Akeem Smith

April 19th - July 31st, 2021
New Canons
Woods Cathedral, Detroit

The act ofDancing in the Spirit”, in which the Holy Spirit embodies the Believer, manifesting itself in unbridled song and dance, is a form of religious worship unique to the Pentecostal faith. It is here, within the crumbling grandeur of the former Wood’s Cathedral, which was home to a progressive Black Pentecostal congregation who had journeyed North during the Great Migration of the 1920s and 1930s, where this deeply experiential form of spiritual transcendence once found refuge. Today, resting in its vacuous nave are relics of a different type of ritual worship, each carefully housed within Akeem Smith’s SOURSOP, an installation formed from the dilapidated remnants of a domestic structure from his childhood neighborhood -- Kingston Jamaica’s Waterhouse District. Part of a larger body of work that pulls from the artist’s vast shadow archive of Jamaican dancehall documentation, this conspicuous intervention transforms the church into a station through which multiple polyphonic narratives of diasporic movement, collective transcendence, and urban and moral decay intersect.

A soursop is the fruit of a tree native to the Caribbean and is recognizable for its yellowish-green peel covered in prickly spines and its contrasting creamy interior. In Jamaica, the vulgar, as renowned dancehall scholar Carolyn Cooper has written, “seems to originate in a fear of the coarse texture of the (feminized) body and the baseness of the flesh that must be made subject to the refining influence of magisterial ‘good taste’: [in one] not eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.”Taking the perspective of the underground, Smith’s Soursop reimagines the dancehall as a ritual space of complex revelry, at once Edenic and free from shame, and a debaucherous space of self-determination formed in exile. The disintegrated floorboards give way to a kaleidoscopic display of footage sourced from Hot Bulb, a videographer active on the dancehall scene and infamous for his lewd sensibility, including upskirt shots and women holding their crotches.

Looking down on this work from various vantage points throughout the church, the viewer must confront their implication within the gaze of the cameraman and the questions it raises regarding female agency, respectability and propriety. The self-possessed performance of eroticism, within a cultural context shaped not only by the male, but also the colonial gaze, is ultimately a repudiation of cultural mores that seem to define femininity along lines of decency and property. Set to a visceral score layered with meditative hums, candid oral histories and guttural subsonic effects, meant to center listener’s within their bodies, sin and its correlate shame are uncoupled and the dancehall is recognized as an erogenous zone in which women’s sexuality reigns supreme.

At a time when America is confronting its haunting colonial past, the secular divide and geographic edges between Soursop and Detroit’s Woods Cathedral begin to blur, and a more fundamental kinship reveals itself, harmonizing these two vectors of congregation and community across deeper channels of ritual and resistance. In this light, Wood’s Cathedral, in its last gasps, strains to shelter Smith’s work, creating space for the larger collective themes at play in the artist's homage to memory and the vibrant Caribbean community that raised him. In turn, SOURSOP does not attempt to impress itself upon this site, rather it enmeshes its offering within the rich history of this once grand church, conjuring a call and response between the two battered shells and their respective spiritual provenance.