Resting with the Ancestors by Charlie Watts and Tricia Hersey

Charlie Watts and Tricia Hersey

Resting with the Ancestors, 2017, Archival Digital Print Photograph, 76.2 x 101.6 cm, Collection of the artist, Atlanta Georgia, Edition 1 of 10, © Charlie Watts and Tricia Hersey. Photo: Courtesy of the artists

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Rest as Resistance

Commentary by

In a pale yellow gown, performance artist Tricia Hersey lies asleep at the centre of Charlie Watts’s photograph. Numerous rectangles frame Hersey’s reclining body: the wooden bench, the beams of a red iron scaffold, the bricks and windows of an industrial niche. In the midst of all these linear forms, the folds and textures of Hersey’s garments create a contrasting set of effects: lightness, softness, and fluidity—a sanctified realm whose dreamy mood Hersey establishes through her act of sleeping. The white tulle that cushions her head unfurls outward, making her appear like a winged angel.

Hersey is founder of the Nap Ministry, an organization that advocates rest as a form of resistance against contemporary grind culture. According to Hersey, the oppressive mechanisms of capitalism have cultivated a valorisation of overwork that has led to sleep deprivation and chronic exhaustion, particularly among Black Americans and other communities of colour that have been disproportionately harmed and exploited by systemic racism in many of society’s institutional structures.

As the ‘Nap Bishop’, Hersey curates installations and collective napping experiences that guide participants in reclaiming the healing, creative, and liberating powers of rest. Hersey views these acts of communal resting as a form of reparation. The rows of cotton plants in Watts’s photograph allude to the inextricable link between American slavery, the global cotton industry, and the degradation of the Black body within capitalism’s economic logic of labour in the nineteenth century. By sleeping beside the cotton plants, Hersey spiritually connects with her Black ancestors and transforms generations of enforced labour, bodily trauma, and lack of sleep into deep communal rest.

Like the woman of Shunem, who built and furnished a room for Elisha so that he could rest whenever he passed her house on his pilgrimages, Hersey choreographs spaces and opportunities for others to rest as they pursue the spiritual work of reparative social justice. Hersey is not only like the woman of Shunem in her hospitality, however; she is also like Elisha in making real her prophetic vision. Rows of cotton plants stretch from Hersey’s body towards the viewers’ space, as though extending an invitation to join her movement of rest as resistance and reparation.

Lying beneath the beams of the iron scaffold, Hersey recalls the prophet sleeping in his small chamber, caring for his soul and body even as he sets out to do the work of God. 

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