Tourmaline. <em>Salacia</em>. 2019. Video (color, sound), 6 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection. © 2020 Tourmaline. Courtesy of the artist

Anything We Want to Be: Tourmaline’s Salacia

The artist’s film imagines riotous transwomen across history.

We presented Tourmaline’s film Salacia from June 25 through July 6, 2020. The film is no longer available here for streaming

Who would have imagined that, during a global pandemic, 15,000 people would show up at the Brooklyn Museum for a liberation march holding signs with the refrain BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER as they quietly processed, dressed in white, a visual echo of the NAACP’s 1917 Silent Parade, in which 10,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue demanding an end to violence against Black people? Who would have imagined that Mary Jones—a Black transwoman and sex worker labeled a “man-monster” in a tabloid lithograph after she was incarcerated in the 1830s—would appear a century and a half after her death in artist-writer-activist Tourmaline’s film Salacia?

Such is the romance of fantasy and speculative fiction; such is the everyday stuff of Black life. In Salacia, Mary Jones (played by Rowin Amone) is transported from Manhattan’s Soho, where she lived before being placed on trial for stealing a man’s wallet, to Seneca Village, a contemporaneous community of free Black and Irish immigrant landowners once located in what we now call Central Park, between 82nd and 89th Streets. When the City destroyed the village through eminent domain, all traces of the settlement were lost to history. Tourmaline’s re-placement is not only a feat of imagination—as Jones is not known to have found refuge in Seneca Village—but a political feat of class solidarity: Then, as now, women accused of thieving and making their money through sex were not always welcome by landowners, whatever their race.

<em>Salacia</em>. 2019

Salacia. 2019

During a dreamlike sequence in which Jones is seen behind bars, Salacia moves forward in time. A shot of the water that surrounds Castle Williams—the fortification on Governor’s Island, just south of Manhattan, where Jones was imprisoned—transitions to the lapping banks of Manhattan’s West Side and archival footage of Sylvia Rivera, who once stayed at the Christopher Street Piers, a refuge for queer and trans homeless folks before the gentrification and displacement that occurred under the Giuliani administration. Rivera cofounded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a mutual aid and activist group for homeless youth. In the video excerpted in Salacia (which Tourmaline first encountered when she was director of membership services at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal services organization for low-income trans and gender nonconforming people in New York), Rivera laughs, gossips, and kikis with friends as she reflects on the Hudson River. An interviewer records her saying, “Every time you look at that damn river and meditate on the river you got to keep fighting, girly, ’cause it’s not time for you to cross the River Jordan.” As she analogizes the Hudson with the Old Testament’s journey from slavery to freedom, as well as the New Testament site of Jesus’s baptism, death, and resurrection, the video returns to Jones and those who remain warehoused with her, as if Rivera were speaking backwards in time, across the river to her foresister.

Just as historical time moves without linear progression, the narrative time of Salacia ebbs and flows so that the words with which Jones begins seem to touch her last utterances. Salacia opens with a refrain from The People Could Fly (1985), a children’s story told by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by interracial wife-and-husband duo Diane and Leo Dillon. In the book, enslaved people of African descent fly to their freedom by speaking ancient, magic words: “They say the people could fly. That long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. They would walk up on the air like climbing up on a gate. They flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black shiny wings flapping against the blue up there.” Just as the magic of narrative enabled our ancestors to flee slavery, and just as the power of self-making has ushered in a moment when a girl can catch the bus to a liberation march in the middle of the day in all of her stuff, our black shiny wings will flap as we become anything we want to be.

<em>Salacia</em>

Salacia

Jones made “a way out of no way,” Tourmaline tells me, an evocation that at once recalls the language of spirit and belief as well as what cultural historian Saidiya Hartman describes as critical fabulation. Fabula are the basic building blocks of a story through which narrative is built up or broken down; critical fabulation is a way of describing the past that plays with the basic elements of a story revealed within the archive. It re-presents the sequence of events from divergent and contested points of view.(1) In Salacia, Tourmaline juxtaposes these divergent viewpoints in a variety of ways, including split screens; montages that flow from the documentary grain of archival video to the lush purples and oranges of period narrative; layered images of waterscapes, the face of the moon, and the sun’s flashes; as well as captions that sync in and out of describing the visuals with which they are paired. Incommensurable textures and asymmetrical scales rub up against one another to create a sense of friction that reanimates the past in the present. This approach builds on Tourmaline’s previous experimental portraits of historic activists and icons, including Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (2016’s The Personal Things); Egyptt LaBeija and Fatima Jamal (2017’s Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones); and Marsha P. Johnson (2018’s Happy Birthday Marsha, codirected with Sasha Wortzel). Together, these collaborations form a constellation of history’s impossible women.

<em>Salacia</em>

Salacia

(1) Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12 no. 2(June 2008): 1–14.

Salacia Credits

Written, Directed, Produced by
Tourmaline

Produced by
Hope Dector
Nina Macintosh

Executive Produced by
Keanu Reeves

Starring
Rowin Amone

With
Christopher James Murray
Eva Reign
Frank Woods

Director of Photography
Kjerstin Rossi

Production Designer
Josephine Shokrian

Editor
Omega
Hedia Maron

Co-Producers
Matt Harvey
Omega
Kjerstin Rossi

Associate Producer
Luce Capco Lincoln

Costume Designer
Tess Herbert

Original Music Contributed by
Geo Wyeth

Assistant Editor
Adam Knowles

Download the full Salacia film credits as a PDF