“Untitled (young dancer)”
photo light box (duratrans)
60 x 48 in. / 152 x 122 cm

During the working of project, “Water is the Barrier,” I had dreams of myself actively participating in the environment where I was working. I saw the figure of a young African girl walking thru the mangroves and scrub without regard to time and place. This image stayed with me for six years until I had to opportunity to actually recreate this dream into reality. “Mangroves, Mud, Mystery” is that project.

(catalogue page)

On the barrier islands that dot Florida’s eastern coast is a very special place. Jack Island State Preserve in St. Lucie County, Florida, is raw and pure, a protected island full of small creatures and thousands of mosquitoes.

Included with the image is a continuous sound loop with the whispering sounds of wind, water fowl, and running ground water. Interspersed in 20 seconds or less, at random intervals is a cappella singing and drumming from an outdoor festival in Ghana, West Africa. Spoken once per loop is the text which appears below, based on autobiography, clarifies the essence of this project. There are a total of five images that make up the series.

The beginning of the project began on the island and ended in the Polk Museum, Lakeland, FL,; Lower Columbia College, Longview, WA.; Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Montgomery, AL.; and Galerie Douyon, Miami, FL.


“It’s a hot, muggy, breezeless day, and I find myself mentally dozing off into a half-dream. The quiet ‘n tricklin’ water sure feels good to me, mesmerizes, massages, my stressed-out mental and physical self.

But, every time I come out here to visit these marshy barrier islands, I find myself looking back, to sides, always hearing footsteps in the brush. Even the occasional mud impression I see looks more human than animal. I really want to follow the impressions down into the muddy bank to take a closer look, but I know mud is too soft to make that possible.

I remember listenin’ to somebody, was it my grandmother, talkin’ ’bout spirits that live in the swampy marshes? Nah, that’s only in South Carolina.

Well…, maybe they could live here, too.

Looking into the water-filled, mid-island areas, I wonder if anybody could actually live under these conditions. Of course, they did though.

There’s just barely enough relief under the shade of the mangroves to tolerate it, if the mosquitoes leave you alone long enough.

Both, my Cherokee and West African forebears have myths about such beings, half human, half not. I don’t want to frighten the wild birds, sea otters, and crabs scurrying underfoot, but I really want to call out LOUD to see if there’ll be an answer.

Out here, seems to be a world infested with creatures hard to see clearly, but sensed and smelt, as sure as the putrid, stagnant water that breeds these mosquitoes buzzing around my ears, ankles, and backside.

There… catch that little whiff of it? Putrid. Raw and Moist.

They say that’s the smell of water spirits, not like some perfume that pretends to call out the passion in our souls.

Water is both the barrier and the passageway to the unseen spirit world.”

© 1993 all rights reserved – onajide a. shabaka