When Baltimore artist Nicoletta Daríta de la Brown submerged herself in a tank at the National Aquarium’s Jonestown Animal Care and Rescue Center in April, it was the result of months of preparation.
In a futuristic-printed full-body swimsuit, she twirled alone in the crystal-clear water. For 45 minutes, she felt like the turtle she had seen aquarium workers rehabilitating at the rescue center in February.
“It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever done and has shifted the way that I feel about my body,” de la Brown, 42, said. “I was one of the animals in the hospital, one of the beings, being healed … I’ve never felt that before.”
De la Brown, a Baltimore-born performance artist with Panamanian roots, was “doing ritual,” she said, a practice that is spiritual, but also feels like dance and play.
Video footage of her aquatic experience, captured by her teenage son, Victor Rei Brown, will be shown at the National Aquarium in Baltimore on the evening of July 20, during “Voyages: Chapter 3,” the latest installment of a new series that re-imagines the aquarium-going experience for adults.
For two nights each year, there are no tantrums or toddler-sized hands reaching into touchpools. Voyages, launched last year, caters to Baltimoreans 21 and older — with local food vendors and boozy beverages, in addition to all the aquarium typically has to offer.
“Voyages is for grown-ups to get to press their nose against the glass,” said Sarah Doccolo, the National Aquarium’s community programs manager. “We were trying to figure out, who’s not coming to the aquarium, but would, if we gave them a good reason to?”
A focus group provided the answer, leading to a series of events mixing art and science, Doccolo said.
As the aquarium’s latest artist-in-residence, de la Brown chose to dive into “the healing power of water” and “neutral buoyancy,” a state in which animals neither sink nor rise to the surface, she explained.
“If we have access to water, for me, then I have access to healing,” she said.
De la Brown’s identity also influenced her work, as she explored aspects of the aquarium that are commonly overlooked, including the life support systems that make all of the tanks habitable for each animal.
“Often, the things we don’t see are not honored. And as a Black woman, often I’m not seen and not honored,” she said.
A similar theme emerged from her experience swimming at the Animal Care and Rescue Center, where she did some of her research leading up to her underwater show.
“I don’t see a lot of images of Black women dancing underwater,” said de la Brown. “[Water] belongs to me too, even though you may not see me in it.”
What resulted from her exploration of the aquarium and the rescue center is a collection of 11 photos and videos that will be projected in the Blue Wonders galleries and in the dolphin underwater viewing area. De la Brown, who is also a chamána (shaman), will perform a live ritual, wearing a headdress and outfitted in crystals from head to toe, she said.
“There’s a traditional kind of event happening, that becomes really innovative, because it’s tied around this artistic installation that is inspired and infused by science,” Doccolo, 36, said.
“And then again, you’re feet away from a shark,” she added.
Voyages grew from the Marjorie Lynn Bank Lecture Series, which Doccolo said the aquarium began re-imagining in 2021 to suit a new audience.
“This audience, we want it to be reflective of the city we live in,” she said, “definitely more reflective of Baltimore City residents, so younger, a more diverse audience, hoping to build programs that are more appealing to people of color.”
It felt like a dream partnership to de la Brown, who worked at the aquarium as a “greeter” when she was a student at Baltimore School for the Arts and had experience as a lifeguard in Baltimore. Later, as a mother of four, de la Brown said she brought her children to the aquarium frequently.
Water also played an integral role in her 2019 photo and video series titled “Ritual Bath.”
To prepare for her artistic debut at the aquarium, de la Brown said she spent weeks speaking with experts there and elsewhere, including marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols and journalist Bonnie Tsui.
“My brain cracked open,” de la Brown said, describing their conversations.
Tsui, the Berkeley, California-based author of “Why We Swim,” a book that explores water’s grip on humans, said she and de la Brown swapped stories of their own experiences with water when they talked via Zoom in March. They also discussed the barriers that prevent some from accessing water, she said.
“The history of pools and beaches … those are privileged spaces in America,” Tsui said. “How do you remedy that?”
The Voyages program, she said, offers a special opportunity for people from different fields to come together.
“I just love the creative friction and generative experience of these kinds of conversations,” Tsui said. “[The artists are] bringing us to a new understanding of what the world around us is and what it can mean.”
The program also is bringing a new understanding between the aquarium and Baltimoreans who live nearby the city landmark.
Jenny Hamilton, the aquarium’s director of community partnership strategy, said the response from residents has been “very validating.”
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“Like, ‘Oh, this is for me’ … that is what we’re hearing constantly,” Hamilton said.
The first two iterations sold out, attracting around 500 attendees each.
For the inaugural Voyages event last July, Baltimore-based beatboxer Dominic Shodekeh Talifero transformed his interest in animal communication into an immersive evening of sound, transmitted via headphones, with complementary videos from artist Erica Hansen, whose work focuses on ecology. He pulled the feat off after months of preparation and conversation, including with bioacoustics experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The second time, in November, musicians Jessica Keyes and Patrick McMinn teamed up to create a “musical representation of oxygen levels changing” in the waterways around Baltimore, Doccolo said. The pair took inspiration from filtration — specifically by oysters.
This month, when de la Brown takes over the aquarium for the third Voyages program, the focus will be on visual art. A fourth installment in November will feature Baltimore-based drag queen Devon Vaow (aka Evon Michelle).
“I hope that people leave something that no longer serves them behind,” de la Brown said about her expectations for the event. “Leave it, give it to the water. Because she can handle it.”
“Voyages: Chapter 3,″ July 20, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Tickets are $50 via Eventbrite.com. There are 60 free tickets set aside for people who are experiencing economic adversity; applicants who fill out a form are selected at random. Food from local vendors, including Arepi, Heritage Kitchen and Waffle-Licious, will be available for purchase in addition to beverages curated by culinary artist Cieara Adams. Baltimore dance troupe Ballet After Dark will perform and DJs Solrac and Lang will close out the evening.