By Natalie Willis.
We often speak of Slavery in regards to one demographic in particular and the detrimental effects that remain today – and rightly so. It is a painful legacy, but it is also a shared one. “The Slave’s Lament,” written by Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns in 1792, is a song that spoke to this history in its own time. It is also the title of a work by another Scot, Graham Fagen, who used this song in his presentation at the 2015 Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition. This newer rendition, featuring Reggae artist Ghetto Priest and a string ensemble, serves as the focus and starting point for us to begin to discuss this history through a slightly different lens. The exhibition, “We Suffer To Remain,” opens in March and features Fagen’s artwork along with that of three Bahamian artists, namely: Sonia Farmer, John Beadle, and Anina Major.
Major is a ceramicist and sculpture artist whose work gives us space to look at some of these vestiges and legacies of not only our slave history here in The Bahamas but also our more extensive history and the issues we face as a nation that is struggling to write its narrative and its own story. I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her work and her thinking for the upcoming show.
Natalie Willis: Throughout your practice, your references to the body are quite open and explicit, but I also often see references to mobility. It feels like a bit of a paradox since they are mostly physically static works, but they speak to ideas of movement in a lot of different ways. Speak to me about this a bit.
Anina Major: Anytime we talk about the body or the idea of movement and journeys, and I would even say migration, this is one of the things that comes to the surface for me. I don’t live at home in The Bahamas, and I may go more into that later, but if I wanted to look at this idea of being static and mobile in a more emotional way and dig even further, there is an even bigger question of “what is this desire to travel and to move?”
NW: Yes. Movement (and migration, as you mentioned) are part and parcel of life for us here, for history here. When we have spoken in the past, we often suggest this idea of displacement and the fact that we come “from elsewhere” and this is an idea to which I feel a lot of work in the Caribbean region pays homage. Sometimes if has a specific purpose or else it can exist as a backdrop to understanding the work. In looking at us a place with a diaspora of its own, and as part of the broader Black and African diaspora (historically speaking), how does your work play into this idea of movement or journeys?
AM: I feel like I can’t ever create work without addressing displacement, or migration, or immigration, or the act of belonging somewhere else. Even the idea of not belonging somewhere but still being there. It’s impossible for me to create work that doesn’t address that because of the lifestyle I’ve chosen in living abroad. A big part of it is navigating spaces that I don’t necessarily feel a part of. In a lot of ways, This sense of ‘searching for home’ is always a point that I return to. I’m always coming back to this place that I define as “home,” or as a feeling, I define as home. That’s always going to be the case. Sometimes I think even if I were physically still living in The Bahamas I would have this yearning to go back in time and to try and place myself.
NW: In what sort of way?
AM: By that I mean, what is it that makes me ‘me’? We’re a country and a region composed of people from all over; I don’t think you can dig deep and not end up talking about a journey, or not have some sense of movement or travel involved. All of us were brought here in some capacity; you can’t escape that. It just is a part of who you are, part of your chemical makeup. So the work always hints to a sense of coming from somewhere or going somewhere, or the actual movement to create and produce it. That is irrevocably who we are. I can’t think of any aspect of our society that isn’t the result of the influences or history of other places in combination with what’s here. I don’t know if you can get past that. I think that’s what it is. Works can remain static and of course refer to movement. So the work I make always in some way go back to that idea of movement – even movement in the sense of a particular act being done to make a physical object. For example, “Bessie’s Backbone,” a column of over 100 ceramic parts going from floor to ceiling, this work is – metaphorically and physically – a way for me to work towards trying to compound decades and years of abuse. Compounding it in this way is where I feel it becomes the strength we need or show or try to call upon.
NW: Taking this idea of strength and abuse and pain, tell me about where you think your work speaks to the title of the exhibition. What does it mean when “We Suffer To Remain”?
AM: Even before the show was titled, one thing that’s very evident in Graham’s piece – “The Slave’s Lament” – is this ethereal, almost intangible, and emotional energy that comes from the work that expresses pain. It does so in a very elegant, and sophisticated way. I don’t want to say delightful, but there is a lightness to it despite the weight and heaviness of the subject matter. There is a very spiritual energy that comes from his piece that addresses the pain of slavery. It does it, to me, in an exquisite way. It hits to the core. We can talk about slavery many times, but this piece helps you to feel the effects emotionally that we don’t often talk about. When we talk about suffering to remain I think about the things that continue through time as a result of slavery.
We tend to think about slavery specifically as acts, a constructed system, but I was thinking – in response to feeling this piece by Graham – well, what are the emotional or intangible or non-articulated words and feelings that are passed down? The trauma. We talk about our ancestors and what happened to them, and we think it’s separate and aside. I don’t think it is. I believe that we inherit that in our DNA. We are even starting to see that in science now, that we physically inherit trauma from our ancestors. There are times when this trauma can be triggered. Graham’s piece triggered that in me. I’m not a slave in this day and age, but I can still experience some of those emotions and I can even react to them in a way where I’m not quite sure why I have the capacity to react the way I do. When I’m talking about suffering I’m not talking about it in terms of feeling physical pain; I’m talking about a very emotional way or intangible way of processing. A way of being… it’s a way of being.
“We Suffer To Remain” will open at the NAGB at 7 pm on Thursday, March 22nd, 2018. The NAGB will be hosting a cohort including Scottish artist Graham Fagen and the British Council’s Caribbean Arts Manager, Annalee Davis and Director of Exhibitions, Visual Arts, Gemma Hollington, All openings are free to the public, and all discussion is welcome.