Caribbean Being and Becoming in “Fragments of Epic Memory”

Kelly Sinnapah Mary, "Notebook of No Return," 2017. © Kelly Sinnapah Mary.

In his 1992 Nobel Lecture The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, Derek Walcott characterized Caribbean poetry as a remaking of fragmented memory. The Art Gallery of Ontario’s Fragments of Epic Memory, curated by Julie Crooks and the first exhibition organized by the institution’s Department of the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, takes its title and framework from Walcott’s lecture. The curatorial premise, then, draws on a conceptualization of the Caribbean as an archipelago and diaspora in shared relation. Despite fragmentation and difference across language, geography, and history, communities are forged, often through artistic expression. The exhibition presents a thematic survey of modern and contemporary works by 36 artists of Caribbean descent (Frank Bowling, Aubrey Williams, Wifredo Lam, Sybil Atteck, Christopher Cozier, Nadia Huggins, Sandra Brewster, Ebony G. Patterson, Natalie Wood, and more) alongside the first presentation of images from the AGO’s Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, which focuses on a century of colonial photography from 1840 to 1940. As a Trinidad-born person raised in Canada whose ancestry reflects the region’s histories of enslavement and indenture, Fragments of Epic Memory is affecting precisely because it includes more than one archive. In addition to photographs from the AGO’s Montgomery Collection, the exhibition’s modern and contemporary artworks draw on personal and collective memory of multiple lived realities, histories, and art histories across the Caribbean and its diaspora, to offer a polyvocal account. And while Caribbean survey exhibitions commonly draw on frameworks of multiplicity, Fragments of Epic Memory extends this by responding with a multitude of voices to the singularity and fixity of the colonial gaze.

Firelei Baez. Left: “Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities): Waning,” 2019-20. Right: “Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities): Waxing,” 2019-20. © Firelei Baez, Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York

For the AGO, both the newly inaugurated department and Fragments of Epic Memory are part of an institutional strategy to address historical erasures and, in my view, legacies of framing so-called “primitive” art. The AGO’s African Art gallery now includes modern and contemporary work by African artists installed alongside objects from their permanent collection of African art, highlighting a continuity of artistic practices and an acknowledgement of the AGO’s past omissions. A similar curatorial strategy is at work, here, in the way this show enables an encounter between the colonial photographs (installed in display cases at the center of the exhibition) and surrounding works. Fragments of Epic Memory, however, is a major exhibition undertaking. Instead of attempting to recuperate a collection of objects acquired decades ago, Fragments troubles the recently-acquired colonial photographs: curator Crooks places them in relation with Caribbean artworks that hold a liberatory politics for the present and future. In this pairing, Caribbean being and becoming take center stage.

The so-called emancipation of enslaved Africans across the British Empire came into effect in 1838, followed by an exploitative system of indenture to replace the enslaved on Caribbean plantations. Between 1838 to 1917, approximately one million people migrated to the region as indentured laborers with the majority from India and China. The 200 selections from the Montgomery Collection in Fragments of Epic Memory reflect these diasporas within the Caribbean, but a colonial gaze informed the images’ making and circulation. The photographs include plantation workers, market scenes, formal portraits, and “tropicalized” landscapes.  Surrounding the Montgomery Collection, we are propelled through the space by Modernist paintings, contemporary photography, mixed media on paper, and video installations. Viewers shift back and forth between center and periphery, mirroring the gazes—colonial and refusing—that define the mutual entanglement of visual culture and artistic production from the colonial era to the present.

Unknown. Jamaican Women, c. 1900. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2019/2210

In the exhibition, lasting intergenerational trauma shifts to nostalgic images of childhood play in the Caribbean Sea; elsewhere, remembering is made possible by a post-war family album. Across this scope, both personal and collective memory offer much-needed responses to colonial and neocolonial imaginings. The rupture of the Middle Passage endures in haunting memory and ghostly presence in Guyanese-born British painter Frank Bowling’s Middle Passage (1970). The painting references the forced and brutal passage across the Atlantic Ocean experienced by millions of enslaved Africans. The work’s luminosity seems incongruous with its subject; however, its fiery reds, which cover the canvas along with bright yellows and oranges, emanate an incandescence. A close look reveals faint portraits (more like traces) in ink, of mostly young faces, repeated to spectral effect. The work also includes outlines of Africa and the Americas—common to Bowling’s “map paintings.” In a 2021 interview, Bowling recalled a revelation he had during a 1989 trip home. Despite several decades living and working in London and New York, the artist came to understand that, in his work, “the light is about Guyana.” Although he left the Caribbean at nineteen and has since exhibited primarily outside the region, Middle Passage draws from modernism’s transnational grammar to offer a translation, one that could hold and express childhood memories of Guyanese light.

Nadia Huggins, “Transformations No. 1,” 2014. Courtesy of the artist, 2021 © Nadia Huggins.

My recollections of San Fernando, Trinidad are few and fragmented, a nostalgia more imagined than real. For this reason, I am drawn to Trinidad-born artist Nadia Huggins’s video Circa no future (2016-19) which captures childhood memory in formation. In the work, Huggins documents a group of young adolescent boys as they dive off a coastal rock into the sea waters of Indian Bay in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Circa no future takes its title from text on one of the boy’s T-shirts. With this, Huggins signals the indeterminacy of a precarious future, although the work is, above all, a depiction of Caribbean boyhood. The boys swim towards Huggins’s underwater camera against an array of aqueous colour: cyan, turquoise, and deep blue. The boys’ playful jumps and dives are reversed so they fly out of the sea into an afternoon sky. The effect of these temporal manipulations is to emphasize a multitude of possibility—a conferring of freedom—offered by the sea. For Huggins, the boys’ fearlessness renders them changed: “They emerge having proven themselves” to each other. In Circa no future, the liminality between surface and depth is not only a refuge but also a place of making.

The rich archive of the family photo album, particularly for tracing memories across generations, offers another place to seek comfort. Toronto artist Sandra Brewster’s photo-based Feeding Trafalgar Square (2021) is deeply familiar. A large 1970s portrait of Brewster’s Guyanese mother on wood panel, the work evokes the type of family archival image I cherish, printed photographs of my parents in their young adulthood, with years of handling visible in scratches and fade. Commissioned for Fragments of Epic Memory, the black-and-white image (its only color an azure blue painted over her mother’s long coat) depicts Brewster’s mother feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square with arms outstretched. More than an image of popular tourism, the work portrays a Guyanese-born woman in the center of the metropole during a period of significant Caribbean migration associated with the ‘Windrush’ generation (Guyana, a former British colony, became independent in 1966). Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, many Caribbean folk left the region in search of opportunity abroad (which served the labor interests of the nations where they hoped to settle). In Feeding Trafalgar Square, Brewster draws on her family archive to remember a wider network of Caribbean movement and exchange that fed—and continues to sustain—Britain (and Canada and the United States) economically, culturally, and artistically.

Sandra Brewster. “Feeding Trafalgar Square,” 2021. © Sandra Brewster. Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

 

Gomo George, “Women’s Carnival Group,” 1996. Courtesy of the artist. © Gomo George.

If we are lucky, a family home holds our dearest memories and deepest intimacies. The sacral space of the home is evoked in Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson’s three-channel video …three kings weep… (2018). Installed like a triptych altarpiece, before church pews for viewing, the video begins with three Black men in front of ornate floral wallpaper. An arrangement of fluttering butterflies haloes the softly weeping subjects as they hold the viewer’s gaze. The men’s expressions are assured, often defiant, even as their cheeks are streaked with tears. They first appear shirtless, ringless—unadorned—while a boyish voice intermittently recites Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay’s 1919 poem “If We Must Die.” One by one, the men don (or more precisely, remove in reverse playback) brightly colored clothing, rhinestone chest pieces, layered chains, and jewelry as if to say, “see me in all my beauty” (reminding me of Zora Neale Hurston’s “will to adorn”). In the video, Patterson presents dancehall-inspired fashion and the weeping men, in all their expressivity, to insist upon our witness of Black Caribbean masculinity in all its multitudes.

Installation view, “Fragments of Epic Memory,” September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2022. Art Gallery of Ontario. Work shown: Ebony G. Patterson, “….three kings weep…,” 2018. Photo @AGO.

Caribbean art is neither wholly indebted to Euro-American artistic traditions nor is it without its own modernisms alongside the contemporary. The Montgomery Collection presents images of Caribbean lives during the colonial period—often exploitative and at times self-fashioned—that implicates many of us in the conditions of their making. But the exhibition presents memory-making as ongoing and contemporaneous. So as someone who remains deeply curious about their birthplace and family history, I know that what I am searching for is not in the exhibition’s display cases but in the memory work of the modern and contemporary Caribbean artists included: those who hold the past close as they look forward.

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