Talking Back: Visual Conversations about Sexual Abuse

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Nicola Ricketts (3rd year BFA Sculpture) – as shown in Manifestations, the 2019 SVA student exhibition at the CAG[]e] gallery in 2019

The Edna Manley College, where I teach, has been in the news recently with allegations of sexual harassment. Here is not the place to comment on that particular instance but it is widely recognized that it is part of a much bigger problem in Jamaica, that affects many, if not all public and private sector organizations, including the education sector, and also the social interactions in communities and families and on the streets. Several recent incidents in different parts of the country whereby young girls were raped and murdered had already set the stage for intensified public attention to those most brutal, violent and devastating forms of sexual predation and violence that are also all too common in this country.

If there is a positive side to any of this, it is that it generates new opportunities for public agitation and sensitization about the high incidence of sexual abuse and harassment in Jamaican society, along with the culture of silence and acceptance that still surrounds this, and its devastating social and individual effects, on women and also on men. And perhaps most important, it creates opportunity to talk frankly about what is needed to change the toxic gender dynamics that are at the roots of sexually predatory behavior. Even though none of this is new, as there is a long history of such issues, there is a mounting sense of crisis and a sense of public urgency that there needs to be prompt and decisive action to change the culture that produces this and to put in place more appropriate and effective preventative and remedial frameworks, at the level of law and policy, of the reporting and investigation protocols, and of education and social intervention.

The arts have a vital role to play in this, by providing expressive opportunities for victims to reclaim their voice, by generating public awareness about the prevalence, causes and effects of such abuses, and by sensitizing all parties involved to their rights and responsibilities. Examples of this can be found in recent Jamaican literature, theater and music (Queen Ifrica’s haunting Daddy Don’t Touch Me There of course comes to mind), as well as in the visual arts. One recent activist campaign, the Tambourine Army, utilized provocative but engaging performative strategies that were part of the reasons why this “name and shame” campaign appealed to the public imagination. More attention needs to be paid to what creative interventions can achieve for such social problems and how these can best be deployed in the present moment in Jamaica. This post seeks to contribute to that discussion with a brief look at how certain female (and one male) Jamaican artists have engaged with these issues, including work that has been featured in recent and current exhibitions at the Edna Manley College itself (and the College indeed has a major role to play in this conversation).

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Avagay Osborne (BFA Painting) – Untitled (2015), Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica

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Riddles of Identity: Tessa Mars in Context

Tessa Mars exhibition flyerThis essay was written as a commission by Le Centre d’Art for the catalogue of the exhibition by the Haitian artist Tessa Mars titled “île Modèle-Manman Zile-Island Template”, at the Maison Dufort in Port-au-Prince, May 31-June 29, 2019. It was translated into French for the catalogue. The original English version is posted here, with permission from Le Centre d’Art (all rights reserved by Tessa Mars, Le Centre d’Art, and Veerle Poupeye)


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Tessa Mars – Any Other Island – Toutes et N’Importe Lesquelles (2019)

 

Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, [identities] are subject to the continuous “‘play”‘ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere “‘recovery”‘ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

 – Stuart Hall[1]

One of the defining characteristics of Tessa Mars’ work, is the way in which she reflects on her positionality in the histories and art histories of the Caribbean and specifically, of her home country Haiti.[2] This is exemplified by those works that feature her alter ego, Tessalines, which she introduced in 2015 while on a residency as Alice Yard in Trinidad and which has appeared in many of her works since then. In these works, she playfully claims space among the heroes of revolutionary Haiti as a quasi-mythical, horned warrior woman, armed with a machete or dagger, who is at the same time fearsome, comical, provocatively sexual, and vulnerable, and who is always recognizably Tessa herself, even though the details of the figure’s visual appearance constantly change. Through the figure of Tessalines, Tessa Mars inserts herself symbolically into a male-dominated historical narrative of revolution and self-liberation that is central to Haiti’s official national identity, while making space for ambivalence and subversive re-readings of collective and personal relevance.

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Tessa Mars – Dress Rehearsal, November Ritual (2017)

Representations of iconic figures and scenes from the Haitian Revolution are pervasive in Haitian art, to the point of being commonplace, as nationalist historical references that are often also intermixed with the iconography of Vodou, which is the other main pillar of Haiti’s national identity constructions and which also appears in Tessa’s work. There are other contemporary Haitian artists who have cited these representational histories with a comparable sense of identification, irony and critical intent, such as Edouard Duval-Carrié and Vladimir Cybil Charlier, and there is also a tradition of satirical engagement with Haitian history and politics in the popular culture. What sets Tessa Mars apart, however, is the manner in which she inserts her own image and personal identity into this narrative.

References to the Haitian Revolution, Vodou, and related events and beliefs elsewhere in the African Diaspora, have become part of the visual vocabulary and ideological strategies of many artists of the Global Caribbean. The manner in which Tessa Mars inserted herself into the narrative of revolution and liberation, for instance, reminds of how the Jamaican-born artist Renée Cox took on the persona of Queen Nanny, the part-historical, part-mythical female freedom fighter and spiritual leader of the Windward Maroons in 18th century Jamaica and the sole female among Jamaica’s official pantheon of National Heroes, in the series of photographs collectively known as Nanny of the Maroons (2014). While some of the photographs in the series are more intimate, and even eroticized, its most powerful image is The Red Coat, in which Renée Cox/Nanny poses with her machete and defiantly wears the red uniform coat of her arch-enemy, the colonial militia, to become a militant icon of historical and contemporary black female empowerment and resistance.

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Tessa Mars – The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018), detail

While the similarities are tantalizing, the fundamental differences must be noted: in the adventures of Tessalines, there are no iconic heroic stances or definitive ideological positions; instead, her ironic play-acting and changeable appearance complicate and subvert the very notion of fixed identities, positions and historical narratives, and represent a different kind of identity politics. Tessalines is, as Tessa Mars insists, a more personal icon, that speaks first and foremost to issues of personal freedom and subjectivity, and serves as an avatar through which her self-identity is negotiated, questioned and explored. Tessalines not only re-interprets key events from the Haitian Revolution, as part of a national imaginary to which Tessa is negotiating her own relationship; the avatar also appears in Tessa’s symbolic, introspective conversations and battles with her own self, as in The Good Fight – Le Bon Combat (2018). The Tessalines narratives are often violent, which is not surprising, given the references to a revolutionary war, but in some instances this may appear to be self-directed, as in the recurrent image of stabbing her own chest with a dagger or machete. This self-directed violence is symbolic and cathartic, however, and serves as a tool for self-inquiry and -affirmation, rather than for self-harm. And it also references certain ritual practices in Vodou, where such actions have similar symbolic implications.

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Tessa Mars – Conversation avec Hector H. (2015, not in this exhibition)

Such conversations with Haitian history and culture occur throughout Tessa Mars’ work and, in doing so, she also engages with Haitian art history and, more generally, with the manner in which Haitian history and culture have been represented in art. One such example is her 2015 painting Conversation avec Hector H. (not in this exhibition), in which she interprets Hector Hyppolite’s famous Maîtresse Erzulie (1948) and replaces the figure of Erzulie with the image of her own nude body. Unsparing (in terms of the unidealized representation of her body) but as enchanting as the original painting, Conversation avec Hector H. is a tribute to one of Tessa’s favourite Haitian artists.[3] It also, and more explicitly than with Tessalines, inserts her image and person into the mythological universe of Vodou and the complex notions of gender and sexuality that are being negotiated in that context. Tessa is herself a Vodou believer and its beliefs, symbols and ritual practices are part of her lived experience. More broadly, the work is also a meditation on personal identity, womanhood, the female body, beauty, and sexuality, and on the representational codes that surround these subjects.Read More »

When It Turns Out That Your Great-Great-Grandmother Was, Sort of, a Museum Curator

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My great-great-grandmother, Virginie Strubbe, c1900 (Maria Roose family archive)

A few days ago, I published a post about some aspects of my family history, based on family photos I found, as a tribute to my mother who passed away recently. It can be read here. One of the questions I raised was how the personalities and life choices of our ancestors are. consciously or unconsciously, echoed in ourselves.

I had always assumed that my art historical and migratory inclinations were indebted mainly to my paternal great-grand-uncle Camille Poupeye (1874-1963), who was an art historian and a theatre and art critic. He was also a world traveler who spent a lot of his time in Asia, as well as in Africa and Central America, and published several books about theatre and dance traditions in Asia–he is probably best described as an Orientalist, with all the critical concerns that entails. I had always intended to write a reflection on that fascinating but ideologically fraught family heritage and will still do so at a future date (I found some interesting new information on him also).

But then I came across another document in my mother’s papers that charted the history of the lace shop that was operated in Bruges by my great-grandparents, Arthur Roose and Irma Deschepper, and I discovered something that complicated that assumption and also shed light on the roles of women in early museums and in the Bruges cultural industries. And I thought it worth sharing here, as a coda, or more correctly, a precursor to my previous post. Read More »

Roaming Photographically through my Family History

My mother, Maria Roose, passed away recently, on July 22, 2018. Since my father’s death in 1989, she had lived alone in our hometown of Bruges, Belgium, surrounded by a mix of family heirlooms and newer things, and she lived an active and fiercely independent life, driving until very recently. We are still in shock at how quickly things changed and how sudden her death was, a mere three weeks after having been hospitalized and diagnosed with rapidly escalating health problems. She was 87 years old.

One of the inevitable tasks after the death of one’s parents is having to sort through their personal belongings and to clear out the house. Such work is always emotionally taxing and in our case, it has also been a physically demanding task, not yet completed at the time of writing, for my mother was not one to throw away things. Perhaps it was the experience of having lived through World War II as a teenager, when there were critical shortages of all sorts of goods and supplies we now take for granted but her insistence on keeping still-usable things also led to instructive and at times hilarious finds.

One was my mother’s “shoe collection,” which surely rivaled Imelda Marcos’s, at least when it came to numbers. Another was her substantial hoard of clothes, many of them hardly worn, which provided us with a “history of fashion” object lesson from the 1950s to the present (she had even kept the striped dress she wore when she first met my father at a ball in 1955, which had a lovely petticoat design). My mother was a beautiful woman and she took her appearance seriously. And then there were ample supplies of candles of all sizes, colours and types and of Christmas- and birthday-themed paper table napkins, as well as dozens of board and card games and children’s toys, many old children’s drawings, and an impressive collection of empty (and near-empty) cookie tins—an archaeology of her life as a devoted mother and grandmother.Read More »

Letter to Kei Miller

Port Royal

Update May 14, 2018: This letter responded to the essay by Kei Miller as originally published on the PREE website. This essay was removed, in the heat of the controversy it generated and at the author’s request. It was on May 3 replaced by a  substantially revised version.

Dear Kei,

I have been reading the inaugural issue of Pree. It is a good effort and I welcome it, although I would have been even happier if the contributing authors were not almost all part of the social circle of the editors. It is a bit self-perpetuating and, I need to add, self-congratulatory that way. And it is also very uptown, as uptown as Calabash–this does not detract from Pree’s importance (or the importance of Calabash) but it is worth noting, especially in light of the discussions you had on Facebook recently.

Your essay was the first text I read. And I had to re-read it a couple of times, digest it, and read it again. And I am still digesting, hence this open letter. I understand that it is your intent to think through race in the Caribbean and that the current essay is thus part of a broader and indeed very important and necessary project. I’ve read the other three essays you had posted and I was hoping then that there might be a fourth one like that, about you and your own place in those issues. Perhaps that is yet to come.

But yes, race is a big factor in the arts in and from the Caribbean, and one that people have difficulty talking about, so your essay in Pree is a milestone, as it presents a rare such effort. That I welcome, and parts of the essay are indeed breath-taking, because of the writing and because of the sublime insights you offer — “It have to do with the where that we choose, and the where that chooses us.” But there are also a few things that bothered me about this essay and I have questions about why you opted to frame it in the way you did. Perhaps you can answer some of my questions and, if you do, please consider this as an invitation to dialogue.

Most people who read it will know who that the essay alludes to actual persons and incidents, which is very different from your first essays on race, which used fictional but plausible characters. I could identity at least two of the women and the incidents in question are fairly well known. So why not get it over with and name them then? Or, conversely, create fictional, composite characters that allow you to address the same issues without getting personal, as you did in your first essays on race?

And it struck me that some of your account pertained to things that the women in question said to you, or confided to you about, in what appear to have been very private conversations. Conversations they had with you because they trusted you, because they thought of you as their friend. Did they know at any point, then or now, that you were going to write about what they told you, about what happened in your presence? And if so, were they consulted about how they would be represented? If not, I’d have a bit of a problem with that. We all have our vulnerable moments, when we do unusual things and say things to friends that we do not expect them to share with others, let alone having to read about in published form. I’m sure you’ve had such moments too.

You accuse one of the white women writers of not understanding or respecting her character’s voice, of speaking through him despite being at a significant social and cultural remove, of ventriloquism, really. But are you not doing the same thing to the women whose voices and positions you claim to represent in your essay? Are we hearing their voices, really; do they have any agency in your essay? Why did you not empower them more and let them speak to your readers directly, on their terms and in the present moment? Why did you not give them the opportunity to reflect on what had happened, years ago? That would not have prevented you from commenting independently.

And talking about power, why have you exclusively focused on white women? There is no shortage of white male writers in the Caribbean, born ya and elsewhere. Why is it that their legitimacy is less frequently challenged, if at all? Why did you not acknowledge that particular bit of gender bias? And as Brian Heap quipped in his comment on your timeline, why stop at white women? Why not add the “red” ones too? What about their legitimacy and status in the Caribbean literary world? And why not go through the whole register of social and racial privilege, while at it?

I know that “white fragility” is a hot topic, and that may have seduced you a bit, but it  strikes and bothers me that some of the women you are alluding to are presented in a way that suggests that they are unhinged, needy, overly dependent on the ways in which they are judged by others, unable to move productively beyond the relatively minor racial slights they have experienced. Why focus so much on these women’s perceived failings and vulnerabilities? Why focus on their bodies and on their weight, Kei? And yes, I am writing this as a white, overweight, foreign-born woman whose body has also been brought into the equation when her legitimacy in the Caribbean is questioned. Would you have brought any of this into the discussion if they were male? Does the way in which you paint them not conform to the most one-dimensional clichés about women, and specifically about white women?

What bothers me also is that you seem to focus on women who are willing to put up their race and origin for discussion, to make themselves vulnerable to exactly the sort of criticisms they have experienced, instead of doing what is the easiest thing to do for white people here, which is to retreat comfortably into the castle of their privilege and almost guaranteed position in the socio-racial pecking orders of the Caribbean. If they had done the latter, would they have been criticized in the way they were and discussed in this essay? And why discuss these white women as if they live in an insulated white world of their own, in which they expect to be supported, and judged, only by their “own kind”?

And I also need to say something about how you represent the black male writers who “attacked” them, their critics: are they, too, not deprived of their own voice and reduced to caricature? Why, save for one moment of hesitation and second-guessing, do you exempt yourself from their alleged predicament of smallness and “carry-down-ness”, presenting yourself in a more open-minded and benevolent vein, the wise and balanced arbiter of it all, all while writing an essay that goes much further than they ever did in terms of how your subjects are targeted as persons, and has much broader reach?

And finally, as I said earlier on, Kei, I would really like to hear more about you in all of this. Because I sense that these essays are ultimately about you and about understanding your own place and role in these dynamics. I suspect that your readers would get a richer and more revealing discussion about race, and class if you would make yourself more vulnerable in this, in the same way as you have made these women vulnerable.

Best regards,

 

Veerle