Black and White Stories

via Caribbean Beat magazine, September/October 2005 White Creole postcolonial feminism, anyone? (Didn’t think so.)

“I know. This is not stuff that people talk about,” admitted artist Joscelyn Gardner when I caught up with her in mid-June, a few days before the launch of her multimedia installation White Skin, Black Kin at Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7) in Port of Spain, Trinidad. “At least, not in Barbados,” she added with a wry smile.

Gardner should know. She’s Barbadian. In fact, the lithographer and visual artist, whose practice focuses on issues of Creole identity from a postcolonial feminist perspective, was born in Barbados to a family that has been resident on the island since the 17th century. And although Gardner now lives in Canada, teaching fine arts at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, she’ll tell you in a heartbeat that she’s as Bajan as they come, and she’s certain that Bajans don’t talk about that kind of stuff.

So Gardner’s clearly not thinking about boosting her sales when she describes her work, in her artist’s statement, as “addressing the denial, repression, and dissociation that operate in relation to the subject of slavery and white culpability”. But for Gardner, art is not just end product, but a medium for the articulation of a bigger message — what she describes as “the intertwined historical/ancestral relationship between black/white women in the postcolonial Caribbean”.

In this sense, art is very serious work. And Gardner — who during her residency at CCA7 devoted considerable effort to researching the role played by 19th century Creole women operating in the margins of the patriarchal structures of colonial society — is a serious artist.

Her installation, which ran until mid-July at CCA7, consisted of two separate but interrelated works: Plantation Poker: The Merkin Stories and White Skin, Black Kin: A Creole Conversation Piece. The former is a series of lithographs on frosted mylar, displaying excerpts from the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, an 18th-century Jamaican planter who recorded in detail his abusive sexual exploitation of slave women. Interspersed among these panels of text are graphic black-and-white drawings melding images of various instruments of torture — a cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip, shackles, flagella, spurs, a weight — with intimate female images. The words and images work together to convey a powerful message about female Creole sexuality.

“It’s a way of reclaiming or empowering these females,” Gardner explained, “because you’re taking these tools of torture and you’re making them into decorative elements.”

The second half of the exhibition was a minimalist video and sound installation made up of a mounted photographic reproduction of an actual portrait of an 18th-century Barbadian planter (Portrait of Seale-Yearwood Esq), a topsy-turvy doll on a mahogany armchair, five audio tracks, and two DVD projections (Sisters and A Creole Conversation Piece).

This last element, a silent digital video, is the piece’s central component, projected onto a large screen dominating the space of the exhibition room. In this digital reproduction of the typical 18th-century family portrait, a white woman and her two daughters sit in a drawing-room adorned with all the trappings of the wealthy colonial planter class. But throughout the looping video clip, ghost-like black female figures move through the drawing-room, asserting by their very presence and movement their rightful place in the space (both physical and historical). The idea, one concludes, is to force us to question the Eurocentric and patriarchal orthodoxy that passes for genuine Caribbean history.

In this strikingly and refreshingly original multimedia installation (originally mounted at the Barbados Museum in 2004), it is as if Gardner has distilled all the Caribbean into one person, one Creole woman, captured that one woman’s repressed and subconscious thoughts, and then presented that hidden female consciousness in a form that we can not just experience but almost inhabit, if only for a while.