A Reflection from Degna Stone
Listen here to this text on the CONTESTED DESIRES podcast. (Please note: part of the text was amended on 29 April 2021. This podcast is the original version of the text.)
In September 2020, our final conversation in the Crafting Nations series focussed on the historical context and contemporary reflections from the Caribbean island of Barbados.
Artist, Annalee Davis (founder of Fresh Milk and partner on the CONTESTED DESIRES programme) presented the hybrid dimensions of her practice across local, regional and international networks.
I think that we can choose to craft our nations in the Caribbean differently to the colonial design intended for these islands, one that was based on extractive economic models to benefit European nations.
Working in transdisciplinary ways reaffirms my belief in the power of art to foster self-knowledge and belonging. It supports the politics of hospitality through inclusivity. It erases the notion of separation based on linguistic borders by accepting our polyphonic region. And it recognises that a region born out of trauma, and then abandoned, is worth loving.
Crafting Nations: The Need for Radical Understanding
Why do you not know who I am?
During the final conversation, Annalee Davis discussed her hybrid practice as an artist, cultural activist and founder of Fresh Milk, ‘a “cultural lab”, a dynamic space for artists’. It was a fascinating exploration of the varied work she undertakes.
In a region where language can be a divide (following colonisation by the French, Spanish, Dutch and English), Caribbean Linked is a regional residency that brings artists of different languages together in a unified Caribbean identity; Leh We Talk brought people from myriad backgrounds together to hold intimate conversations about race and class in the context of Barbados; (bush) Tea Services uses excavated shards from porcelain crockery made in the UK to create a tea set that serves bush tea (cerasee, bay leaf, lemongrass, and blue vervain) as part of a performative installation; (Bush) Tea Plot - A Decolonial Patch for Mill Workers,presents a living collection of plants in recognition of cotton mill worker ailments in recognition of shared colonial transatlantic histories; and As if the Entanglement of our Lives did not Matter, a family portrait of sorts, explores the concept of corrupted and contaminated blood. The common thread in her works is a desire to connect and communicate. A desire to understand.
Barbados was the first ‘slave society’, its economic model built on and sustained by the enslavement of Africans. The brutal 1661 Barbados Slave Code, a document which legalised the abuses and terror of slavery, was exported to the US and other Caribbean islands where the barbaric practices continued. Davis highlighted the disconnect in the UK between the realities of the transatlantic slave trade. The tiny island of Barbados was the first sugar island and it generated untold wealth for the mother country.
During the (bush) Tea Services installation, Davis asks ‘But I’ve known you for three hundred years, why do you not know who I am?’. Andrea Levy asks a similar question in her novel Small Island, and it echoes James Baldwin’s statement in I am Not Your Negro ‘You have never seen me but I have always seen you’.
Fresh Milk itself is situated on a former plantation and is therefore a site of historical trauma. The organisation seeks to move against that history to create a nurturing space, but as an operational dairy farm, it can be a challenging environment for artists whose ancestors were amongst the enslaved. Because the legacies of colonialism and slavery haven’t been properly addressed, that trauma carries forward into the present.
Speaking to that history, Davis’s Wild Plant Series of botanical illustrations drawn on old plantation ledgers, records a ‘quiet revolution’ as the island begins to regain its natural biodiversity, an apothecary of healing plants, now that the monocrop of sugar cane has ceased to dominate. The delicate drawings of plants contrast with the rigid lines of the ledger paper, which represent the brutal business of enslavement.
Are colonialism and racism the same thing?
There is a tendency to conflate the two as if they were the same and inseparable. Although racism has been an essential component of colonialism, and they occupy overlapping spheres, each can operate outside the context of the other.
Racism was vital to the colonial project, the atrocities carried out could only be justified if the colonisers were able to make a clear distinction between themselves and other people; that they were superior in some fundamental way. The racist systems created to justify colonialism and enslavement are still firmly embedded in the economic models of post-colonial societies. But racism can also manifest where there hasn’t been a history of colonisation. In Europe, the Roma and Sinty people have experienced racism largely based on the colour of their skin and their cultural ‘otherness’.
It was interesting to hear Davis talk about perceptions of whiteness in Barbados where, although she is of mixed heritage, she is read as white; therefore benefitting from the privilege that brings. Outside Barbados, she may be read as brown, mixed or Hispanic, depending on where she is in the world. Notions of race are ever changing and influenced by who holds the power.
Another question arose when prejudice directed toward white southern Europeans (by northern Europeans) was discussed. Can racism be experienced by white people? Haven’t they avoided the effects of being ‘racialised’? It’s certain that they can suffer prejudice and discrimination in a variety of ways – classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia all manner of intersections but racism? Surely when white people are in the majority and where they hold the power, racism isn’t something that they have to deal with. What about in other contexts? What does it mean when the gaze is the other way around? When ‘whiteness’ places you in the minority?
Cyprus brings a different perspective: In the Caribbean colonisers decimated indigenous populations in order to create a new order; in Cyprus, previously colonised by the Ottoman Empire, the Venetians and the Phoenicians, the relatively brief British colonial period didn’t displace the indigenous population, but did sew the seeds of division between the Greek Christian Orthodox communities and the Turkish Muslim communities, laying the ground for an island that remains divided today.
How do we make things right?
There is a school of thought that contextualising the narratives around shared and contested heritage is misguided, that the focus should be on the great advances and developments that colonialism brought to the world. The negative associations of colonialism, no matter how brutal and unjust, should be left in the past so that we can focus on the wrongs that are happening now across the world. To do so would be to ignore the fact that the aftershocks of colonial empires still reverberate.
At the collapse of the transatlantic slave trade, reparations were not directed toward the enslaved and the UK has only recently paid its debt to the enslavers . At the fall of empire the colonisers plundered as much as they could before sowing division and hightailing in home. The inequalities of systems built on racist theories and subjugating those deemed ‘sub-human’ were not erased, corrected or even acknowledged. Racist pseudo-scientific theories developed by Carl Linnaeus continue to poison the discourse on race and this fact must be confronted head on . Racism will not go away just because those who don’t explicitly feel its effects choose to ignore the fact that whilst race is a construct, racism is a reality. These theories must be interrogated and dismantled in plain sight.
And anyway, it isn’t a case of either/or. Why can’t we address the ills of colonial rule whilst celebrating the advances?
How can we craft nations without first coming to terms with the way nations were built in the past? Language is important. So much of our vocabulary is as contested as the narratives we seek to tell. Recently I’ve been thinking about reparations and wondering if this is the only way the post-colonial world can move on. But the word ‘reparations’ is scary. Too scary for governments. But what does ‘reparation’ fundamentally mean? Repair. Make Right. It’s not all about the money (though that would be a part of it). What if we looked at reparations not as a redistribution of wealth, a payment to those who’ve suffered but as a sound investment to address inequalities and make the world safer? It feels radical but until we understand the past and make way for a multiplicity of voices we will be unable to move forward.
We have a chance to craft nations built on fairness, not exploitation of the land and its inhabitants. Will we take it?
Biography - Annalee Davis
Annalee Davis is a visual artist, cultural instigator, educator and writer, with a hybrid practice. She works at the intersection of biography and history, focussing on post-plantation economies by engaging with a particular landscape on Barbados.
Her studio, located on a working dairy farm, operated historically as a 17th C sugarcane plantation, offering a critical context for her practice by engaging with the residue of the plantation. She has been making and showing her work regionally and internationally since the early nineties.
In 2011, Annalee founded Fresh Milk, an arts platform and micro-residency programme. In 2012 she co-founded Caribbean Linked, an annual residency in Aruba, cohering emerging artists, writers and curators from the Caribbean and Latin America. In 2015, she co-founded Tilting Axis, an independent visual arts platform bridging the Caribbean through annual encounters.
From 2016-2018, she was Caribbean Arts Manager with the British Council, developing programming in Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, and part-time tutor at Barbados Community College (2005-2018). She received a BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art (1986) and an MFA from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (1989).
Image: Drawings from the Wild Plant Series (2015), Annalee Davis
Photo: Installation shot by Will Slater from the solo exhibition, re:wilding curated by Olivia Penrose Punnet, Haarlem Artspace, UK