Keila Sankofa: Fictionalizing Gaps of the Past

Keila Sankofa adopts the African symbol Sankofa meaning “go back and get it” to explore the Afro-indigenous time-space construction of Manaus, challenging cultural erasure. Her work includes performances, films and photography, highlighting important Black figures in the city’s history and reclaiming Black and indigenous identities.

In Venus in Two Acts, writer Saidiya Hartman asks: “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?” It can be said that Alexandrina – A Lightning Bolt (2022), a short film shown at several film festivals, might exemplify the answer to Hartman’s question. In the film, Sankofa uses her own body to name the story of a Black of a free, naturalist Black person, born in Tefé, in the interior of the state of Amazonas, who joins an expedition that resulted in over 200 portraits of the African population of Rio de Janeiro and the Black and indigenous populations of Manaus, at the height of racial theories, which was the context the expedition took place in. Through text and performance, Sankofa proposes a refusal to what was not contained in Alexandrina’s story and proposes another story that encompasses the magnitude of her presence in that place. What it does, then, is establish direct contact with another of Hartman’s questions: “Can beauty provide an antidote to dishonor, and love a way to ‘exhume buried cries’ and reanimate the dead?”

Looking back, Sankofa finds traces of fragments about a country that fails to recognize its past. And like the African ideogram, it takes part of what is known and fables about what cannot be known. At the beginning of the short film, we are presented with some glimpses of who Alexandrina may have been. Keila displaces the experience of denial and fragmentation by using her own body-territory as a path for reconstructing this story, offering reparations for the violence that comes with having your name, face and lived experience erased. In the artist’s words: “Everything can be taken away, denied, stolen. But what nourishes me is knowing that we always come back.” Visiting the past without repeating its violence. And in returning, subverting the meanings of a world that imposes its permanence onto time and space, producing—from images, installations and the body itself—other meanings for life, in dialogue with the spiral of time.

Historical recreation in Keila Sankofa’s work is part of a process of displacement of the arrangements of visibility that Black artists, especially in the production of images, have proposed in recent years, fictionalizing the gaps in the past. In her work Óculos de Okotô (“Okotô Glasses”, 2022-2024), a photographic series and performance, which the artist names an “archaeological archefact of the now”, Keila places shell lenses under a pair of glasses with the aim of seeing life from an ancestral perspective, connecting Black diasporic knowledge and enabling a sharing of the sensitive between worlds—those in which we exist and those that no longer exist.

Keila Sankofa fosters the perception of charm by displacing reality in her productions and yet having it as the beginning, middle and end, whether in the faces she meets on the streets, those she doesn’t find in history books, on the bus that becomes a gallery, or the well-being of nature. The marked red and earthy tones in her work are indications that, beyond the deep marks of colonialist violence on amefrican soil, there are other modes of existence in which to settle.

* Historian Lélia González references the historical and cultural formation of Latin America citing knowledge of Black-African and Amerindian people.

Keila Sankofa is a visual artist and filmmaker, and manager of the Picolé de Massa – Da Várzea das Artes group.

Kariny Martins is a curator, screenwriter and researcher, and author of the book Speculative Fiction in Brazilian Black Cinema (2023).

Translation: Zoë Perry