the unknown dread

The Unknown Dread is an ongoing series of artworks serving to illustrate a narrative featuring a recurring character with whom I first experimented in 2013. The series is still incomplete, with several frames of the chronicle yet to be converted from vision to image, and there are also several other images I have created which feature the character but do not form a part of the narrative of The Unknown Dread. The series aims to visually represent the mental and physical journey of an Afrikan in the diaspora as they come to first recognise and resist the oppression wrought by the neo-colonial white-supremacist patriarchal capitalist system, before rejecting that society to begin the long quest to rediscover and reclaim that Afrikan identity and heritage which was deliberately withheld and distorted by the colonisers, and which is vital for the strength, unity and peace of the Afrikan people.

 

Although the stages and direction of the journey of The Dread are greatly informed by my own experiences and research, and many parallels can be drawn between the path I hope to follow and that which is illustrated in the series, it must be stressed that the figure in the images does not represent I-self, or indeed any particular individual at all. Throughout the narrative, I aim not to gender The Dread, and their facial features are deliberately obscured in all images such that the viewer does not make the mistake of believing this series charts the story of a single character, but rather recognises that The Dread serves as a visual metaphor for any and all Afrikans caught up in Babylon, who must each engage with this journey of resistance and self-discovery at some stage in their lives. Thus, despite The Dread appearing as the lone human figure in each image of the series, it should also not be inferred that any part of this mission can be achieved in isolation. Although every phase of the journey requires introspection on the part of the individual, collective action will be equally imperative for the achievement of true progress of self and community.

 

Throughout the narrative, The Dread develops to represent white supremacy’s worst nightmare: a collective of conscious, educated Afrikans with knowledge of self and a firm commitment to the rejection of the structures of oppression and their associated cultural forms. Thus, in referring to the character as ‘The Dread’ I am echoing the sentiments of the Rastafari philosophers who original applied the term to Rasta people generally (and their locks specifically) in relation to the literal dread that the sight of such righteous Afrikans induced in the colonisers.

Iditation

The first work in the series finds The Dread in their struggle to cope with the negativity, injustice and badmindedness running rampant throughout Babylon. Although at this stage unable to clearly identify and articulate the root of their constant feeling of malaise, The Dread is starting to awake to the corruption, pollution and evils of the colonial system under which they find themselves. This disorder is represented by the storm of overlapping reds, blacks and yellows which I erratically (and cathartically) applied with torn pieces of paper towel so as to most accurately emulate the rough chaos which often seems the best description of life for colonised peoples, and so often mirrors our mental states as we are forced to confront this madness on a regular basis.

As yet ignorant of the exact enemy to whom this anger should be directed, The Dread's best form of survival is to find a mental escape through Iditation (in Rasta Iyaric, the 'me' in meditation is replaced by an 'I', as 'me' is felt to objectify a person whereas I emphasises the subjectivity of an individual.) Represented by a waterfall flowing through a luscious garden of wild flowers, this place of mental peace is impenetrable by the hostility and imbalance which pervades the outer world. Through such self-care and mental discipline The Dread is able to withstand the pressures of Babylon, but they still can't help thinking prevention is better than cure...

The fall of rome

This piece is inspired by the song Start a Fyah by Chronixx. Through reading, reasoning and Iditation. The Dread has come to recognise the extent of the injustice and evil in Babylon, and has identified the root cause as the white supremacist system, and its handmaidens: imperialism and neo-colonialism.

 

Sketched in pencil, I have utilised imagery of Ancient Rome in order to visually represent the capitalist imperialist structures of domination. There is a longstanding tradition amongst Rastafari people (informed by history and biblical interpretations) which draws comparisons between Rome and Babylon, and thus the terms are often used interchangeably when discussing and referring to the dominant imperial power structures which must be felled. This idea is evident in Chronixx's lyrics:

"When mi seh Rome, it nuh geographic
But if a you fi wear the cap then a you it a fit"

Thus, in this context the imagery of Rome symbolises empires generally, but also specifically those built on a foundation of white supremacy, many of which claim heritage from the ancient Mediterranean empire.

 

The flames that emanate from The Dread’s golden torch radiate in a burst of Ites, green and gold which licks and engulfs the empire's capital. These colours have been used to represent the concept that it is Afrikan resistance, pride, and unity which has the power to reduce this system to smouldering ashes. To further imbue the power of fire into the piece, once painted the entire board was thrown onto a bonfire, singeing the edges and boiling the paint in some areas. In this image, The Dread is seated; this symbolises the idea that they still believe a just society can be rebuilt in its place, but this soon changes...

nah look back

Despite appearing very similar to The Fall of Rome, both in its aesthetic style and the messages it hopes to convey, there has been a subtle but significant change in attitude experienced by The Dread since the last scene.

Using a black ink pen directly onto the wood, I built up the setting of a generic Caribbean sugar cane plantation with the ‘great’ house as the focal point of the composition. The imagery of the slave plantation, to I-self, not only represents the horrendously brutal and dehumanising institute of chattel slavery upon which are built both capitalism and the West’s global dominance, but also the structures of white supremacy which led to, supported and arose from the European trade in enslaved Afrikans and the genocidal colonial project. In both this piece and The Fall of Rome, I have deliberately utilised pen and pencil (respectively) without colour to create the landscapes so as to reflect the moral desolation and emptiness of these hollow, decadent societal forms.

The flames of red, gold and green were created using acrylic paint and a chef’s blowtorch. They engulf the buildings of the estate and pay homage to the brave resistance struggles of heroic freedom fighters such as Sam Sharpe, Nanny, Dutty Boukman and Jean-Jacques Desaline. Indeed, the conception of this image was greatly inspired by those I found forming in my imagination as I researched the histories of such freedom struggles, particularly the Haitian revolution, which is of great personal interest.

However, the primary message of the piece relates less to this literal interpretation of the scene, instead using the colonial system of oppression as a plantation metaphor to convey a message of general anti-imperial resistance. In Rastafari philosophy, fire is a symbol of purification; in setting the ‘great’ house ablaze, The Dread is symbolically bunning all of the downpression, bloodshed and continued violence represented by the plantation imagery. What is also of great importance is that, having burned out the wickedness, The Natty recognises that the plantation can and will only ever be a plantation, unsuitable for supporting the livity of the free Afrikan. Thus, having freed themselves from the shackles of colonialism’s legacies, The Dread is able to move forward in their journey, away from this dismal period of subjugation into a bright future of Afrikan unity, freedom and self-sufficiency.

settle + centre

The Dread is once again seated in Iditation, peacefully contemplating the next steps as the waves of the Atlantic metronomically roll back and forth over the West Afrikan sands.  In contrast to the first piece in the series however, The Dread is now free of the pressures of imperial subjugation which had previously clouded, distracted, and often overwhelmed their mind; this transition is reflected in a distinct change in artistic aesthetic to the more cohesive landscape style evident in the remainder of the series. The earlier works in the series, so as to reflect the disorder of Babylon, displayed a rougher, more chaotic application of colours with little blending. In this piece, the smooth blend of the warm colours and minimal features of the composition serve as a visual metaphor for the clarity and order of the thoughts of The Natty as they are now removed from the plantation and able to direct their reasonings towards spiritual cultivation and the progress of self and community.

The array of twinkling stars shining through above the clouds represent the countless generations of ancestors watching over The Dread, beaming down approving smiles as they behold The Natty progressing in their mission.

forward!

Here we find The Dread on the edge of a landscape of luscious greens and glistening waters, reminiscent of that scene previously envisioned by The Natty as a mental escape from the pressures of Babylon and which once seemed but a fantasy.

Free from the domination of the plantation and having settled and centred themselves, The Dread’s newfound clarity reveals the path along which they must march to their freedom. This route, glimmering with gold, dissects the composition and stretches from the feet of The Natty all the way to the area of the continent currently known as Ethiopia; my choice to place the final destination of The Dread’s journey in this area is no accident. Beyond the significance of Ethiopia to Rastafari philosophy and the nation’s proud history as a shining light of Afrikan anti-imperial struggles, in this image I am more aiming to employ East Afrika, (the cradle of civilisation and origin of our species) as a metaphor for ‘the root’. Thus, rather than advocating migration to Ethiopia as the literal reading would suggest, I am instead representing The Dread’s realisation that their freedom requires a return to their roots, both physically and mentally. However, in Rastafari culture the word ‘back’ is avoided due to negative connotations and associations with regression; thus, with their staff raised in the direction of the destination, The Dread roars ‘Forward!’ as they begin the next stage of their journey to self-discovery.

The bright blue skies serve to represent the idea that this is a time of work for The Dread, while simultaneously symbolising their positive attitude in facing those tasks which lie ahead. The black background surrounding the continent is employed not only for the aesthetic qualities in contrasting with (and thus enhancing) the vibrancy within the shape, but also in order to emphasise the Afro-centricity of The Dread’s outlook at this point, with their focus solely on the growth and forward progress of their ancestral homeland.

the pridelands

As The Dread progresses through these stages of their journey, in their accumulation of knowledge and interactions within the community they become wary that all danger has not yet passed. Even though the structures of oppression which chastised them for so long have now fallen, vestiges of the old system and mentality still abound and threaten a renaissance amongst those who fall into complacency and fail to maintain fidelity to those principles and ideals brought forth by the revolution. Thus, the landscape features various hazards and The Dread is here armed with a spear, alert and ready to defend themselves should any neo-colonial ‘white masks’ attempt to impede their progress.

As well as representing the strength, power and longevity required to complete the journey ahead, the Elephant represents that Afrikan knowledge and wisdom that The Dread has accrued in their mission thus far, and that which will guide their steps to come. Those steps, and the gaze of The Natty, are directed towards the figure of The Lion, majestically standing atop a rock reminiscent of scenes from The Lion King, one of my favourite films and an early influence on my aesthetic preferences.

In this series, the recurring imagery of The Lion is of vital importance. Holding great significance in the philosophy of not only the Rastafari people, but also those of myriad indigenous Afrikan cultures, the lion is often revered as a symbol of courage, strength and leadership. In the context of this series, The Lion serves as a visual metaphor for the state of mind and being to which The Dread aspires and endeavours to attain. It is the embodiment of the alignment of intention and action with those ideals and principals formed in the struggle for the freedom and informed by conscious reading, reasoning and introspection conducted throughout that struggle. It stands for that Afrikan spirit, within and without, to which we have become estranged over centuries of brutal subjugation; it is the energy of the ancestors and the incarnation of their every hope, dream and aspiration. Thus, The Lion subsequently represents the aspirations of the Dread and henceforth assumes the role of the visual device used to symbolise the final destination to which the journey is directed. The Dread now has this destination in sight and is beginning to make out its true form, although the glare of the golden sun obscures its shape such that their comprehension is still incomplete. Undeterred and enthused, they forward.

where the ancient gods once ruled with grace

The title of this piece is taken from the lyrics of Micah Shemaiah’s song Motherland, in which he and Hempress Sativa profess the beauty of Zion and the necessity of rematriation to the ancestral homeland. In addition to wishing to echo the sentiments of the track, I chose this line in particular in order to reflect The Dread’s increasing propinquity both to that Afrikan spirituality, from which they have been long removed and for which they have long yearned, and to the ancestors whose guidance has delivered them to this point. This idea is visually conveyed in the composition of the piece, with the character now in close proximity to The Lion, which continues to serve as the metaphor explained above. Having crossed the river, The Dread has overcome the many obstacles of their journey and is now free to sit by the water’s edge and reason with The Lion so as to finally come to comprehend that which is required to ascend to the desired state. The setting of the sun symbolises the approach of the journey’s end, and once again the stars are twinkling in approval.

lion-i

In the final scene of the series, we witness the culmination of the journey as the sun rises to illuminate the serene tranquillity of a new morning, symbolic of a fresh outlook and new beginnings. The Dread, having spent the long night in deep reasoning with The Lion, has finally come to overstand their culture, history, and most importantly themselves. Having long thrown off the shackles of the pressures which formerly chained them and bounded their conception of freedom, they have now succeeded in attaining a previously incomprehensible level of unity and consciousness. The Dread crouches to wash their face in the cool waters, but stops as they catch a glimpse of their reflection on the shimmering surface of the pool; they have become The Lion, and everything represented by that imagery.

In Rastafari philosophy, the concept of ‘I & I’ is as term of central importance. One ‘I’ represents the physical bodies in which we each reside and to which we conventionally attach our conception of ‘self’. The other ‘I’ represents a more complex notion; it is sometimes understood as Jah or God, or alternatively as the collective life force which flows through every living being. Thus, the full term ‘I & I’ is an expression of the concept of oneness between our physical vessels and the greater spiritual energy which we all share. The title ‘Lion-I’ is a play on this term, marrying the concept of spiritual oneness with the metaphor of The Lion (upon which I elaborated earlier), and this phrase encapsulates and describes that state of mind and being which represents the goal and climax of The Dread’s entire journey. At one with the Earth, themselves, and that Afrikan spirit which has guided them from birth and to which they have only just become fully acquainted, The Dread has discovered their true nature and finally achieved the kind of mental and social freedom which is a necessary precondition for true happiness. Zion awaits.

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