Danish artists Maj Hasager and Ask Kæreby reflect on the third week of their Fresh Milk residency. They continued their public outreach programming and visiting each coast of the island to record the varying sounds of the ocean, as well as their investigation into the country’s complex history. Trips to loaded sites such as Gun Hill Signal Station and St. Nicholas Abbey raised questions not only about the island’s past, but how it is presented and reckoned with in contemporary society. Read more below:
Falling into the rhythm of spending a quiet Monday in the studio. Ask is giving an artist talk at Barbados Community College (BCC) today, and gets interesting questions in return. The quiet morning turns into an unrhythmical dance with different institutions in the Barbadian system. Nothing moves forward and I (Maj) am almost bursting with impatience. It seems like there is a lot of historical footage that is stuck in the back of government archives, and not accessible at all. Someone mentions over the phone that all the material prior to the independence in 1966 belongs to the British government, and every year the Barbadian government purchases some of its past… colonial powers apparently linger on when negotiating heritage.
Tuesday morning is Maj’s second teaching session at Barbados Community College (BCC) – a failed Internet connection at the college leads to an improvised session anchored in conversation and text on paper with a group of very engaged students. Connections are made between critique, history from below and individual praxes, and opening even more layers in the complexity of place, authorship and subjectivity. Tuesday evening is spent at Tiki Bar at Accra beach for a Fresh Milk lime, where artist Alicia Alleyne, Therese Hadchity, Annalee Davis, Katherine Kennedy, Natalie McGuire, Ask and Maj all meet – as well as director of the national trust Lennox Honychurch who comes by with his laptop to share his research on the Panama canal.
We can see one of the former signal stations in Barbados – named Gun Hill – from where we live. On a small hill top the red building seems far away. When we finally look at a map the distance is less than two km, and it becomes the morning walk up the steep hill – really appreciating the clouds’ mercy as we are making our way to the top. The view from the top is indeed splendid, and we have been told the Barbados National Trust is also trying to make use of the site for weddings and other special occasions, but we wonder who would want a backdrop such as this, which was built primarily to alert in case of more slave uprisings, two years after the 1816 revolt. Adding insult to injury, enslaved labour was also used during the construction of the signal station, and the British West India Regiments bought slaves to supplement their normal recruiting until 1807, when slave trade was abolished in the British Empire – though outside of the army, slavery itself was upheld until 1838.
The week slowly disappears – halfway through we visit more museums in Bridgetown, and Thursday Ask holds the second sound workshop, which adds to the layers of last weeks conversation. At dusk when we leave the studio at Fresh Milk. The colour palette of the landscape suddenly has similarities with old paintings of the Danish landscape. An odd sense of overlapping moments and time appears as the daylight fades.
The bus route 1A seems to have vanished into thin air, forcing us to reshuffle our tightly packed daytrip schedule on Friday. After 3 hours of rumbling we reach the north most part of the island and visit the beautiful site of Animal Flower Cave, named after the sea anemones that live there. It’s still quiet so we get a personal tour of the area from Don – including a climb down (and back up) the cliffs to immerse the hydrophone, which we later take out in the waters of the West Coast, completing its travel to the four corners of this microcosm.
It is noon and the sun is merciless as we are waiting for the bus in an attempt to find alternative routes to reach the old sugar plantation of St. Nicholas Abbey in the parish of St. Peter – which is rumoured to present a somewhat controversial interpretation of colonial history. The bus never shows up, but instead a kind person is offering us a ride back to Speightstown. It turns out that the driver is the artist Victor Collector, who is known for his realist landscape paintings of Barbados. Somehow he has been documenting the changes of the Bajan Landscape over the past twenty years, and on our way back to the city he stops along the way to describe the changes in the landscape, and how it looked when he painted different sites. He leaves us in Speightstown, and we manage to get across to St. Nicholas Abbey just in time to get a tour of the house. Almost through the tour, we are both baffled by the fact that there hardly is any mention of slavery.
When we raise it with the owner who happens to suddenly appear, he dismisses the lack of addressing slavery in their official tour by saying the world is built on exploitation, and that he is the descendant of white indentured labour in Barbados. Our claim is then why not take this as the point of departure to discuss the conflicted and colonial history, instead of whitewashing the present by only describing the architecture and current production, relegating any mention of slavery to witty subtleties from the tour guides? The film claimed to demonstrate the history of the plantation is a 1935 home video, with a voice over from 2000 that is so completely devoid of any sensitivity towards the past or the present, let alone empathy, that we are left dazed and frustrated from the deadpan voice, worthy of an auctioneer at a fish market.
We walk across the fields of the sugar plantation as the daylight fades – to catch another bus to continue our journey.
This residency is supported in part by the Danish Arts Foundation