Giving a voice to 18th Century women in the Caribbean

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A Barbadian artist who has spent much of her career giving voice to people who historically had no voice — 18th Century women in the Caribbean, will be in Bermuda to speak about her work at the Bermuda National Gallery (BNG), as Jessie Mniz reports in this article for Bermuda’s Royal Gazette.

Joscelyn Gardner will give a lecture on Thursday called “ … and others, of the Female Sex …”: Addressing Silences in the Colonial Archive.

She is known for her printmaking and multimedia installation artwork, and provocative images that explore the female identity in the context of Colonial plantations. Her work is meant to open conversation about history, race, relationships and power. One series of her work that explores the lives of female slaves uses a combination of African hair styles, iron collars used in slavery and plants that can cause abortion. Another series looks at the more privileged lives of white Creole women in the Caribbean.

“The history of these women has rarely ever been told because history is basically written by the white male,” she said. “We all know that.”

Her own background is white Creole. Her ancestors were among Barbados’ earliest white settlers, and came from England and France.

“There have been many voices that have been overlooked,” she said. “Part of this is about looking back at my own history in Barbados, the history of my family and trying to understand how things have come to be the way they have.”

Many of her works contain the names of real woman who were enslaved in the 18th century Caribbean.

“The naming is important,” she said. “I want to give these women a voice.”

She found many of the names in the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a British slave owner who owned the Egypt Plantation in Jamaica in the mid 1700s. He regularly jotted down his rape of his female slaves and also brutal punishments he meted out, as side notes to information about crops and plantation business.

“I first came across the diaries through Douglas Hall’s book on Thistlewood: In Miserable Slavery. The diaries have recently been made available for viewing at the Beinecke Library (rare books) at Yale University and I was recently able to view them there. Before that, they were in a private collection in the United Kingdom. On first reading excerpts from the diary, I was certainly shocked, appalled, horrified.”

A typical entry in the diary: Friday, 2nd July, 1768. “In the evening I rode over to Egypt. Coming home, Cum Mirtilla mea, sup. terr. in the old Boiling house piece, by the morass side, over Cabritto Bridge. Gave a bitt.”

“The words in italics are Latin,” said Ms Gardner. “Basically, he raped a slave named Mirtilla on his way home and gave her some money when he was finished. Often the entries also include details of the sexual position he took and punishments meted out.”

While the diary notes may have been written out of some sick need to remember sexual exploits, they also inadvertently shed light on what life was really like for Caribbean slaves in that era.

The reason she includes plants with abortive properties in some of her work, such as Coffee arabica or Bromeliad penguin is that these plants were often the only control that women in the Caribbean and South America had over whether they had children.

“Many slaves did not want to bring a child into such a brutal world,” said Ms Gardner.

Unfortunately, if they were caught they would be placed in torturous iron collars as punishment. Slave masters viewed slave children as new stock and labour.

Ms Gardner’s work started to receive a lot of attention in 2004 when she had a show at the Barbados Museum. At first the museum was a little unsure about how the general public would react to such a sensitive topic, but it turned out that the general public showed great interest in her efforts.

“If you bring the subject up in a sensitive manner that allows voices from the past to come out, and do it in a way that is not confrontational, it allows people to access that history, think about it and hopefully understand some of the hurts that have gone on along the way,” she said. “There is a feeling that you can release it if you confront it. If you confront it in the right way then it is a healing process and not something destructive.”

She is currently teaching art history at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. She lives between the Caribbean and Canada. Her work has been shown in solo exhibitions in the USA, Canada, Spain, and the Caribbean, and she has been the recipient of several awards including the Biennial Grand Prize at the 7th International Contemporary Printmaking Biennial in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec in 2011.

She will give a PartnerRe Lecture on Thursday (May 2) from 5.30pm to 7pm at the BNG. Tickets are $10 for members and $20 for non-members. There will also be a free luncheon reception on Friday from 12 to 1.30pm at the BNG and former senior curator of the Nassau County Museum of Art in New York, Franklin Hill Perrell. For more information e-mail admin@bng.bm or telephone 295-9428.

For the original report go to http://www.royalgazette.com/article/20130430/ISLAND01/704309992

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