Willoh S. Weiland & Halcyon Macleod

April 2015

About Willoh & Halcyon:

Willoh S. Weiland (Artistic Director, Aphids) and Halcyon Macleod (Co-Director, My Darling Patricia) are interdisciplinary artists and directors of the independent arts organisations Aphids and My Darling Patricia.

Their mutual interests are in writing and creating contemporary performance works that respond to the site in which they are created and the result of extensive research and development.

They have created works for major Australian Festivals including the Sydney and Darwin International Arts Festivals as well as for prolific presenters such as Performance Space, Carriageworks, Cambelltown Arts Centre, Sydney and the Arts Centre, Arts House and Malthouse Theatre Melbourne.

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Week 1

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I arrived in Barbados on Sunday afternoon after a whopping forty-seven hours of continuous transit with my three month old baby strapped to my front. Flights were delayed, flights were cancelled, connections were missed. When the luggage conveyor belt at Grantley Adams International Airport emptied and stopped and I was the last one standing there, it felt only right that yes, my suitcases and the baby’s cot were lost in transit. It really is a long way to come, from my home in Hobart Tasmania, the heart-shaped island at the bottom of Australia, to this warm, colourful and utterly compelling island of Barbados. I was met at the airport by  my collaborator, Belizean-Australian artist Willoh S. Weiland, who had made a similar journey from Melbourne with her boyfriend and 10 month old babe the week before. Why have we come all this way?

In a 1959 letter, whilst she was working on Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys described her earlier novel, Voyage in the Dark, as expressing how “The West Indies started knocking at my heart.” She added that “the knocking has never stopped.”
– from The Cambridge introduction to Jean Rhys by Elaine Savory

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The writings of Jean Rhys and our families’ connections to this region have compelled and propelled Willoh and me across the globe and far from home more than once now. The germ of our current project Crawl Me Blood, took hold in 2011. We landed in Los Angeles and drove across the country to The University of Tulsa where the Jean Rhys Special Collection is housed. There in Oklahoma, is the unlikely home of a collection of Rhys’ correspondence, drafts, unpublished writings, a few personal effects and a touching recording of the author singing songs from her childhood in Dominican Patois. Our journey continued to Placencia, Belize, the village where Willoh was born and grew up, and then on to Black River, in the St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, the origins of my Grandmothers family. Certainly, the Caribbean was knocking at our hearts. We had begun our research for a new Australian interdisciplinary arts project.

But Crawl Me Blood is not about us! Inspired by the Belizean Kriol phrase ‘what crawls your blood’ are the secrets you sense but are not told to you. This phrase is akin to saying ‘it gave me the shivers’. The Crawl Me Blood project reimagines the sinister eden of the tropical garden and draws on the medium of radio to explore the myths we make of paradise and the realities of living in some of the world’s most beautiful places.

Crawl Me Blood is a radio docu-drama which will be housed inside an immersive installation. Audiences will wander through the installation listening to the audio work via hand held radios which are tuned to pick up a localised FM radio broadcast – the Crawl Me Blood radio station. There are multiple transmitters and the audience wanders in and out of the range of each transmitter, creating an exciting compositional range for the creators of the work. This one month residency at Fresh Milk is a research and writing phase of creative development. We are conducting interviews with Bajan women of all ages, collecting field recordings from local sites and writing the text for the fiction elements of this layered audio work.

The audio work will be enriched by field recordings collected from the Caribbean region and will be intercut with carefully selected Caribbean music and readings from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Voyage in the Dark. These various components of the work are being developed alongside each other with a shared focus on the central themes of the work:

  • how do we imagine and romanticise the landscape of paradise, and how is this imaginary world destroyed by the realities of place?
  • the experience of women of all colours in the island nations of the Caribbean and in the countries that they migrate to
  • the responses that the tropical landscape and climate generate in people

Members of the Fresh Milk Books team with Willoh, Halcyon and little Raphaela.

It has been an incredibly productive start due to the ground work that Willoh was able to do in the previous week, and thanks to the assistance of the Fresh Milk Team in connecting us with amazing people. It has been our privilege to meet and interview some inspiring Bajan women. We have talked with a visual artist, a theatre practitioner, a poet and activist who have generously shared their perspectives with us. We have also interviewed Jamaican-Australian artist Zahra Newman this week in Melbourne via Skype. On Tuesday, we met with the Fresh Milk Books team and heard all about their reviews drawn from the Fresh Milk collection in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room. One of the team had recently reviewed Wide Sargasso Sea! We look forward to continuing the conversations and learning more about Bajan art and artists through our interviews and the collection.

A big thank you to Annalee and the Fresh Milk Team for making us feel welcome and introducing us to some inspiring Bajan artists this week.

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Week 2

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Our second week at Fresh Milk has been another full week of interviews, writing and research.

Memories of hot mangoes in Grandmother’s kitchen – the taste of summer; or the quiet power of Mahogany trees; or the unrepeatable magic of fire-roasted bread-fruit offered by a stranger on the beach and dipped in the salty sea. Thank you to the inspiring women we have spoken with this week who have shared their perspectives and captivating our senses with their stories (I went directly to the vegetable market and bought a bread fruit). It has been a privilege and a pleasure to meet with you and to talk.

We have had some great conversations with a range of Bajan women now and one of the discussions we are trying to have is about race. It seems agreed that nobody likes to talk about it, even though, in the words of one of the participants “It’s sitting right there, it’s just under the surface.” It seems it’s like trying to talk about both race and class in Australia – you don’t.

One of the women we spoke with this week, who moved to Barbados from Jamaica 30 something years ago, talked about a phone call she received from a friend, after she announced she was moving. Her friend playfully asked “So have you decided? Are you going to be Black or are you going to be white?” Because in a population that is 97% black and 3% white, though no one is talking about it, the women we have interviewed over the last fortnight all agree that mostly, black and white don’t mix. Though of course there are always exceptions.

In Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys locates the in-between of the white creole woman’s experience. This week, Annalee handed me a copy of White Skin, Black Kin: Speaking the Unspeakable, a publication which holds a series of essays by and about Joscelyn Gardner’s work. A Caribbean-Canadian artist, her work explores her white creole identity from a postcolonial feminist perspective. Not black, but not totally white either.

“She is not beke like you, but she is beke, and not like us either”
Christophine talking about Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea

It is this liminal and uncomfortable zone that will provide rich material for the artwork we are creating, and also the parallels between the Australian and Caribbean experience.

This week I could feel the blood pressing up into the soles of my feet. I couldn’t go anywhere without thinking about the brutalities of the past and wondering what happened here, in this particular spot where I am standing now. Like visiting Hunte’s Garden (an absolutely stunning tropical garden) and having a rum in the 150 year old house, a former plantation (nobody mentions slavery but I am sure the group of tourists gathered on the verandah are all thinking about it). The garden is so beautiful, planted inside a collapsed cave on the former plantation, every available space has been planted and replanted with an impressive array of tropical plants, palms, heliconias, orchids – an ever evolving work of art, every centimetre thoughtfully cared for and maintained. The plantation on this site is over 300 years old and I marvel how the horrors of the past can sit so quietly, so politely and neatly inside the present moment.

It might just be my gothic temperament, but when I heard myself say to one of the Bajan women I met this week “Everything is covered with blood” I immediately apologised for being dramatic. She replied “Yes it is. And that’s about the least dramatic thing you could possibly say.”

It’s old news I know. I feel like I’m meant to be reconciled with the horrors of the past and its seething. And of course I needn’t have come to the Caribbean to think on that, it’s a very Australian feeling, our dark colonial past alive and well in the present government’s attitude towards Aboriginal communities. Though, not to be too glum, it was energising and amazing to see in the news this week the strong protest responses from Australians to the forced closures.

It was both incredibly grounding and inspiring to hear Annalee talk about Phytoremediation and the foundations of Fresh Milk. Phytoremediation consists of mitigating pollutant concentrations in contaminated soils, water, or air, with plants able to contain, degrade, or eliminate toxins and contaminants. Like the human body turns blood into milk to nourish a new life, the Fresh Milk Art Platform creates a nurturing space for young artists on the site of the Walkers Plantation, turning blood into milk. Annalee Davis and her team have a response to the question of how are we to hold the bloody past in the present. This is how.

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Week 3

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Why do white people like to hunt ghosts?

This Buzzfeed article made me laugh out loud. I think many of us are guilty of at least a few of these, including loving attics and hunting ghosts. Halcyon is right now in Dominica looking for the traces/evidence of Jean Rhys while I have been driving around the island collecting field recordings, including the windmill turning slowly in the dark gardens of St. Nicholas Abbey, village dogs barking at night and the St Matthias Sunday church service. I’ve been listening to Bajan radio all the while, particularly the religious stations, which are clear about how you can get cast out of paradise and for what.

The Bathsheba area is on the East coast. You drive over the high hills in the centre of the island and then you start coming down steep, steep hills towards the Atlantic Ocean. There is nothing between this coast and the West coast of Africa. Named after a biblical adulteress, it is nestled on the wild coast, boulders strewn as if flung out by a giant having a tantrum long ago. It feels like an entirely different country. The challenge of evoking mystery and complex narratives through sound becomes evident. What is Bathsheba if I turn off my eyes?

The Bajan dialect is a pleasure to listen to. The accent is syrupy. You can hear West African, sometimes hints of the Scottish Isles and the humour coming thick and fast. It is so close and yet so completely different to Belizean Kriol. In Belize you ‘suk u teeth’, in Bajan you ‘steupse’.

In both places, the action of making that sucking sound of disdain, anger, indifference, of sexy banter – given there are many ways to ‘suk u teeth’ – relays a whole glorious sense of attitude.

In Belize, I remember my best-friend saying to me when I was talking to my Australian Mum, “why does it take you so long to say anything?” and it’s true. English seems laborious, as though it were made for stiff upper lips and long cloistered afternoons.

I have no Belizean blood and so being Belizean is a negotiation, determined not by me, but by the person I am speaking to. Were you born there? How long did you stay? Do you speak Kriol? All of these questions probe the unspoken right to a place.

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This week we spoke to women born here in Barbados, but not raised here, who have returned from abroad, with different accents after some time living other lives. In the reverse situation where all your blood is from here, how is it to be treated as if you are foreign. They spoke of the peculiar ‘outsiderness’, of being considered American and sharing the delight of being able to whip back a response in dialect, and of the peculiar and mercurial sadness of leaving and coming home, over and over again.

“I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.” – Jean Rhys

One interview this week with a high-ranking member of the cultural sector (cue spy music) was particularly inspirational. She gave an impromptu monologue about the future she saw for islands like Barbados and all small economies that have become utterly dependent on tourism. A bleak scenario, where the supply chains are cut off, the meat from New Zealand is no longer coming, where we are hungry and can’t remember how to plant our own food. The picture she painted was not to instill fear but instead to illuminate what is unique to where we are, the stories we need to keep telling and ways in which we can give back to the places we inhabit. Everyone, quick! Go do something meaningful with your life! Cue dramatic ending.

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Week 4

Jean Rhys & Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys & Wide Sargasso Sea. Portrait by Teresa Chilton

Our last week in Barbados has seen a wonderful anxiety as the process has been accelerated and we realise that we have only moments left on this island before we fly home. The growing cache of audio files have started to appear in their true form, as an incomplete sketch of a place and people, with some parts coloured-in vividly and the rest remaining an outline.

The week has forced reflections on the interview process and how this is best done. At the end of every hour we spent interviewing, we wished for more. More time, more thought, better questions, less politeness, more anecdotes, and more friction. We have learnt that the peculiar intimacy of the interview is a whole art in itself. Coming to like each other is a quicker process than how we come to disagree.

Writer and journalist Gay Talese, in an interview in New New Journalism talks about ‘the art of hanging out’ and how he followed Frank Sinatra for two years to write his seminal essay Frank Sinatra Has A Cold. This was the art of both constantly reminding the subject that they are being watched, questioned, scrutinised and gently, gently disappearing into the background.

In our last interview we met the Queen of Barbados, a woman in her 80s who regaled us with her adventurous life story whilst sitting amongst an amazing collection of Caribbean modern art. Who can say they have lived in Casablanca? She told us about her mother who, at the turn of the century in Barbados, would jog miles in her swimsuit, and even started a women’s group as an avenue to write plays and look after other women’s children. She was another remarkable Bajan woman, ahead of her time. This same lady had also stayed in Jean Rhys’ house in Dominica. Our ghost hunting continued…

Jean Rhys' house in Roseau, Dominica. Image sourced from The Wander Life Blog

Jean Rhys’ house in Roseau, Dominica. Image sourced from The Wander Life Blog

We have looked for Jean Rhys everywhere. She is inimitable and elusive as ever. Yet she has permeated every interview, beyond questions of race and class. The feeling of being outside life or misplaced evoked the reflective state that we often enter in order to mine our own lives for meaning. As one woman we met this week described, she loved Wide Sargasso Sea because she belonged nowhere. This is so common a feeling to our century. It is what connects being Australian with the migration patterns of the Caribbean and the cultural hybridity of the islands.

What is so important about Rhys’ voice as a writer is the brutal gaze, which she turns on herself and her own experiences. It is the unflinching ability to ask what is this and why?

As we contemplate going back to Australia where the validity of art and, in particular, its ability to be political is being blatantly attacked by our government, we are reminded in these interviews that the personal voice is political. Each of these interviews and the stories they have shared has been individual examples of how each life, on reflection, shows clearly its own courage.

This residency is supported in part by the Australian Broadcasting CorporationThe Alcorso Foundation and Arts Tasmania.

 

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