- nyugen e. smith
*This blog post may contain language and content that may be unsuitable for children and the prudish. Discretion is advised.
Day 1 of my residency at Fresh Milk International Artist Residency in St. George, Barbados.
Just prior to leaving home in the USA for this, my third Caribbean island as part of my Leonore Annenberg Arts fellowship, I was struck by the words, actions and accomplishments of peers/contemporaries/family.
It is because of them, I am inspired to approach this month-long residency with a deeper level of introspection, transparency, courage and audacity as it relates to process and reflection on time and work. Thank you.
I don't know much about Barbados. I spoke with confidence correcting someone back home that Barbados was a larger island than Martinique. I was wrong. The former is 166.4 miles squared, while the latter is 436 miles squared. I was laughed at by a Bajan woman next to me on the plane on the way here when I asked her about the mountains on the island. "Barbados flat!" she said. Prior to coming, I wanted to know a more about the site where the Fresh Milk residency exists and about its founder, Annalee Davis. Annalee (Fresh Milk) is also a co-creator (together with Arc Magazine) of Tilting Axis, a roving project with a goal of negotiating strategic regional and international alliances for the further development of infrastructure, production and markets for the Caribbean's visual arts sector. I had followed her 2016 social media posts of her (bush) Tea Services project at Empire Remains Shop in London, England where she offered to visitors, daily servings of varieties of bush tea collected from the fields of the former sugarcane plantation and adjoining rab lands out of tea-sets containing shards of crockery mined from the ground of her family property in Barbados. I know bush tea. I grew up on it. I picked bush for tea. The history and legacy of empire is of interest to me and this interest informs my work. ...so I wanted to know more...
Tilting Axis 3: Curating the Caribbean (May 18 -20, 2017) was hosted by the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and the presentations by arts professionals was live streamed on Facebook and archived for later viewing. I watched three of the presentations so far (including Annalee's opening address and they were incredibly engaging. I said to myself, "..this Tilting Axis project is important, necessary and exciting." So I looked to see what else I could find about Ms. Davis's work and came across her 2014 essay on ARC magazine's website titled: Drawing Lines – Counterpoints from inside the plantation, State(s) of Emergence(y) and crises of belonging at home. Here I learned a little about the history the site of Fresh Milk.
I could continue by providing references to my work that are related to what Annalee refers to in this essay as the "plantation complex", however, one can look at my website and or google to see the connections. So to be here, on a location that is charged with all of this present and living history, is an opportunity that I am blessed to have and grateful to have been accepted to continue in my exploration and make the work that I am called to do.
coat of alms, 2016
an opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young.
draw milk from (a cow or other animal), either by hand or mechanically.
synonyms:draw milk from, express milk from
2. to exploit something to the utmost
when someone jerks off/ fucks a guy until every drop of cum comes out
Pleasurable, euphoric, ecstasy.
Today I watched the milking over 24 cows. The process was systematic and efficient.
I watched the area where they stand and feed everyday, be cleaned by what I would call a giant metal squeegee on the back of a tractor. (Kevon ?) reversed over and over, pushing all the waste to the end of both isles piling it up. I watched the calves in their pens, ears tagged with numbers to identify each, just as the adults were. They produced. They are of value. They are currency.
Not far from where they spend much of their days, stands what Annalee referred to in the aforementioned essay as vestiges of an insidious complex. The remains of a sugar mill and its outposts. Though missing it's top and outstretching windmill, it still stands its ground, with baritone breath, holding secrets and long memory. The former mill and nearby trees whisper tales longer than the young vines that hang from their tops, down to hallowed ground, but yet to dig for bones, tobacco pipes, and fragmented wares. Evidence of the hand is all over the limestone, wood and metal structure that was the mill. New life springs from the death of her. I touched and listened. The arched orifices are like deep gasps as if to revive. Parts and pieces of her lay strewn about and kept alive still, by the same air that filled lungs there centuries ago.
I thought about the bodies that labored here, on this site and how they might have moved, how many were they over time-like if all of their souls were present at once-just standing there to be counted, to be called by name. They produced. They were of value. They were currency.
This was not a moment of gloom for me, but a joyous one- like, YES! You are here, Nyugen. In the mix with all of this history. To make full use of this time and opportunity to engage, share, learn and build. As I walked the grounds in reflection, I began to recall the email introductions made by the FM staff, connecting me with historians, scholars, artists, and writers here in Barbados. There was an anxiousness, a ready to burst feeling that ran through me from crown to sole. I then went to the Colleen Lewis Reading Room adjacent to the studio and browsed a portion of the over 3468 items in the collection and pulled a few titles to sit with for a while.
(from the collection)
In the preface to The Artist's Body, edited by Tracy Warr, Warr writes, "Artists have investigated the temporality, contingency and instability of the body, and have explored the notion that identity is 'acted out' within and beyond cultural boundaries, rather than being an inherent quality. They have explored the notion of risk, fear, death, danger and sexuality, at times when the body has been most threatened by these things." This caused me to reflect on notes I took during my walk around the acres. I thought about the complex notion of identity in the Caribbean and how one's role or position within the social structure is inextricably linked to the body that 'act(s) out' the role(s). Then the questions arise: does the ability to effectively execute a role depend on one inherently possessing the qualities of said role? and if so, how does the threat of fear, death, risk, and sexual violence deepen the commitment to the role. Then one can ask further questions applicable to the plantation model about inherent qualities formed by what Carl Jung referred to as collective unconsciousness.
Warr goes on to write about Dadaist of the 1910s and 1920s making "art in places more real and relevant". This site, is perhaps more "real and relevant" to my work than any gallery or institution in which I have exhibited or made performances. It is my hope that the work that happens here continues in the trajectory of my time spent in Martinique -(Working form a non-Western cultural perspective), not (so) focus(ing) on a notion of the individual as a central, cumulative point, but rather on an understanding of self as part of a continuum in time, a community, an environment, a cosmos.-Warr
Thinking about the trip to the sea on Sunday and what it taught me. The water was warm and the sun was out but it wasn't incredibly hot. I learned more Barbados history, learned about the plant life that is beginning to emerge in former cane fields and learned that "The sea has no back door".
The wave was on on its way. I was alerted with a calm, "watch out". I saw it coming and did what I could to prepare. It wasn't enough. With little effort, the element envelope my waist and shared with me a taste of its power and might. I can swim but at that time was glad I was close to the shore. "You will respect me", I think I heard it say. I am carrying that with me for the rest of my days.
POWER and MIGHT.
from the sound of the wind
to the vibes in the ground
what's that sound
heard over my heart pound?
Ficus call I
and I say,
Hey, Natty Natty
No play play
leh we reason,
and broad day
Last night I worked, making images on the area of the property where the AIR flat is situated. The series is a reflection on the enslaved Africans and their descendants who once lived, labored, and died on this land. As I worked under moonlight, many magical moments happened. Most of which occurred when I incorporated the light I carried with me. The way the light spread across my performance garments and covered a small area surrounding my body added unexpected layers of meaning to the work of which I am still unpacking. Here is one image from the series.
A larger selection can be found here...
I pity them greatly but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Every night is a time to reflect on the events of that day, yesterday, and the day before that.
Today (6/9/17) is one day short of a week that I have been here in this place where there weren't many places for a runaway to hide. Flat land. Coral rock holding points of pressure always a reminder that one day, almost all of this, if not the highest point of this mass, will look upwards to refractions of light filtered by a mix of salt and fresh water. I see shells at my feet in places that provide an overview of flowering fields, marveling at the magic produced by the perfect length of day. There isn't much soil here. So I've heard. I couldn't help but wonder how one buries the dead. My mind ran through the file of flora and fauna my eyes have registered since landing. To think that their roots do not run deep. Or maybe they possess the strength and capacity to carve their way through the limestone floor because they must.
I wondered. Every time that I see banks of this almost rock that flank the roads I travel, I want to measure the depth of dirt that rests atop like frosting on sponge cake slices. I am curious. Six or seven inches of soil is all it takes for "white gold" to situate itself in this part of what Andrea Stuart referred to as a "European world", to the south and west of England's winter.
...continued on 7/6/17 post-residency...
"It's Complicated"... is a phrase that became popular on social media platforms as a way to describe relationships between two individuals when either one or both parties dance between acknowledging the other as a romantic/committed partner and not doing so. This could be due to reasons that may or may not include external pressures, unresolved prior romantic/committed relationships, apprehension to absorb one another's "baggage", lingering questions regarding long-term effects on one's social status, fear of personal sacrifices that are enevitiable for the relationship to work, and or unaddressed psychological trauma that hinders one or both parties from being able to commit to the "long-haul" together.
As a guest in Barbados, the home of 285,750 people, I quickly became aware of topics of conversation that if spoken of, would complicate the weather underground and perhaps prompt the removal of lavalier microphones with a muttering of "we're done here..." This early awareness was not derived from my own assumptions or conclusion drawn from tangential musings, but directly spoken to me by Bajan citizens. There was no mistaking the message bottled in the words...
...these words are like the togetherness of flies on a pile of shit
bothered by strong breeze
and boots barely too close.
bothered for good reason.
if spoken (topics) they do a number of things:
carry a threat of a future removal of the flies' feast
add pressure that spreads the feast thin over a wider area, making it easier for more to take part in the spoils
carry the scent across a distance simultaneously attracting more to buzz about in the mess and causes others to close off parts of themselves as to not absorb any
smear the pile taking with them a trail wherever they go. at least - a small sample ends up in the home of the hot stepper
Despite the words of caution and warnings, I, the guest stepped in the pile. I, the guest, was smearing, spreading, and stirring up the mess with the work I was doing.
There was one instance in particular where I was asked to stop.
To speak the name,
is to spray the air
with a mist of sea salt and
the smell of green-
for bush and deep waters are never far.
To speak its name
is to swaddle the body with hospitality
and rock it with musical vibrations of the region.
To speak its name
is to draw from its wells of intellectual tradition.
But you cannot speak the name,
without the bitter taste of
black death soaked
in the juice of Saccharum officinarum
lingering on lips
warmed by the Caribbean sun.
For sugarcane to have earned the moniker "white gold", scientific means had to have been employed to develop and improve its quality, while maximizing its production. There were people at the helm of this scientific research. Parallel to this timeline that ensured the success and longevity of the sugarcane industry, existed a systematically constructed labor force comprised of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The success of the plantation system (slavery) in Barbados was a model for the colonies in North America. As sugarcane was and is selectively bred, enslaved Africans and their descendants born into slavery in Barbados were also bought and sold-their value determined by their physical attributes and skills. I am intrigued by the historical and contemporary societal relationships between the two and plan to investigate this and the sensitivity of these matters more in my practice.
Engaging in conversations about this, is not for the ill-prepared. Preparation is a must. Patience must be had, composure maintained and its important for all engaged parties to be present with a willingness to bridge gaps of understanding within "the complicated". If not now... when?
Rising just after the sun
after four maybe 5 hours of rest,
my body follows mind into action
as I ask the day for all that's good.
I am going home.
it was about a month of
toward the external
what has happened
in the twenty-eight days?
what have I learned?
what have I given
in the process?
I remembered to rest
to eat well
to drink plenty water
to carry water
the sun showered bodies
in the outdoors.
some sought shade in bush
-in ways their DNA recalled.
i'm still thinking about them
body of man + body of woman
quiet they sat
on concrete curved
holding the walk way.
their faces leaned close
to the broad leaves
and more leaves
rose above their heights and blocked light.
they were cooled.
~as if by blue light~
they were cooled.
just across the bridge
a little distance from the fairchild bus depot-
where a steady stream
of loading and unloading
jostled to the tune
of signature horns
and conductors who
man woman child
to the chorus of
load 'em up
load 'em up.
the twin seats always had three
and the ledge behind
the passenger riding shotgun
usually sat two.
the conductor stood
hunched over perspiring heads
they inhaled (usually) him
sometimes her ~(only once I saw)~
collecting crumpled cash
like the act
was powered by contempt
like the bills had little value
no matter the color.
though the rush
of the journey
in and out of town
fueled my spirit and
grounded the work
made there and
created sparks for more to come,
i was ready to be home.
** my residency culminated with a new performance in the fresh milk studio that was informed by much of what i had learned and experienced during my time in barbados. i also created and intervention at the barbados museum and historical society in collaboration with bajan artist, llanor alleyne. images of both are being organized to be coupled with writing and will be uploaded to my website soon**
thank you to the fresh milk team for the wonderful experience and for the invaluable network and resources provided. i am eternally grateful!