In Wangechi Mutu’s short film Amazing Grace (2005), the artist walks along a beach wearing a white dress. She enters the sea and lies supine in the waves, before appearing to head further into the water. The narrative is ambiguous. Entering the water can be interpreted as a spiritual ritual, an intimation of rebirth or perhaps a renewal of faith. It speaks of pleasure—sensual, libidinal. It also alludes to the countless people who cross oceans, perilously, in search of a better life.
The film unfolds partly through a series of highly sensory details: skin against fabric, the spume of breakers on the shore, water and light appearing to dissolve into their constituent elements. Amazing Grace is also led in part by a song, the famous Christian hymn, written in 1779 by Englishman John Newton (1725-1807), who had been involved in the slave trade before experiencing a spiritual conversion and becoming an active abolitionist. The hymn’s themes of forgiveness and salvation, amplified by its haunting melody, have transcended its beginnings in 18th-century England to resonate with beliefs, causes and sympathies worldwide.
Mutu sings the hymn in her mother tongue, Kikuyu, mindful of its fame and fluidity. Just as the hymn transcends a single reading, Mutu’s film speaks to travails of displaced populations and global crises of migration past and present. A sense of loss, longing and expectation pervades—perhaps for a promise never delivered.