A Sankofic Love Letter

Caribbean Diasporic Identities at the AGO
By Ashley Marshall
Nadia Huggins. Transformations No. 1, 2014

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.

Fragments of Epic Memory
September 1, 2021, to February 21, 2022
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario
Curated by Julie Crooks

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"until we meet again…the diasporic is an act of will and memory" – bell hooks

In a TVO special1https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_6mgbRSUzo, Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott reads "Light of the World," a phrase once said by Jesus to describe himself. About his use of this edict in his own writing, Walcott says “The Light of the World is not necessarily religious. It’s the kind of light you see at four to five o’clock in the afternoon in the tropics, especially on slanted walls and so on,” a tribute to the islands whose natural mystic we are made of.

Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario. Exhibition entrance

Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario. Exhibition entrance. Photo © AGO

Jeannette Ehlers, Black Bullets, 2012

Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario. Work shown: Jeannette Ehlers, Black Bullets, 2012. Photo © AGO

Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario

Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo © AGO

Ebony G. Patterson, …three kings weep…

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

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Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario. Exhibition entrance
Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario. Work shown: Jeannette Ehlers, Black Bullets, 2012
Installation view, Fragments of Epic Memory, September 1, 2021 – February 21, 2021. Art Gallery of Ontario
Ebony G. Patterson. ...three kings weep..., 2018. three-channel digital colour video projection with sound, Running Time: 8 Minutes, 34 Seconds. Purchase, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020. © Ebony G. Patterson, courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. 2019/2469
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The Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit Fragments of Epic Memory, references a title adopted from Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel lecture, "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory." The exhibition takes up the entire fifth floor of the AGO. Curated by Julie Crooks, this is the first exhibition from the gallery’s Department of Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, which was created in October 2021. About the department Crooks says she is looking forward to "hire more staff, and hopefully create a sustainable model and pathway to build a department that has some longevity. My mind is on generating endowments and continuing to foster compelling exhibitions, programming, publications, and develop new voices."

the art of Caribbean people is always both a search and a demand


Featuring over 30 artists of Caribbean descent, many of whom also share an identity with Canada, the works displayed read as a Sankofic love letter: a reaching back to see, feel, connect to and be in community with the roots that map our freedom. Each work emits a (re)quest for home and belonging. While walking through the gallery space and feeling the presence of each work, I could only feel that the art of Caribbean people is always both a search and a demand; an exploration into our interiority and a beckoning to be recognized beyond the surface. Our gaze is welcome and deliberate. This exhibition was curated with Caribbean people and our experience(s) at the forefront, an enclave of recognition I can only find in people who understand the rhythms of get up, stand up and "when music hits you feel no pain."
Unknown. Martinique Woman, c. 1890

Unknown. Martinique Woman, c. 1890. Albumen print, Overall: 14.6 × 10.2 cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs.

Unknown. Jamaican Women, c. 1900

Unknown. Jamaican Women, c. 1900. Gelatin silver print, Overall: 17.5 × 23.5 cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs.

Duperly Brothers. Port Royal, Jamaica, c. 1890

Duperly Brothers. Port Royal, Jamaica, c. 1890. Albumen print, Overall: 25.6 × 36.2 cm. Gift of Patrick Montgomery, through the American Friends of the Art Gallery of Ontario Inc., 2019. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2019/3071

Ebony G. Patterson. ...three kings weep..., 2018

Ebony G. Patterson. ...three kings weep..., 2018. three-channel digital colour video projection with sound, Running Time: 8 Minutes, 34 Seconds. Purchase, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020. © Ebony G. Patterson, courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. 2019/2469

Firelei Baez. Left: Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities): Waning, 2019-2020

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

Gomo George. Women’s Carnival Group, 1996

Gomo George. Women’s Carnival Group, 1996. Water colour on Rag Paper, 55.9 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Gomo George

Nadia Huggins. Transformations No. 1, 2014

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.

Paul Anthony Smith. Untitled, 7 Women, 2019

Paul Anthony Smith. Untitled, 7 Women, 2019. Unique picotage on inkjet print, colored pencil, spray paint on museum board, 101.6 × 127 cm. The Hott Collection, New York. © Paul Anthony Smith, Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Kelly Sinnapah Mary, Notebook of No Return, 2017

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

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Unknown. Martinique Woman, c. 1890. Albumen print, Overall: 14.6 × 10.2 cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs.
Unknown. Martinique Woman, c. 1890. Albumen print, Overall: 14.6 × 10.2 cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs.
Unknown. Martinique Woman, c. 1890. Albumen print, Overall: 14.6 × 10.2 cm. Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs.
Ebony G. Patterson. ...three kings weep..., 2018. three-channel digital colour video projection with sound, Running Time: 8 Minutes, 34 Seconds. Purchase, with funds from the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2020. © Ebony G. Patterson, courtesy Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. 2019/2469
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
Gomo George. Women’s Carnival Group, 1996. Water colour on Rag Paper, 55.9 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Gomo George
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.
Paul Anthony Smith. Untitled, 7 Women, 2019. Unique picotage on inkjet print, colored pencil, spray paint on museum board, 101.6 × 127 cm. The Hott Collection, New York. © Paul Anthony Smith, Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Paul Anthony Smith. Untitled, 7 Women, 2019. Unique picotage on inkjet print, colored pencil, spray paint on museum board, 101.6 × 127 cm. The Hott Collection, New York. © Paul Anthony Smith, Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
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Displays ranged from passport photos of Chinese migrants to Trinidad; Ciguapa bursting into a colourful, borderless representation of our futurity; one-channel videos of our recreation; coral seascapes made of sugar to depict the plantations we mined and the seas that carried us, dissolving; self-portraits of Creolized identity, and much more.

One piece that stood out to me was from artist and member of community Peter Dean Rickards, born in Kington, Jamaica in 1969 and died in Brampton, Ontario in 2014. About their work, Proverbs 24:10, the epigraph reads

If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength? Proverbs 24:10
Peter Dean Rickards. Film still from Proverbs 24:10, 2008. Video with sound. Courtesy of the Estate of Peter Dean Rickards – Diana and Peter Rickards Trustees.

"A self-described 'media terrorist,' Peter Dean Rickards worked in various disciplines and, in the dial-up internet era, helped launch Kingston Signals, a radio show that broadcast live events featuring top dancehall artists. But Rickards's most notorious accomplishment was The Afflicted Yard, an online gallery where he used his provocative photographs and videos as a counterpoint to stereotypical touristic perceptions of Jamaica. While shooting a music video in Kingston, Jamaica, Rickards captured young men performing dancehall moves, then set the resulting black-and-white slow-motion footage to a melancholic song by singer/songwriter Nick Cave to create Proverbs 24:10. The title references a poignant Bible verse – "if you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength?" – as a tribute to the resilience of the underdog in Jamaican society.

As one of the first artworks on display upon entering the space, I was enraptured by the movement of the male bodies to dancehall moves distinctive to the embodiment, liberation, and physicality expressive in high energy dances from the Caribbean. The dancing against a sombre song was jarring. Music of my island undoubtedly becomes my pulse and my feet, hips, and hair flow along. This time, I stood still, watching, confused by the joy I was missing, and instead grounded in a new experience of looking and not dancing. Of looking to see first and connect second. Of looking at a creative remix I would have to learn a moment longer before I could join in. I was abstracted from my culture and had to experience it before I could participate. I can usually catch a beat automatically. My senses were instructed to slow down, feel something other than the music, and then catch that wave once I understood. The art led, and for the first time, I had to follow a melody I could only feel but not hear. I was small, belated, and too far away, yet I was able to find a place of belonging to a genealogy much larger than myself, transpose time to revel in the archives of music, and add some spice to Toronto, for a moment and forever. Within minutes of being in the gallery, I found home.


This is a welcome shapeshifting; unlike the codeswitching we must perform in white spaces. This was a transformation of gratitude and not the grotesque.


There were portraits with landscapes in the background that I had known, hills I could swear I have climbed, only to look again and read more to find out I was looking at an island and a people I have never seen. The archipelago exits in the nature of the land, and the indigeneity of the people. Out of many, we have always and will always find distinction and oneness. As is our power. This is a welcome shapeshifting; unlike the codeswitching we must perform in white spaces. This was a transformation of gratitude and not the grotesque.

While absorbing the experience of the exhibition, this bell hooks quote came to mind from her 1995 text Art on My Mind: Visual Politics: “In a democratic society art should be the location where everyone can witness the joy, pleasure, and power that emerges when there is freedom of expression, even when a work created evokes pain, outrage, sorrow, or shame. Art should be, then, a place where boundaries can be transgressed, where visionary insights can be revealed within the context of the everyday, the familiar, the mundane.” I felt a type of radical existence that comes from being a Black woman who is enjoying art, and all of the capillaries that are activated while doing the emotional labour of being represented.

I spoke to curator Julie Crooks about her choices from the collection, about which she explains:

“The historical photographs are full of labour. The picturing of labour to extractive economies during the fraught period of post-emancipation in the region. I made it a mission to look specifically for moments where the subjects were at rest, at play, or other forms of leisure or the mundane. However, there are a dearth of such images in the collection. This underscores the kinds of carefully constructed images of the Caribbean produced by European and American photographers at the time.” (Crooks, 2022)

My understanding of Blackness being was expanded.

Crooks curated Fragments of Epic Memory with the intention of “contesting the one-dimensional stereotype of the Caribbean and its histories, to allow more space for the myriad experiences, histories, geographies, languages etc in the region.” (Crooks, 2022)

Crooks went on to explain her own emotional labour that made this exhibition so human:

“In writing the introduction for the upcoming catalogue setting up the framework for the show, I begin by thanking my mom. I gave a lot to this show emotionally and personally. There are objects from the Barbados Museum and Historical Society that we borrowed for the exhibition. And works by artists who live and practice in the Caribbean. Making these connections was very important in order to underscore connections between the local and the global and to give visibility to a wide range of contemporary art making. It was also interesting the number of Caribbean women associated with planning the exhibition from the Project manager, design consultant to the curatorial assistant and consultant editor. They brought an expertise of history, place and knowledge of the Caribbean that was integral to both the vision and framework of the exhibition.”


This exhibition encourages the decolonization of minds; a different way to see the story of the Caribbean unfolding


Against a far wall were three individually encased daguerreotypes, the first of which was by W.H. Freeman of the “H.M.S. Dauntless in Quarantine for Yellow Fever Outbreak, 1853.” Masked and standing six feet apart while taking in the art of the diaspora, the six degrees of separation between Caribbean people could not feel any closer. There was a distinction between each island and the history of their inhabitants, as well as a simultaneous proximity to culture and a proud connectiveness. This was a grounding feeling, one that makes the cyclic nature of time felt. Here, in our own experiences of quarantine, I could not help but feel rooted, and adrift. Rooted to the lands and peoples I could see that I come from, and floating through a time of danger, disease, and stillness. This image in particular encouraged time to become more still, flat like the water in the image, hyper aware of what one touches, senses, allows to be breathed into themselves. This exhibition encourages the decolonization of minds; a different way to see the story of the Caribbean unfolding, one that keeps omens near, and reminds us that we have already survived.
W.H. Freeman. H.M.S. Dauntless in Quarantine for Yellow Fever Outbreak, 1853. Daguerreotype, 7 x 9 cm. Private Collection. Photo: © AGO
W.H. Freeman. H.M.S. Dauntless in Quarantine for Yellow Fever Outbreak, 1853. Daguerreotype, 7 x 9 cm. Private Collection. Photo: © AGO
W.H. Freeman. Church of St. Matthias, Barbados, 1853. Half-plate daguerreotype, 11 x 14 cm. Private Collection. Photo: © AGO
W.H. Freeman. Church of St. Matthias, Barbados, 1853. Half-plate daguerreotype, 11 x 14 cm. Private Collection. Photo: © AGO
The temporal distance was truncated, reminding me to fully be in the circular time of revolution rather than the linear time of evolution; knowing from where we come guides us forward. I thought of the interregnum – “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters2Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks..” I thought then of the “wake work” described by Christina Sharpe; the weather, the containers, the path that history leaves for us to navigate and the care it requires to do so. I was brought back into time and place as I pondered the multiple pandemics that have been illuminated within the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black people whose work was appropriated now that “we are all in the same boat.”

I introspected about artists as doulas, renewing humanity and ushering in the new world, the dreamers, the radicals, the ones who birth fresh ideas toward liberation


I could only crack a half smile as I introspected about artists as doulas, renewing humanity and ushering in the new world, the dreamers, the radicals, the ones who birth fresh ideas toward liberation and let die the ideologies that are decaying. The words of the right excellent robyn rihanna fenty3stylized in memoriam to bell hooks made my smile full:

“I am a Black woman. I come from a Black woman, who came from a Black woman, who came from a Black woman and I’m going to give birth to a Black woman. My mother is an incredible example of how to fight through obstacles in life. I’m sure her mom taught her that and that’s how I’m going to be. We are impeccable, we’re special and the world is going to have to deal with that4https://www.essence.com/entertainment/rihanna-calls-black-women-impeccable-diamond-ball//.”

From the fifth floor I descended the curly staircase designed by Frank Ghery. That gave me time to hold my pride. I made it to the ground level where I took in the work of Jorian Charleton, a young photographer and friend from years ago whose work was mounted in her exhibition, Jorian Charleton: Out of Many. In between floors, I also took notice of Robert Houle’s exhibition Red is Beautiful, about which the AGO says “Themes…include Sacred Geometry, The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones, Beyond History Painting, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Residential School Years, and Sovereignty.”

Black people were at the beginning and the end of my experience, with First Nations in the middle, connecting me to both. Jorian’s work critiques respectability politics by using freedom of expression, sexuality, and unapologetic eye contact to let the viewer know that nobody is asking permission here. Or as Crooks describes it, “there is a sense of empowerment and agency that doesn’t care what you think of me.” It’s generational. The bookends played perfectly off each other, immortalizing a Black past that continues to lead us toward our fierce identities that make conformity uncomfortable. The Antilles that prophecy Indian, Chinese, African, and many more countries whose children would grow up to thrive and rebel take us away from borders and into possibilities. Borne from the occidental gaze’s lineage of the tropics as a tempest; full of bewilderment and the dangers associated with accessing desire, to the pictoral pivot of regarding the Caribbean for its "sunny idleness5https://ocula.com/magazine/features/fragments-of-epic-memory/" and welcoming service, we see Fragments of Epic Memory. Finally, the self-possession of diasporic identities whose lives, public and private, display the capillaries that connect us, as well as the beauty that capitalism and colonialism seek to extract. The works at the Art Gallery of Ontario showed me where to press, and that my mind and body are the pressure I will always have to create freedom for myself and others.

References

Ashley Marshall
Ashley Marshall, M.A. English, B.A. Hons. English/Cultural Studies and Critical Theory. Her research critiques how power, economics, and politics influence social change, while advocating for imagination and creativity as alternatives to neoliberal market logics.
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