Out of horror and destruction there can come creativity and beauty.
That idea is explored in “everything slackens in a wreck,” an art exhibition to be held at the Ford Foundation Gallery, New York – the first physical show since the gallery closed in January 2020.
Curated by Trinidadian artist, author and professor Dr Andil Gosine, the exhibit will take place from June 1-August 20.
Gosine explained that it combined and re-imagined artifacts and images associated with indentured labour. Artists include Margaret Chen of Chinese-Jamaican decent from Canada, Andrea Chung from the US who has a Chinese-Jamaican father and a Trinidadian mother, Indo-Trinidadian Wendy Nanan, and Indo-Guadeloupean Kelly Sinnapah Mary.
Gosine, a professor of environmental arts and justice at York University, Toronto, and author of Nature's Wild: Love, Sex and Law in the Caribbean, said he thinks of the Americas as the product of wreckages – colonial ships, ships carrying slaves, and ships that brought indentured labourers.
Wreckage evokes colonialism and the destruction left in its wake. But those who were marginalised engaged in “wrecking work,” answering the destruction with art that offers order, alternate visions of existence, and co-existence.
“Indentureship is this important moment after the abolition of slavery that, of course, impacts the whole make-up of the Caribbean, but it often doesn’t get registered. For me, in looking at the indentureship work, and looking generally at the Caribbean, people arrived and things were striped from them whether it was through genocide of Amerindians or the enslavement of African people – people lost everything, including their lives.
“But, at that same moment, the resilience of the human spirit is such that these exciting new things are created. I mean, Trinidad without doubles?! What would we do?!”
He added that, in his opinion, one good wreck was that the caste system of India did not make it to TT, which allowed for lives and circumstances to be reshaped.
He said he was tired of the “suffering tone” adopted when it comes to work about the Caribbean. With that in mind, he preferred to highlight the creativity of the people who went through those challenges, thereby showing their strength, resilience, creativity, and inventiveness.
“For me it was important to look back at this brutal history of the Americas and not just see the brutality. Because simultaneously, whether it was indigenous, enslaved or indentured people, no matter how horrible the conditions, they had to find ways to find moments of pleasure and joy to just survive.”
Those coping and survival mechanisms resulted in the way these Caribbean countries are now.
Gosine said he initially proposed the exhibition to the museum in 2018, but its 2020 launch was delayed because of the pandemic.
The idea came to him in 2012 when he was assigned to review a Caribbean contemporary art show at the Queens Museum in New York. He said although the area around the museum had a large Indo-Caribbean community, there was little representation in the show.
“It made me more curious to find out who were the contemporary visual artists who have come out after indentureship. So I started doing research on who they were and what they were making.”
In 2014, he started a research project titled Visual Arts After Indenture, where he catalogued artists around the world who were descendants of primarily Indian and Chinese indentured workers. At the same time he did his own art projects in which he delved into his own history and indentureship.
He chose four of those artists and invited them to participate in everything slackens in a wreck. He stressed that, while all of the artists in the show are women and Caribbean, it is not a show of Caribbean women artists. Still, he believes it is the first time Caribbean women from the indentured community have taken up so much space in an exhibition in Manhattan.
He told Sunday Newsday he chose Nanan and Chen because they are “of a certain generation” and he wanted to use some of their work that already existed.
“I felt they were women artists that did not get their due. I like their work a lot. I am in awe of their talent, their complexity of thinking and their work is beautiful.”
Meanwhile, Chung and Sinnapah Mary, who are in their 40s, created pieces specifically for the show.
He said what is available in public discourses is usually the big, broad stories that do not pay attention to the context or details. Therefore, he asked the artists to bring their own stories to life, to highlight what is important to them, so the pieces do not represent a whole country, race, or culture but instead shows the complexity of the individual.
Among other things, Sinnapah Mary produced paintings with layer upon layer of paint and meaning, with one of them being about 25-feet wide. While Chung built large weaver bird nests which she wanted to make out of sugarcane sourced in Princes Town. One nest is 25-feet wide and the smell of sugar cane permeates the air of the gallery.
He stressed that pictures could not do the pieces justice in terms of scale, texture, detail or experience.
After such a long time from proposal to execution, Gosine said the exhibit feels true to the vision he had. He thanked the Ford Foundation Gallery director, Lisa Kim, for her trust and faith in the artists and him as a curator.
“Working with her was such a dream. I felt like I learnt from her and she let me realise the project I wanted to realise. That was my approach with the artists as well. You do what you’re already doing because you’re already great at it. And it worked.”
Gosine added that he is excited to return home and bring a different show to Trinidad in mid-October.