Academic journal article Visible Language

Subverting a Caribbean 'Natural' History

Academic journal article Visible Language

Subverting a Caribbean 'Natural' History

Article excerpt

... unsettling brittle pages from the past... probing between stiff lines of official text to divulge unspeakable narratives concealed within... liberating ghostly traces of Creole women whose lives have been reduced to mere footnotes in the recording of an oppressive colonial plantation history...

Using illustrated publications, prints and artifacts found in Caribbean museum collections as a source for examining social narratives on 18th century Caribbean plantations, my lithographic prints probe the construction of female Creole identity from a postcolonial feminist perspective. By subverting methods of documentation used by artists and writers to record Atlantic culture, my work points to the colonial construction of this identity as Other and asserts a space for the multiple female subjectivities not recognized in the Official' (male) historical canon.

In Plantation Poker: the Merkin Stories, a multi-panel suite of black and white stone lithographs on frosted mylar (2004), I juxtapose line engraved drawings of female pubic triangles with italicized text to form a visual statement (15ft wide) framed by red quotation marks and a culminating red full-stop.The text reproduces personal diary entries made by Thomas Thistlewood, a plantation overseer living in Jamaica between 1750 and 1786, who shamelessly recorded his countless sexual encounters with dependent female slaves in over 10,000 pages of manuscript containing detailed accounts and descriptions of daily events that took place on his Jamaican sugar estate.

Playing on the pubic triangle as a symbolic site of female sexual exploitation during slavery, Plantation Poker critiques 18th century documentation strategies commonly used to inscribe 'difference' on colonial bodies and identities through both metaphor and irony. Alluding to the practice of classification and cataloguing that was typical of ethnographical publications during this period in which 'curious' objects (often imagined by the artist) were illustrated laid out as inert specimens for examination alongside texts that described them, these emblematic images evoke illustrations characteristic of publications such as Hans Sloane's Natural History of Jamaica (1707). Intricate Afro-centric hairstyles are woven into each individually displayed pubic triangle together with tools of torture used during plantation slavery (whips, spurs, shackles). Viewed alongside Thistlewood's words (some in Latin) which matter-of-factly record precise details of each act of sexual violation, these carefully engraved 'curiosities' create an ambiguity of meaning between image and text that mimics a similar strategy found in the illustrated natural histories. Kay Dian Kriz has noted that the disjunction between illustrations of natural specimens (flora and fauna) or human artifacts, and the written descriptions of them found in natural histories, often functioned to maintain a sense of mystery so that no fixed meaning could be established. Such illustrated 'marvels' embodied both the fears and desires aroused by the strangeness of a new world and the authors of both image and text were charged with the problem of presenting 'difference' to excite curiosity while maintaining a fine balance between the known and the unknown. …

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