‘When The Lionfish Came’
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
– John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1624)
In Adelaide, there is a bell that has been ringing for at least 100 years, but closer to two. Events, hurricanes, births and deaths are all marked by the chime, and the proud denizens of this historic community for freed Blacks have, for generations, found themselves answering to its call. However, Tamika Galanis’ film, “When The Lionfish Came” (2015) is not a church bell.
It is an alarm.
Shifting from Junkanoo practice to coral reef, Galanis moves between sea and land to remind us of our own amphibiousness as Caribbeans. We may be land dwellers biologically speaking, but as people we are forever tied to water, and that water deserves protection.
The alien nature of the desaturated, black and white anemones on the reef gives this video commentary on our colonial past, present, and future, an almost afro-futurist exploration. She begs us to think of how the Anthropocene, how our effect on the planet as human beings has created such a heavy, devastating impact that we have an entire period of the earth’s history named after us – and that ego will be the end of us all.
The colorless, anti-tropical reef we see, overrun with voracious lionfish, is a reminder of this human-history. Lionfish were introduced by humans to the Atlantic ocean, and as they move in their packs they devour everything in sight, without much by way of predator.
For Galanis, the lionfish are not just dangerous in this literal sense, but also in the metaphorical for what they represent – capitalism, consumption and the colonial disease. These insidiously beautiful and venomous hovering butterflies of the sea are Spanish and British colonization; they are the colonial tourism machine; and they are Chinese neo-colonial extraction of land and resources.
“What helps the lionfish in its predation, and what makes it so devastating to the reef is that because it is foreign to the Atlantic, nothing knows to fear it. It looks like it belongs, which I think for a lot of us who are so removed in terms of time and generation – we are born into this system of tourism being the norm, that we absolutely think ‘oh that’s just what happens here in this place’, when that shouldn’t be the case,” Galanis shares.
The tourism machine we know is an old one, built on the “paradisiacal myth”, as Galanis aptly puts it, and as such it is so old we feel it is the only way we have of doing things. However, we must be wary of confusing longevity with tradition – the latter to be preserved where necessary and of significant cultural importance, the former to be judged cautiously and not maintained for sentiment’s sake.
The film also makes reference to the origins of underwater film, which find their starting point in our self proclaimed “little country” and our shallow waters. The first ever underwater film was able to be recorded in The Bahamas due to the light’s ability to penetrate the crystal water to depths that were nearly impossible elsewhere. The black and white pays homage to this too, and this shifting film by Galanis becomes part documentary, part sci-fi deference to the water alien life these 20,000 leagues under, and it is most importantly part call to action.
There is a strange sort of siren’s call in these watery depths too. The audio in the film is enticing in itself, with the measured ding of the bell to hypnotically draw you in, the frenetic and energetic Junkanoo practice, and finally the meditative and somber folk funerary song. We often think of reefs as spaces of dazzling color, but with the removal of the color in the work we take a moment to consider the sound of the sea.
In gathering the footage, Galanis describes the sight many of us know well, but that not all of us know quite so intimately as we perhaps should: “There were different colored corals on the reef, little fish swimming against the current, the fans dancing with that same current, all these colors, and if you listen to a healthy coral reef you will hear chatter. And you can’t help but hear it, because you’re in extrasensory conditions when you’re in dive gear. The power of the imagination helped me to see people. What I saw was a little saltwater Junkanoo maybe: dancing, color, there was a rhythm and it was representative of Junkanoo and I thought at that moment, as much as we are dependent on the reef we are much more like the reef than we would consider in our everyday life.”
And just as the reef is impacted by its surrounding environment, so too are we. The Junkanoo rendition of an American pop song speaks to this siren sound, as The Bahamas faces cultural threats around globalization that are perhaps even more palpable than the rest of the Caribbean space. The influence of American media on our nascent culturing understanding becomes a lionfish threat, as we cannot deny our proximity but we also cannot deny that years of shaping and molding our space to be enticing to British and American audiences has left us in a mid-youth identity crisis.
But the climate crisis takes a back seat to this, despite its impending approach.
Though this work started in 2014 with the devastation of lionfish on the reef, it has only grown in its meaning through its production and through recent events in the last four years. The 2017 hurricane season laid clear what we knew already but that many of us plug our ears to – climate change is not coming; it is here, and we are in the thick of this socioeconomic climate conundrum.
Galanis looked to the IDB’s study, “The Blue Urban Agenda”, where The Bahamas has been named the most extreme case of low elevation coastal zones in the Atlantic.
“They basically declared our fate the same as the Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) facing the same dangers, and getting more recognition. Whether we thought that comparison was a bit of a reach, we are faced with the aftermath and the probability that Ragged Island is not going to be rebuilt. This is what a climate crisis looks like, whether or not we want to admit it.”
And this work, with its origins in 2014, becomes an elegy to our difficult future in these shallow banks, through the wizened and somber voice singing funereal tunes. “It’s fitting for me that in the folk song the singer wonders where his mother’s voice has gone, where has his mother gone, “she’s gone to see Jesus”.
That is an allusion to a disappearance. When we talk about disappearance I don’t think we’re really ready to think about what a disappearance of islands looks like. This climate crisis doesn’t necessarily mean that these islands will disappear into the sea. For some of them I think that may happen. We saw in Ragged island, that before the hurricane the population was somewhere between around 250-300 people, and now it’s hovering around 70. That is what a disappearance of people looks like, the place they have lived and called home they must now move somewhere else.”
In a night we see an entire island’s culture lost – buildings, infrastructure, homes and mementos, family archives, all lost.
When dealing with trauma of that magnitude, what do we hold onto culturally and what will go with us into the future? Sometimes we are not lost to the tides; sometimes it is a slow cultural drowning in which the historic life force of a place is lost as its heart, its people, drain the lifeblood and oxygen away from it in an ironic desperation to cling to life.
Life must move on, in different ways, on stranger, higher lands.