UK-based artists of Caribbean heritage, Umi Baden-Powell and Hannah Catherine Jones, share their second blog post about their Fresh Milk artist residency. Week 2 proved to be an intense period for the artists, filled with activities such as: visiting the Portvale Sugar Factory, Sir Frank Hutson Sugar Museum and the Barbados Museum & Historical Society; attending a lecture by Sandra Taitt-Eaddy titled ‘Ancestry Academy: Explorations in Caribbean Genealogy’, hosted by The History Forum at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus; and having conversations both within and outside of their first Ancestral Architecture Session at Fresh Milk, all of which informed their research & practice:
Portvale Sugar Factory (background), Sir Frank Hutson Sugar Museum (foreground). IMAGE: UBP
Week 2 has been intense and potent. Such a rich variety of stimulants require time to process and is best expressed in a more experimental format:
WEEK 2 INGREDIENTS:
– 1 x STUDIO consisting of: 2 x desks, iPad, MacBook Air, Theremin, 40m3 volume of space, a library with more than 2000 books / publications focusing largely on Caribbean art practices
– 1 x SITE VISIT to Barbados’ last working sugar factory, Portvale Sugar Factory and its accompanying archive, the Sir Frank Hutson Sugar Museum (Holetown)
– 1 x BUNCH of admin – sprinkles of communications with a bush rum maker, a bush herbalist, and the current owner of Bayley’s plantation
– 1 x SITE VISIT to the Barbados Museum & Historical Society and MEETINGS with Natalie McGuire (Curator), Dario Forte (Research Assistant), Harriet Pierce (Librarian)
– 1 x BUNCH of readings from BOOKS AND PUBLICATIONS in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room at Fresh Milk
– BATCHES of performance rehearsals for AA session 01
– 3 x spatial LAYOUTS for AA session 01
– 1 x Planter’s Slave-owner’s PUNCH
– 1 x “decolonised” Planter’s Slave-owner’s PUNCH (traditional recipe combined with “bush”, to hint towards the drinks potential to be reclaimed
– 1 x LECTURE – The History Forum’s Ancestral Academy at UWI by Sandra Taitt-Eaddy on Caribbean Genealogy.
– 5 x SCREENINGS at the 2017 NIFCA Film/Video screenings by award winning NIFCA artists exploring themes of taboo, spirituality, paternal absence
WEEK 2 THE MAIN COURSE: CALL & RESPONSE
Call and Response with UBP + HCJ at Fresh Milk. IMAGE: Annalee Davis
CALL (ACADEMIC): “You’re both Brits, with complicated ancestry… You are going into an area of which you have very little background. Okay. And you are dealing with issues, from what little of it I understand, in terms of the kind of background you have, you are getting into an area where your background is not massive!” quotation from an academic in conversation with the artists.
RESPONSE (UBP+HCJ): To be informed that we were not “educated” enough to deal with the topic of ancestral architecture by a leading academic, we are reminded that the vast majority of dominant voices in Caribbean history are white aging men for whom identity is almost invisible, certainly something that they rarely have to think about. For members of the African diaspora, identity is something that we are reminded of on a daily basis and cannot escape, even if we would chose to; identity is not an “accessory” that can be put on and taken off when it suits, it is embodied through our lived experience as well as our academic research. As Ancestral Architecture, we are endeavouring to broaden access to ancestral histories regardless of academic backgrounds or status.
2. RELIGION, SPIRITUALITY & TABOOS
CALL (UBP+HCJ): The church bells reverberating throughout Barbados’ 11 parishes act as a constant reminder of the presence of religion. Alternative practices of spirituality are less visible (and audible) but certainly present. How far can religion (along with its “sins”) and spirituality co-exist in a Barbados? An example that is particularly pertinent in contemporary art (the subject of award winning NIFCA films by Melanie Grant) is the reality that homosexuality remains to be illegal in Barbados, so is not only a crime “in the eyes of the lord” but in the eyes of the law. Grant’s films beautifully depict how individuals struggle through questions surrounding the co-existence of their religion, spiritual practices and sexual orientation. How can individuals overcome the sense of shame that is intrinsically linked to breaking both religious and jurisdictional laws?
RESPONSE (AA 01 PARTICIPANT): “The spirituality in Barbados is very strong, I think religion is strong… my grandmother… She would tell us stories about her ancestors… She would tell us stories about them fighting, both the mother in law and her mother, fighting to get through the door to protect her. Because she’s pregnant with a baby at that time… those two ladies were strong spiritual females who had some reason to believe that she needed protection and they did so, fighting to make sure that she was okay with that particular pregnancy… So it suggests to me that with regards to what you do, your history, your ancestors, they are on some level, I don’t know what level that would be, but they are there to protect us. That is one thing that I have come a long way with, even though I believe in a total, full Christianity. I still have a feeling that this part of life exists, where you have to understand that there is an after death experience that could protect, so that’s your ancestors protecting us.” Janna Blades-Jones, HCJ’s cousin.
3. ACCESS TO ANCESTRY
CALL (HCJ + UBP): Despite access to information on ancestry becoming increasingly available (particularly online), embarking on the journey of tracing one’s Diasporic roots seems to be a choice – what is not available through school curricula must be researched often later in life. Some people never delve into their pasts and some people may not feel comfortable in doing so in communal talks/public events, particularly if the search for ancestral information means attending events/lectures and visiting archives on sensitive sites such as former plantations. The information of ancestral histories of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade are intrinsically traumatic and often involve (re)searching for your ancestor’s oppressors as well as your own family. How can we be equipped for this daunting emotional labour?
RESPONSE (COLLECTIVE): Week 2’s Sandra Taitt-Eaddy Caribbean Genealogy lecture emphasised the importance of dwelling in and on the positive elements within this traumatic history; survival, rebellion, overcoming and social change. Her inspirational talk described tactics for “flipping the script” from trauma to overcoming; what are the remnants we should dwell on, or force ourselves to sing and pass on?
“That cocoa tea, it’s a poison to me,
Every time I drink it I don’t know where I be,
So if you want to find me you better look for me
Cos she got my head all upside down with a cup of that cocoa tea”
Lyrics from a Bajan folk song about African spirituality practices.
Still from interview with Dario Forte (Researcher at the Barbados Museum & Historical Society) in which he sings some Bajan folk songs. Image: UBP.
4. SUBVERTING THE OPPRESSOR’S LANGUAGE
CALL (HCJ + UBP): What does it mean to have served “Decolonised Planter’s Punch” at AA’s Session 01?
RESPONSE (GENEALOGIST): “We also have to watch the language that we use when we talk about these events that occurred with our people, because if you’re using the language of the oppressor and if you’re using the language of the colonial courts, then you’re part of the problem, right? If you’re looking at your ancestors as slaves, you’re part of the problem because they were en-slaved. When we talk about them, if we say enslaved, what does that beg the question? If I am enslaved, well I know I can’t have enslaved myself! Right?! So it begs the question who did the enslaving because nobody is born a slave but you can be enslaved at birth – but who did it? They’re gonna tell you that there were slaves and there were planters. The truth of the matter is that there were slaves and slave owners or enslaver, not planter.” Sandra Tait-Eaddy, transcribed verbatim from Ancestral Academy lecture series at The University of the West Indies.
Sandra Tait-Eaddy presentation on Caribbean Genealogy at University of West Indies, Barbados. IMAGE: UBP
Owed to Bussa (Still), performance by Hannah Catherine Jones at AA session 01. IMAGE: UBP
5. REBELLION + PROTEST
CALL (VARIOUS): “If we look back at the same Bussa… every time I pass that statue, I think of the kind of persons that have become Bajans… I dunno where he came from, I’m not sure if he was actually a slave in Barbados, that part of it I’ve never ever, ever, ever researched but we are very calm, placid, people… our culture is not aggressive. That is the thing I’ve observed, and I don’t understand why its not… Where did he come from? And why don’t we…? There’s a lot of stuff going on right now. How are we gonna break them chains? They are still there to be broken… I pass it and I think to myself, how passive we are as people and then I look at him and I say if you didn’t do that, where would we be?” Janna Blades-Jones, HCJ’s cousin.
Barbados is the only major West Indian ‘colony that succeeded in eliminating an economic need for African slave imports before the slave trade was abolished in 1807’. In fact, Bajan slave owners “welcomed” abolition. “Independent” slave production was established through “breeding” as opposed to buying. There was a “widespread social preference for creole blacks” as they were less likely to rebel, probably because they had no reference point (of a “homeland”); they knew nothing other than plantation enslavement in Barbados. Furthermore, Afro-Barbadian histories have been “whitewashed” and sugar coated often for the advantage of the dominant class. The 1937 riots that are sometimes still referred to as “disturbances” suggest an association of shame (rather than pride) may hinder political transgression.
According to Edward Goulburn Sinckler, General Bussa (the widely acknowledged leader of the 1816 rebellion on Bayley’s Plantation), is thought to have come from Bussa, a town that, “was a centre of the Mande ruling group who established the ancient and famous town of Oyo in Southern Nigeria. The Bussa people, therefore, were a ruling people who were well known as traders and administrators. It is reasonable also to suggest that Bussa would have brought to Barbados these characteristics of his ethnic group.” (All quoted text from Sir Hilary McDonald Beckles’ ‘A History of Barbados’ Chapter 5: ‘Abolition, Rebellion and Emancipation – 1807-1838).
6. INDEPENDENCE + LAND (RIGHTS)
CALL (UBP + HCJ): To what extent does the plantocracy still exist and how does it manifest on a daily basis?
RESPONSE (VARIOUS): AA Participant (anon.): “Freedom in Barbados isn’t this kind of utopian freedom, mainly because the island is extremely small and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to go and get your own land, you had to then rent the space that you were living in on the plantation and so all of a sudden you still had to work and they called it an apprenticeship, and you still had to work in the same system, under very similar conditions, but then you’re just giving up money that you make from the very small wages. And then after the apprenticeship Ex-slaves were given land that was deemed not very valuable because it was on the coast, and of course now that land is extremely valuable. If you go up the west coast you can still see chattel houses amongst these huge hotels and that would be generations of families who refuse to sell their land because west coast is our platinum.”
Historian (anon.): “And that’s how those lands became valuable, because before you know you’re moving on an economic basis, these lands cannot produce crops. As soon as you drift towards tourism, that’s when they become the prime land on the island.”
Kerry-Lyn Coppin (HCJ’s cousin): “In earlier times, the white people – the plantation owners etc. – the money kind of travelled down, so they would be the ones that technically owned the key companies – they owned Barbados’ leading construction company for example. Then they would have the black workers be working at the top, so that’s the only way we have rich blacks in that the white people own the companies and the black people are the ones who are technically running them; they are maybe the CFO or the CEO, but the face of the company is the white person… If the black person goes to the bank for a loan to live in a white neighbourhood – where the white people live like Fort George heights or something terrace – a Bajan colloquialism is that the white people live in the heights and the terraces – the black person would highly likely not get that loan, where as the white person would probably get through because they are white . The bank will be like – “you will definitely pay back, if you don’t pay it back you probably have a Great Great Uncle who is the head of the construction company who is probably gonna pay it back for you…”… There’s no room or opportunity for the black person to rise. It’s definitely coming down now, it’s working out more for people, but it’s still a challenge.”
7. BARBADOS – LITTLE BRITAIN OR LITTLE AFRICA?
CALL (UBP + HCJ): Where does the nomenclature “Bimshire” derive? What role did Africa play in the forming of Barbadian culture?
These narratives exist:
- “Bimshire” is a common/colloquial reference to Barbados as a colonial extension of the British shires (Berkshire, Hampshire, Yorkshire etc.), now being used to facilitate tourism….
- ‘Bim’ – (a phonetic shortening of ‘Bimshire’ ) is a common/colloquial reference to Barbados used by enslaved Africans etymologically similar to the Igbo term ‘bém’ (‘e’ and ‘i’ sound similar in Igbo) from ‘bé mụ́’ meaning ‘my home/kindred/kind’. One etymological search for Barbados’ nicknames returns a colonial definition and the other a west African definition….
RESPONSE (ACADEMIC): “Bajans had been so infused by a colonial mentality that they couldn’t and wouldn’t recognise, through no fault of their own, that Africa had any role whatsoever to play in the creation of their culture and their society – it was all white, it was all European… Barbadians in the last number of decades have taken that sobriquet (“Little England”), used it in a different sense within the context of the tourist industry and a bunch of other things, but it was initially formed by outsiders, English visitors, to describe the white creole population of Barbados… What I was originally interested in, was how African cultural beliefs and behaviours were either lost or transformed or modified, within the context of the Atlantic slave trade, and within the context of plantation societies dominated by colonialism… I didn’t realise how much the plantations in the area that I had worked among were reminiscent of plantations that had existed during the period of slavery… the kind of patterns that they were engaging, whether it be family, whether it be mating, making foods, beliefs in the after life and so on and so forth – all these were essentially generalised Africa… When we coined the phrase years ago, “Little Africa” would have been far more appropriate.” Anon. Historian.
Ancestral Architecture Session 01, 16th November 2017: IMAGE: AA