- Salt in the Wound
Black-British performance artist Selina Thompson journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean over forty-two days in February/March 2016 by cargo ship to re-trace the route her birth parents and adoptive grandmother had made from Jamaica to the UK. While on the voyage, she devised her one-woman performance, Salt. Retracing routes across the Atlantic Ocean taken between the UK, Ghana, and Jamaica (known as the Transatlantic Trade Triangle), she followed the shipping course used to transport slaves and goods operating during the Imperial Age from late sixteenth century up to the nineteenth century. Through the retelling of Thompson’s experience of journeying across the ocean, the performance rubs salt in the wound of colonial trauma, activating history through remembrance and simultaneously performing both healing and hurting. Since 2016, Salt has toured across the UK and to Brazil, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. (including a run in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York in January 2020).
As a mineral, salt is perceived to have healing qualities and is frequently used in the treatment of cuts, wounds, and skin irritations. However, the idiom “to rub salt in the wound” references the painful sensation of its gritty texture when applied to vulnerable, broken skin. This capacity to both heal and hurt can also be considered in relation to the sea itself, often described in terms of its contradictions. The ancient Greeks conceptualized the sea as having “two faces,” as being polluted but also cleansing, an idea continued by the Victorians, who found the sea restorative and beneficial to health while simultaneously evoking sickness. In The Sea: A Cultural History, John Mack frames the sea as a site of forgetting and of renewed return while acknowledging that “things immersed there change their character” and are transformed into something new. [End Page 64]
This dual conception of the sea is expanded when considering the slave trade, where passage over the Atlantic made by millions of slaves transformed the sea into a mass grave. The wounding that occurred through the creation of the slave trade is still felt today throughout the diaspora: as Thompson foregrounds in the performance, upon her return from this journey she believed that home, as she once knew it, no longer existed. Rather, she returns from her voyage with complex questions about cultural trauma and unresolved grief, which are captured in Salt.
The performance begins with Thompson dressed in a long white dress and heavy black boots dragging a large bag on a trolley. “I’m an artist, I’m 26. Black, a woman. Grew up in Birmingham, had a brief flirtation with Yorkshire, but now I’m moving back there.” She continues, “I’m adopted. Both my birth parents were Rastafarians from Jamaica, who moved to the UK when they were my age. And the parents that adopted me, were both born here, with parents from Jamaica and Montserrat. On a form, I tick Black-British.” Thompson outlines her complex identity in this opening speech, making the autobiographical nature of the work immediately clear. She dons goggles and instructs the first few rows of the audience to reach under their seats to find additional pairs placed there, and then asks them to put them on. Then, Thompson removes a large block of salt from the bag and proceeds to smash it up with a sledgehammer. The fragments of the salt block shatter across the stage, and later “perform” as objects in her story, ranging from commodities to people to debris.
The smashing of the salt functions as a device to demonstrate the physicalization of the violence and trauma embedded in the legacy of colonialism. In the course of an hour, Thompson uses the debris to represent her journey across the Atlantic; at the end of the piece, some of these salt fragments are dropped into a see-through Perspex box filled with water, and she proceeds to wash her face and hands with the salty liquid—an act of cleansing and renewal after telling a story of pain and...