When and Where to Become a Spider?

Between the armpits of fallen statues were spiders’ webs, beyond the resolution of the photojournalist’s camera, lost in the background or out of focus. Ropes lassoed round statues of Edward Colston in Bristol, Jefferson Davis in Virginia, Leopold II in Brussels, Christopher Columbus in Minneapolis, were laced with spiders’ silk. When called for, when one more body was needed, a spider became a human protester, adding their weight to the tug-of-war with history.

I first encountered Anansi as a child in London through my Jamaican grandparents. He was introduced to me as a rogue, a folk-hero, a trickster, part-spider-part-man, who could morph along this spectrum at will. In my mind the image of Anansi continues to shape-shift, sometimes a household spider with a human voice or a human with six arms and two legs, a spider the size of a man with a human face or otherwise a woman 1, an old man seeming frail on a porch in the day - but adopting another form under moonlight, genderfluid and translucent. My Anansi spoke a Jamaican patois.

If we understand the Carribean as a confluence of flows, of peoples, memories, plants, narratives, rhythm and song; thinking with “the movement of the water backwards and forwards as a kind of cyclic [...] motion, rather than linear”2 as the poet Kamau Braithwaite puts it, then it was fitting for me to later learn that the origins of Anansi are West African. ‘Anansi’ derives from the Akan word for ‘spider’. The Akan are an ethnic group living across present-day Ghana and Ivory Coast. The ‘spider stories’, although widespread across West Africa, are most commonly associated with Ashanti oral culture; an intertwined folklore of proverbs, music and prose narratives. Anansi migrated to the Americas on the tongues of those in the belly of slave ships.

This passage across the Atlantic was as transformative of Ashanti cosmology as it was for the enslaved; or to put it another way, the spirits in the sky changed with the fates of those on the waters. Recognising this points to how the Anansi of the Akan, before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, might differ from the Anansi dislocated to the plantations of Jamaica. In the essay "The Exception Who Proves the Rules: Ananse the Akan Trickster", historian Christopher Vescey observes:

‘While Ananse is stealing, his neighbours are co-operating; while Ananse is scheming, his neighbours are planting their crops [...] Ananse threatens societal order but the other characters in the story maintain order. Ananse creates doubt about the permanence and power of Akan institutions; the other characters reaffirm faith in them. Ananse breaks the people’s rules, but the rules still stand.’3

So, in what was felt by the Akan to be a just society, Anansi’s illicit antics could be vicariously enjoyed. Vescey continues,

‘Ananse does not teach morals when he is victorious. It is when he fails that the Akan draw ethical conclusions.’4

Whereas the ancient Akan had faith in their institutions and enjoyed their affirmation through their folklore, what faith could the slave have in the institutions enforcing the plantation?

All too easily we imagine formal institutions as stable and monolithic. This sense is heightened by their longevity, often transgenerational, compounded by a domineering material presence, through architecture (and monuments), technology and the human agents they employ. We ought to similarly recognise such institutions as a confluence of flows, in this case organisations continuously re-constituting themselves through legal systems, protocols, behaviors, finance; commandeering and networking with, other formal institutions. Seen as such perhaps this becomes one means to remain alert to the immense labour they exert and energies they extract to obscure their fragility. Fragility does not negate power, but points to the recurring cracks and glitches something small can slip through. This fragility is persistently disguised through a facade of solidity and the ongoing mobilisation of ‘other/ed’ bodies. Languages, and the folklore they carry, are also meta-institutions, with the capacity to host informal, counter-institutions, brimming with destabilising potential.

The plantation overseer, the white chaplain, the trader importing bananas to Bristol and London: all embodied and served the dominant colonial institutions manifested across the Caribbean islands5. In this world, Anansi, ever the trouble-maker, the unpredictable liar who throws doubt on the concept of truth itself6, becomes an upsetter of imperial hegemony. In the Black Jamaican imaginary, Anansi is aligned with the mutinous Maroons (Africans who escaped slavery and established refuge communities in the mountains, and coordinated multiple rebellions against the British).

It was this Anansi and his ‘spider-tactics’ that were carried by sea on the Empire Windrush from Kingston, Jamaica, to the Port of Tilbury, England, in 1948. Phyllis, Ivan, Esme, David, these young adults who were to become my grandparents, are just four of the thousands that comprise the ‘Windrush Generation’, the islanders arriving from Caribbean countries until 1973, to prop up a depleted post-war labour shortage in the UK. Many of them staffed the newly-born NHS and nationalised railway services, including my maternal grandma, who arrived in London in 1955 to work as a nurse. It was this same generation that were to be wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights, alongside hundreds of other ‘Commonwealth’ citizens, as evidenced in reports that started surfacing in 20177.

My maternal grandparents first lived together in Stoke Newington in North London in the late 1950s, alongside many newly-arrived Jamaicans. It’s an area of London that is still home to multiple diasporic groups including Charedi Orthodox Jewish, Turkish, Kurdish, Vietnamese and South Asian communities. Today, Kingsland Road is lined with small bars, clubs and ‘artisanal’ coffee shops. While Ridley Road Market remains, there is an increasing shift in the demographic towards those in media and tech industries, artists, postgrad students and white cosmopolitans drinking white cosmopolitans. The townhouses on Farleigh Road, like the one that my grandparents once shared with another family and their children - now sell for seven figures. A key factor determining the gentrification of diasporic neighbourhoods is property ownership.

Witnessing the property developments in Peckham, London or Harlem, New York, we can observe that despite generations of black communities living in an area, if they are denied opportunities to buy their homes and business plots, they are easily ousted. As property values rise and high-income individuals or corporate developers enter, historic communities are displaced. Therefore it is not by coincidence, especially in the 1950s, when loans and mortgages were still negotiated through personal dialogues with local bank managers - that black immigrants were disproportionately turned down for mortgages or any larger investment that might have enabled the financial agency to set up a business or purchase a house.

The ‘pardner’, which one could assign as a ‘spider-tactic’, was a collective and communal way to circumnavigate the refusals of formal banking institutions. A pardner is a community money saving scheme that was popular among first generation Afro-Caribbean families emigrating to the UK in the 1950s and 60s. There are variations of the similar schemes practiced by many communities. My grandfather, Ivan, was entrusted as ‘banker’. Every week, for up to a year, a network of people in that cycle - called ‘a round’ - would drop off a ‘hand’ to the banker, which could be anything from £20 to £100. (You could alternatively pair up with someone and each pay ‘half-a-hand’, but you’d be treated as a single entity). One person in the round would then receive all the deposited money from the banker that week. This would enable them to make a large purchase, an investment, or cover a debt that they could not otherwise pay off (or make) without a formal loan, and so bypass lending biases.

The pardner, as an informal institution without recourse to contracts, was dependent on a community network. In these instances, trust (or otherwise, loss of reputation), replaces the legal threat that theoretically maintains discipline across formal institutions. My grandfather arrived in London with three brothers and cousins, all from the same parish, Trelwany, neighbouring Runaway Bay. Familial networks and relationships between other families that had known each other in Jamaica were carried over to London, enabling this trust-based system to work without fear of someone taking their ‘pot’ and disappearing. If you were less familiar or a new face you could still participate, but would receive your pot towards the end of the cycle (i.e. when you had already put in a significant sum through your weekly hand). Having proved your reliability, you could request to receive your pot earlier in subsequent cycles.

Although the majority of spiders are solo predators, there are hundreds of species that live in groups. Multiple spiders working together to build a single web can catch bigger prey and are less vulnerable to other predators. As a group of behavioural ecologists collaboratively researching the African social spider, Stegodyphus dumicola, have observed, ‘...a crucial, yet cryptic benefit of group living is the ability of social groups to acquire wide-ranging information about the current state of their environment by collectively accumulating the narrow experiences of many individuals.’8

In some spider stories, the Akan credit Anansi for gifting humans the art of weaving. The relationship between arachnids and the divine is also found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of Greco-Roman origin myths. In Book 6, Arachne, a Minoan mortal praised for her prowess with textiles, challenges Pallas Minerva, Goddess of Craft and Knowledge to a weaving contest. One translation of the tale recounts an enraged Pallas Minerva grabbing the young woman’s work in rage: she ‘tore the tapestry, embroidered with the Gods’ crimes’9. The trigger for the Goddess’s anger has been Arachne speaking truth-to-power through her weaving. Unjustly punished, Arachne hangs herself, prompting a remorseful Pallas Minvera to turn her into a spider; hence their capacity to spin such fine webs. Through this mytho-poetic lens, Arachne is transfigured for having been unbowed; and so the spider symbolises the spirit that refuses capitulation.

Even before my Grandma Phyllis arrived in London, she sewed as a summer job in her parish, St Ann. Echoing Arachne’s pride she recounts: ‘I learned myself. I born gifted. When we get summer holiday now, I was living with my grandma. I sewed with the dressmaker in the district. She wonders how I could sew so well and no one show me how. I was so good she put me on the wedding dresses after a week.‘ During the Covid-19 pandemic she was one of many volunteers across the UK who stitched additional scrubs (the sanitary clothing worn by surgeons, nurses, physicians and other workers involved in patient care in hospitals) for NHS workers, recalling as she did so, her youth as a barrier nurse at another St Anne’s, the London infection hospital. My mother also knits, making new clothes for the newborns. The dreams of the newly arrived migrant are generational, even more so when navigating the suffocating normitivity of language, gender and ethnicity. For the Windrush Generation, there was a misguided optimism in ‘liberation through education’, not having counted on the racism of the UK education system itself. Nonetheless my mother became the first of her family to enter tertiary education. My sister Tamsin, who now practices as a general surgeon, completes a circle, or stitches a knot. While discussing a forthcoming film we’re making together about her surgical practice, she explained that students are taught suturing techniques on bananas for their equivalence to human skin. The first recorded appearance of the banana in England was in the Holborn window of botanist and merchant Thomas Johnson, on the 10th of April 1633. It came from the recently colonised island of Bermuda.

In Jamaica, the Spanish and then British Empire’s imposition of cultural hegemony across their colonies was executed through attempts to decimate cultural ties to the homelands of enslaved Africans. Not only through punishment for speaking in mother tongues, but the forced embrace of a Eurocentric-Christianity (at the expense of West African religious traditions, and distinct from Christianity’s presence in Africa since the 1st Century via Egypt). A legacy of this endures in the fact Jamaica has the highest number of churches per square mile in the world. My grandparents-to-be had a Westernised Christianity drummed into them. This makes my paternal Grandma, Esme, all the more remarkable for conversion to Islam in her 60s.

The 29th Chapter of the Quran is Al-‘Ankabūt, The Spider. Spiders are afforded a hallowed status in Islamic culture. In part derived from a celebrated story (categorised as athar ‘tradition’ as opposed to appearing in the Quran itself), narrated by Imam ’Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a scholar and theologian of the 8th century. As the story goes, the Prophet hid in a mountain cave with his closest companion Abu Bakr. A spider saved the pair by weaving a thick web across the entrance. Their pursuers presumed no one could be hiding there, since a web of that size could not have been spun so quickly. The tale points to the blessed cunning of the spider, but also encourages us to re-imagine what a web can be; i.e. not only a trap, but a defence or shroud.

Webs in the contemporary Western house or office are rarely afforded such reverence today. Spiders’ webs are considered barely a step removed from dust itself. Hence such throwaway phrases as ‘brush away those cobwebs’. How would this change if we recognised the spider’s web as architecture, not an architecture for the spider itself, but an extension of the human-built building? Perhaps we don't see it this way because it is both unsolicited and too temporary, too soft or delicate, despite our knowledge that spider’s silk is amongst the strongest of materials. Could the inverse be true? From the perspective of the spider, the house might be an extension of their web. What’s at stake in recognising the spider’s web as part of the house is the status of the spider itself. Like ghosts, spiders can be in the house without being part of the household. Never at the dinner table and yet always in the room; so spider-tactics function in the formal institution.

To become a spider requires a sensitivity to the feints of formal institutions, their deployment of camouflage in relation to your own capacity to shape-shift. A friend recounted a time he’d been offered a job interview, but didn’t have a suit. He went to the department store, Marks & Spencers, found one he liked, put it on in the changing room, then slipped out. As he crossed London Bridge, he passed man after man in similar attire, walking in the opposite direction. Wearing his stolen suit, he wondered which of them had similarly stolen theirs. He craved the suit as a symbol of respectability, one that he himself corrupted by the manner in which he acquired that same symbol.

Just as Anansi deploys his capacity to shape-shift, so institutions have their bag of tricks. One trick lies in speech itself. Today we have become over-familiar with hollow speech. We are swamped by press releases strategically crafted for mediatized circulation. They exemplify ‘non-performativity’, as articulated by feminist writer and independent scholar Sara Ahmed, ‘when naming something does not bring something into effect, or when something is named in order not to bring something into effect’10. Equally elusive but as frequent is being-spoken-through: the spokesperson of colour speaking on behalf of a white institution; the single trustee of colour on the board; the sole woman nudged to the centre of a group portrait. While there are those that are ‘spoken through’ somnambulantly, might there be an emancipatory agency to be found in self-consciously operating from this position? We are all ‘spoken-through’ to varying degrees; especially freelancers in the gig economy, who are increasingly brought into proximity and association with formal institutions without becoming contractually part of them. Yet through that affiliation, the institution speaks through us, whilst simultaneously we hope that it might amplify our own speech. In the channeling and overlapping of one mode of institutional voice with our own, we are obliged to recognise that what we call our ‘own’ already constitutes multiple other institutional voices. From this point of recognition there is the possibility we can more consciously conduct the many voices speaking-through-us. Not all that is assimilated is lost.

A second trick is superficial amelioration. In a climate in which corporations are making knee-jerk financial donations, regardless of the figure offered, can anything be donated? For a donation to occur something must be given away, yet within the financial system we are subject to, any sum eventually returns to source. Banking matters.

A third is the weaponization of administration. One response to Black Lives Matter protesters removing offensive statues in public space has been the defence of these monuments by the police. In England, far-right groups are organising ‘defend our memorial’ alliances. These statues had been defended long before police or the far-right arrived on the spot; many of these idols had long been petitioned against, some over generations. Successive governments have consistently ignored such petitions, hoping to wear people down through processes of stagnation. Contrary to the mutable Anansi, these defenders become as rigid as the figures on the plinth, their protection of the statues de-animates them. Rather than shape-shift, they petrify, becoming statues defending statues.

Anansi cannot be reduced to a two-dimensional liberatory figure. To do so would throw away the generative inconsistency he can offer, as Toni Morrison puts it, ‘chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge’11.Instead, by acknowledging the atemporality of a ‘Sky-God’, we can conversely recognise the moments when strategy itself is too contingent on linear, causal time. When there is too much instability for the futurity of planning, in these conditions, spider-tactics become invaluable. To become a spider is not becoming-Anansi, we must each become our own spider, unique from any other. We can weave traps, but the web can also be a defensive tool. The spider can be social and collectivise when necessary. Although spiders have an affinity for corners and in-between spaces, they can be spotted on the ground, on a wall, or in the air suspended by an invisible thread. They operate on the ground as necessary, yet can also hover above it. To not-be-grounded can be essential for survival. To shape-shift is a cognitive act, a reimagining of the self and situation in unison. It is an understanding that this kind of mutability is not a rearrangement of cells, but in our surroundings and relationships. What we see, the spider feels; their awareness of the world is not primarily ocular but vibratory. To move through the world attuned to vibrations is also to see with one’s entire body.

Think back to a moment of breaking a web unintentionally, perhaps walking between trees or pushing an unused gate. There is the lightest resistance, felt only as it breaks. The heaviness of our being is confronted by the lightness of another. The desire to apologise wells inside you, while you are simultaneously aware that you do not have the language to make that apology; and even if you did, it may not or cannot be heard. There are times when the apology must be voiced, even if only heard by oneself, as through speaking to air.