At center stage of this Leeds, England theater is an empty glass box. When performance artist Selina Thompson finally appears, she’s wearing a giant white dress, dragging rocks of salt underneath her skirt. “It’s knackering,” she says. “But I want to show how exhausting carrying history can be. That’s why I’m taking these great big rocks and, by the end of the show, turning them to grains.”
Before a hesitant audience stands a black woman with a small crown of an afro, ready to tell the raw, gut-wrenching truth about slavery and colonialism. In February, Thompson went on a cargo ship to retrace one of the routes of the Transatlantic slave triangle, from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica. Her 90-minute show, “salt,” which premiered at Bristol’s Mayfest, is what she brought back.
Speaking about a month after she returned to Britain, Thompson remembers the physical exhaustion she felt at sea. “Being at sea is hardcore," Thompson told me. "When I came back, my back was fucked, my shoulders as well. I had to keep having these deep-tissue massages, the kind of thing to loosen my body up.” She also injured her knee. “For me a huge part of my practice as a performance artist is endurance and is about putting myself through something and then standing on stage before you, presenting it back to you.”
It’s easy to say “salt” is just about the violence inflicted upon black people, but as the audience is plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, they’re forced to see the reality of how the past collides with the present. Decades ago, Thompson’s Montserrat-born grandmother took a boat from the West Indies to Britain, not to create a piece of art, but in a wave of immigration. She died on the same date Thompson embarked.
“Doing the journey felt like a pilgrimage, and a time of reflection and meditation,” Thompson says. “We get so little time to grieve, to actually sit and come to terms with the fact that colonialism changed the world. That slavery changed the world in such violent, horrific ways. And that it lives in our bodies, and lives in our lives.” At the heart of Thompson’s work is deep honesty about her experience as a black British woman; her previous shows tackled black women’s relationships with their hair and questions about race.
Thompson went through a “shedding process” where she really began to question her art. She grew up in a big family in Birmingham and went to school in Handsworth. "I was surrounded by black people. I never really had to think about race that much,” she says, until she went to university. “Suddenly everyone was white…I went into shock, and it really changed me. In 2014, I had to think about why all the people around me weren’t preoccupied and bothered by Ferguson, this thing that was killing me. I was like ‘I’m the only black person in the room’. So I worked to find new communities and started new things because I had to. It was essential.”
During the show, Thompson reflects on how events in Ferguson, Missouri, pushed her to ask more questions about what it was like to move through the world in her body, and about the type of art that she created. “I was a walking wound for a year, and people would tell me that how I feel isn’t real, that my pain is performative,” Thompson tells the audience.
With this show, Thompson wants to reconcile the romanticized idea of the ocean with the harsh truth that during the slave trade, the sea became a disposal site for people that were no longer profitable, such as women who became pregnant after they were raped.
“What I hope the show does is open up a space, even it is only an hour and a half, so that other people can sit with it and mourn it,” she says.
Thompson only recently turned 26 and as you watch her perform, you see a young black woman using her art to establish her own space in the world. “I think people don’t really have the language or the theory yet to explain how complex our existence is, and how you have these deep pockets of pain that we’re constantly trying to come to terms with,” she tells me.
When I ask Thompson what she was looking for before she decided to embark on such a tumultuous journey, she initially stumbles, then says, “Language falls short when we try to explain the black experience, especially the black experience in a British context.”
The most profound moment for me in “salt” is one in which Thompson lines up salt rocks of different shapes and sizes. One represents Thompson, another the master on the ship, one represents colonialism, and so forth. Then she tells a story about the journey: being on the cargo ship, the casual racism, the shipping industry, returning to Jamaica and colonialism—and the audience is invited to watch how all these intersect.
She crushes the rocks with a sledgehammer. I wonder if I should be surprised that the rock that represents Thompson ends up in the tiniest pieces while colonialism’s boulder remains intact, even after Thompson slams it hard, sweat appearing on her forehead. But it also seems to be the point. For Thompson, it’s not just about slavery and colonialism, but rather how both systems affect the present day. There’s no desire to move on from this violent past.
“In the past few years, there has been a lot of work that has focused on the traumatized body when looking at slavery. That’s really important,” she says. “I’m not one of those people that’s like, ‘When are we going to move past slavery and tell other stories?’ because I’m not down with that. We still don’t tell that story enough, and it needs to be told in as many ways as is possible.”
June Eric-Udorie is an 18 year old writer and feminist campaigner based in London. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Pool, amongst many others. She enjoys writing about race, gender and politics and can be found on Twitter @juneericdorie