RISE ALL BOATS: A World Water Map is a public participatory performance series charting human migration, personal and ancestral, deliberate and involuntary, through performative drawing, essays, mapping and oral histories. This traveling map project focuses on the idea of water as geography and human migration as fluid. Based on the expression popularized by John F. Kennedy, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” RISE ALL BOATS interrogates water’s role in historic and present day migration. We want to unravel the American migration story and find common threads in our collective nomadic history. On a glorious fall weekend at the end of October, Khadija Kamara and I launched the first installation of RISE ALL BOATS: A World Water Map, on the front lawn of WoWHaus, an artist collective and residency program by Works on Water and Underwater New York. Surrounded by water, sharing a harbor with Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty, Governors Island was an ideal site to launch our project. The event coincided with the festive Halloween celebrations where hundreds of families enjoying the last weekend the island was open for the season. We were delightedly overwhelmed by public enthusiasm as people lined up to chart their journey and tell their story.
We invited people to chart their family’s journey with pins and string, using different colors for each generation, onto a large cylindrical hand-painted World Water Map. Khadija conducted a series of recorded interviews inviting people to tell their story of migration. In commemoration of 400 years of the African presence in the Americas (1619-2019), Khadija posed the question: How did your ancestors arrive, what role did the ocean play in your family's journey and whose America is this?
RISE ALL BOATS started with a series of site-responsive drawings and actions on a remote beach in Cornwall, England near my parents home. Documented by Cornish photographer, Matthew Facey, I began this project in 2017 when the UK began heaving in response to Brexit. During this time, images of terrified refugees crossing the Mediterranean flooded the media. Meanwhile, in the U.S., President Trump began implementing brutal immigration policies while threatening to build a wall on the southern border. In response, I began to create paintings on paper and cotton on a remote local beach, allowing the wind, rain and rising tide to ravage the work. I inserted my own body into the shifting elements by swimming the artwork into the water or by soaking myself in the cold changing tidal pools. While this work is staged and photographed —I have gratefully never endured the terror of being a refugee struggling to get across a daunting sea— these actions allow me a drop closer to the heart-stopping gasp of immersion and the frozen fingers and toes of long exposure that countless asylum seekers courageously endure. As I swim, for pleasure and for art, I considered how water is a both a place of communion and community, and of uncertain survival and desperation.
In her essay distributed to the public on Governors Island in October, Khadija describes the duality that crossing the Atlantic represents to the American narrative. She describes that while the Atlantic Ocean represented a pathway to the “free world” for most Europeans in late 19th and Early 20th century, for millions of brutally kidnapped Africans, forced to cross that same ocean in The Middle Passage centuries earlier, it represented the complete opposite. Failure to see this contradiction in our narrative, seems to be part of the American condition among conservatives and liberals alike. With an eye to the 2020 Presidential Election, Khadija and I are working to take this activist art intervention across the country, by road and river, to as many different states as possible. We hope to map the invisible paths of forced displacement and economic migration on the waterways of the world, normalizing American nomadicity and illuminating our long history of constant migration.