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Fragments of Epic Memory: Shaping Perceptions of Caribbeanness

Fragments of Epic Memory: Shaping Perceptions of Caribbeanness

Did you know the Caribbean isn’t just sun, sea and sand?

Did you know that in the background of your tourist ads, there are families, not very far away, but outside the walls of your favorite hotel still experiencing repressive systems? 

As someone who is from the Caribbean, it was a grave culture shock when I discovered the lens through which first generation Caribbean diasporans and people with no attachment to the Caribbean perceive the region. A lot of it is as a result of their disconnected proximity to the Caribbean as a space and identity. People tend to have attachments to the more favorable aspects of the Caribbean experience, a luxury that those who actually live there do not have.

The “Fragments of Epic Memoryexhibition which is on display at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, acts as the perfect moment to truly assess how one may perceive the Caribbean, how that perception was and is shaped, and what the tangible and intangible fragments are that impact how the diaspora and non-Caribbean people navigate Caribbean identity today. This exhibit took its audience through themes of labor extraction, migration, and a renegotiation of “Caribbeanness”, through the lens of artists from the Caribbean and its diaspora. 

Oftentimes, a spectator’s access points to an understanding of Caribbeanness barely gets into the nuances of what it truly means to be from there. For many, the access points such as Caribana, dancehall parties and other cultural productions, offer beautiful contemporary representations, without actually showing the gruesome past that affords this present day reality, and it really isn’t their fault most times. 

Kelly Sinnapah Mary, Notebook of No Return, 2017. Acrylic painting on paper, 43.2 x 50.8 cm. Private Collection © Kelly Sinnapah Mary

Who really wants to get into what informs the true roots of dancehall and how it came out of a history of the rich elite pushing working class Jamaicans to society’s fringes? Who questions the rebellious practice that is playing mas and how it acts as a persistent response to the oppression people of color experienced in Trinidad and Tobago? Many people don’t, and that’s fair.

This exhibition however, provides a perfect opportunity to reassess and reconfigure one’s understanding of Caribbean experiences.

Unknown. Jamaican Women, c. 1900. Gelatin silver print, Overall: 17.5 × 23.5 cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. Purchase, with funds from Dr. Liza & Dr. Frederick Murrell, Bruce Croxon & Debra Thier, Wes Hall & Kingsdale Advisors, Cindy & Shon Barnett, Donette Chin-Loy Chang, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, Martin Doc McKinney, Francilla Charles, Ray & Georgina Williams, Thaine & Bianca Carter, Charmaine Crooks, Nathaniel Crooks, Andrew Garrett & Dr. Belinda Longe, Neil L. Le Grand, Michael Lewis, Dr. Kenneth Montague & Sarah Aranha, Lenny & Julia Mortimore, and The Ferrotype Collective, 2019.. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2019/2210

The exhibition and its direction were birthed out of the curator’s, Julie Crooks’, yearn to posit work that truly explores what it means to be from the Caribbean and its’ diaspora. Crooks’ Afro-Bajan background, with her parents’ connections to the Windrush generation, were important starting points for the conceptualization of this exhibition. This, in addition to the existence of other experiences often held by the Afro-Caribbean and its diaspora (i.e. emancipation, independence, etc.) were also part of its ideation.

Most of the time, perspectives from which people on the periphery view the Caribbean are speculative. The region is overly romanticized through tourist imagery that promote good vibes and “irie mons” that help in the erasure of painful histories that need to be considered in order for us to truly understand the Caribbean’s past and present. 

The ​​Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs acts as the axis for the exhibit carrying the exhibition’s main themes by way of its photographs that date to the post-emancipation era. There are over 3,500 artifacts including daguerreotypes, albums and photographs specific to the period post-slavery (and during indentureship/apprenticeship) and pre-independence. These photographs consisted mainly of Afro and Indo-Caribbean people, who oftentimes seemed disconnected from the purpose of the photograph. 

Unknown. Martinique Woman, c. 1890. Albumen print, Overall: 14.6 × 10.2 cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. Purchase, with funds from Dr. Liza & Dr. Frederick Murrell, Bruce Croxon & Debra Thier, Wes Hall & Kingsdale Advisors, Cindy & Shon Barnett, Donette Chin-Loy Chang, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Phil Lind & Ellen Roland, Martin Doc McKinney, Francilla Charles, Ray & Georgina Williams, Thaine & Bianca Carter, Charmaine Crooks, Nathaniel Crooks, Andrew Garrett & Dr. Belinda Longe, Neil L. Le Grand, Michael Lewis, Dr. Kenneth Montague & Sarah Aranha, Lenny & Julia Mortimore, and The Ferrotype Collective, 2019. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2019/2208

The collection of photographs is reminiscent of Krista Thompson’s work on the ‘tropicalization’ of the Caribbean which she discusses in her book, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography and Framing the Caribbean. In her work, she speaks of the early beginnings of tourism particular to English-speaking Caribbean countries, and how photography played a large part in establishing and maintaining the industry, even to this day. For example, Thompson speaks to the image of a man and his donkey being proliferated and used as symbols to present a “new face” of the Caribbean, during the 1890s, as a response to the English speaking Caribbean being labelled as an area infested with tropical diseases and draws on a memory where she saw that same iconography reimagined on a recent visit to Jamaica. 

This image and several other symbols—of rastas rowing rafts, palm trees as the backdrop to Caribbean livity, etc. are indicative of the spectator’s view of the Caribbean and its people. These symbols have been intentionally constructed to increase appeal for the region as a tourist destination. This acts as a type of violence which has been reproduced, especially as a result of the pandemic. The Caribbean being marketed as “an escape” is rooted in a colonial understanding of what the region is and what its functions are.

Many foreigners chose to visit the Caribbean during the pandemic, escaping from their own country’s lockdowns and stay-at-home orders leaving millions of Jamaican people and tourism industry workers susceptible to contracting COVID-19. This played a large part in COVID-19 numbers skyrocketing in the country, which resulted in adverse effects including bed and oxygen shortage in the hospitals.

Nadia Huggins. Transformations No. 1, 2014. Digital photograph printed on Chromaluxe, 76.2 × 118.1 (both panels + 3.8 cm separation). Courtesy of Nadia Huggins, 2021 © Nadia Huggins.

Throughout the exhibition, certain pieces acted as perfect juxtapositions to the ​​Montgomery Collection. Two such works were that of Leasho Johnson, Sweet Sugar Cane (Male Figure) and Sweet Sugar Cane (Female Figure). In both installations, Johnson seeks to revisit the understanding of the physical cane field as a place of horror. Through his use of dancehall imagery alongside a sugar cane stalk, he gives the figures agency to sever their ties to slavery and reassert the cane field as a place of liberation and pleasure. 

This act of resistance to colonial reality is a shared theme used in Paul Anthony-Smith’s Midnight Blue where he uses a woman who plays a blue devil, a character from Trindad and Tobago’s carnival, as his subject. Participating in Carnival, or the act of playing mas, in the region, acts as a means of cultural resistance against colonial authorities. 

The subject in Midnight Blue is used to display the use of the cultural product as a means of cultural retention and celebration whilst highlighting the rebelliousness of the act. 

This piece acts as a juxtaposition to the actions of the photographers from The Montgomery Collection, who’s methods of capturing their images could be considered as invasive and never with full permission to engage with the subject. Smith uses picotage, a technique used to obscure the image’s subject, as a means of limiting access from the outside in. Now the audience is forced to have a deeper understanding of the image, verses just ingesting tourist symbols. 

When one considers the word ‘fragment’, their initial reaction is to think of the smaller pieces of a larger whole, as opposed to what the whole was prior to being fragmented. This exhibition was Crooks’ attempt at reclaiming the whole as best as she possibly could. When asked what the exhibition’s title meant for her, Crooks said that it mostly referenced the fragmented nature of the Caribbean archipelago and how it comes together. Upon observation however, what stood out more were the tangible and intangible assets that were left as a result of colonialism that a lot of us do not spend enough time taking into consideration. 

Firelei Baez. Left: Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities): Waning, 2019-2020. Oil and acrylic on panel, 289.6 x 198.1 x 3.8 cm The Komal Shah & Gaurav Garg Collection. Right: Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities): Waxing, 2019-2020. Oil and acrylic on panel, 289.6 x 198.1 x 3.8 cm. Private Collection, Toronto, Canada © Firelei Baez, Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York

Fragments took its audience through a variety of emotions and parallels that make you realize that the more things have changed, the more they’ve remained the same. Looking at the Excerpts from Vintage Travel Films makes one think of the Caribbean as a region where labor extraction is still something very prevalent. The existence of unfair work programs such as work and travel in our universities, and the booming BPO sector, is indicative of labor extraction as a colonial relic. In a 2015 study* of nine selected countries in the region, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry grew at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 17% in just 5 years. All this growth with little changes for the workers is a reminder of labor systems endemic to the Caribbean.

From a more tangible standpoint, we should consider being more careful of our relationship with colonial architecture and infrastructure in the Caribbean. A lot of these structures have very incredulous histories, and we often tend to romanticize this through Rose Hall, plantation tours, “colonial architecture” and “plantation features” being advertised by resorts, etc. 

These feelings were triggered, again, through the photographs of buildings and infrastructure such as The Queen’s Staircase, Nassau Bahamas in the Montgomery Collection, and through a painting called Rose Avenue. This brought back memories of stories surrounding the university chapel at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and how it was built from the bricks of an old sugar mill, and the existence of a road built under the directives of Lady Musgrave, just to avoid the house of Jamaica’s first black millionaire. It can be argued that these things cause people to use them as a blueprint of what not to do in the future, and progress. However, they can also be harmful, especially when we consider how we interact with them. 

This exhibition acts as a very good starting point for conversations surrounding the Caribbean identity. It is a hope that the audience does not take it for granted that they’re able to access this new resource and endeavor to really interrogate their view of the region and its inhabitants. While doing so, the observer should also take into consideration decolonizing their view of the Caribbean as a space, and also try to humanize that space. It should also be a goal of those within this space to make an attempt at reconfiguring the present day notions attached to artifacts of colonialism.

** The 2015 Caribbean BPO report was conducted by the Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies (CAIPA).

Fragments of Epic Memory at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W., will run until February 21, 2022.

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