Strains of “Amazing Grace” drift through the McMullen Museum of Art, soft and light, in the sweet, singsong tone of a child. The tune is unmistakable, though the language, unless you’re Kenyan, is not. It’s the artist Wangechi Mutu singing in Kikuyu, a dominant language of her home country before European contact. The song, written by the British abolitionist John Newton, was one of redemption — at least for him. He had been a slaver as a young man before the evils of his trade became clear.
Her voice, his words, her language, his trade, her flesh — two worlds, uncomfortably entwined. Such collisions, layered over centuries, are the everyday of the Indian Ocean world, a complex brew of peoples, cultures, and ecosystems. Millennia before Columbus touched ground in the Americas, seafaring societies a world away mixed and mingled into a proto-cosmopolitan mosaic, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, up the Ganges River and down the Nile. By the time Europeans arrived to ruin everything, its warm waters were the byways of a pluralistic world.
Mutu is one of a half-dozen artists featured in the McMullen’s “Indian Ocean Current: Six Artistic Narratives," an ambitious endeavor that does its best to wrap its arms around epochs of cultural history, now adrift on waters rising and warming quicker than anywhere else on earth. If it sounds like a lot to take on, well, it is. Mutu’s work is joined in the downstairs portion of the exhibition by artists Hajra Waheed, Shiraz Bayjoo, Shilpa Gupta, Nicholas Hlobo, and Penny Siopis. Upstairs, on an array of video screens, climate scientists sound the alarm: The Indian Ocean is ground zero for a climate catastrophe poised to make all the complexities of its confluent histories moot.
You can think of it as a product of our increasingly desperate times. Another era might have brought a show focused more sharply on what cultural mixing yielded before the colonial urge to dominate took over. But in the year 2020, you can’t so much as mention water without talking about it rising, or flooding, or drying up entirely (really, just pick your catastrophe). That makes for an exhibition split down the middle, profoundly disconnected, but profound all the same.
Mutu’s voice floats sweetly over disaster of all kinds. Bayjoo, based in Mauritius, gives us his “Extraordinary Quarantines” series of photographs, which capture the residues of colonialism littering the little Indian Ocean Isle. They’re captivating and vaguely sad — a tropical tree looming over prim English crosses in a cemetery, a sarcophagus looming over the rocky shore. (A former British governor coined the phrase “Extraordinary Quarantines,” in a letter to Mark Twain, of all people, also calling Mauritius a place where one would find “all kinds of mixtures and every shade of complexion”). Bayjoo’s film, “Sea Shanty,” captures the safe distance at which the British liked to keep the natives, wherever they went. It’s shot from the deck of a boat in grainy black and white, a dark shore looming.
Beside Bayjoo you’ll find Hlobo, from South Africa, and that’s all it takes to determine that this is less a conversation than a half-dozen mini-solos. Hlobo’s giant rubber bladder, made from stitched-together tires, is an impressive object, if not entirely on theme. Nearby, the source of that bittersweet song reveals itself as Mutu’s 2005 video work, “Amazing Grace." In it, the artist wades into a softly-churning sea, her white dress saturated and stuck fast to her black flesh as she slips beneath the surface. The reference to the slave trade is subtle, overt, and always brutal. It made me think of human cargo tossed overboard in the middle passage, often for insurance payments.
Waheed, meanwhile, was born in the Western Canadian city of Calgary but grew up almost entirely in the gated compound of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state oil company where her father worked as a geologist. It gave her a keen sense of being both an outsider and being watched; and it follows that much of her work is about surveillance. Not here, though. With her coolly analytical aesthetic, she produced a seismic map of the shallow Indian Ocean floor, home to the world’s largest offshore oil field. It’s folded in sharp peaks, mimicking the seismic data it displays. Art, meet life, at least for the moment — few actions kill as much, as fast, as the razing of an ocean floor.
The last two artists, Siopis, from South Africa, and Gupta, from India, have little in common but the vast sea. Gupta’s work is spare, minimal conceptualism while Siopis offers an array of sensual little paintings that teeter on the edge of representation and abstraction. Together, they ask the most vital questions in the exhibition. For Gupta, the fabled fluidity of the ancient Indian Ocean world is something to consider in the coming catastrophe — with surging seas, more frenzied monsoons — as climate refugees drift like flotsam from one closed border to the next. (Her piece “No Hay Frontera Aquí,” a flag sketched roughly on the wall in yellow tape, translates to: “There is no border here.”)
But I’ll give the final word to Siopis, because final is how it feels. Her little paintings, radiant and ghostly, have the feeling of an apocalyptic choose-your-own-disaster — a pair of figures swallowed in flame, a set of eyes burning inside a blue-black froth. But it was her hauntingly gorgeous video, “She Breathes Water,” made for this very show, that had the true air of finality, that whiff of the inevitable.
With a montage of found images — an octopus hunting, its limbs curled menacingly, in black and white; a child whacking at a pinata; a horseshoe crab convulsing, flipped over in the sand — the film, in its disorienting stream of small cruelties, asks a big question. Mother Earth is clearly displeased: “It starts with a splash, your history with me,” reads text on the screen, like the script of a silent film. “Then a catastrophe, your footprint in my sand. ... When waters rise to the sky, when mud swells, you cry for help.” And then: “Can you imagine a world without you?”
It sounds vaguely like a threat, and one that’s been building for some time. Go upstairs and listen to the scientists, and you’ll see the threat is far from idle, and time is running out. That’s not something I expected from an art exhibition. But maybe it’s time to start.
INDIAN OCEAN CURRENT: SIX ARTISTIC NARRATIVES
Through May 31. At the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2101 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. 617-552-8587, www.bc.edu/sites/artmuseum