’une manière incroyable 

Here there are pieces of people's lives that have flickered sometimes 
but the sunset makes their lashes golden 
no matter what has been broken 
and what you have left behind in hearts or dead bodies 
you can live in Marseille 
you can take shelter here in the midst of other strong souls 
In the midst of the rocks that line the coast in an incredible way 

Aussi vous allez croiser 
Des corps noirs, arabes, métissés, brillants, fatigués, muclés, gros, transpirants, poussiéreux. 

Also you will encounter 
Black, Arab, mixed race, shiny, tired, muscled, fat, sweaty, dusty bodies.

“Chorus in Rememory of Flight” has been co-commissioned by the Barbican and WePresent by WeTransfer in partnership with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and with support from De Singel.