EAF15 Artist Profile: Torkwase Dyson

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When Torkwase Dyson visited her mother, who was abroad in Ghana a couple of years ago, they went to Elmina Castle. The castle, which was erected in 1482 as a trading post, played a major role in the Atlantic Slave Trade route. Between 1637 and 1814, captured Africans were held within the confines of the castle before embarking on their forced journey across the Atlantic. From the exterior, the castle is sprawling, yet simple. Kissing the ocean, it has few decorative elements and its blank white walls provide a stark contrast to its darkly stained history. The castle appears on travel websites and tour guides, blurring the lines between difficult history and its function in commerce.

Dyson’s EAF15 project Site on Sight: 2 (The Door of No Return) focuses on an area of the castle where Africans were held captive before being transported to the Americas. After crossing the last threshold in the fort, known as The Door of No Return, they were sold as slaves to a life no longer their own. Dyson’s project reimagines the architecture of the space, and provides for visitors a place in which they can meditate on the history and the site. Made of red pine wood, her structure appears to be frames of two small rooms, pointed upwards toward each other, creating a path of ascension followed by an immediate decline.

In Ghana, While walking through the holding cells and passageways that snake through Elmina Castle, Dyson connected its role as a slave port to her own relationship with her ancestors. “Before, that was abstract,” Dyson says of the spiritual connection that was revealed by this experience. “That’s when the abstraction collapsed. When I returned, it receded but never went away.” Dyson continued to develop her practice in order to improve her environmental footprint as an artist, and create a language for her work. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Dyson says of her realizations. “I could use this language to communicate significant places that influenced the Black experience, and enter those spaces through a different kind of imagination.” When thinking about these goals, Elmina Castle and The Door of No Return rose to the top of her consciousness.

Site on Sight (The Door of No Return), 2014 was the first in her series. She chose to reimagine the Door of No Return in order to explore the shifts and changes that African and African-American bodies went through. “It was a gateway to understanding the nuanced breath and body of those who suffered,” Dyson says of this first iteration. For her, it was a way to contemplate these heavy, complicated truths. “It’s not a shrine or a memorial,” she continues, “more a space to really meditate and think about that environment and journey, and connect to my hands, my toes, my own blood, my own body. It’s selfish in a way.”

“Anyone from anywhere, with any thought and any intention can engage with the piece,” Dyson shares. She hopes that the object she has built can exist anywhere and still be imbued with that meaning and carry it to the audience. As an iteration from her own imagination, Dyson sees the space as an undeniable fact that is connected to her genealogy. “No one can take that away,” she says.

When thinking about The Door of No Return, Dyson says, “It was the last point in the architecture of the building where slaves were held. It was their last moment on the continent. I can’t imagine what was going on in their minds and bodies. It’s immeasurable.”

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