Talking to the Dead: Tamika Galanis’ repatriates materials from the Alan Lomax archive and brings them home.

By Natalie Willis

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God 

“Homecoming: Talking to the Dead” by Tamika Galanis becomes an answer to a much older question. Galanis’ work, in her careful, tender sifting-through of the Alan Lomax archive (consisting of a host of images and sound from his expedition to The Bahamas in 1935) at the Library of Congress became a response to Lomax’s curious call and questioning nearly 100 years ago.

A Library of Congress Fellow, Galanis may be best known to some as “the lady with the shirts” – those Lignum + Tingum tees that serve up Bahamian dialect and lists of local flora and food – but for others she is far, far more – an artist, researcher, documentarian, and a seeker of truth. Coming across materials from this collection while she was undertaking her graduate studies, Galanis saw a letter from Lomax reporting his findings from his time in Nassau back to the Library of Congress (LOC), the start of her time following this thread that would lead her to a surprising connection to Zora Neale Hurston.

Image from “Homecoming: Talking to the Dead” by Tamika Galanis, on view in the Project Space of the NAGB. Galanis presents her findings after going through the Alan Lomax archives of his journey to The Bahamas in 1935.

The exhibition statement for the exhibition clarifies this connection: “Alan Lomax had already been collecting folk materials for two years when he enlisted the help of an unorthodox ethnographer known for embodying the folk cultures she studied. Not only was Zora Neale Hurston “the only professionally trained black folklorist in town,” she was a Florida native who would help Lomax navigate Black cultural spaces with an unprecedented degree of access that the colour line would not typically allow—until then, Florida was the only southern, American state where the Lomaxes had not previously collected recordings.” Hurston is now considered a celebrated African American author, anthropologist, and her keen interest in the folklore and history of the wider Black Diaspora – extending from the American South she wrote so much on, to Haiti and the wider Caribbean – is key work in moving past national conversations on Black identity and looking into Black spirituality in the more holistic sense. It was Hurston who introduced the young Lomax to Bahamian migrant workers in Florida from “The Contract” era, a meeting which would garner his interest in ethnomusicology and folk-culture and carry him to the islands.

Galanis herself traveled to the LOC to see what materials were there and patiently waited for the Lomax Fellowship application to reopen – and the rest is the returning of our history. In the summer of 1935, the 20-year old Alan Lomax, accompanied by Mary Elizabeth Barnicle (then Professor of the Ballad at New York University), both took care in documenting their findings – images of the locals yes, but also sound recordings of African dialect, Haitian Creole, as well as the musical material of the islands through work-songs, ballads, and spirituals.

Of her first experience in going through the Lomax materials, Galanis shares: “I had lots of questions! Many of which went unanswered from 2015 until my trip to Cat Island at the end of 2018. This research inadvertently resulted in a much deeper appreciation for Zora Neale Hurston because it was her research and experience with, not only Black American culture, but with Bahamians—particularly her experiences with the occult—in The Bahamas that piqued Lomax’s interest. He was on a mission to attempt to replicate her experiences with the occult: that’s how he landed in Cat Island. This was followed closely by wide-eyed-wonder when listening to the audio recordings—it was like being transported in a time machine. For context, my grandparents were born in 1934 and 1936—that helps ground me in context of time and just how special, rare, and precious these materials are.”

And the research also exposed just how important it is in the work of museums to not just employ, but to value the contributions of local knowledge in the materials preserved and archived. It’s all part of the work of decolonising museum practice – and by that we mean shifting the dominant narrative in favour of diversifying stories to give not only a fuller picture of what we preserve, but a more honest one too. For Galanis: “Whose lens these materials are viewed through is paramount. There were papers within the archive with bush medicine names on them—that seemed completely out of place in an ethnomusicologist’s archive. Upon inquiry I was told that those papers arrived with botanical samples that were disposed of because of archival concerns (soil, etc.) but no one knew what the notes on the papers meant. When I told the curator what we were looking at, he was in shock. His response, “Do you know these materials have been here for 83 years and no one has ever put that together?”” This kind of knowledge feels entirely commonplace to us, common-sense even, but ‘Gumelemi’ would certainly appear to be gobbledegook to those not familiar with the bush medicine of the islands.  

Image from “Homecoming: Talking to the Dead” by Tamika Galanis, on view in the Project Space of the NAGB. Galanis presents her findings after going through the Alan Lomax archives of his journey to The Bahamas in 1935.

But “local knowledge” exchange didn’t just occur with Galanis in the US giving context to Lomax’s documentation, she also learned a lot herself as a Nassuvian spending time in Cat Island as she followed the threads left by his visit decades ago. Her first visit was this winter, and Galanis just can’t get enough as she’s back on island in search of more. “I learned so much on my initial field trip and presently on my return, the learning continues. There’s so much that we, Nassuvians, are removed from because of modernity. So many things I’m being introduced to from “making smoke” to ward off mosquitoes and sandflies to cooking in the outdoor kitchen and the Dutch oven (which I’m doing as we speak). I cannot forget all the flourishing fields that are producing fruit where it appears there’s only limestone that should be incapable of yielding anything. The plantation ruins with ship etchings, visiting Golden Grove plantation—the sight of Black Dick’s insurrection—standing on that land and reflecting on not only him, but the women who stood in the face of inhumane treatment during that time risking their lives for freedoms we take for granted daily. They are named, and deserve a Lignum + Tingum shirt. Learning just how much the locals depend on the moon’s communication, not just for fishing, but for planting, and midwifery, etc. This place is beautiful, Bahamians and Bahamian culture are beautiful and genius.” Cat Island’s history gives it a strength and beauty that is unique for the island, but also uniquely Bahamian.

 Oftentimes, we get drawn to certain kinds of work or topics because there is something buried within the knowledge they contain that we need to know about ourselves. Galanis’ experience in Cat Island, her feeling of being not only warmly welcomed but of feeling “at home” came as no coincidence, as she would later find. “This project became a personal homecoming; unbeknownst to me, my paternal great-great-grandmother is from Orange Creek. This field trip brought me home to me. I’ve never felt so connected to a place. I know that sounds crazy, but I feel like I’ve lived here before.” It’s not surprising for Bahamians to find familial links through the islands, but trusting that ‘gut knowledge’, that inherent feeling that something has shifted into place, is a kind of knowing we don’t often trust because it isn’t easily quantified. “Feeling” isn’t science, but it is certainly useful, and Galanis’ intuition has been a guiding force in this research as much as her keen mind. For those of us with more sentimental hearts, this very special project feels like it is also a connection to ancestors as well as ancestry, and in the West African sense, we might view Galanis’ ancestors as guiding her to and through this information.  

In closing, these sentiments best summarise the meeting: “There are times when the dead send for us—at times they call to us in hushed tones, and at other times their screams are peppered with urgency. Sometimes they come to us in the recognition of a familiar cadence whose origin we cannot quite recall or the eerie familiarity of a place on first arrival. The difficulty then comes from trying to differentiate between past lives, our ancestors beckoning, and trying to grapple with whether or not the two are mutually exclusive. | Sometimes the dead send for us when they are ready to return home. ”  

Tamika Galanis’ “Homecoming: Talking to the Dead” opened on January 31st, and will be on view through April 7th. Come see what faces you recognise, you may surprise yourself.