Dorothea Smartt’s Residency – Week 3 Blog Post

Barbadian-British poet and live artist Dorothea Smartt shares her third blog post about her Fresh Milk residency. Highlights of the week included hearing US artist Ellen Gallagher deliver an artist talk at the Barbados Community College and managing to hold a ‘Community Constellations’ workshop facilitated by Sonya Welch Moring, despite its postponement due to serious flooding afflicting Barbados on the eve of its 50th Independence celebrations. Read more below:

My week started with my first ever visit to Barbados Community College, a place so many Bajan artists and creatives have passed through. I was excited, arriving just in time to hear Ellen Gallagher begin her talk. Before I came on this residency, I’d thought of my poems, still in draft form, written in response to pieces in her retrospective exhibition AxME [Tate Modern, 2013]. I’d been engrossed by her imagery and the collage and layering she so often employs. I was particularly taken with Monster one of her collaborative 16mm projections from the sequence Murmur ; the Watery Estatic series; and the large Bird In Hand portrait. I was drawn back again and again to sit with and explore her work.

I listened to Ellen speak about the making of, and process that birthed her Oh Susannah painting. One of the first things that resonated, was her saying she’d had no intention of being an artist – because she hadn’t known then that it was something you could become. She went to Oberlin College, studied the history of sailing and oceanography. This led to her being on a sail ship travelling the Caribbean sea – the US Virgin Isles. It was only after this she enrolled in art school. She found community off-campus, with poets and writers like Sharan Strange, a co-founder of The Dark Room collective. The only non-writer in the group, Ellen put up her work during their Salon events, with readings from authors like Samuel R. Delaney and Ntozake Shange. I was startled – these are all writers I have some kind of connections to. They and/or their works have made a pivotal impact on my journey to becoming a poet-artist.

I find myself wondering if the seemingly abstract pieces I’ve written, drawing on her imagery, aren’t in some way connected with my more obvious ‘Panama poems’. Perhaps if I were to re-visit them now, they could be edited to say something about the very watery world of Canal construction: the torrential rainy season that drenched everything in Panama?; creating Gatun Lake (the size of Barbados)?; the flooding of the valley and the subsequent underwater world?; the two-week voyage from Barbados to Colon, that some did not survive; and of course the two oceans that kissed when the canal opened.

Ellen quoted Delaney, History is not a single file stutter, explaining that history is not a fixed thing, but rather it’s like a net over the world, with closures and openings. Being here at the culmination of Independence celebrations you can’t help thinking of history. Of the gaps and silences of Bajan history. I posted Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles anniversary lecture Cuffee’s Stool to my Facebook page, for the sense he talked, and the insights he offered – not least how to be engaging when delivering a history lecture!

The rain. Caan talk bout dis week an’ not talk bout de rain! ‘Bout how much floodin went on. How half a’ Cin-Cin front door did drown out! How roads turn t’rivers, and new potholes get gouge out by water. How in d’midsts of Independence, St Joseph (issa year now?) still ain’t got nuh water! And CBC put on ah advert from B’dos Water Authority, straight after The Reveal dun! An advert of smiling BWA staff, wishing we ‘Happy Independence!’ – widout a care in de worl’! So my planned Tuesday workshop, get postpone to Friday, at WKD Beach Lofts up pon d’big roof patio. It was small but mighty!

Sonya and her peer facilitator Katherine, expertly guided Danilo Oliviera, Yvonne Weekes, Sonia Williams, and myself through the techniques of mapping relations; that is, Constellations work. After we all introduced ourselves, Sonya said a little on the history of Constellations. Then she straight away got us into things by asking us to pair-up and invite our partner to ‘represent’ someone in our lives we had a question or difficulty with. I invited my partner to ‘represent’ Jay, an ex-lover and friend who after a long period of silence had phoned unexpectedly a few days before. Guiding “Jay” by the shoulders, I placed them in a physical position on the roof, relative to me, that I thought suited our situation. My partner, representing “Jay” then began to intuitively move and speak as they felt to. It was interesting how spot-on much of what “Jay” said was, and some of what was said, and where they re-positioned themselves, was surprising based on my knowledge of them.

We all finally ended up working on a constellation suggested by my research and Panama poems. Someone represented ‘men who went to Panama and never came back’, another ‘my father’ and the third ‘my project’ – I observed. With Sonya guiding everyone, asking the right questions and picking up on aspects of the dynamic unfolding between these ‘characters/elements/things’ and myself, an amazing pattern emerged. I was reminded, for example, how my creative practice is never purely abstract or removed from me/my experiences. That the juice in this Panama project of mine, is in exploring, imagining and re-imagining my life and personal family history – that is how I will achieve something universal, something that speaks to our humanity.

The following day I had a wonderful Skype dialogue with members of Fundacion Casa Matria in Panama City. Despite my almost non-existent Spanish, and thanks to Valentina’s able English and translating, we ended a two-hour Skype excited by the role re-working the lyrics popular songs can play in grassroots resistance and street protests.

I shared the back-stories of two of the transgender and cross-dressing characters in my Panama poems – Miss John/Senorita Juan, who left her Bajan village a butch woman and worked in Panama as a man. And Carmelita, a trans-woman, prostitute, and beloved of Canada – a man who loved her for who she was. After his death, in a terrible accident, she learns to sew and re-invents herself as a maker of ladies intimate apparel. Fundacion Casa Matria shared memories of their modest Abuelas, covering with a sheet, any underwear they hung out to dry. We all felt that in this act, we’d found an ideal metaphor for the hidden, unseen (and therefore presumed non-existent) lives of same-gender loving and trans-persons in days gone by.

Maferefun Egun. Maferefun Orisha.

Dorothea Smartt’s Residency – Week 2 Blog Post

Barbadian-British poet and live artist Dorothea Smartt shares her second blog post about her ongoing Fresh Milk residency. This week saw Dorothea continue her research around gender, sexuality and the Barbadian migration to Panama in the 1900s,  as well as preparing for a ‘Community Constellations’ workshop to be facilitated by Sonya Welch Moring. Read more below:

This last week seems to have sped by! Full of rich encounters and insightful conversations – not least with my ‘roomie’ Danilo as we both try to unpick the complexities of ‘Bajan-ness’ and the near invisibility of any African cultural/social/religious/spiritual life-ways in this most ‘English’ of ‘West Indian’ Caribbean islands. This has implications for how I might re-imagine the characters I have coming to me through my ‘panama poems’.

I know that in every place/space, things are not always as they may appear at first glance – the ‘happy couple’ may be rife with indifference or conflict! The ‘happy couple’ may not be a couple at all! Lol! To all intents and purposes, I can appear to be heterosexual, or perhaps I fall ‘victim’ to persons assumptions and lack of imagination. Unlike some of the queer community – I can ‘pass’ as a straight Blackwoman. My gender appears binary, fitting into one of the two accepted categories of ‘male’ or ‘female’.  If I am seen out and about with a friendly male (and I do have them in my life these days!), it’s often assumed we are a couple or husband and wife. This is true in every society, not just here in B’dos. However it comes with its own particularities given the specifics of the location, age of the persons and so on. If I’m seen out and about with a friendly Blackwoman, it can be assumed we are sisters (regardless of how unalike we might be!) or we are mother and daughter (these days I often get to be the ‘mum’ half of the equation!). Only those with what you might call ‘queer-eyes’ or ‘zami-eyes’ would see that we are a couple, that we are in an intimate sexual relationship of some kind.

This week I sent out personal invitations to a few selected artists/writers/friends and the Fresh Milk team to come to a “Community Constellations” workshop next week. A visiting friend and colleague from London, Sonya Welch-Moring will be facilitating the session. Sonya’s heritage is Guyanese, we were friends at South Bank Poly back-in-the-day, and re-connected on First Street, Holetown one magic night last year. Sonya’s intro to the session reads:

(Community or) “Systemic Constellations explore relationships within a system, by creating a ’mapping-process’.  The method can indicate ‘entanglements’ over generations and ‘stuckness’ within wider systems and networks of relationships.  This approach can surface what is hidden and offer steps to reconcile or resolve difficult situations, in order to ‘restore the flow of love’ between individuals and within communities… family constellations,…offers a way to honour your family and reconnect to your cultural and ancestral lineage.  …systemic constellations [can] explore a range of community and social-justice issues and seek solutions to problems.”

I’ve taken part in Sonya’s workshops in London, and have been excited and moved by what can be accessed through a skillful application of the Constellation technique. For my session, I will be bringing a ‘social/community’ issue relevant to my ‘panama poems’ and creative research.

One highlight of this week was returning to the B’dos Archive for an Open Day. Danilo was able to introduce me to Frederick Alleyne, and I saw his modest but telling display of the Bajan-Brazilian connections, created by ancestors who went to Brazil to build a railway in the late 1800’s. Several generations on, and significantly, their descendants are still Bajan-English speakers! This is not the case with descendants of Panama Canal workers. I was delighted to discover that the Open Day programme included a screening of Diggers, a remarkable 1980’s documentary with interviews of then 90-plus years old men, for whom the harsh and dangerous working conditions on the Panama Canal had been a teenage rite of passage to manhood. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not a consideration, in how these young men’s lives had been shaped by the experiences they spoke of with clear emotions, and in some instances tears.

Danilo and Dorothea

Danilo and I left the screening subdued yet angered by the injustices portrayed. We both needed to walk and vent! The importance of my small offering in highlighting this period of our history was re-affirmed. And the early black & white film footage and photographs of energetic young men (for it was very much a Blackmen’s story, in fact there was only one Blackwoman’s voice in the entire documentary), digging, jumping trains, recklessly balancing dynamite boxes on their heads, operating steam-powered engines was an amazing sight. As I scanned the faces in the crowds I wondered who in today’s language would have been gay, queer, men-who-slept-with-men? I wondered what loves and affections might have kept them going through this trauma. I wondered who might be wearing womens’ underwear under their work clothes! I wondered who had a charm or a talisman to keep them safe and alive in this virtual war-zone of construction – a crucifix or a bag of dried herbs with bones and stones? A set of baths they’d taken before they boarded the boat? And once arrived in the ‘pestilence of the jungle’, if they fell sick or were injured – would they look for cerasee, five-fingers, dog-dumplin’, or leaf-of-life to soothe them?

Maferefun Egun. Maferefun Orisha.