Putting the Cooker on Low intimates that which happens in the simmer and bubble, on the back burner and the top oven, in the side eye and the hot pot. Thinking with an ancestry of Black feminist petitions for self-preservation, this visual essay works to make visible and then unsettle the ways in which Black womxn artists internalize value-(as)-labour-(as)-capital. The cracks, crevasses and slippages these anti-erotic modes of survival engender – as felt by both human and non-human ecologies – remain forced from view until they become black holes, into which we are swallowed and disappear. Often without a trace. It is with the cooker on low that resistance might reduce into potency. It is with the cooker on low that we never run out of gas.
Earth Time for Soulness: A Black Feminist Eco-Critic’s Response to Putting The Cooker on Low
by Chelsea Mikael Frazier, PhD
The film Putting the Cooker on Low by Ama Josephine Budge opens with the sights and sounds of a descending airplane into an arid landscape. This fauna-peppered landscape drawing closer and closer arrests us, the film’s witnesses. And as our state of arrest begins to unfold, the gentle words of our narrator begin to guide us. And we hear:
“Someone once told me, the soul travels by camel so that whilst the body might fly or sail or drive somewhere, it takes us so very much longer to truly arrive. As long as it would take a camel to walk there. Over mountains and grasslands, over oceans and ice caps, Through rainforests, and across desserts, and along the dried and drying up riverbeds of our world. You’ll know, they told me, when your camel arrives. You’ll wake up one day and realize you were only living a sort of half-life. Only just getting by, or just pulling through. Not really here yet. Not present. Not whole. I wanted to give you the time it might take to arrive in this film. To traverse emotional, spiritual, and physical planes, whilst plagued perhaps, as I am, by exhaustion. Not the kind that two weeks on the beach might solve, but something deeper, colder, older. A bone-aching burnout that seems systemic as well as prolific.
I wanted here and now to give you, if nothing else,
Time we’re so rarely afforded.
And some of us even less than others.…”
This opening monologue softens us, into several different kinds of time. The kinds of time more appropriate for engaging the meditative experience that awaits us throughout the film’s remaining 22 minutes. The kinds of time that allow us to explore the paradoxes of being a Diasporic Black woman, a Black femme, a Genderqueer or Antigender person, a Black trans Woman, a Black woman who loves Black women seeking rest and replenishment within a cis-hetero-capitalist society constantly compelling us to do otherwise. The kinds of time that use shifting landscapes to mark change rather than clocks. The kinds of time that follow the rhythms of marching camels rather than the blur of speeding cars. The kinds of time that allow us to restore lives half-lived. The kinds of time that move toward wholeness. Toward Soulness.
With this film, Budge joins a rich tradition of artists and storytellers that have endeavored to resist white supremacist visual impositions that Black women often find on their doorsteps. And much like the work of such visionaries as Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Cheryl Dunye, Ava Duvernay, and Reina Gossett before and alongside her, Budge’s film functions as a representation of the problem and the salve all at once.
Early in the film, the voice of an unseen performer we know only as “Janine” laments the recent and much too-early passing of bell hooks against the backdrop of a fully blackened screen. In this performer’s voice we hear the pain, the surprise, the jadedness, the frankness, and the strained laughter that accompanies the ways that Black womxn cope with the awareness of their proximity to early death. But. Then. The black screen that introduced us to this performer’s voice, gives way to a full-bodied Black feminine figure, dressed in all white, holding a yellow Ankara printed fan. We witness Janine interacting playfully with the limbs of a tree companion. The camera follows her as her own limbs connect with its branches. As their braids swing freely down their back, she stretches up to lovingly investigate its grayed-brownness. And the voice of the performer returns to our ears, full this time, of affirmations:
“I want my life to be joyful. I want my life to be happiness. I want my life to be responsive. I want my life to be full of kindness and gentleness and deep love, and introspection, and community. I want my life to be a full, lived, rich one. I want to actually enjoy as many moments as I possibly can, as if these were my last moments….I want to exist in such beauty and joy for myself and others that I come into contact with…I really want to experience the full breath of my life. And I don’t think, for a very long time, I have been able to do that.”
These off-screen affirmations compliment the view of the on-screen performer’s curious eyes and hands. Janine’s fingers comb her tree-companion’s branches while also easefully combing through their own braids–marking a kind of fluidity between themselves and the tree. While we witness these two distinct yet interconnected entities dance together on our screen, the narrator’s affirmations soothe the grief invoked by the mention of bell hooks’s untimely death. The scene ends with our on-screen performer jumping, barefoot into the air. The gesture a subtle if stubborn, grasping of hope.
Many of the scenes in Budge’s film follow this rhythm. Grief, pain, disappointment, or exhaustion are first invoked through voice or word and then a healing balm of earth-centered recovery offers witnesses a collection of rituals they might use to address their own wounds. In this way, the film acts as a roadmap to recovery. Recovery of the kind of Soulness referenced in the opening monologue. For many African-descended people of diverse embodiments and genders, there is no hope of recovery of Soul without a return to and awareness of the practices, presences, and voices of our ancestors–both spiritual and intellectual. Their modes of communication often take on a surreal quality that Budge captures by dressing her performers—hauntingly, haintingly even—in all white while interspersing them with elements used by the Old Ones to receive messages from Spirit. Views of flowing water collaged onto here-now, gone-in-a-second shots of ancestors in white cloth reminds viewers of the kinds of spiritual traditions used to ground and guide us during times of guilt or grief. As Budge visualizes these traditions, we are reminded that grief is not the end of the story.
In the world Budge crafts, guilt is not the end. Grief is not the end. And neither is exhaustion. Every proclamation of pain is met with a swirl of earthly reassurance: Water soothing brown skin in a porcelain bath, the erotically tinged pounding of succulent FuFu, the slow strumming of a double bass guitar, and the communal preparation of nutrient rich starches and greens. In the world Budge crafts, there is space for alternative measures of time that allow us to perceive our connections to earth in radically different ways. River Time. Ancestral Time. Plant Time. Play Time. FuFu Time. Breathing Time. Dust Time. Masturbation Time. Rest Time. Black Time. Tree Time. Loving Time. Healing Time. Dreaming Time. Reparative Time. And WE–as Budge names us: Diasporic Black women, Black femmes, Genderqueer and Antigender folk, Black trans women, Black women who love Black women–need all of this time, under the threat of all that seeks to destroy us–to come back wholly and fully to our Earth, into our Souls, into ourselves.
Ama Josephine Budge is a Speculative Writer, Artist, Curator and Pleasure Activist whose praxis navigates intimate explorations of race, art, ecology and feminism, working to catalyse social justice, environmental evolutions and troublesomely queered identities. Ama is the recipient of the 2020 Local, International and Planetary Fictions Fellowship with Curatorial Frame (Helsinki) and EVA International (Limerick), and will be researching the topic Pleasurable Ecologies – Formations of Care: Curation as Future-building. Ama is also a member of Queer Ecologies 2020, initiator of the Apocalypse Reading Room installation project, and her visual art has been shown and commissioned at Artsadmin, London; Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh; Casco Art Institute, Utrecht; Ingestre Orangery, Stafford and more. Ama is also a PhD researcher in Psychosocial Studies with Dr. Gail Lewis at Birkbeck University of London. Ama’s research takes a queer, decolonial approach to challenging climate colonialism, with a particular focus on inherently environmentalist pleasure practices in Ghana and across the Black diaspora. Ama is the 2020/21 Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism with BARD College and convened The Art of Not Doing conference in 2019 at Birkbeck University of London, and I/Mages of Tomorrow anti-conference at Goldsmiths University in 2017.
Chelsea Mikael Frazier is a Black feminist ecocritic, writing, researching, and teaching at the intersection of Black feminist theory and environmental thought. As Founder and Chief Creative Officer at Ask An Amazon she designs educational tools, curates community gatherings, gives lectures, and offers consulting services that serve Black Feminist Fuel for Sustainable Futures. She is also a Faculty Fellow in the Cornell University Department of Literatures in English and an Assistant Professor of African American Literature. Dr. Frazier is currently at work on her first book manuscript—an ecocritical study of contemporary Black women artists, writers, and activists. In her analyses, she probes the ways that dominant theoretical and disciplinary frameworks in environmental studies obscure the legibility of what she calls a Black feminist ecoethic as it manifests in Black women’s environmental writing, visual art, and activism across the African diaspora.