Salt is essential to life and to preservation of food and has been mined in the Sahara for at least 2,500 years. When in the 7th century, Arabs began trading in Black slaves, they often used the same trade routes as the salt traders. It is estimated that over a millennium some 10 – 20 million mostly Black men were sold into slavery in North Africa and the Middle East. With these thoughts in mind the vision for the photos came well before I arrived and long after that first visit to the Salt Mines of Gonaïves some 2 years ago. Gonaïves is the home to the three grand Lakou of Haitian Vodoun founded by Maroons and escaped enslaved people prior to Haiti’s independence in 1804. It was in Gonaïves that Jean-Jacques Dessaline read the Act of Independence and became the first president of the first Black Republic.
The photographs are informed by these layers of history and liminality as the images and location play with time and space. The traditional attire of the north Africa desert regions, [Morocco, Algeria, Libya] are set against a desert landscape but it is not clear whether we are in the Sahara or Haiti. The Atlantic passage, both landscape and people, is absent from the images and only reveals itself when we see the ocean to the west that we see we are in Haiti. Gender is also interrogated as the bodies of subjects are covered in the same gown and make similar poses. In one image showing only the eyes, it is not clear to whom the body belongs as they too are racially and gender complicated. Here too the transportation of fabrics from one Africa to another shows the elasticity of the Africas.
The salt mines also represent both the possibility and abandonment of natural resources as people are forced to buy imported cheaper salt rather than the mineral rich local salt. The mines depict a Haiti that is unknowable and timeless as the mountains stand small in relation to the human, yet they are the background to a revolutionary history.
The images express a solitary reality which is somewhat deceptive as turning to the sea, we witness the community of youths bathing in the sea, chatting and playing soccer, eating BBQ and drinking beer welcoming sunset and a respite from the day time heat. This is a place of pleasure, and wildness, far from the town, no buses come this way so either you pass by moto taxi or private car or by foot.
To the far right there are hills broken and damaged by rock breaking to be used in construction. Men climb the hills, in the heat of the day, their faces and heads covered in cloth,. Some break the rock with hammers, others carry the rocks to the base where they create new hills of broken rocks to be collected by old trucks from US some still with the commerical markings used in the US. The men do not wished to be photographed even from afar. IT is a humiliating work that eats up the body for just a few dollars a day.
Salt heals, salt water, the oceans that heal our bodies, that hold the bodies of Blackness. No wonder the Spirits live at the bottom of the ocean and our bodies primarily consist of these two elements, water and salt. Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘The Salt Eaters’ reminds us that salt is a healer, we can heal through salt. The salt mines of Gonaïves rest between the mountains and their source, the sea. During harvesting the pools of salt are flamingo pink and the salt rocks are sweet and moreish. I found myself eating salt as one would eat a lollipop, sucking and licking my lips as my body craved for more and more.
“Persistence of Blackness” © Alexis De Veaux & Sokari Ekine 2016