This is a curatorial essay in which the author explains his research and process for the conception and production of everything slackens in a wreck, a visual arts exhibition running at the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York from June to September 2022. Gosine elaborates his thinking about the title of the exhibition, which is taken from a Khal Torabully poem, and explains the relevance of and his intrigue with the four artists whose works comprise the exhibition: Wendy Nanan (Trinidad and Tobago), Margaret Chen (Jamaica/Canada), Andrea Chung (Jamaica/United States), and Kelly Sinnapah Mary (Guadeloupe). Each of the four women is a descendant of indentured workers who traveled to the Caribbean in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and for each this history is a reference point in her practice. Gosine proposes a consideration of the Americas as a consequence of three wreckages: the ship landings of European colonizers and the arriving ships of enslaved and, later, indentured peoples.
A wreck is always destructive, but its outcome is never fully presaged. Whatever the intentions of power in its execution, the simultaneous and always present exercise of resistance in that same moment—and in the wreck’s aftermath—ensures a negotiated battle that produces wide-ranging, uncertain, fluctuating, and often incomplete results. I approached the curation of the visual arts exhibition everything slackens in a wreck, for the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York, with a view of the contemporary Americas as the long, still-unfolding wreckage of ship landings—those of European traders and colonial agents, and of enslaved and indentured peoples.
The aspirations of European colonization have been wildly successful, accomplishing the material evisceration of life and cultures and entrenching dominant conceptual views of nature as extractive material and collateral damage in service of capitalist accumulation. In part because of the resistances against this violence by Indigenous, enslaved, indentured, and other dispossessed peoples and their descendants, however, colonialism’s aims were not entirely fulfilled. Among the unplanned consequences of the perpetually unstable power/ resistance wrangle—which began with the landing of Christopher Columbus’s ships, followed by Middle Passages, and which continue to play out right through to the present—are the reorganization of various hierarchies and the generation of some of our greatest contemporary joys: new forms of popular music, reinvented languages and literatures, cuisine, art.
The exhibition’s starting point is more intimately proximate and begins with my own reflections and observations of living the aftermath of colonialism in the Caribbean. I grew up in George Village, Tableland, a small area of southcentral Trinidad that marked the southeastern boundary of sugar cane plantations in the industry’s heyday at the beginning of the twentieth century. During my childhood in the early 1980s, the view from our patio was endless fields of unattended sugarcane. The industry was already fading then, and by the time we migrated from Trinidad to Canada in 1988, the fields had been cleared for Buffalypso—a breed of Indian water buffalo developed by a Trinidadian veterinarian in Canada and so named in a nod to Trinidad’s music form. Early on I learned that everyone who lived in Tableland was a descendant of someone brought there to labor on the land (in school we were fed the fable that Indigenous peoples—the misnamed “peaceful” Arawaks and “warring” Caribs—had been entirely disappeared by Spanish colonists, and there were no visibly White/European-identifying people in the community). The ones who most resembled me, I learned, had cane-cutter forebears who were brought to the region from India between 1838 and 1917. The members of the Chinese family that kept the main shop in George Village were likely descended from one of the several attempts to indenture Chinese workers. These attempts were dubbed “failed experiments” because Chinese workers, savvy from being better equipped with the knowledge of generations of migrants, quickly abandoned or bought out their work contracts. Indians had no such institutional experience or networks and remained bound to plantations. Among the Afro-Caribbean folks in Tableland were the Shouter Baptist community that kept a church and cemetery just up from our home. Then there were the children of the Rastafarian families, all descendants of enslaved peoples, who were my classmates at Robert Village Hindu School. And likely mixed in with all these groups were surviving Indigenous peoples as well as those with heritages particular and unknown; my own MyHeritage DNA results revealed Inuit, Irish, and Papuan roots in addition to Central and South Asian ones.
What all this history produced for me, as far as I can recall, was a relatively happy childhood that included specific traumatic experiences. The good and bad and in-between continue to reverberate powerfully today, and likely will do so for the rest of my existence. This sentiment is at once banal—whose childhood is not a complex experience?—and significant. It is an acknowledgment of the still unfolding legacy of 1492, which is not to say that the colonial project has any redeeming qualities—this is not a Sarkozyian war cry1—but that it was always met with resistance by those whom it intended to disappear or disempower, and it is in that unequally resourced struggle that unplanned outcomes, ones that created comfort and beauty, well-being and joy, also emerge. That is how I recall George Village and its inhabitants: as complex, creative, meandering, violent, and pleasant, full of surprises, endlessly inventive. And the ongoing dynamism and persistent creativity that characterize postcolonial life are what the exhibition intends to show.
Caribbean people of Asian descent are active players and makers of this existence, but the formative influence of their history and presence has been underacknowledged. A starting point of everything slackens in a wreck is the first iteration of Caribbean: Crossroads of the World in New York in 2012. In my Art in America review of that show, I noted the stark contrast between the near-negligible presence of Indo-Caribbean people among the hundreds of shown works and the large Indo-Caribbean community that surrounded the museum.2 The most common correction to the relative exclusion of Caribbean people of Asian descent from Caribbean art spheres has been to organize shows like the 2017–18 Circles and Circuits: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean at the California African American Museum or the 2020–21 Cultural Encounters: Asian Art of Latin America and the Caribbean organized by the Art Museum of the Americas, both of which foreground, and arguable reify, the biological Asianness of the artists. A few Caribbean shows, like the 2020–21 Fragments of Epic Memory exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, have done better to include Asian Caribbean artists as Caribbean, although the artists are often included as representatives for Asianness and the history of Asian migration to the region. Notably, the two Indo-Caribbean artists who have gained the most exposure in the mainstream art world over the last few years are ones that most clearly signal their Indianness: Renluka Maharaj, whose practice gained currency following her turn to painting over images of indentured women, and Suchitra Mattai, an artist who was last in the Caribbean in 1976, when she was three years old and her family left Guyana for Canada. Mattai’s ebullient sari sculptures and female figures are easily recognizable and have grown especially popular among major collectors.
The artists in everything slackens take a different route. Their works bear the history of Chinese and Indian migration to the region but are determinedly not ethnonationalist; they are instead layered with their maker’s personal experiences—the anxieties, concerns, motivations, desires, and so on that are specific to them. As further detailed below, the artworks illuminate the experience and legacy of indentureship around the exhibition’s core contention (that everything slackens in a wreck) without burdening the artists with the task of ethnic or gender representation. Their works are infused with their personalities and unique points of view, and are not intended to speak for a community, not even a Caribbean one. Instead, the intention is to consider what the particularities of their positions and histories might reveal to us about the human condition: How does humanity express itself and survive in a moment of crisis?
The title everything slackens in a wreck is taken from Khal Torabully’s 1992 book-length poem about the history of indentureship, Cale d’Étoile.3 For Torabully, the subsequent experience of Indian workers revealed their sea voyage as a place of destruction and creation of identity, a concept he termed “coolitude,” after Aimé Césaire’s négritude. East and South Asian migration to the Caribbean is marked by similar (but not the same, and not equal to) violences as the system of slavery that preceded it. And like enslaved and formerly enslaved people, migrants were also engaged in what I have called “wrecking work.”4 As Patricia Mohammed and several scholars of indentureship have pointed out, indentured workers in the Caribbean struck blows to the Hindu caste system, patriarchy, and other systems of power and produced new forms of culture and knowledge and, more often than not, better material living conditions for subsequent generations.5 This work is akin to what Tina Campt describes as a “black feminist praxis of futurity,” which emphasizes “the necessity of its (grammatically implied) ‘must.’” Campt explains that “the challenge of a black feminist futurity is the constant and perpetual need to remain committed to the political necessity of what will have had to happen, because it is tethered to a different kind of ‘must’”; it is, she says, “a responsibility to create one’s own future as a practice of survival.”6
The artworks that compose everything slackens demonstrate both this long, continuing history of survival and the particular contours of the artists’ lives and necessary choices in the various spaces they inhabit in the Americas. Wendy Nanan (Trinidad and Tobago), Margaret Chen (Jamaica/Canada), Andrea Chung (Jamaica/United States), and Kelly Sinnapah Mary (Guadeloupe) share a lineage in indentureship, and in their works they each contend with the complex legacy of this heritage more than a century after their ancestors boarded ships headed from Asia to the Americas. Critical of the enduring, destructive impact of processes of colonization, they also recognize migrants’ determined survivability, evidenced in part by their activation of productive opportunities amid crisis.
In Port of Spain–based artist Wendy Nanan’s Idyllic Marriage, colonialism’s wreckage is a love story for the ages (fig. 1). La Divina Pastora / Siparia Mai / the Black Madonna is bathed in bridal white on the left side of the papier-mâché sculpture, a bouquet of flowers in one hand, the other clutching a garland of marigolds. Unlike the placid expression source idol that sits at La Divina Pastora Roman Catholic Church in southern Trinidad, however, this Mary looks troubled, anxious, annoyed. The groom in Nanan’s work is Vishnu, the Hindu god whose job description includes preservation and protection of the universe. He is aggressively menacing, and his multitude of limbs allow for one of his hands to hold the marigold garland, while the other clutches the wrist of La Divina. For her, there is likely no escape. “What is so interesting about La Divina is that Hindus and Catholics share her,” Nanan says, underlining the inevitability of her union to Vishnu. “That, for me, is the reality of what it means to be Trinidadian.”7 This union, she submits, is not one of choice, but one that is, similar to Jamaican American Lorraine O’Grady’s representation of interracial love in her diptych The Clearing: or Cortez and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, N. and Me, in which O’Grady references historical pairings of White men and Black women to represent the entwinement of pleasure with violence as the heritage of colonization in the Americas. “I don’t think most people want to think about the compromising, difficult parts of sexuality,” O’Grady says. “But that’s what [sexuality] is.”8 O’Grady’s The Clearing underlines the inescapability of social history in the formulation of desire, and Nanan’s Idyllic Marriage draws a parallel between those difficult facts of desire and the processes of cultural hybridization in the Americas—it is a process that is full of ambivalence and contradictions, it is unwieldy and unpredictable, and it is inevitable because it is what has happened, is happening, will continue to happen.
Nanan’s Baby Krishna series similarly expresses a pointed ambivalence about the slackening of culture that is colonialism’s legacy. Her addition of Christian angel wings and halo to an infant Hindu Krishna, as well as various elements from the landscape, including oil and sugar, are characteristically descriptive of what the artist sees happening around her: the losses and gains that always characterize créolité, the reinvention of old traditions and the production of new ones that emerge in the heady space of hybridization. O’Grady and Nanan are observers more than they are polemicists, but Nanan’s oeuvre suggests an appreciative embrace of hybridity, especially in her sixth and final iteration of Baby Krishna—she destroyed the mold upon its completion—that is included in everything slackens (fig. 2). Carrying only a rainbow, this Krishna might be read as a punctuation of both the series of sculptures and of Nanan’s consideration of créolité in the most obvious way: at the end, after the turbulence, there is reward. Nanan’s specific inspiration for this Krishna was the decriminalization of sodomy won in Trinidad and Tobago’s High Court in 2018 and the subsequent celebrations by queer activists, including the organization of the countries’ first public pride parades, where the rainbow flag was ubiquitous.
Nanan’s untitled pods less clearly reference, but similarly consider, Trinidad’s postcoloniality (figs. 3 and 4). Easily recognizable as giant labia, the sculptures are literally open, suggestive of the incompleteness of modernity. The plentitude of shells that line their interiors might be read as infections, cancerous threats to its health, or as symbolic of fertility and infinitely generative possibilities. Responding to the first presentation of this project in Port of Spain in 2016, critic Marsha Pearce chooses the latter interpretation: “The spiral design found in a number of the shells used in the show calls to mind a kundalini energy—a creative potential or female energy believed to lie coiled and dormant in the human body, awaiting release,” she writes. “The spiral is associated with cycles of time; with the phases of birth, growth, death and rebirth.”9 Pearce cites Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in support of her reading. “When you make a spiral,” Jung wrote, “you always come over the same point where you have been before, but never really the same, it is above or below, inside, outside, so it means growth.”10 For Pearce,
Nanan hints at the presence of a productive force poised for unlocking within the national body and she injects sexual organs into her compositions as a means of building notions of proliferation, new life and new beginnings. Her nine papier mâché sculptural forms take on the appearance of crustacean hulls or seed pods, which are also read as vulvas. Each opening, each fecund female slit, is stuffed with shells in an arrangement that gives a sense of plenty: a cornucopian vision presented as an alternative in a land where one, at once outraged and jaded, might easily see lack and deprivation.11
Fellow critic Andre Bagoo agrees. Bagoo produced a series of poems that resulted from his encounter with Nanan’s pods, including “Shells,” in which, like Pearce, Bagoo reads Nanan as hopeful and generative. In part 1 of the poem, Bagoo sees endless possibilities emerging from the wreckage of discards:
In part 2 of “Shells,” Bagoo shares a meditation on postcoloniality inspired by Nanan’s pods:
Underlining his evocation of scars and rings are the materials of the pods themselves, whose construction begins with fallen Royal Palm tree branches Nanan collected from around her neighborhood.
The transformation of discards into beauty is not unique to Nanan; the regeneration of wreckage is a main characteristic of Margaret Chen’s artistic practice. Born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, in 1951, Chen is a sculptor who has worked primarily, but not exclusively, with wood. This choice has often been explained in texts about her work as an outcome of her family’s furniture business, or as explored in recently published scholarship by Mingying Zhou, her “Chineseness.”14 The introductory text for the 2020–21 traveling exhibition of Asian Art in the Americas, Cultural Encounters (later, No Oceans between Us), notes, “As was customary among Chinese families in Jamaica, Chen was raised in the family business—in her case, furniture making—which provided her with a specialist’s background in the manipulation of wood for carving and sculpture.”15 While the environment of the family business perhaps informed her interest, Chen points out that she did not get interested in wood until she became a student at the Jamaica School of Art and Crafts, and she credits her teacher Winston Patrick’s support and passion, not her family business, as a primary motivator. “The teacher really influences a student,” Chen offers, “the love of what you’re doing.”16 Zhou posits that Chen’s use of wood “is closely connected with Buddhist culture,” since “most Buddhist items are made of wood, such as incense, Buddha beads, temple blocks and hand strings.” She finds Buddhist origins across Chen’s works. Of Aperture/Orifice, Zhou writes, “The sclera of the eyeball, made of reflective material, symbolizes the observation of the joys and miseries of all lives in the world, which is a vivid representation of the Buddhist dictum ‘To see the whole world in a grain of a grit.’” Similarly, she observes that Chen’s Passage “shows us the intricacies of the passages within a narrow and cramped space . . . an eloquent visualization of the Buddhist idea that human lives are capricious and full of miseries.”17 Zhou posits, thus, “Chen’s artworks reveal that the formation of her worldview has an intimate relation to Chinese traditional culture and beliefs, especially Buddhist thought.” Reading Chen’s Ovoid/O void as a statement about “the artist’s ultimate concern for all creatures on the earth, plants as well as animals,” Zhou points to Taoist philosophy as a source. “On top of that,” she adds, “the red, leaf-like heart bears striking similarity to Chinese paper-cuts, not only in their conformity in the vivid singular red, but also in that they share the spectacular hollowing-out technique.”18 She also cites paper cutting and wood carving as inherently Chinese, and argues, “Chen’s artworks have achieved a perfect balance between resemblance and unlikeness, opening up an infinite imaginative space and allowing immense interpretive possibilities for spectators, which relates subtly to the concept of the Golden Mean advocated by Confucianism.” Finally, referencing Chen’s Cross-section of Labyrinth, which is featured in everything slackens in a wreck, Zhou observes, “The carvings of the ancient Chinese furniture often include Buddhist patterns, such as the lotus and the glyph ‘卍’ (in Sanskrit it is seen as the symbol of the sun or the fire, which signifies auspiciousness).” The Chineseness of Chen’s art pieces, Zhou concludes, “is revealed in their embodiment of some key ideas of Chinese philosophy.”19
But is Chen’s “Chineseness” the most compelling or fair reading of her work? For one, her tutelage in wood carving came neither from her family business nor Chinese institution but from the Afro-Jamaican sculptor Winston Patrick. More importantly, I think, is that in trying to tie these direct lines to ethnonational antecedents, the main story in Chen’s practice is missed: that she builds beauty and possibility from scraps. “At the art school, I did wood carving,” Chen recalls. “That started my love of wood.” Then when she would return to her family’s furniture business, Chen “took whatever scraps, or whatever interesting shapes were left” behind. “That is what I do,” she says, “I take leavings from whatever is there. That’s the interesting bits.” Indeed, Chen’s work was selected for everything slackens in a wreck precisely because it epitomizes the versatility of colonized subjects, the capacity to work with “what is left” to create something that was unplanned by, and may not serve, the colonial project.
“Leavings have a history,” Chen says. She describes her work in the classroom studio under the instruction of Patrick: “We did a lot of wood carving, that’s the idea of taking away from a large block. We did clay, which was taking away and adding.” She further explains,
I work intuitively, not from a maquette or a complete idea, but beginning with a half-formed thought, transformed into a shape or object which provides the impetus for me to go forward. Each work becomes an adventure, pursued sometimes blindly, torturously, other times joyfully, with the conviction that I have somehow stumbled onto an intriguing path. This repetitive process becomes a meditation, and along the way something happens, insidiously. The work somehow takes on a life of its own and seems to guide my thoughts and hands. As the work grows, there comes a convergence of different paths into one.
Leavings were the beginning of Cross-section of Labyrinth, a sculpture twenty-two feet in diameter comprising two kinds of castoffs—wood and shells (figs. 5 and 6)—as well as for the boat-like structure Cross-section of Arc, which began with its centerpiece curve that, the artist says, “was just lying around” (fig. 7). Labyrinth took two and a half years to build. “First of all,” Chen recalls, “I started with carving the centerpiece. I started with circular plywood then I added curves which were leftovers from furniture; when you make a chair, there is this ‘leaving’ left back, which I glued on before carving.” Unlike most sculptors, Chen does not make models for her work. “I find that totally boring, why would you do that? It’s in the small form already, you know what it’s going to be,” she says. “I prefer to just start something and add on to that. The unknowing is the adventure . . . because the adventure becomes unknown.” Notably, the shearing of a capitalist drive has been an important feature of her practice: “I decided when I started doing sculpture that I’m not going to make it to sell it, I am making it for myself,” she recalls, “so I can do anything.” As well, Chen’s visual disabilities have played an important role in shaping her practice. “I am very myopic, and my lens is so thick that when I look at you,” she told me. “You look smaller to my eyes than you are, so I’ve always thought ‘That’s why I am not seeing [the sculptures] large.’” The result of this reframing of a disability into an ability is the production of beautiful, immense works of art.
Like Nanan’s pods, Chen’s works are lined with shells. “The body is a shell, a temporal vessel,” Chen explains. “The shell lies on the beach, is exposed to the elements and buried in sand, then washed away by the waves, only to return again and again.” Where Nanan’s shells were collected from her visits to Manzanilla Beach in Trinidad, however, Chen’s had a different route: “I became really fascinated with the oyster shells from the mangroves. . . . They are so beautiful, especially when they have some wood on them.” She asked fishermen she had met through a friend in Port Royal to keep the shells for her. “They were filled with maggots,” Chen recalls of when she collected the shells from the fishermen, “so I had to glove up and bleach and clean them.”
The process was arduous—as was the process of carving Labyrinth: “For about a year, I had pain in my legs, I had to lean against a wall [to be able to carve].” Over that time, its floral shape emerged. Most of the “things we see around us,” Chen observes, are regenerative: “The shells, for example, were made by waves compressing sand. They are like any organic thing that dies. . . . [But] things remain and [the shell, in turn,] is inhabited by living things, it’s just a cycle. It’s almost as if nothing really dies. They just transform into something else.” As Chen concludes in a 2019 written reflection piece about her practice, “I perceive my work as an ongoing process, with the previous one informing the present one. An attempt to plumb the depths of that void, as the writer Esther Harding wrote, that ‘primordial slime from which life first emerged’ and to reveal to oneself again and again, through work after work, the site of one’s own origin.”20
We might read into Chen’s statement echoes of her own diasporic history, marked by key moments in which loss gives rise to new beginnings. Chen’s grandparents arrived in Jamaica somewhere between the late 1800s and 1910, but when Chen’s Jamaican-born father turned ten, he was then sent back to China. “My father was the eldest, and at that time it was the practice to send the eldest back to China to learn the language, culture, etc.” He remained there until he was in his early twenties. “When he went back to Jamaica, it was because his father died. He had to take over the grocery shop.” But Chen’s father took more interest in furniture, and so the family business was reinvented. Similarly, after her mother died, Chen accompanied her father on a long-desired trip to China, where Chen’s practice took new turns, as did her understanding of herself: “In China, I realized how Jamaican I am.” Chen’s conclusion is shorthand for the layered work of Sino Jamaican creatives; as Tzarina Prater says about Chinese Jamaican writers, they “create tapestries of fable, myth, and memory that include tales of the quotidian to generate new sources and archives to address silences, battle Orientalist discourses and racist stereotypes, fill some of the aporias in historical narratives, and demonstrate that they are a part of, not apart from, Jamaican national history.”21
San Diego–based artist Andrea Chung has worked through similar conundrums about her identity. Born in the United States to a Chinese Jamaican father and Trinidadian mother, Chung has often been called on to explain her ethnicity—a “crass question,” she says, to which she has developed a suited response: “It’s not complicated, like somebody clearly married or had sex with somebody that was Asian. And I actually told somebody that once when she said ‘how did you get your last name?’ I said, ‘Well, my parents fucked, and here I am.’”22 Like Nanan and Chen, Chung is also starting with scraps for her new site-specific commission for everything slackens. Chung’s project comprises a large community bird’s nest structure set against a backdrop of prints of the nest’s dwellers (figs. 8 and 9). “This project,” Chung explains, “connects to pre-existing dialogues within my work that investigate colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on labor and servitude within the Caribbean.” In 2009, Chung conducted research on slavery and indentureship in Mauritius, drawn to its history as a colonial island that was part of the Dutch, French, and British plantocracy. “Enslaved peoples from East Africa and Madagascar, along with indentured servants from India and China, were all imported into the island for the production of sugar,” she remembers, “mirroring the colonies of the Caribbean. Despite the traumatic experiences faced by all of these groups, they were able to live and retain cultural practices and memory within the most harsh of conditions.”23
In Mauritius, Chung observed the skillfulness of the local village weaver birds. “These creatures use sugar cane grass stalks to create intricately woven nests that can suspend from the most unexpected heights and angles,” she recalls. “I came to see the weaver bird’s process as a metaphor for how enslaved and indentured peoples are forced to adapt and create homes in spaces that weren’t created with their survival in mind.” Building nests for everything slackens, she says, “is an opportunity to bring that metaphor to life, . . . to pay homage to the resilience and tenacity of groups impacted by the transatlantic slave trade.”24 Chung’s gesture is aimed at both acknowledgment of this history and transformation of its most debilitating consequences. Asked in an interview about her “archipelagic inheritance” as a descendant of enslaved and indentured people,25 Chung replies: “The thing that has been passed down, to me the most has been trauma, and the kinds of trauma that we’ve inherited, that has unfortunately become a legacy in my part of the family.” Through her practice, she says, she hopes to help her son “really understand where he comes from” but without passing on the trauma.26 “Like, I understand a lot of the issues that have been traumatic to my parents, particularly my father. I understand why they respond the way that they do to certain things like their expectations of their children. But I also feel like, in some ways, they cannot rid themselves of that trauma. And that becomes like, a generational trauma that’s passed down. And it’s like, at what point does that stop.”27
Kelly Sinnapah Mary
Guadeloupean artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary has been identifying and unpacking intergenerational traumas through her epic painting and installation series Notebook of No Return, which she began in 2015, the same year that Memorial ACTe opened in Pointe-à-Pitre as a monument to slavery. Sinnapah Mary’s ancestors were among the more than forty thousand indentured Indian workers brought to Guadeloupe between 1854 and 1889—a fact unknown to her until she was well into adulthood. “When I was a child, I considered myself to be Afro-descendant. The story of my ancestors was never told to me—either in my family or at school,” she says. “I had this need to seek out and to shed light on a missing part of my story.”28 Six years into making Notebook, Sinnapah Mary has produced ten series of works that simultaneously investigate her history and contend with its consequences. The series she has created for everything slackens, comprising a twenty-one-foot-wide triptych of a face-forward young bride bookended by two large paintings—one of a mother figure, the other of a father—continues an aesthetic she has been developing from the start. In these paintings, scenes are set against dark green fauna. In earlier iterations of this series, the figures are separate from their backdrops, but in the latter pieces, including in the paintings composed for everything slackens, these boundaries blur: leaves take the form of human life and vice versa, adding a sense of malleability to both. The most repeated fauna in these paintings is sansevieria trifasciata, also known as “mother-in-law’s tongue,” “Saint George’s sword,” “snake plant,” or “tiger’s tail.” Notably, this is a traveled species, native to West Africa but now present worldwide.
Alongside the paintings are a series of small sculptures, Notebook of No Return: The Childhood of Sanbras (figs. 10–13).29 Sanbras is the artist as a school-uniformed young girl who sets out “to gather the other children to rebuild a new world.”30 In addition to her signature plaited hair, dark skin, and facial and body structure, the artist gives herself multiple eyes in this self-representation, perhaps to underline her development from an artist trying to build her history from fragments to one who is more deeply examining the human condition through the lens of particular location and experience. Sinnapah Mary does not position herself as an unflawed participant or arbiter of morality in the unfolding of indentureship’s afterlife. Instead, the artist dives into more difficult tensions that characterize this space. One experience she has often cited in framing her work challenges anti-Black racism among Indo-Caribbean people, “a disconcerting reversal of the fate generally reserved for the Indian fraction of the population,” as acknowledged by Dominique Brebion.31 But it speaks truth to the complicated political context in which descendants of Indian indentured laborers exist: at once marginalized from dominant representations of the Caribbean and sometimes productive of its forms of anti-Black racism. Sinnapah Mary also goes somewhat further than Nanan in speaking to cultural losses engendered by colonialism and postcolonial nationalism—a certain consequence of the difference between the strongly assimilationist policies of France that are implemented in Guadeloupe and the sanctioning of multiculturalism in Trinidad. Where Nanan grew up with both Christian and Hindu practices in her home and community, for example, the Hindu roots of Sinnapah Mary’s family institutionally diminished between just her grandparents’ and parents’ generations. Her paternal grandfather was a Hindu pundit (priest), but when she was a child, her father became a Jehovah’s Witness, as did, eventually, her more reluctant mother: “My brother and I grew up in this religion, which formed a bubble around us that, by and large, cut us off from Indian culture in Guadeloupe. The Indian ceremonies were forbidden for Jehovah’s Witnesses. My parents were interested neither in cultural events oriented to the Indian diaspora nor to the languages spoken by our ancestors.”32 The literal self-immolation in many of her Notebook paintings, as she explains, is an apt visualization of her feelings about her sense of her culture. “Becoming aware of my story and my misunderstanding about my identity made me feel uncomfortable. . . . It was as if I had awakened one day from my limbs. . . . I was missing pieces of me.”33 She has also discussed feeling cut off from the local Indian community’s adherence to an essentialist identity, which seems neither to include her nor to evolve, sticking to a flattened, overly celebratory view of Indianness (as I further elaborate in Nature’s Wild).34
Sinnapah Mary’s practice additionally offers the possibility of a new generative spirit in which the cultural loss she experiences is recuperated and recast in new and complicated ways; hers is no mere project of reverence. Various forms of Hindu iconography appear in intentional and unintentional ways across her practice. In her Quarantine series, for example, Hindu gods and icons of Walt Disney are fused together and offer a critique of capitalist consumerism.35 The Hindu belief in reincarnation is also a recurring reference point in her work, as are its related equation of human and nonhuman life. Through many of her hybrid human-animal representations, Sinnapah Mary’s audiences are asked to recognize and deepen their analysis of Caribbean history and the complexity of Caribbean peoples’ humanness. Rather than depict a familiar and flattened register of tropes about indentureship—the suffering laborer, the violated woman, the innocent child—she instead draws audiences’ attention to universally human subconscious drives. In the same vein, everything slackens proposes a view of indentured peoples’ experiences and legacies not as unique to this group but as illustrative of the creative resilience of the human spirit, the determination of survivability in conditions of crisis. Faced with a global pandemic and climate change, among other urgent challenges, the histories of these indentured workers and their descendants reveal the generative possibilities of social fracture. Everything slackens in a wreck is bleary-eyed optimism in a tough time.
Special thanks to Lisa Kim.
Everything slackens in a wreck opens 1 June 2022 at the Ford Foundation Gallery in New York.
Law no. 2005–158 by the French National Assembly that would force high school teachers to instruct the “positive values” of colonialism to their students. The law was repealed the following year by then president Jacques Chirac.
Andil Gosine, Caribbean: Crossroads of the World review, Art in America, 6 November 2012, www.artnews.com/art-in-america/aia-reviews/caribbean-crossroads-of-the-world-2-61355.
Khal Torabully, Cale d’Étoile: Coolitude (La Réunion: Azalées, 1992).
Andil Gosine, “My Mother’s Baby: Wrecking Work after Indentureship,” in Gabrielle Jamela Hosein and Lisa Outar, eds., Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Genealogies, Theories, Enactments (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 49–60.
See Patricia Mohammed, Gender Negotiations among Indians in Trinidad, 1917–1947 (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002).
Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 114.
Wendy Nanan, quoted in Jacqueline Bishop, “Trinidadian Artist Wendy Nanan Talks about the Importance of Place in Her Works,” HuffPost, 6 June 2016 / 7 June 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/trinidadian-artist-wendy-_b_10233038.
Lorraine O’Grady, quoted in Andil Gosine, Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex, and Law in the Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 146, 147 (emphasis mine).
Marsha Pearce, “Art Breeds Possibility: Wendy Nanan’s New Works,” ARC Magazine, 22 April 2016, contemporary 1138. rssing.com/chan-28158494/article127.html.
Carl Jung, cited in ibid.; Pearce quotes Jung, Dream Analysis, Parts 2 and 3 (Seminar notes privately printed, Zürich 1929), 21.
Pearce, “Art Breeds Possibility.”
Andre Bagoo, “Shells,” in Pitch Lake (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree, 2017), 33.
See Mingying Zhou, “Chineseness in the Works of Two Jamaican Artists: Margaret Chen and Bryan McFarlane,” Caribbean Quarterly 67, nos. 1–2 (2021): 96–115.
“Margaret Chen,” www.cultural-encounters.org/margaret-chen. The exhibit, originally titled Cultural Encounters: Art of Asian Diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean, later became No Ocean between Us: Art of Asian Diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1945–Present.
Margaret Chen, interview by the author, Toronto, 9 August 2021. All uncited quotes attributed directly to Chen are from this interview.
Zhou, “Chineseness,” 104.
Margaret Chen, “Substrata Exhibition: Some Ruminations on My Work,” 2019, unpublished notes provided by artist, in the author’s possession; Chen quotes M. Esther Harding, Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern (Boston: Shambhala, 1990), 33.
Tzarina Prater, “‘We Are Jamaicans. We Are Brothers’: History, Brotherhood, and Independence in Kerry Young’s Pao,” Anthurium 11, no. 2, article 5 (2014): 3, scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/anthurium/vol11/iss2/5.
Andrea Chung, quoted in Tao Leigh Goffe, “The Great Experiment—the Trinidad Experiment: Art, Abolition, and Racial Indenture across Archipelagoes,” interview, Journal of Indentureship and Its Legacies 1, no. 1 (2021): 164.
Andrea Chung, artist’s proposal for everything slackens in a wreck, 2021, in the author’s possession.
Goffe, “The Great Experiment,” 165.
Chung, quoted in ibid., 165.
Kelly Sinnapah Mary, quoted in AGOinsider, “From India to Guadeloupe: Guadeloupian Contemporary Artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary Uses a Surreal, Sci-Fi Flair to Paint the Distinct Journey of Her Ancestors,” AGO.com (Art Gallery of Ontario), 15 December 2021, ago.ca/agoinsider/india-guadeloupe.
Sinnapah Mary previously exhibited Notebook of No Return: The Childhood of Sanbras at the 2021 Sao Paolo biennale.
Kelly Sinnapah Mary, e-mail correspondence with the author, 5 January 2022.
“Un renversement déconcertant du sort généralement réservé à la fraction indienne de la population”; Dominique Brebion, “Désir cannibale,” Association internationale des critiques d’art—Caraïbe du Sud, 30 July 2018, aica-sc.net/2018/07/30/desir-cannibale (translation mine).
Kelly Sinnapah Mary, quoted in Lisa Outar, “Art, Violence, and Non-return: An Interview with Guadeloupean Artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary,” in Hosein and Outar, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, 196.
Sinnapah Mary, quoted in Gosine, Nature’s Wild, 112.
See ibid., 112–14.
See Andil Gosine, “Kelly Sinnapah Mary’s Quarantine,” in “Afterlives of Indenture,” ed. Andil Gosine and Nalini Mohabir, special issue, Wasafiri, no. 110 (Summer 2022): 48–58.