You are here:


Drawing on ideas of lamentation, writer Rose Higham-Stainton reflects on our recent Film Works event about Oceans, featuring films by Alberta Whittle, Ayesha Hameed and Hamedine Kane and a live performance by Phoebe Boswell and Liz Gre.

Film Still, Ayesha Hameed and Hamedine Kane, In the shadow of our ghosts. Courtesy of the artists.

Film Still, Ayesha Hameed and Hamedine Kane, In the shadow of our ghosts. Courtesy of the artists.

To lament is to express grief or gather to mourn, through rhyme or prayer or polyphonic sound. Lamentation rolls off the tongue like waves—guttural, loud, visceral sounding in its sorrow.

For Film Works, a series by Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts in collaboration with UEA Art History Department, the sea—and its entangled issues of trade, migration and colonial violence—gave form to various kinds of grief. In most cultures, lamentation is gendered; it happens among and be-tween women and films by Alberta Whittle, Ayesha Hameed and Hamedine Kane and a performa-tive reading by Phoebe Boswell—accompanied by the soaring voice of Liz Gre—lamented those lost to the diaspora, climate change and global pandemics.

The event also marked the recent publication of Oceans, edited by Sarah Wade and Pandora Syperek—part of the Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art series with MIT—which gathered together artists and writers to write about the ocean not as a theme but as framework or agent for making art. The films and performance that followed were testament to this thinking; rather than subject—or object—, the ocean became a conduit or channel for grief.

The event was situated within the permanent collection at the Sainsbury Centre, and thus surrounded by oceanic objects from all over the world, some of them prised from a particular culture or traded back and forth—like canoe shields and fisherman’s gods from the Pacific Islands, and fishhooks and har-poon heads from Alaska—reminding us that the ocean is vast and powerful and unknowingly com-plicit in many forms of violence. These artists’ films and performance reclaimed space for those narratives that have been lost to the waters.

Ayesha Hameed and Hamedine Kane’s collaborative film In the Shadow of Our Ghosts (2018) opens with a narrow view of the sea through the window of some shoreline fortification, accompa-nied by polyphonic sound rolling deep and choral. Grainy, altered footage of diaphanous waves and enigmatic beaches are pricked by the dark outlines of migrant bodies—and then a voice. “Things are bad,” says the narrator, locating these images and her story and the story she is about to tell at the shoreline of Cape Verde where, in 2006, a twenty-foot boat would set sail. The boat was found off the south-eastern coast of Barbados four months later; eleven migrant bodies were dead on board and it became known as the ghost ship. “I don’t think I’ll come out of this alive,” says the narrator, lamenting them and her own foreboding future. The film’s oceanic footage is po-larised by the ombre of desert sand, peopled by dark shadows wandering, and accompanied by the resounding crunch of earth underfoot, which is characteristic of Kane—an artist interested in exile and wandering. As we move with the waves and the shadows, the woman’s disembodied voice quantifies and calculates the distances and costs endured by migrants seeking safety, and the bodies desiccated by sun and sand when they are failed.

Film Still, Ayesha Hameed and Hamedine Kane, In the shadow of our ghosts. Courtesy of the artists.

Film Still, Ayesha Hameed and Hamedine Kane, In the shadow of our ghosts. Courtesy of the artists.

In Bodies of Water (2022), Boswell recalls the moment when a migrant named Pateh Sabally drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal in front of hoards of tourists. “It is cold and crisp and dazzling in a way that only Venice knows how,” she says of this former colonial trading post and it lands like a powerful refrain, before rendering in slow, painful and necessary detail the final moments of a body gasping for air. This bitter reality enters the open-plan, institutional space of Sainsbury Collection—both airy and air-tight—and then Liz Gre fills the space, accompanying Boswell with a melodic sound that soars upwards and outwards and all around us, as an invitation to commune.

That women—centuries of them—have done the emotional labour of grieving on behalf of others and have made space within for collectivity and care, is no great surprise. But lamentation is as much for the living or those that are left behind, as it is for the dead and Alberta Whittle’s RESET (2020) focuses on healing. She reminds us to take another deep breath, to ‘send love to your heart’ and in doing so, we are brought back to the surface and up for air, memorialising all those that were lost to the ocean as an agent of change but also of violence.

Film Still, Alberta Whittle, RESET. Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute.

Rose Higham-Stainton is a writer based in Norwich, working at the intersection of creative and critical practice. She is published widely and her first book Limn the Distance is out with JOAN publishing in September 2023.

You might be interested in

Learn & Create

The artworks in our collection and exhibitions come to life when you join us to look, think, discuss, question, create, play and tell stories around them. Find out how you can get involved and become a part of our learning community. 


Join & Support

Discover more of what the Sainsbury Centre has to offer by becoming a member


Sculpture Park

Our Sculpture Park sits within 350 acres of UEA parkland and is the perfect place to enjoy art and the natural environment. Open daily.

Go to Top