From the wreckage of the Caribbean migration, a beauty of a new kind

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It was curiosity about his own family’s checkered history of migration from India to Trinidad that persuaded Andil Gosinecurator, artist and teacher, to start thinking about ways to connect with other artists who have shared her story.

Gosine’s great-great-grandparents went there as indentured laborers, part of a wave of more than half a million migrants from South Asia and, to a much lesser extent, from China, who came to the Caribbean from 1838 to 1920.

These men and women, desperately impoverished, were brought in to replace people of African descent who had been forced to work on the plantations until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. The newcomers entered into what they were told were short-term contracts which, in reality, offered only a very slim possibility of freedom. Many had no idea where they were being taken. Their working conditions were appalling and women in particular were victims of sexual abuse and forced marriages. Few migrants have ever managed to return to their country; they stayed, becoming an integral part of their new homes.

Gosine, guest curator at the Ford Foundation Gallery, highlighted the experiences of people like her ancestors who, despite the violence and economic slavery of their lives in the Caribbean, created new forms of culture and new ways of think that persist today. The exhibition “Eeverything loosens into a wreckis a lush introduction to an international, multi-generational group of Asian-Caribbean female artists: Marguerite Chen, Andrea Chung, Wendy Nanan and Kelly Sinnapah Marie.

The idea began to germinate ten years ago when Gosine, who teaches environmental arts and justice at York University in Toronto, visited “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World”, a show presented simultaneously at the El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum and the Queens Museum.

“I was struck that of the hundreds of works on display, the only evidence of an Indo-Caribbean presence in the islands was a photograph titled ‘Anonymous Coolie Woman’ by a French photographer,” Gosine said in a statement. interview. (Coolie is an antiquated and pejorative term for an Asian contract worker, although some among the younger generation are calling for it.) he pointed out. “New York is home to the largest Indo-Caribbean diaspora in the world.”

Gosine’s goal was not to organize a survey of Asian-Caribbean art, or an exhibition on indentured servitude. He wanted to find work that embodied the beauty resulting from these complicated histories of immigration and cultural blending.

In 2009, Andrea Chung, 43, a San Diego-based artist whose Trinidadian family lineage includes black, French, Chinese, Arawak and possibly Indian ancestors, traveled to Mauritius, an ocean island nation Indian who was a step on subcontractor. work circuit for Asian workers. She wanted to know more about the engagement and the workings of the global sugar industry, which led to such migrations.

“I was taking a tour of the sugar chimneys – the brick structures used to burn the leftovers from the sugar cane harvesting process,” she recalls, “and noticed the weaver birds had made nests with sugar cane leaves. It struck me as ironic that the product that has destroyed the lives of so many people and changed the world in so many different ways could become this new creation.

Thirteen years later, Chung revisited that memory with “House of the Historians” (2022), a sculptural installation made of sugarcane and reeds commissioned for the show. She taught herself to weave to recreate the birds’ distinctive “apartment nests”, she said. “It’s such a beautiful picture of how we’re sharing this story, but also building this community and this culture out of it.”

A hundred egg-like baskets are tied together in the gallery, dripping with narrow, fibrous cane leaves and suspended above a pile of cane bark. Sourcing cane products was a four-month process, complicated by Covid; in the end, Gosine had to phone someone in her grandmother’s village in Trinidad to send her sacks of sugar cane. Chung laughed when she revealed that every time she touched the material, she would burst into hives, “I’m literally allergic to the material that my ancestors were brought here to produce.”

Three striking large paintings by Guadeloupean artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary, 41, are part of her series “Notebook without return – Memoirs” (2022), which she started in 2015 while researching her family tree. When she was a child, she said in a Zoom interview, she assumed she was of African descent, if she thought about it. “My parents, especially my mother, didn’t distinguish between Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean – she thought we were all one people,” she said. “They didn’t really tell us about the culture of our ancestors or speak their languages, and the distinct histories of these groups weren’t taught in schools.” It wasn’t until she was older that she realized her heritage could be traced back to southern India.

A fresco-sized triptych depicts Sinnapah Mary dressed as a bride, surrounded by spiky vegetation, her skin covered in images drawn from Hindu mythology, European fairy tales and local folklore. It is flanked by portraits of his mother and father, their skin similarly adorned. The works speak to the Creole nature of Guadeloupean culture: both the pastiche of stories and the plants – sansevieria (snake plant) and alocasia (elephant’s ear) – which came from Africa and South Asia. South with the slaves then with the indentured labourers.

Her small sculptures in paper, metal, mortar and acrylic paint, taken from “Notebook of No Return: Childhood of Sanbras” (2021), are hilarious and charming, by turns disturbing and angry: a three-eyed schoolgirl in pigtails straddles a tiger (a reference to the Hindu goddess Durga), a naked girl lies on her stomach with a plant growing on her bare buttocks, and a severed and shod Mary Jane leg is carried off by a small furry animal. “What I really love about Kelly’s work is her honesty,” Gosine said. “He recognizes something fundamental in Caribbean Creole culture, which is the simultaneous presence of pleasure and violence.”

Wendy Nanan, 67, who lives in Trinidad, and Margaret Chen, 71, who is based in Jamaica have had long careers in their home countries, but less visibility in the United States or internationally, which that Gosine was determined to correct. Much of Nanan’s work alludes to the mixture of cultures that characterizes the Caribbean. “Idyllic Marriage”, a papier-mâché altarpiece from 1990, shows Krishna marrying the Virgin Mary, who appears to be trembling in fear.

“Indentured Indians, hoping to advance their children in a colonial society, adopted the master’s attire, holding Hindu pujas at home while attending Presbyterian Sunday School,” Nanan said. “Thus, the creolized callaloo society was formed.” She was referring to the signature dish of cooked green vegetables served throughout the Caribbean.

Chen traces his family’s origins to another form of economic migration: his Hakka Chinese grandfather left southern China in the late 1800s, arriving in Haiti and then Panama before heading to Jamaica, where he established grocery stores and a furniture manufacturing business which she alludes to in her installation “Cross-Section of Labyrinth” (1993).

In a painstaking two-year process, she laminated thin layers of wood, taken from what she calls “leftovers” from the furniture workshop floor, into a floral pattern that sits on the floor, 20 feet in diameter. She carved the wood and inlaid it with shells. Leftovers evoke parts of ourselves that are left behind as we move and change – but the artist reclaims those pieces here, turning them into something new, fragile and beautiful.

Along with the four artists, Gosine included a sound piece for the Ford Foundation’s plant-filled atrium in conjunction with an organization called Jahajee sisters. It was formed in response to the high rate of gender-based violence in the Indo-Caribbean community, which the group’s co-director, Simone Jhingoor, called part of the long shadow the pledge has cast over the community. The name of the group translates to “boat sisters”, a term used by migrants to describe the close relationships that have developed between people who have found themselves side by side on the long journey from South Asia to the West Indies.

Gosine asked two questions to the Jahajee sisters: “What brings you joy? and “What comforts you?” In response, 25 band members sent in sound clips ranging from the whistle of a kettle to the sound of a toddler singing. “There’s no way we can’t ground ourselves in joy,” Jhingoor said.

The title of the exhibition comes from a line in a poem by Khal Torabully, Mauritian poet. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the phrase ‘everything loosens up in a wreck’ is the kind of looseness that often accompanies disaster,” Gosine said. “Yes, when the contract workers arrived, the conditions were terrible. But at the same time, the caste collapsed. Gender relations have been profoundly reorganized. People were forced to renegotiate the terms of their relationship.

For Chung too, there is beauty in the spaces opened up by such pain. “The transatlantic slave trade uprooted people from their homes, their cultures and their traditions, and then the enlistment did essentially the same thing,” she said. “And yet, through all this mess and trauma, cultures have formed.”


Everything loosens up in a wreck

Through August 20, Ford Foundation Gallery, 320 East 43rd Street, Manhattan, 212-573-5000, fordfoundation.org.

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