Lonnie Holley, The Time Traveler

Lonnie Holley.
Lonnie Holley.

The artist and musician is on speakerphone and the gravel of his voice feels near. “The thumb becomes an A, the next finger an R, then T, I, S: All Rendered Truth, Internal Self. That’s what I’m reaching out with.” Holley often conscripts the world into his palm; “Thumbs up for Mother Universe,” he’ll say, brandishing his thumb. It’s the second time we’ve spoken over the course of the last six years, but little has changed. He meanders when he speaks, pausing at the most mellifluous words to write them in a notebook, where they become source material for lyrics. In 2018, I Snuck Off the Slave Ship, Holley’s directorial debut, premiered at Sundance; when his manager Matt Arnett called to share the news, Holley mused, “I will dance with the sun anytime.”

I Snuck Off the Slave Ship evinces and intuits Holley’s stream-of-consciousness by way of meaningful vignettes—his grandchildren on swing sets, carefree; his abstract sculptures, alive with their own language; the sunlit tapestry of summertime in Georgia, where he lives. There is no dialogue, only the palpitating keys and quickening sermons of the eponymous song from Holley’s latest album, MITH (2018): “Watching the capture of my body/to take me somewhere/I snuck off the slave ship/in my imagination.” In the film’s opening shot, he stands in profile, the chiaroscuro punctuating the whites of his eyes and obscuring the planes of his cheekbones. A tangled assemblage of silver wire—one of his signature works, designed and produced for the film and made to resemble a VR headset—protrudes from his brow like eyeglasses. The camera travels along the Okefenokee Swamp, through the foliage of the American South, across its cities and into Holley’s warm home. “Our bodies can’t always go to different places in time, so I snuck off the slave ship in my imagination,” says Holley, collapsing past and present. Long before filming, he explains, “the images had already been part of my brain-set. I dug into my ocean of thoughts.”

The film’s crux is its soundtrack; Holley’s lyrics evoke a through line from the enslavement of his ancestors to mass indentured servitude and the mechanizations of capitalism: “Fields turned into factories/full of those humans/I snuck off the slave ship/just to sneak on another.” It also offers an atemporal narrative about humankind and about his own life. “The film was like time traveling,” he says. “I thought of Ellis Island. I thought of Harriet Tubman with only the North Star to focus on, on those cloudy nights.” His artworks appear like talismans, dividing the twenty-minute duration into loose chapters: a young Holley (Christopher Willis) rides a bike, a sculpture of a ship—a 2018 work entitled The Spirit of the Ship—atop his shoulder; an older Holley, in footage from decades past, chips concrete into a bust. Today, he makes his granddaughter a ring. When he plays piano, fireworks explode.

Holley, who recently turned seventy, has made a career of procuring artifacts from landfills and excerpts from dreams, alchemizing them into sculptures and songs that reflect on memory. His work, which has been exhibited at such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the White House Rose Gardens, began, he says, in 1979, with tombstones he carved for his sister’s children, who’d died in a house fire. After sharing his growing oeuvre with the Birmingham Museum of Art, he met Arnett’s father, Bill, a curator and art historian who has long championed the work of black Southern artists. Publicly sharing his music came later; with Arnett’s support, Holley released his first album, Just Before Music, in 2012, hurling into the world his epic soundscapes, experimental scores that recall both Arthur Russell and Sun Ra.

Cyrus Moussavi, the film’s co-director, first saw Holley at a concert in 2013, bewitched by the cinematic quality of his performance. “I wondered, what would a film that Lonnie conceives looks like?” he explains. With Arnett, producer Brittany Nugent and DP Charles Autumn, Moussavi and Holley shot I Snuck Off the Slave Ship over the course of three weeks in July 2018. In the film’s coda, the song becomes briefly diegetic—he’s suddenly playing it live for the gospel singer Brother Theotis Taylor, Arnett’s friend, who Holley met for the first time during production. Holley hoped the film, like his other works, “would tell as much as it can of the human condition. It’s a metaphor for information. My life’s work has always been about humanity, the lessons that I learned when I started crawling through drainpipes and ditches.” Holley still utilizes landfills as both material sources and barometers for human activity; in the last decade, he’s watched the volume of trash grow. He is terrified of our negligence, our dissociative fugue and of white America’s disengagement with the country’s ugly history, describing himself as “an alarm clock, screaming, ‘wake up.’” He finds our new hyperconnectivity both worrying and profoundly exciting. He is not without hope or optimism. “Who allowed us to become, within ten years, so connected with each other? That means if you’re crying, I’m crying. If you’re in the quicksand of stupidity, I’m down there trying to save you. Mother Universe—she’s still full of wonder.”