Carissa Lee reviews UK artist Selina Thompson’s salt.
As we enter the auditorium, we find Selina Thompson standing behind a wooden bench on which incenseis burning beside a mortar and pestle. The scent in the air is welcoming, warm, and she smiles at us as the audience files into the space. We notice a large pink chunk of Himalyan salt under the bench, the kind they make lamps out of.
Safety goggles line the first two rows of seats, so naturally I sit in the front row. When we’re all seated, Thompson emerges from behind her workbench wearing a beautiful white dress. She tells us that because she will be working with a sledgehammer, when she puts on her safety goggles, we need to as well.
Her voice, with her Birmingham accent, is calm but commanding. This woman standing before us in an ethereal white dress, with the accompaniment of incense lingering in the air, has a welcoming presence, and yet the firmness in her delivery alerts us that we’re about to hear something pretty damn important, and we’d better listen.
Thompson begins with a story of her childhood. A child at school asked their teacher why some people were white, and some were black? The teacher answered that everyone was cursed with dark skin, and only those who got up early enough to go to the water and bathe got to be white, while the lazy people who slept in and got there too late remained black, except for their palms and feet. This opening story sets the scene.
She tells us about her exposure as she grows up to news and social media about black deaths. It births, grows and feeds an anger that becomes part of the lens through which she sees the world around her. At first she is saddened by everything she reads about how people in the UK and all over Europe treat her and other people of colour. But then she begins to hate the racism she sees around her and takes it on as her personal battle with white Eurocentric Europe.
This is where Thompson holds up her safety glasses, her first clear indication that she is getting out her sledgehammer. She rolls the pink crystalised salt out to centre stage and smashes it, a physicalisation of how she responds every time Europe pushes her. She pushes back until the stone she has chosen to represent herself is crushed into dust, and she understands that she has to leave the UK.
The main narrative of the performance is about how she and another black woman artist retrace one of the routes of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica and back. Although they travel on a ship carrying a myriad of different cultures, but they are the only black women. The ship’s captain is an audacious racist, dropping slurs and encouraging his employees in racist abuse. He knows that these two isolated women can do nothing to stop it. The only thing they can do is to go out on the deck, breathe in the fresh air that they crave, and smell the salt.
Thompson takes the smashed pieces of salt and sets them in a line. Two small lumps at the end represent the two black women, while the medium pieces are the migrant passengers. Further down the line are the ship’s employees, then the racist captain, then the shipping company. At the far end is racism itself, the biggest piece of all.
Thompson begins to smah the salt, beginning with the pice that represents racism. As she does so, she describes how each piece of salt grinds on the other. Racism presses down onto the shipping company, the company grinds down on the captain, the captain takes it out on his crew, his crew take it out on the immigrant workers, all the way down to the two isolated black women, who float together in a stale tension that results in lateral violence.
The crushing of the salt served as a vivid metaophor of the world we live in. The wealthier mob up top determine stereotypes and oppressions, so they are never touched by them. The systemic hatred trickles down through various socio-economic classes and demographics until it hits the minorities at the bottom, who can only lash out at each other, because they are powerless to defend themselves against those above them.
The arrival in Ghana and Jamaica is only a small part of the story because, much like the Indigenous methodology of yarning, the journey itself, rather than the destination, is often the thing that sticks with us the most. Thompson tells us of arriving at the places her parents had spoken about and of feeling at home, of the relief of finally not having to answer the dreaded question of “Where ya from?… No, where are ya really from?”, part of the constant strain of being an anomaly of colonialism. She tells us of her new thirst for travel, despite “random” Customs interrogations whenever she leaves the country. Thompson tells us that these acts of racism, minor and extreme, represent her personal battle with Europe. As she says, Europe pushes at her, and she pushes back.
She finishes the performance with a thank you for taking the time to listen, and a firm reminder to remember what she has just told us. This is not, she says, one of those things we get to momentarily feel bad about, which we then let go of as we go back out into the world.
So Thompson gives each of us a piece of the smashed salt as a tangible memento, so we can remember the salt between the worlds that divides her homeland from her culture lands. And also so we remember that, although we see those around us being crushed, we must own the responsibility of remembering and helping these mob to push back when whiteness, racism and oppression tries its damned hardest to keep them down. When Europe’s white supremacy pushes, minorities can’t be the only ones pushing back.
salt. written and performed by Selina Thompson, directed by Dawn Walton. Designed by Katherina Radeva, lighting by Cassie Mitchell, sound design by Sleepdogs Production. Arts House, Next Wave Festival. Closed.