Dream in the Rhythm

Visions of Sound and Spirit in the MoMA Collection

Read Grace Wales Bonner’s introduction to the book that accompanies the exhibition Artist’s Choice: Grace Wales Bonner—Spirit Movers.


Dream in the Rhythm


I think of the solo instrumentalist, who paints a dream in the sky—a singular guide whose roaming sound opens space for collective experience, who may even offer some connection to the divine, the portal of a free harmony.

Through my own gathering of photographs of people with instruments and my encounters with MoMA’s expansive collection, I have been drawn to assembling an archive of soulful expression. I am attracted to photographic records of sonic experience, seeing them as a cartography of sound manifested in form. I sense that sound is embedded at an atomic level in photographs, expressed rhythmically in the space between each grain of a photographic print. I use the compositions, the clothing and movements, to sense the soul of the sound. Within the blur of these sonic images, I reflect on the impossibility of capturing sound with light, or rhythm through material.

I am driven by the photographs in this collection to think about immaterial gestures, to consider impressions of black style and of expression that reverberates. To think about the giving of life to material and the transformational qualities of spirit movement. Here, gestures are the alchemical transformation of matter, the invention of style through embodiment—the soloist breathing life into his instrument.

And some moments of observation lead to quietude, a stillness in a symphony. A refrain reveals to me the intimacy of understanding the deepest human emotions encased within a gesture. Something held in the crease on a sleeve and the smartness of a black spine against a wall in the shade.

In my mind I cannot separate the photographs in this volume from lyrical narrators, orators who light pathways of imaginative and sonic potential. Images shine through the words of Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, Robin Coste Lewis, Ishmael Reed, Greg Tate, Jean Toomer, Quincy Troupe, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The harmony of the visual and the lyrical resound within black radical tradition.

The song of the words allows us to see more and dream deeper. Even as those words describe the impossibility of translating sonic experience, they inscribe the natural world, the cosmos, stars, musicality, freedom.

I have glimpsed the transcendence of resting among the song of their words. It is this journey into opening up something universal that has been the guiding principle of this research project, allowing me to see what it would be impossible to see through my own eyes: a togetherness in expansion.

I am transfixed by this moment of suspension and participation within collective expression—the moment when we begin to “dream in the rhythm,” as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o puts it in his novel The Rivers Between. The rite of finding freedom in the eternal collective.

Beyond the immaculate individual expression, I hear an enthralling symphony. It is a call to leap into this wider consciousness. To constellate here is to be part of something complete and yet unfolding in the moment.

More magnificent than seeing is to dream in the rhythm.


Grace Wales Bonner 

  • Complimentary shipping on all orders above £350. Customs tax included (DDP) for US, UK and EU.