Troubling Narratives: This is how we suffer to remain

By Holly Bynoe

“We Suffer to Remain” is a collaborative exhibition whose seed was sprouted in November 2015, when I was invited to be a part of a curatorial cohort that visited Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland, as a part of the British Council expanding and investing in the emerging and burgeoning visual art ecology in the Caribbean. This meeting set an idea in motion about how institutions in the Caribbean can start thinking in new ways about partnerships and collaborations that, 20 years ago, might not have been possible. The Caribbean as a creative space continues to flourish in its liminality, continues to grow and inspire globally as a cornerstone of excellence but, unfortunately, also continues to be a perpetual site of extraction, exhaustion and removal. Perhaps one needs to be alone with these words to understand the gravitas and the generational weight of our inheritance.

Detail of John Beadle’s “Cuffed: held in check” (2018), a series of corrugated cardboard cutouts investigating representation and stereotyping around blackness as it relates to the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade. All images by Dante Carrer.

This space has always been one that has been fortunate for us; thus today we see the contents and the actions of this seed. “We Suffer to Remain” started as a way for us: The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas in partnership with the British Council – through their “Difficult Conversations” series, centring around the work of Scottish artist Graham Fagen – to remediate and make linkages to a shared history that is often denied or dismissed. A history hidden and poorly articulated and realised within our contemporary society. A history that bears implications far and wide as the oppression and social codes birthed in the wake of this history has left indelible scars for us to reckon with.

Graham Fagen’s 2015 Venice Biennale project The Slave’s Lament finds itself at the core of “We Suffer to Remain”, and it is likened to that seed and the way we begin to unpack our reality, unlearn and relearn our history and unravel the sentimentality and untruths that we have picked up along the way about ourselves. The navel string and centre of our truth are tied profoundly and intrinsically to the transatlantic slave trade, and slavery pioneered by the Empire.

Yet we have a narrow point of view about how it touched us and others across the Caribbean. Indeed, there is a sense in The Bahamas that perhaps the country must have been spared because of its agricultural makeup, its archipelagic sprawl and of course the length of time that slavery was in effect from the late 1700s through 1838. We feel many ways about how much pain we should still carry, how much healing should have been had over these last five centuries; we move between those markers as a way to know ourselves.

Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament begs us to listen in a different way to how another site, Scotland, was affected by the Empire’s colonisation of the West Indies. In its examination of the history, it asks us to pay attention to the iconographic status and nature of the Caribbean and how, as the belly of the world, we have been able to populate, produce and exhaust ourselves in making sense of the legacy of slavery and the remnants that make up our daily lives, from laws that have become fixed, to social codes and mores that tie our hands to service. This region was established for a particular kind of production and, centuries later, we are unable to grapple with and care for the things that we have, whether it be ourselves, each other or the things that we have been left with: an imperialist system of investment and a skewed perspective of what and who we are.

As post-colonial subjects, it becomes essential for us to be able to see history for what it is, not as black and white, but a mass of complicated and muddy grey. And yes, The Bahamas stands apart in some ways culturally as more resilient and nimbler than the smaller nations of the Caribbean. Its proximity to the United States, especially the relationship developed during “The Contract”[1], and the circulation of workers and a skilled labour force in the late 19th century and early 20th century, gave the country ammunition and other kinds of resources and human capital for development. Fast forward centuries later and there is an ambivalence about what slavery did to this space and how to define, embrace and pay homage to our Afro-Caribbean heritage and history.

Fagen’s project takes Robert Burns’ poem of the same name penned in 1792 and presents it in a reggae sound clash/mash-up type with UK based reggae artist Ghetto Priest, singing a haunting refrain over and over with a symphony of strings as an accompaniment to his booming presence. This is a lament to the landscape and the body; here is where the suffering begins and here is where we, as a people show up to endure, persevere and press on. Here is where we stand with our strong backs – historically they can’t be anything else – and we hold strong. Within this symphony, we hear sentimentality and a saccharine reverence. For us as post-colonial subjects and countries, can it be that? Can it be only that? This is the moment of interrogation, the moment where we ask: What else can this chorus – in its synchronicity, beauty and delicacy – illicit in the space of the Caribbean? How can it function outside of beauty and art to be something more agentive? As Kara Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan (or Catastrophe Caravan)[2] closed late February 2018 in New Orleans as a part of “Prospect 4: A Lotus in Spite of the Swamp”, we further acknowledge through its message, location and efficacy that the vestiges and trauma of slavery still profoundly affect the Caribbean and the southern United States. If we are to be honest, neoliberalism coupled with rampant capitalism and the continued flourishing of an unsustainable tourism industry, has whispers very similar to its historical patriarch. After all, the service was once and still is something else – always for another, never for oneself.

“A True & Exact History” (2018), Sonia Farmer, letterpress printed book, Erasure of Richard Ligon’s “A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes” (1657), letterpress-printed and collected into a handmade clamshell box measured, 5.5″ x 13″ (closed box). Edition of 25. Image courtesy of Sonia Farmer.

Perhaps we also need to think about the history of Scotland and the numerous wars and calamities that also met their soil through their challenging and still tense relationship with England. Perhaps we need only look at the referendum in 2017 and the response to Brexit to understand politically how contentious that relationship is, which can further ground Fagen’s interest in this historical material. After all, we aren’t the only colonised people on this planet; that this condition is shared in multiple ways with various cross sections of humanity makes it truly powerful raw material.

However, what would our meditation sound like coming from the inside the Caribbean? How would rebuke feel and how would confrontation manifest? Would it be a gentle and beguiling verse, or would we in the depth of this space and place be able to pull a yawp that could encapsulate the stories of our past and how this continues to shape and inform our Bahamas? How would we render pain? How would we form this moment to respond to and make sense of a project like The Slave’s Lament?

In a place like The Bahamas, the omnipresent cultural amnesia connected to slavery lingers and permeates the very essence of how we come to know ourselves. Over and over we hear it in how the cultural identity is storied and performed; there is also the ambiguity of belonging to the Caribbean – geographic lines put The Bahamas in the Atlantic Ocean, cultural lines put The Bahamas’ foot in Africa, with our eyes turned to the powerhouses of the US and Europe. Yet there is a feeling, a connection that moves inward to being essentially Caribbean.

And so, the invitation to three Bahamian artists to respond to Fagen’s work became the premise of “We Suffer to Remain”. John Beadle, Sonia Farmer and Anina Major – the first practising locally, the others responding from multiple sites across the Caribbean and the United States – have made work reflective of the Caribbean and Bahamian space. Like the flux and fluidity of our spaces, these responses have become more meandering, discursive and challenging during their development over the last six months. The legacy of the birth of the contemporary Caribbean is merely just one way to read the complex projects developed for the exhibition that lend and extend voice to how post-colonial nation-states grapple with their becoming.

This liminal space is something that we remain cognizant of as we unpack, unpick and unravel social tensions within our practice of forgetting and erasure. It becomes pathological – an approach used to diminish ourselves from our history. “We Suffer to Remain” is an attempt to restructure, re-suture, reframe, re-integrate and re-orient ourselves at the centre. It is an effort to make space for our multiplicities, our present and our futures, something that is often a lot more painful and promising than first anticipated.

In continuing the work produced for the Bahamian National Exhibition 7 in 2013 “Antillean: An Ecology”, John Beadle goes even deeper with rigour and intent into amassing figures in Cuffed: Held in Check. Here the figures become more explicit and connected to a power and hierarchy that was somewhat ambivalent in prior iterations. With the expansion of the figures and the way that the bodies are held as chattel, it can’t be mistaken for anything else. Beadle’s materialisation and construction of these figures was heightened by the innocuous and silent way in which Fagen’s work seemed to continuously oppress itself.

“The Slave’s Lament” (2015), Graham Fagen, 5 channel audio/video installation, dimensions variable.

In Cuffed: Held in Check, Beadle reinforces and diversifies the figures, including gendered figures  – women a first for him in this fashion – that move between the maternal/mammy figure. He comments on the hierarchical structures within our society and the placement of the woman as a site of production, a contemporary site of excellence and a figure that has come to represent strength and resilience: the long-suffering matriarch.

Historically, the masculine figures can’t be abstracted from their primary references. Black excellence through athleticism – epitomised by the likes of Usain Bolt and Shaunae Miller, among others – and the rise of the sports industry with its majority shift in major sports like basketball, track and field, boxing, and soccer, support young, virile and powerful black men and women. The freedom of these industries is examined and scrutinised by Beadle; what remains as ever present is the brutal force and system of repression and racism, one that turns back onto itself and consumes itself by eliciting the same kind of behaviours.

Instead of giving freedom to the body, it further restricts its presence and intention. It narrows the possibilities even more and these talents become the shackles by which society and the system take advantage of you, whether that be power affecting relationships or the more widespread fact that these industries and way of life are glorified and seen as the marker of excellence. Taking inspiration from historical depictions, Beadle, an avid practitioner in Junkanoo[3] – Junkanooer – is also taking the craft of pasting and cutting to reinforce and reinstate African and syncretic traditions, how the process itself of this mark making and cutting marries itself to performance.[4]

The incorporation of sound elements using the cowbell – one of the primary instruments used in Junkanoo – to develop rhythm is new for Beadle. The tense and provocative adaptation of the cowbell in tandem with these figures is a signal to the noise that one can also hear in Fagen’s lament. 

Sonia Farmer has constructed a unique letterpress print project based on author, illustrator and plantation overseer Richard Ligon’s 1657 study of Barbados. Using Ligon’s book A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes – which she first encountered in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room during a regional residency at the Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc. ­– Farmer continues to work within abstraction to reformulate and interrogate narratives around the act of slavery and the pseudo historical way in which an Englishman like Ligon viewed the plantation system, the environment around him and various circumstances linked to the enslaved and their behaviour. The piece of literature is one of the first accounts of sugar production and the plantation system in the Anglophone West Indies.

Farmer’s reconfigurations and troubling of the text reveal the many ways in which subjects with power viewed Black bodies. Bringing into sharp focus the physical act of the brutality, violence and authority inherent in language, this abstraction and erasure also gives freedom to many bridges being drawn to and from the weight of our contemporary moment. Farmer – a white Caribbean woman with white, specifically British, heritage – uses this as a moment to subvert Ligon’s power. She puts his observations and engagements next to her emotional rendering and empathy, using these interruptions to speak about her positionality and identity.  Farmer’s A True & Exact History questions her relationship to the violent past while working to eradicate the powers and the normative tendencies of racism, white dominance and the patriarchy in Ligon’s text.

Through Farmer’s excavating/reordering of words, images, the cartography of the landscapes and pseudo-scientific illustrations of palms, pineapples, mythic creatures, we get a sensation that she is trying to find some positionality, and another kind of influence, by nullifying and calling the legitimacy of Ligon’s text into a central conversation. As such, she is slowly subverting the power of the plantocracy with this action to shed light on violence and uoppression in a different way. The Caribbean space and Bahamian society have been so deeply affected, changed and challenged by the violence that this act of erasure gives rise to the power of creative fiction, the agency to draw light from within hearts of darkness, making room for multiple non-narratives that complicate the reading of our past and our present.

Farmer’s erasure can easily be seen as another kind of violence to counter Ligon’s act, presented in a grid-like format, where viewers are invited to complicate the reading and authenticity of this story further; metaphorically, our agency and truth’s freedom, veracity and possibility is called to the forefront of this epic narrative to testify about the things we also choose to erase.

Bessie’s Backbone” (2018), Anina Major, Stoneware, sand, diameter 16 x 175”.

 Anina Major works with sculptural objects fashioned out of various materials including glass, stoneware, sand and iron to move us from the outside of slavery deeply into the physical and psychological innards, with the hopes of unpacking trauma connected to the institution of slavery and its lasting impact on Black bodies.  Using sculpture and moulding as a device and conscious action, Major elicits, provokes and challenges how we think about the things that are left behind: the residue, scars, ruins and the body as more than strange fruit. Through this act of casting, fixing, stacking and forging the physicality of materials, Major uses precious and delicate substance to confront the body’s strength and fragility. This elemental and corporeal exploration of what the body holds, knowledge and memories, are essential components of Major’s practice.

The three bodies of works in unison have presence in relation to what they reference and how they speak about our space as exoticised and co-opted, while the root of the objects recalls something much more sinister. Major takes us to the body, explicitly, and she doesn’t need or ask for our permission to do so. The profoundly layered gestures of pitting fragility and strength against each other are seen so powerfully in all of the works but perhaps most gently and subtly in Wisdom Teeth. Here, glass is fashioned and pulled slowly into teeth and formed so intricately and delicately that one is easily taken aback by the precious and beautiful quality and the horror of reflection of that loss. Linking to deeper African traditions, and the things we lose and those that we choose to remember and practice in our daily lives, Major also casts this object as a surrogate for time and moments gone, which many of us might hold as something sacred to be remembered and treasured. These projects bring to light our tendencies to move towards historical and cultural amnesia.

This slowness with casting – as an act that cures the materials – has another arc and meta-narrative regarding emotional and psychological well-being. In no way can Major’s work be seen as abstracted from the thing that it is. It is evident that these intergenerational dialogues and what is passed on is important to her narrative and the visceral encounter with these materials needs to elicit some understanding of loss.

The elegant Bessie’s Backbone pays testament to the endurance, strength and fortitude of the African diaspora. Here, vertebrae are stacked from floor to ceiling – amplified and yet quiet in their formalism – and we feel the compression and pressure from the weight of history bearing down onto the pieces of clay. There is an absolute embodiment of pain in this work as this column is suspended and stretched out; the stacking reinforces time and the pressure cements our ability to feel the work in a very personal and subjective manner.

 “To Have And Not To Own” (2018), Anina Major, stoneware, iron and flocking, 16” x 16” x 8” . Collection of the artist.

And, in what might be the most political act yet, the subtle and unassuming To Have And Not To Own, confronts colonial legacies, vestiges and legislation that bring into question contemporary Bahamian lives and the rights to own one’s body – women’s bodies in particular[5]. Drawing on the contentious marital rape issue[6], Major uses these elements of being imprisoned to reference the shackles that still exist in our society by the self-hatred, misogyny and violence that perpetuates endlessly. The parallels between ownership of the body historically and today are drawn to the forefront with the woman’s body in particular – her agency and ownership – being disavowed. However, now it isn’t being perpetuated by the plantocracy, instead the rampage is given power by the patriarchy who still hold colonial laws that have been in place since the era of slavery. These laws have been contested by now former colonies and debunked, but here they are held as a hallmark by which legislation is developed and upheld to further subjugate women. The residual effects do not act and function in the shadows, but in a very visible way in our contemporary societies. Major wants for these works to illicit commentary and questioning as to why it exists but isn’t acknowledged as the lineage and the root cause of this behaviour.

The narratives present in “We Suffer to Remain” work to bring attention back to the rich tradition that call and response can afford in the development of national dialogues and art practice. This exhibition helps us to remember our history and it shines light on the most important parts of ourselves, not diminishing our past or turning it into a linear narrative of horror and guilt, but truly making this moment discursive and expansive, which brings generosity back to our creative environment where we can continue to build on these critical historic moments that have shaped us. These conversations, however difficult and tense, are also momentous and timely. They must have safe ground where as a nation we can start to come out of our shell and know our past, as it is a mirror by which we can come to know, see and appreciate aspects of contemporary/current existence.

[1] Also known as “The Project”, the Contract was a farm labour programme established on March 16, 1943 by the governments of The Bahamas and the United States of America. and

[2] The title of this work incorporates the Haitian Creole word for “catastrophe,” and the artist’s two-year journey to make the work.

[3] Junkanoo is a Bahamian cultural celebration that includes dance, music, spirituality, and a celebration of freedom. In its purest form, it was how the slaves expressed jubilation from the their lives of captivity.

[4] “It is a unique embodiment of Bahamian slave spirituality” (Sands, 2003, p 73).

[5] A constitutional referendum was held in the Bahamas on 7 June 2016. Voters were asked whether they approve of four separate constitutional amendments. All four proposals were rejected including an article to revise the discrimination based on sex and gender act.,_2016

[6] On December 15, 2017, Dubravka Šimonović, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, during her inaugural country visit to the country found that Marital rape is the most pressing gender-based issue facing The Bahamas.