Nadijah Robinson is an artist and educator based in Toronto, currently working in the media of Collage, Painting, Performance and Installation. She received her BFA from the University of Ottawa and a BEd from OISE University of Toronto. Working with skills developed from practices such as sewing, silkscreen printing, batik making, filmmaking, collage, painting, and graphic design, her work combines what is needed to construct a particular affecting image, object or experience. A refusal of the premise of a white canvas, or a blank slate, the use of found fabrics, images and other materials acknowledges that no thing comes from nothing. The history, cultural references, and sensory implications of the materials, and sources of the stories she tells all lend their particular significance to the larger artwork.
Nadijah Robinson’s work aims to reflect and archive the stories of communities in which she is strongly rooted, and which are not often represented in conventional art spaces. Through the practice of conducting interviews with community members, Nadijah is able to identify important themes, to highlight significant stories, and to learn directly from community members what they would like to see in artwork that presents itself as being for and about them.
Recent projects include a The Mourning Dress for Trans Black Women featured in Pride in Toronto 2015, a mural completed a mural as part of the Church Street Mural Project in preparation for World Pride 2014, and the curation of a photographic archive of Black musicians and entertainers from the 1930s-70s for the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund. She has shown work with the Art Gallery of York University, Gladstone Hotel, Daniels Spectrum, with Nia Centre for the Arts, and as part of the Mayworks Festival for Working People and the Arts.
first day, no wifi
a little panic
beautiful skies, at sky mall,
the sky was immense
saw a tiny lizard at the entrance to my bedroom
it crawled up the door frame
on the drive to fresh milk, i saw a sign that said The Pine, in St. Micheal. That’s where my fam grew up, I think.
this week I’ve been thinking about my self being here in this place.
i’m very visible here. when we landed, i remembered that i look like a hipster. i’m being watched by myself as well. having the time and space to think, and live in my head full-time, and absorb absorbabsorb and then reflect reflectreflect feels a lot, at times, like navel-gazing. we are taught that this kind of self-indulgence is not to be encouraged. this is the first time, in a long time, that I’ve had this much time to devote to my practice.
i spent most of the week reading and writing, taking pictures, and making notes.
the first night, around the table with wine and Rayanne, Natalie, and Katherine (the latter two Fresh Milk staff members), i was asked what kinds of things I’m interested in learning or exploring, so they could facilitate me reaching the right resources.
what i said was something like
– talking to my family, and their understanding of their identities as bajans
– plants and traditional uses of plants that grow here
– the history of Barbados
what i meant was something different like
– i want to understand what bajan means to different people, how the diaspora relates to that and whether they share my sense of lack, void, and longing to fill in all the historical gaps and wasteland.
– my body’s composition is part bajan, for at least a few generations. my body is allergic to most things in Canada: grass, flowers, trees, pollen, nuts, wheat, sometimes the fruit. i want to know what home my body can find here. what relief, what therapy can be found in the plants, medicine.
– i want to know how long back my blood was here. what did it pick up along the way. why is the trauma so deeply felt. what traumas lie there (in the blood).
sometimes i feel like an ethnographer, because even though i am bajan, i am not from here. and so my first reading was Hal Foster’s “The Artist as Ethnographer” just to check that what I’m doing here isn’t ethnography. it raised interesting questions, but no answers for me, as I expected.
a morning was spent trying (unsuccessfully) to identify plants around the residency site. I had more luck looking up plants mentioned in my third reading, in my second reading, to see what they looked like and their descriptions and properties.
third reading: “The True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes 1657” by Richard Ligon… which was difficult, and I suspect not as “true and exact” as Ligon would have liked people to believe.
second reading: “Wild Plants of Barbados” by Sean Carrington
i’ve started to read this book of poetry “Barabajan Poems” by Kamau Brathwaite, and it is giving me life. poetry does to my brain, what no other things do. so far, Brathwaite’s describing his childhood but also leaving Barbados and living in England and how lonely and alienating that felt. how he was made to feel like bajan culture was lesser than, was something barbaric, and that he and his peers would only ever find acceptance and success in their craft elsewhere. a lot is resonating with me, despite our different experiences. i’ve only begun to read this book, so I’ll leave it there.
Unsettled. This week I got the flu. The week flew by, being on a few different cold and flu medicines and an antihistamine, much of it is a blur of trying to maintain a normal schedule, rest, stay hydrated and hope that it wasn’t dengue fever or chikungunya that I caught.
I’m starting to get homesick, which is an interesting feeling to get here. Homesickness is such a familiar feeling to get in Toronto, to long for a place that feels more affirming of your culture and identities, and feels safe and nourishing. As a second generation immigrant, sometimes that feeling is a cosmic joke. Plane tickets cannot take you to such a mythical destination. This longing is what much of my art centers on, along with the ever-present anti-black racism that is a part of my every day. More on that later.
I started making work. In a bit of a frustrated state at losing momentum due to being a human being vulnerable to viruses and attractive to mosquitoes, I decided to just start on something. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it is a collage/painting mixed media work.
I’m becoming aware of how much time there is left, that I am half way through my residency at Fresh Milk, and that I am two weeks closer to having to return to the beginning of winter in Toronto. This realization has me putting the pressure on in terms of making work, and doing research, but also getting down to the business of going to the beach. Not to mention that I was recommended the remedy of taking a sea bath by more than a few people. Rayanne and I spent this Saturday at the very calm Brandon’s Beach, which proved to me that Barbados is a blessed place. The water’s so warm; until now I had assumed that my distant memories of warm natural waters were something I’d invented, as every river and lake I’ve dipped my feet into in Ontario has left my feet numb.
This week, I’ve been struggling with how the stark difference of my surroundings here is producing ideas and themes for me that don’t directly relate to my context in Toronto. I worry (a bit) about producing work that will be an exception in my wider art practice. But at the core of this is the guilt that I’m not feeling the same level of urgency around my own and my people’s survival. I am still constantly receiving updates and new news about murders and police killings via social media, but no one around me is reacting. As Toronto heads into the coldest/hardest season, and as Canada heads into an extremely scary federal election on Monday, I’m at the beach and in the studio. It feels unfair. But this is something I’m currently trying to reconcile, allowing myself the space and time to focus on making work that is genuine, un-rushed, and about whatever it needs to be about.
This week was spent doing the most. Looking back on it, I have no reason to feel like I haven’t been doing enough.
This week I made some progress on the piece I am working on, the background is coming together slowly but surely. I know this piece is somehow about the land’s memory, but I am still unsure of the specifics.
I’ve decided to focus my energy on gathering as many resources and impressions as possible before I leave, rather than trying to know what I want to do specifically with them. It doesn’t seem like the most intentional way to go about this, but it seems like the best way to make the most of my remaining time here.
Early in the week, I attended Rayanne’s presentation to 3rd year art students at BCC. Meeting the students and participating in their discussion around different ways they felt under-represented in the Barbados narrative, society, or their early school years was eye-opening. That this experience is as common amongst these students as it is amongst my own peers in Toronto speaks to the ever present power dynamic that dictates who writes our histories, who frames the narrative, who has set up the norms we resist. These days I am preoccupied with the question of what story I end up living in/living out, and how much control I have over that story. Much of my education work, community and art work are born out of a reaction to a traumatic and white-supremacist teaching of history (at all levels of my schooling) and the daily experience of racism. These frame my understanding of everything. If I wasn’t preoccupied with trying to heal from this, then what else might I be doing? It often feels like a trap, to be consistently resisting a belief system so large and entrenched, to be trying to create small alternative visions and truths here and there. I know, in my more optimistic moments, that it is necessary work, and it is my generation’s work to be doing.
I went to the museum on Thursday, and was disappointed with the narrative that was presented to me. I shouldn’t have been, but the level of gloss applied over a violent history was glaring to me. Emancipation in many historical narratives is continually presented as a time where white people suddenly came to the realization that slavery was morally reprehensible and decided to give black people their freedom (in exchange for compensation, and after a period of “apprenticeship”).
Friday morning made up for my disappointment as I got an amazing tour of plants around Barbados with Anthony Richards. I learned so much of Barbados/Caribbean history through plants and much about of the magic and symbolism of certain plants for different peoples. I made friends with a giant baobab tree of approximately 1000 years, a calabash tree, a black willow tree, and a giant silk-cotton tree. We spoke of mourning and burial beliefs and traditions, which because I live within the spectre of black death in North America, holds particular interest and urgency to me now. We also visited a number of historical sites, like the site of a mass grave that was found at the ports where slave ships used to come in, but which is now a parking lot, with no signs or markings to commemorate those lives or deaths. This tour is something I will most likely mull over for a long time.
Later that day and over the next couple days I visited the national archives, got lost and cranky, went on a driving tour with my cousins and saw the Animal Flower Cave and Little Bay on the north east coast, and went on a challenging (for me) 3 hour hike with my cousin and the Barbados Hiking Association starting at Long Beach.
What I’m reading these days is a mix of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed to relax, Stuart Hall’s text Thinking the Diaspora: Home-Thoughts from Abroad and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. All of these are brilliant.
My last week at Fresh Milk. I have been wrapping up my work in the studio, making connections, having conversations, getting souvenirs, seeing my Bajan family and seeing some last sights.
On my last morning in the studio, I finished the piece I’ve been working on, although it doesn’t have a title yet. I know now that it is about how the history that I want to recognize is not written in books, it is written in the earth, in the land and in our bodies and blood. It is most accessible in oral stories, by observing ourselves and the culture we create, and by intuitively knowing what we do.
I did my presentation to a 3rd year art class at BCC this week. I gave a talk and slideshow presentation on my history of community-engaged work. This is a collection of my work that sometimes approaches and is within the realm of ‘social practice art’, but is also peppered by work that is more appropriately called arts-based youth work. In preparing this presentation I realized how much my practice has been formed from a desire to do something with my artwork.
I remembered a moment of crisis in high school when I felt like I had to make the choice that would change the rest of my life and set me on a particular path – the middle and high school years in Canada felt full of these deciding moments. I felt I had to choose between being a professional artist and a teacher, more specifically whether to take grade 11 Art, or something more ‘academic’. These were two career paths I’d known for a long time that I’d wanted to pursue. At the time, becoming a teacher was a promising career in Toronto – there was a teacher shortage that would soon after become an incredible teacher surplus. The pay was decent, and it was basically the definition of job security. I had watched all of the terrible, misguided teacher-saviour films, and they had created in my mind a sensational image of what being a teacher could be – a way to effect change in the world, locally. I wanted that, to be a vehicle of social change. But mostly I just wanted to make art, though this was not the wise career choice. There’s no money in art, and I didn’t want to be poor and struggling forever. Not only that, but I didn’t want to be preoccupied with the self-involved, decorative, wishy-washy activities that having an art career seemed to be all about. I wanted a way to make artwork that meant more than that one-dimensional caricature-like story I was presented. My younger self wanted to make art that was all about edgy stuff and politics and was ground-breaking and would one day make it into an Adbusters magazine. I wanted to make artwork that would infect people’s minds with possibilities of better things to come, and place a how-to handbook in their hands. I chose in the end to take grade 11 Art, because I had the genius realization that I could be an art teacher, and have an art career in my off time. I’m glad I did.
In doing this presentation more than 10 years later, I realized how I came to reconcile wanting to make art that does stuff for people. I’m still working on it, but I have been listing for myself a set of guiding principles as I go, the first of which was that I must know what I am trying to do with my work, who I’m doing it with (as opposed to for), and in what language (medium and vernacular) I would do it. Along the way I added things like prioritizing integrity, and supporting community-led projects and speaking with my own voice.
I feel very grateful to have had this experience at Fresh Milk, and it is significant that I did my residency here, in Barbados. Being able to reconnect with my family, with Bajan culture and with the history of this place, and having had the conversations that I have had this month has shifted how I see my own particular cultural makeup. The diaspora upon diaspora, the historical memory and living in North America, Toronto in particular. Some ideas have shifted and some have solidified, but they are complex things to reconcile and I feel as if I’ve just begun again.
This residency was supported by the Ontario Arts Council.