Examining memory, identity, and place with Terry BoddieFriday, July 27th, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates
When he was fifteen years old, photographer and mixed media artist Terry Boddie migrated from his native island Nevis to the United States. It wasn’t until he returned sixteen years later that he understood how great an influence those years spent growing up in Nevis, as well as those years he’d spent away, had had in shaping his current identity. The trip played a large role in sparking Boddie’s interest with the concepts of memory, history, and migration, themes he has been exploring in his past and ongoing projects.
Boddie describes his new art as largely an extension of a previous body of work called “The Residue of Memory,” a series of mixed media images composed of carefully selected photographs juxtaposed with other elements—drawings, ink, paint. The images explore the past and identity. One piece titled “Blueprint” combines the image of a modern-day “project” with the image of slaves cramped in a ship. It causes the viewer to think about how the marginalization of people in today’s society can be methodically traced back to abuse in history.
Boddie described “The Residue of Memory” as the core of his upcoming series, and his new projects as being tangential points, all of them connected to one another and sharing similar iconography.
While the new projects largely focus on Boddie’s experiences, they also try to investigate the role of photography and the way in which we look at memory. Photographs provide us with the ability to focus, analyze, and dwell on moments that have been frozen, giving us the ability to apply much more meaning and depth to the images we are seeing. Boddie refers to this as photography’s ability to “mythologize” memory. “When you return to an image, sometimes it changes. Your relationship to it changes,” he says.
One of Boddie’s new projects features a photo of himself as a young child. The photo was taken during a time where something significant happened to him, something he wants to examine further. The incident that occurred to Boddie is private, but nonetheless it seems to be something that has affected him to some degree as a person. “It was nothing tragic. I’m trying to sort it out. I’m not ready to [discuss it] because I myself am questioning what happened. What I’m doing is trying to make sense of that moment, trying to figure out who that person was at that moment.”
The image is a reverse photograph, a negative instead of a positive. It’s composed of only blue and white and has a haunting quality. “It’s almost like I’m looking at myself across time,” says Boddie.
Boddie’s recent works also focus on aspects of Nevis’ society, such as the educational system and the way in which history is often taught through a Westernized perspective. In one of the pieces, Caribbean currency and mailing stamps are featured. The artwork on the stamps displays the familiar imagery of colonial ships sailing through the sea, making their famous voyages to the Caribbean islands. “What the stamps do in this case is present, in my view, almost like a glorified version of Caribbean history. What I’m trying to do is deflate that with the imagery I counteract it with. So you see here an English two-decker, but it never says what the English were doing in the Caribbean in the 1600s.” To challenge the stamps’ glorified presentation of the past, Boddie uses other images to suggest a less noble, and probably more honest, portrait of history—pirates and the flags of countries with imperialistic aspirations.
The color blue is prevalent in several of Boddie’s works in progress. “That color is cyanotype. This is the original process that we use to make copies of blueprint. When I use it in the work, I do it to kind of allude to that tradition, but I also do it to allude to this idea of the blues, this sort of tragic history and circumstances.”
In another set of new pieces (seen to the right in the picture above) Boddie has enlarged images of several different locks of his own hair. A few are scans, others are photograms. The technique is meant to somewhat suggest mark making, while the hair is meant to be reminiscent of a fragmented language, of things that are in transition.
When it comes to his techniques, Boddie does not just stick to traditional methods of photography. “What I do is essentially utilize the entire history of photography. I use a lot of what are referred to as ‘alternative processes’ that were developed in the 1800s, all the way up to digital techniques. Whatever the idea requires is what I use, I don’t limit myself to any particular point in that history.” With one set of projects, he uses what he refers to as “liquid photo emulsion,” and makes his own photo paper. This technique allows him to print images on the paper, sometimes in fragments, sometimes with several on top of each other. “This allows me to do quite a different things that I wouldn’t be able to do if I was working on regular photo paper. You can think of it as almost doing Photoshop by hand. I can really play with composition. Because the emulsion I’m using is very , very slow. It’s not very sensitive to light, so you have to use a lot of light when you use it. It allows me the flexibility of working and not having to worry about premature exposure. If you were using regular photo paper, which is highly sensitive to light, you wouldn’t have the same degree of control that you have here.”
Early on during our interview, Boddie mentioned his realization of how deeply place has influenced his current identity. I ask him in what ways specifically his early years in Nevis and his subsequent years in the United States had shape him as a person. “I think for me,” he says, “There’s something that happens when you are born in a place. I think the place of your birth is almost the soil you grew out of, you’re so connected to that place. We have this old tradition in the Caribbean of planting a tree on top of where your umbilical cord is buried. So it’s almost like a tree is growing out of your umbilical cord. For me, I’m still very connected to that place. No matter where I go in the world, I know I still have that place to go back to. For me, it’s a great source of creative inspiration. When I go back, I’m always talking about ‘going home.’ It’s still ‘home,’ even though I’ve lived in the United States much longer. I think for a lot of people who have migrated, there’s this tension of where you are and where you came from. Suddenly there’s this sense that you don’t quite belong in either place.”
These are common feelings among immigrants. They are influenced by both the culture they originally left and the culture of the country to which they move. While living in the new place, they still hold on to customs and beliefs from their homeland. Yet upon returning, they find that they’ve inevitably taken up some of the customs and adjusted to the lifestyle of their new homes.
Immigrants become hybrids of cultures, encompassing more than one country’s way of life. While some may easily accept their new bicultural identities, for many immigrants it can all be a source of confusion. They struggle to remain “authentic” with regard to their original heritages and homelands, but they also want to assimilate and be considered a part of their new places. Boddie seems to have gone through this struggle himself, but he appears to have grown more comfortable with it.
The imagery of his Caribbean roots does indeed appear in many of Boddie’s works: palm trees, school crossing signs from Nevis, the mailing stamps, the currency. When asked if he feels odd or guilty about living away from his native island while still dedicating so much of his work to it, he says he doesn’t. “First of all, for a lot of people, even if they’d like to return, it’s not an option,” he says. “And a lot of us didn’t even make the choice to leave in the first place.”
We wait excitedly to see Terry Boddie’s complete collection of new projects in the future.