Asmaa Jama’s Before We Disappear Archives The Realities Of (In)visibility

Born of collaboration, infused with poetry and loaded with metaphor, the interactive online experience tackles (in)visibility through the metaphor of the ‘unhomed’ ghost.

by Enrica Picarelli - Published on 21/04/2021
Asmaa Jama, Before we disappear (2020), still video

Upon clicking “Enter,” Before We Disappear opens to a low-angle shot of a house surrounded by dense vegetation, seemingly immune to the vivid jabber and birdsong on the sound track. The camera pans over the encroaching shrubbery and the carvings on the outer walls instead, barely registering the human figure in a cream-coloured headscarf behind a screen of leaves and branches. The figure’s features are blurred, visual noise. Cut to a close-up of an intricately decorated mask resting in the open. One can almost smell the chlorophyll in the air. Escalating melody accompanies the figure in the headscarf, now in full focus, into the entrance and up the stairs. Then, across a threshold, one sees the mosaic wall of a small room. This empty house is familiar territory.

“We are what remains” reads part of the short introduction that greets visitors of the website Before we disappear. “Let this be a space of rest” writes Asmaa Jama, the Somali poet who wrote and directed the work in 2020—a year that redefined our social experience—in collaboration with Gouled Ahmed, Gebriel Balcha, Joseph Horton, Ibrahim Hirsi and Roseanna Dias. The interactive online experience tries to capture the  dynamics of (in)visibility through the metaphor of the ghost, who inhabits a space that is not a home. It does so by engaging in dialogue with the audience, who are asked about their experiences with visibility and disappearance. Each yes or no answer leads to alternative chapters on hypervisibility, the state of being unwitnessed, wholeness, and alienation. The masked figure features in all of them, donning the sartorial adornments that capture a splitting self-perception caught between insignificance and conspicuousness.

More jump-cuts and one sees a masquerade in three acts, featuring the same figure in elaborate headpieces that conceal its identity – first a shawl, then a loose conical shape with falling straw-like elements, and finally the mask created with milk cartons and decorated with beads and gems. One striking scene captures the masked figure standing, fully-illuminated, in nature’s embrace, the white suit and lighting likening the figure to an angel or a ghost, a lonely guardian of this decadent realm.

Asmaa Jama, Before we disappear (2020), still video

In another scene, the protagonist sits by a small table set for tea on the lawn outside a country house dressed in a black suit and black shoes. The masked figure has “arrived” but the door and windows are shut. A voice over urges the figure to leave because it has taken up too much space, relegating other people to shadows. Unlike the transient figure, the house is permanently rooted. When the accusation ends, connection is severed and the screen fills with static. The host has expelled its parasite, an allusion to a crooked idea of hospitality that privileges accommodation over recognition, the latter of which is only fully granted on departure: “We are Black, migrant, working class, transnational.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the experience of feeling unwitnessed, which the film visualizes as one of being “nearly-gone”. Significantly, the voice of the outside world is muted here. We see the protagonist in silent inner monologue (subtitles), an avatar of “a nation of the nearly-gone,” who occupy space without fully inhabiting it because they are unseen and unheard, going through walls, giving up their bodies for the aqueous inconsistency of vapor. When we see the reflection of the figure in the window pane, it has mixed with what lies on the other side, a large tree, a permanent presence. The sparkling mask is visible, but the figure has become a shadow.

Before we disappear is a product of these strange times of hypertrophic image-making and exchange, where mental health is often sought via the spectacle of distanced socialisation—zoom calls with isolated family, online yoga classes—while wellbeing is aestheticized in the self-affirming qualities of selfies. The work is also made in the fragmented, visually-arresting, model of image-mediated digital storytelling. It could be a music video, a fashion film, an advertisement, or an afrofuturist movie—a product for mass consumption, but it evades such pigeonholing. The styling by Addis Ababa-based Somali artist Gouled Ahmed is bold, sumptuous, and unique, complementing the lush and maximalist design of the setting and the atmospheric soundtrack featuring artists such as Aweys Khamiis Cabdalla.

Asmaa Jama, Before we disappear (2020), still video

Yet at its core, the work intervenes into the mental exhaustion affecting many Black people and  people of colour worldwide. Before we disappear was made to enter the global visual archive as a punch, the kind of affective layered work that mirrors the persisting trace of discomfort that marks our times. It is not made to beautify alienation and commodify its visual consumption, but to gather a community united by pain, and to collect accounts on both the pain and how to transcend it. “This piece wants you to interact with it, it hopes to archive your stories”, writes Jama. At the end of the work, one can read the experiences of previous visitors. Beyond the impermanence of the images, an anonymous archive made with subversive vulnerability endures.

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I’m a writer/researcher/translator exploring fashion, cultural sustainability and digital communication in Africa. I have published on books, journals, art magazines and been a consultant for RAI national broadcaster for the documentary African Catwalk, filmed at South Africa Fashion Week, 2019.ù