On the future of black nostalgia

What does future-thinking look like when it is rooted in nostalgia?  It is the question curator Jessy Koeiman attempts to answer as she navigates notions of displacement and homegoing through her exhibition “Back in the day is our future”.

When we say back in the day is our future, what do we mean? For Jessy it means looking at black history with the eyes of a newborn, deeply curious. It is the kind of curiosity that is needed to look at the story of black people while envisioning them as protagonists in their own stories, who overcame rather than underwent the world’s history. Koeiman is a future thinker that is invested in redefining what a future steeped in nostalgia looks like. “We are all connected to history, but not defined by it”, says the curator. She has spent (time frame) curating the exposition “Back in the day is our future”, between Amsterdam and her current hometown of Rotterdam. 

“Back in the day is our future” reads as a contradiction, somewhat the title for a feverish dream. But a closer look teaches us a different approach. Koeiman named the exhibition “back in the day is our future” as a reference to a pre-colonial past. Hers is a romantic dream and notion of black life: black love is politicized through her thoughts on living in the diaspora. Koeiman says, “back in the day is our future” because forward thinking for black people is nostalgic by definition. She says that to look into a less painful past for black people is to have to overlook centuries of colonialism, neo-colonialism and displacement with the intention to go further back in time. To Koeiman, the exhibition becomes futuristic by being invested in pre-colonial nostalgia. In her own words, African descendants can break away from the remnants of the colonial project by recognizing that theirs is a history that stretches well beyond its colonial disruption.  Koeiman explains, “The title is actually a reference to how important I view having knowledge about your own history can be. The more we as a black community learn about our history, the more we can create a better future. It is a reference to how many people are still mentally traumatised, as the aftermath of slavery and colonialism has been passed down for generations.” History telling as a gateway to communal reparation is at the root of Koeiman’s practice.

From this perspective, Koeiman made the conscious decision to choose between diaspora artists and continental artists for the exhibition. Depicted in this exhibition is a plethora of artists from across the diaspora:  Aqueene Wilson, a photographer from Curacao, Marciano Lynch, a musiscian from with St. Martin roots, Berette Macauley a mixed media artist from Jamaica and Sierra Leone, David Uzochukwu, an Austrian photographer from Nigeria , Kay Slice, a Dutch textile and music artist from Ghana, Ethel Tawe, a mixed media artist from Cameroon and the young Rossel Chaslie studio, a Surinamese Dutch artist working with black history in print.

This selection of works to Koeiman was a critical institutional approach. She notices as someone coming from an institution herself [Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam] that white audiences have a tendency of relating to the subject of Black history as a theme and even a performance rather than a reality. Koeiman is hyper aware of this dynamic “ I thought if I am in a position to curate around this theme, let me at least fill up the space with allies that give the subject a deeper meaning to me.” Koeiman wanted this exhibition to radiate genuine care and curiosity for black life, by selecting artists who show this kind of awareness through their work. By that, Koeiman also means an awareness that reaches beyond trauma.

“Most people when they talk about black history it is only to talk about transatlantic slave trade, when there has been so much wealth and kingdoms and queens in that history and in Africa.”  Koeiman thinks it is up to us to break away from what she calls mental chains, closely lending her words from the black revolutionary Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Garvey, a prominent pan-Africanist and Black nationalist, similar to Koeiman’s ancestry, was born to Caribbean parents, Jamaica specifically. Garvey later arrived in New York in 1916 where he founded a number of successful business ventures vested in Pan-African ideals. Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the largest Black organization in history. Within a month, the organization had 2 million members all over the United States. By the mid 1920s, the organization had 1,100 chapters in 40 countries around the world such as the U.K., Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, Ghana. It is the type of global social justice movement of a grandeur that we have only witnessed coming back to life in recent years, with the arrival of the global Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. When Garvey first coined the term “mental slavery” he did so in a speech in 1938, addressing a congregation at the St. Phillip’s African Orthodox Church in Sydney. Garvey argued: “We (Africans) are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because while others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.” 

The same phrase was later popularized by Bob Marley in his song ‘Redemption’ and, in a weird turn of pop culture events, regretfully misinterpreted by the rapper Kanye West in a 2018 interview. The latter was a way of shaming ancestors rather than celebrating them. In contemporary times people often co-opt the word “mental slavery” or “mental slave” as a jab to others when it suits them. Few still know its origin and its important connection to the African continent.
Like Garvey, Koeiman means to use the term in the redemptive sense of the word. She means liberation in the context of knowing African history – including the plight and advances made by Africans in the struggle, tracing ones roots, figuratively or literally traveling back to your roots, and continuing the fight for liberation.

Garvey’s sail ship “the Black Star Line” was also the first ship to sail with an all black crew and black captain. It sailed for 3 years, with the goal of transporting goods and eventually African Americans throughout the African global economy. Garvey, one of Jamaica’s seven national heroes, was undermined by the U.S. government at several turns but was never deterred. He loved Africa deeply but died at the young age of 53, never setting foot there.

If you ask Koeiman what her own relationship to the African continent is you will get a similar answer. The African continent has been very unfamiliar territory to her. In her own words, her knowledge stretches not further than Curacao, homeland to her father. Being the child of mixed ancestry and growing up with non-black parents, Koeiman had to actively seek out Black culture, Black history and Black lingo by herself. 

About growing up with no black relative to mirror her existence, Koeiman quotes these words of Koleka Petumu to be of a soothing nature:

The mirror spits your grandmother back at you

Her determined eyes

Her machete mouth

Her howling courage

you are third-generation

Now that a relationship has been established, Koeiman regularly asks her family in Curacao about their family tree. It always saddens her to realize how little is known about the pre-colonial part of this family history. Koeiman believes her own experience of blackness was for a long time limited to this singular narrative of African descendants as formerly enslaved people. “I knew nothing else. In that sense, I myself for a long time was chained to the idea of slave trade as a historic reference point.” Koeiman now reflects on having a triangular perspective on blackness: stretched from the Caribbean, to the African diaspora in Europe, via the African continent and back to Curacao.

Koeiman and Garvey could be seen as contemporaries. Not in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense that Koeiman uses in this exhibition. It is what womanist author Oyeronke Oyewumi calls the principle of seniority. In African communities, you can be someone’s senior one moment and someone’s elder the next. It is a figurative that sees time and therefore history as circular rather than linear and Black nationalist elders and foremothers not as deceased but transitioned and omnipresent. In that sense, Koeiman and her senior Garvey share in their practice of psychological and spiritual liberation of black folk and black souls.

Koeiman: “This exhibition is no longer to focus on trauma, because so many traumatic images were shared during the BLM uprising last year. It is important to be aware of the injustice committed against black people, yes, but at the same time we also have to balance that out with Black Joy and Black celebration. This exhibition is about giving ourselves the permission to break away from the trauma circle.” To Koeiman, what she calls ‘the trauma circle’ can become vicious if not handled with care. Learning more about history, outside of that trauma circle makes for better future building and future thinking.  Koeiman’s future thinking is not singular, but communal and in motion with her Black self. 


By Jessy Koeiman

Text by Munganyende Hélène Christelle