Drawing Lines – Counterpoints from inside the plantation, State(s) of Emergence(y) and crises of belonging at home

By Annalee Davis Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 Categories: Features, Symposiums, Updates
 

This paper by Barbadian visual artist Annalee Davis was presented as part of a symposium at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in celebration of the Caribbean: Crossroads of the World exhibition. The Caribbean Crossroads Symposium: Transnational Histories took place on April 25 and 26, 2014, and consisted of four panels corresponding to the central themes of the exhibition: Fluid Motions, Counterpoints, Shades of History, and Kingdoms of this World. Each panel paired a scholar and artist who presented and discussed their work in relation to the theme. Davis shared the platform with curator Rocio Arando-Alvarado from El Museo del Barrio and chief curator at the PAMM, Tobias Ostrander who moderated the panel – Counterpoints.

Caribbean: Crossroads of the World is on display at the PAMM from April 18 to August 17, 2014. It explores the diverse history of the Caribbean and its diaspora, highlighting over two centuries of rarely seen works dating from after the Haitian Revolution to the present. The Miami presentation was curated for the PAMM by guest curator, Elvis Fuentes.

Annalee Davis next to her piece 'Sweet Island Cookie Cutters - Sweet Fuh So!' in the Caribbean Crossroads exhibition at PAMM. Photos of the opening by Juan E. Cabrera and WORLD RED EYE.

Annalee Davis next to her piece ‘Sweet Island Cookie Cutters: Sweet Fuh So!’ on display in the exhibition Caribbean: Crossroads of the World at PAMM. Photos of the opening by Juan E. Cabrera and WORLD RED EYE.

I guess I should start with the obvious and make reference to the word we are supposed to be unpacking this evening. The term ‘counterpoint’ originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning “point against point”. My point sitting next to yours – putting two things together to show how different they are from each other, emphasizing the juxtaposition.

The title of my presentation is ‘Drawing Lines- Counterpoints from inside the plantation – State(s) of Emergence(y) and crises of belonging at home’.

The plantation is a space often understood in a perpetually fixed manner determined by its history as a site of trauma. The plantation is what I know best. I was born and raised on sevreral sugar plantations. My current home and studio are located on a working dairy farm that was operational originally as a sugar plantation from the 1660s. My experience of and commitment to this contested site, however, might well differ from familiar preconceived notions of the plantation and the single story that we are all familiar with.

Theodore Zeldin in his book ‘An intimate History of Humanity’ wrote, “Playing with gloom has produced some fine art, but otherwise it has been a waste of energy.” (An Intimate History of Humanity pp 296)

BACKGROUND

The Caribbean has gone through a series of shipwrecks over the past five hundred years, and today much of the region experiences failed leadership, mass corruption, rising unemployment, poverty, lack of opportunities for excellence, environmental degradation and an increase in crime. Migration has always been a viable option, staying has always been more difficult.

For those of us who choose to remain, reconciling ourselves to the history of the plantation and to the land is critical as is rejecting Naipaul’s apocalyptic vision of the region as a house of death, which must be challenged.

The Caribbean can be a difficult place to live and work in – it’s history casts long shadows across an archipelago much of the world knows only as a bright and exotic paradise, an escape from where real life happens in the metro poles. My interest as a visual artist is to shed light on history’s shadows so that the gloom loses its power and the lines that I draw might shift that waste material to become a renewable energy source that compels affinities, the likes of which we have never seen before…a hark to Walcott’s broken vase being reassembled.

The Cliff Plantation, Barbados.

The Cliff Plantation, Barbados.

MY WORK

My current body of work explores the plantation and race. Given that I am working within a Caribbean context, I am offering a counterpoint to the fixed constructs of the plantation and the white Creole which are often limited and outdated, and I am interested in other possibilities and positionalities for both.

This evolving body of work comprises a suite of drawings; a social practice component that is now three years old; a collaborative project currently at the planning stage with archaeologists set to begin in June and a dialogical project.

The context for this body of work is (i) the physical site where I live and work and related archives from the early nineteenth century (ii) the mining of my own family archives (iii) legitimate and illegitimate family trees and (iv) the reconciliation of my lived experience which contrasts official narratives of the space I live and work in as a white Creole Barbadian investigating where and how biography and history intersect.

My father and his father before him were both planters. I spent my childhood living on plantations and can trace a line back to 1648 to our earliest recorded ancestor, one Leonard Dowden, who came to Barbados as a ’10 acre man’ – one who was at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder along with small traders, tavern keepers and crafts people arriving from the UK in the mid seventeenth century, to seek his fortune having acquired four acres of land in the northern parish of St. Lucy.

Two hundred and seventy years later, in 1920, my paternal great-grandmother, Edith Gertrude Davis, acquired a sugar cane plantation, which, after her, was managed by her son, my grandfather and now my brother who oversaw its transition from a sugar plantation to a dairy farm.

When I look at the plantation as a model that shaped the region and its far reaching effects, I think not so much about the physical manifestation or remains of the plantation houses and outbuildings, most of which are in a state of disrepair or abandonment, but I see the vestiges of a more insidious complex – one of a psychological nature that relates to the human mind or spirit, brewing for centuries and affecting both the individual and the entire society. It’s what I call the plantation complex and it lives on in our interactions with each other, playing itself out in notions of legitimacy and illegitimacy. It reinforces hierarchies. It teaches us to know our place. It breeds insecurity about who belongs and who doesn’t. It determines notions of human worth within contemporary Caribbean society. It can be vicious and vitriolic.

For me, the studio is where conversations about complex historical moments take place. It is where I attempt to engage with the chaos of our history and explore new possibilities. It is in the studio where the daily grind of confronting a muddled past allows us to deal with the mess of living with a history that is never closed. It is where I locate myself within the turmoil and use art as a medium to engage with what has gone before, what happens now and to imagine what can be shaped in the future. What we do to each other now matters and how we interact with each other now matters.

Walkers Dairy Today. Images courtesy of Cherise Ward.

Walkers Dairy Today. Images courtesy of Cherise Ward.

THE FAMILY ARCHIVE

The white population of Barbados has been understood in a very limited and fixed way, based on a very particular kind of construction that speaks almost exclusively to privilege and one that is often understood in isolation and as part of an historic power struggle to render human relations between people of different races in the Caribbean as non-existent. As Chimanada Ngozi said, there is never a single story for anything or anyone in the world. Single stories are dangerous and misleading and we must be open to multiple perspectives, even and especially if they force us to shift our thinking. The whites of Barbados and the Caribbean are not a homogenous group, immune from the differences of class, gender, religion etc.

In the context of Barbados, I am white. In Jamaica, I am a browning, in Trinidad I am a red gyal, in the US, I am read as Hispanic or black. Barbados is the only place where I am white. I position myself alternately as a white Creole woman. As Joscelyn Gardner, my friend and colleague, here in the audience today, wrote in her 2004 exhibition catalogue, “The term “Creole” is used…to refer to someone born in the Caribbean. This term originated in the seventeenth century to differentiate whites born in the newly settled colonies from those of European birth. Despite their similar British ancestry, such a distinction was found necessary in order to assert the cultural difference between Caribbean-born whites and those from the British Isles.” End quote. No one in my family would ever call themselves white Creole. For me, it is a survival mechanism. I use it to create space for myself.

As a white Creole woman, I am interested in other positionalities and in creating detours that weave themselves through the binaries, forcing them to open up to other possibilities, alternate ways of seeing, understanding and behaving.

THE FOUR INTER-RELATED PROJECTS

Phase One – THE DRAWINGS

Saccharum officinarum and Queen Anne’s Lace, 70" h x 88" w Latex paint on dry wall 2014.

Saccharum officinarum and Queen Anne’s Lace, 70″ h x 88″ w Latex paint on dry wall 2014.

I began this body of work by drawing a piece of Queen Anne’s lace on the wall of my studio, taking the pattern from a piece my mother had been crocheting intermittently over a fifty year period as a gift for my older sister. Next to it, I drew a rattoon of a sugar cane plant with an exaggerated rhizomatic root structure which looked like the inner workings of a pair of lungs. The sugar cane plant started to breathe. And then, I noticed that the two forms began to negotiate their boundaries and reach out to each other. The images rerouted themselves to suggest in a Glissantian way that identity is not solely within the root itself but it becomes something more alive when it develops a relation with the other. This after all is what life is about- being in relations with each other.

What I had in fact drawn was a portrait of my parents- my father was a planter and my mother was a bookkeeper and homemaker. And as my mind continued to wander through the narrative of my immediate family and our history I saw what was most familiar to me, and I began to draw those lines.

The next set of lines began to shape the familiar porcelain teacup used every day by our parents in our household at 3 o’clock. The teacup sits beautifully atop the Queen Anne’s lace. Then emerges the roots of the rhizomatic cane plant which floated over the top of the tea cup and it began to drip into the cup. At this point, some discomfort emerges. It’s a counterpoint. One point sitting next to another. What is the relation here?

The line migrates to another piece of paper. The line becomes a broom. It gestures to sweeping stuff under the carpet. It’s a carpet of Queen Anne’s lace. The broom has been sweeping stuff under the carpet for three and a half centuries.

The line migrates to yet another piece of paper. Queen Anne’s lace interrupts the base line. An aerial view of Cliff Plantation comes into sight revealing the yard surrounded by the contours of the fields. This is the place where I grew up, happily. This is the place we loved. An aerial perspective view of a tea cup, a mountain of sugar, a tea spoon. As a young girl, I wondered about those who had come before, who had lived here long before, of those who labored here before. It was a conversation my family never had over dinner or anywhere. I pondered on my own, a solitary activity.

And now, another piece of paper… The line draws the contours of another plantation yard and its fields, a family portrait of paternal grandparents getting married, Queen Anne’s lace. At the base, sits the great house atop a subterranean layer of soil.

In the gully on the farm, my niece, daughter and I hunt for shards. The gully, once a dumping ground for broken ceramics, finally demonstrates the physical presence of the voiceless- the indentured and the enslaved. Their ceramic broken bits and pieces were made in factories in England in the 1780s, 1810s and 1820s and brought to Barbados. Another line is drawn around the patterns, across the land, through history, connecting that time to this time, then till now, them to me. Glissant’s poetics of relations inhabit this place and these drawings. The line forms the contours of the sugar cane plant – Saccharum officinarum. The planting, tending, reaping, processing and exporting of this plant are why we exist in the Caribbean. It is why Lloyd Best says that we are the only region in the world where the economy preceded the society. Saccharum officinarum is a rhizomatic plant. The rhizome suggests that identity is no longer completely within the root but also in Relation. Pp73 or 75

Not telling the story in order, all of a sudden, the lines go back in time to draw the words taken from a will in 1815 written by Thomas Applewhaite, a previous owner of the land on which I now live. Applewhaite and Davis are not family by blood, but connected by place, by house and by land, through history. Thomas Applewhaite wrote his last testament dated the 26th of September 1815. The first time I read the words in my studio late in the night, they take my breath away. The lines on the will, cracked and yellowed form these words, ‘It is my will that I do hereby direct that at the expiration of six years after my decease my little favourite Girl Slave named Frances shall be manumitted and set free from all and ill manner of servitude and slavery whatsoever’.

The lines on the page of his will make me pause, not because I didn’t know, I know, we all know. But there was something about her being named. I tried to draw a line between the words ‘favourite’ and ‘girl slave’. I cannot get that line drawn. I draw another line. She, Frances, lived here then, in 1816 where I, Annalee, live now, in 2014. That line has been drawn.

Phase one is complete.

Saccharum officinarum and ceramic remains, 77"h x 22 1/2 "w Latex paint and coloured pencil on paper 2014.

Saccharum officinarum and ceramic remains, 77″h x 22 1/2 “w Latex paint and coloured pencil on paper 2014.

Phase Two – The Social Practice Component

The Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc. is a social practice project. It is located on Walkers Dairy- the site where I live and work. My studio is located here. Fresh Milk is a counterpoint from within the plantation, in a continual state of emergence, responding to states of emergency. It is a daily act of resistance using the creative imagination to draw numerous lines to the countless different possibilities constantly surfacing between ideas and projects and among people on the island, across the region, with the Global South and further afield.

From a larger perspective, Fresh Milk works to alter the very chemistry of our own soil by choosing to go against the grain of what we were taught by colonization. Drawing lines from one human being to another and then another and yet another – is critical. Drawing these lines reinforces Glissant’s poetics of relations and ignores what we were taught about drawing lines of boundaries to separate human beings based on race, class, history, gender, sexuality or language.

I take the time now to reflect on another line. This line is a long, long line – three hundred and fifty-four years long. The line scrawls itself, aching through forced and voluntary migrations, invasion, settlement and emigration; struggles for freedom, abolition, emancipation, the 1937 riots, federation, independence, CARICOM and the post-colonial period we currently live in.

The line stops. I draw a period. A full stop. The line stops. Stop that line. That is a painful line that has been drawn over and over and over again. I am tired of that line of seeing, tired of that line of thinking, tired of being inside that line. Stop. That. Line.

I recognize the need to draw a new line. The line I draw here and now is a new line.

How do I describe this line? It is not a fractured line, nor is it a tormented line. It is not a broken line. It is a nurturing line, a nuanced line, sometimes it’s a tentative line, cautious, afraid at times because we were not taught to draw this kind of open, expansive line.

This new line refuses to accept that all potential lines have already been drawn before. New lines are waiting to be drawn. Fresh counterpoints are waiting to be connected, one lying next to the other, one line touching the other line. Then I notice that somewhere in the line emerges something that resembles empathy, wonder, curiosity, affinity, dare I say, beauty. Are we allowed beauty?

And then, all of a sudden, I notice that another line appears. I did not draw that line. It’s a different line. It’s not my line. There is another line, and yet another. There are now many lines. There are 55,000 lines. There are too many lines to count.

I don’t want to count the lines we draw. I stand in awe and look at all the beautiful lines. This is where I want to be. Inside of all of these lines that are each a counterpoint to the master narrative, weaving new affinities all the time, confirming multiple states of emergence while we continue to draw and through the act of drawing, we are emerging and becoming who we are, enjoying the infinite possibilities of connection.

This is what Fresh Milk is. Located on a place that was once closed but is now open, a plantation that was once exclusive is now inclusive, what was a place of trauma is now a place of nurturing, the yard with a great house with a bar filled with glasses for drinking rum, now instead we have a library filled with books. Phase two continues to evolve.

The Colleen Lewis Reading Room at Fresh Milk. Photograph by Dondre Trotman.

The Colleen Lewis Reading Room at Fresh Milk. Photograph by Dondre Trotman.

Phase Three

The conceptual basis for this third phase is based on the scientific model called Phyto remediation which offers us a way of thinking that affirms our ability to alter the chemistry of our soil by propagating new growth. This model denies the existence of a single root, but rather presents the rhizome and the rhizosphere – which is the zone surrounding the roots of the plants – as a model for human interaction. For me, the rhizosphere becomes a representation for the psychological space we inhabit in relation to our understanding of our history and how that in turn informs or determines our relations.

In terms of my own work, the rhizosphere includes all branches of my family tree (both the legitimate and illegitimate), the sugar cane plant, Fresh Milk, the plantation including the yard, the barns and the fields and the wider context of Caribbean history and human interaction therein.

My interest in unpacking the plantation from the ground up requires a literal digging in to the soil. Arrangements are falling into place for collaboration with US and UK based field archaeologists who work in Barbados in the summer months. Test pits willbegin at Walkers in June. The goal here is to look for evidence of those who have been left out of history and who will hopefully come to the surface of this landscape so that the story about this space does not reflect only the privileged experience or voice but is inclusive of all who lived here. The digging of the pits and the findings will be documented and become part of the project unfolding, revealing itself to me in its own time.

Phase Four

Phase four comprises a dialogical component that will also commence in the summer. Conversations will be arranged between two people at a time. There is no audience. The conversations will be documented.

Patterned on Theodore Zeldin’s ‘Oxford Muse’, the conversations will draw lines between and around us, poetics of relations will emerge in spite of the states of emergency that we find ourselves in. Zeldin reminds us that, “the most important networks are those of the imagination, which cross from the conventional to the unconventional, refusing to accept that what exists is the only thing that is possible. The most important skill, which underlies all creativity and all scientific discovery”, he writes, “is the ability to find links between ideas which are seemingly unconnected.”

Engaging in meaningful discourse is one way of developing empathy and affinity. Participants will be selected and open calls made for participation. Questions might include the following: What is the most difficult conversation you have ever had? What is your relationship to the colour of your skin? Have you ever crossed boundaries in love? Have you felt pain because of your race? Where do you belong? Define home. Who are you?

We will drink a cup of tea. The tea cups will sit on a table covered with a piece of Queen Anne’s lace. I’ll draw a line between people’s varied stories, opening spaces for communication to build empathy and understanding. Diversity is a notion that many people have difficulty with, in part because it represents the unknown. The idea here is to cultivate openness to different experiences and different ways of thinking and as Grant Kester writes, to “Use the process of dialogue and collaborative productionto transform human consciousness.” Pp 153. The medium in this phase is conversation, becoming an aesthetic device in shaping civil society.

My intention is for these four phases of this body work, culminating in private/public conversations, to demonstrate elasticity so that the words which spill out, might allow us to imagine new ways of being with one another and equip us with the skill to keep drawing lines, yes, even from within the plantation. To move from the current state of emergency which include crises of belonging to ourselves and with each other, to feel at home as we lay side by side, my counterpoint right next to yours.

Dialogue between collectors and emerging practitioners. Photograph by Dondre Trotman.

Dialogue between collectors and emerging practitioners. Photograph by Dondre Trotman.

Conversations across disciplines and generations. Photograph by Dondre Trotman.

Conversations across disciplines and generations. Photograph by Dondre Trotman.

Annalee Davis
Annalee Davis

Annalee Davis is a Visual Artist living and working in Barbados where she makes objects and produces installations and drawings. Her social practice project - the Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc. - functions as an experiment, a cultural lab and an act of resistance. Fresh Milk supports excellence among emerging contemporary creatives locally, throughout the Caribbean, its diaspora and internationally. Annalee is also a part-time tutor in the BFA programme at the Barbados Community College.