Home Magazine Salacia by Tourmaline

While the mainstream television world is ensnared by the race-blind characters and logics of the new Netflix show Bridgerton (produced by Shonda Rhimes), the six-minute enthralling Salacia, by the artist, filmmaker, writer and activist Tourmaline (b. 1983; formerly known as Reina Gossett), made its solo gallery début at Chapter NY Gallery, in January 2021.

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If Shonda Rhimes - the most successful and celebrated black female American television producer - has reinvented how to present race in Regency-era shows, reinforcing the process of a post-racial, colorblindness television industry, Tourmaline, in her 2019 film Salacia dreamed of freedom for Mary Jones, a Black transwoman and sex worker within the mid-nineteenth century community of Seneca Village, in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.


Tourmaline © MoMA, 2020.


Salacia, 2019. Written, Directed, Produced by Tourmaline, Produced by Hope Dector Nina Macintosh, Executive Produced by Keanu Reeves, Starring Rowin Amone.


Seneca Village was founded in 1825 by free African American and Irish immigrant landowners and existed until 1857, when its houses, churches, school, and cemeteries were torn down for the construction of what would become the present-days Central Park. Seneca Village was the only black community at the time when slavery was still legal in town. A lost Afrofuturist village where people were “freedom dreaming”: they could vote and own their land.

Salacia (produced by Keanu Reeves) - now a part of MoMA's permanent collection - is a “combination of many people’s freedom dreams”, as narrates the Black, queer artist Tourmaline - a gemstone with turquoise hair (“When she dye her hair blue at home in the bathtub, she was freedom dreaming”). With Salacia, Tourmaline created a speculative fiction, “existing in the genre of Black folklore”, which fluidly juxtaposes divergent viewpoints in a variety of montages, textures and tempos. Re-locating, with her imagination, the “antiheroine” or female divinity Mary Jones - who actually lived in Manhattan’s Soho- in Seneca Village, Tourmaline verbalizes a political act of liberation.


Still from Salacia, by Tourmaline. 2019. 16 mm. with sound, duration 6 minutes 4 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Chapter NY, New York.


Still from Salacia, by Tourmaline. 2019. 16 mm. with sound, duration 6 minutes 4 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Chapter NY, New York.


Tourmaline has made numerous films about trans activism, economic justice, gender self-determination, and prison abolition, through her work with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Critical Resistance and Queers for Economic Justice.

She grew up in a feminist household in Massachusetts and, after organizing grassroots movements for Black, trans, queer, gender nonconforming, and disabled communities, Tourmaline turned her eye to filmmaking in 2010. For The Personal Things, an animated short that features Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a trans elder and longtime activist, Tourmaline won a Queer ArtPrize in 2017.


Morning Cloak, by Tourmaline. 2020. Dye sublimation print, 76.20 by 77.47 cm. framed. Courtesy the artist and Chapter NY, New York.


When she was making the experimental short film about Trans rights pioneers and anti-police activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, Happy birthday Marsha! (2018), Tourmaline found out, in New York’s municipal archives, the true story of Mary Jones. Labeled a “man-monster” after she was sentenced, in 1836, to five years in Sing Sing Prison, for stealing a wallet. Jones’ destiny broke Tourmaline’s heart, and I would not spoil here the main reasons (you can watch Tourmaline’s introduction to Salaciaon moma.org


Happy birthday Marsha!, by Tourmalineand Sasha Wortzel, 2018, duration 15 minutes, Courtesy the artist.


Part of the movie is shot in Castle Williams, Governor’s Island’ historic prison. The magic, “critical fabula" of Salaciais about the history of New York, about colonization, about the power of freedom dream; about the potential of Mary Jones to hold together present, past, and future. It is vital to keep freedom dreaming, even the smallest things. “You got to keep fighting girly!” - as Salacia encourages us to do.


Cover image: Still from Salacia, by Tourmaline. 2019. 16 mm. with sound, duration 6 minutes 4 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Chapter NY, New York.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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