A review by Marsha Pearce for Trinidad’s Guardian.
“We must sleep with eyes open, we must dream with our hands…till the dream engenders in the sleeper’s flank the red wheat-ear of resurrection…we must dream backwards, toward the source, we must row back up the centuries…we must break down the walls between man and man, reunite what has been sundered…we must…dream inwardly and also outwardly.”
Lines from the poem The Broken Waterjar by Mexican writer Octavio Paz become a pivot point for Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s recent exhibition Dreaming Backwards: The Magic of Breaking the Spell. In an equally exquisite and unnerving amalgamation of various materials: feathers, silver, wood, bronze, glass, ceramics, palm fronds and calabash, along with an array of sources of information—from the writings of Derek Walcott and Nancy Morejon, to the Princess and the Pea fairy tale, Roman Catholic and Haitian Vodoun iconography and jazz/blues music-the artist elicits a deep, visceral response as she traverses the waters of time in a reverse flow toward a traumatic history.
Thomas-Girvan first invites audiences inside themselves with a fitting piece in glass titled Open Your Eyes and Look Within. The figure stands with head bent, eyes set on the chest and arms open as if cradling a swell of years and an egg shape of possibilities. In order to “row back up the centuries,” Thomas-Girvan presents Sleeping Beauty, an elongated figure fixed to the gallery wall like the oar of a boat. With toes pointed and frame pulled, the figure stretches across weeks, months, ages.
If audiences continue in a chronological ordering of the artworks, they move from Sleeping Beauty on the wall out to the piece Medicine for All Things, which stands on a plinth, and back to the gallery wall for the sailing vessel and its navigator titled Tributary Gaze. The exhibition layout again dictates another move outward to the piece Rooted and a return to the wall for another watercraft work called A Refuge: Weapons From Far Off Lands. This thoughtful arrangement of art carries audiences in an undulating fashion like the movement of waves. Visitors find themselves on a liquid journey to the past, travelling and dreaming inward and outward like a running stitch in time.
Thomas-Girvan offers a candid voyage. In her dreamscape palm fronds, lined with brilliant feathers, curl in a serpentine manner. At the tip a curious figure of bulbous bits is found dangling. The piece references the song Strange Fruit (performed by such singers as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone), which tells of the heinous practice of lynching and the sight of black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, like strange fruit hanging from trees. To heighten the sonic reference point Thomas-Girvan includes tuning pegs, which extend from the body of the fronds. Nature can now be read as a guitar. Yet, those pegs resonate on other levels. They also hint at the form of human cargo seen in illustrations of the hull of slave ships and, if regarded as a series of oars, they maintain that idea of rowing, of propelling self along passages before now.
If viewers stay in the dream they encounter the monstrous mask of civility and the deceptive cloak of fine dining. Thomas-Girvan presents a cross as a table. It is at once a symbol of atonement and a crossroads at which audiences must stop and think about the present and future as part of their meditation on the past. The table is set with a lace-fringed tablecloth, china cups and saucers, and silverware.
Yet on closer inspection, cups hold blood instead of tea, an image that calls to mind Barbadian artist Annalee Davis’ drawing Blood Sweetened Beverage currently on display at the University of Texas—Austin, as part of her own investigation of a plantation heritage. Other disquieting elements can be found among the tableware. A spoonful of sugar carries a head with an open mouth—a silent cry amid the sweetness—while scores of arms reach out desperately from a slit in a covered dish, in the piece Wasn’t That a Vanity Dish To Set Before the King. From the spout of a teapot comes a cow horn or abeng (as it is known by the maroons of Jamaica). It is a symbol of a call for emancipation. If viewers bypass these details, Thomas-Girvan makes sure her subversion of a setting of seeming opulence and comfort is evident. She adds a bird to this grand sculpture in a strategic move. Its beak tugs on the tablecloth, toppling crockery and leaving shattered pieces on the floor.
Of note too is the position of the final piece in the show titled Sinking or Swimming. It is a serving platter with a partially submerged figure. Speaking about this specific work Thomas-Girvan said: “Many times complacency makes us think we are floating when in fact we are sinking, even being pulled under by a system that at a glance appears beautifully benign. We must be vigilant.” To view the piece, audiences come full circle in the gallery, passing the aforementioned glass figure, as a reminder that time can be cyclical and subject to repeated events. Be careful. What exists in the past does not always stay there.
This exhibition exposes layers of anxiety and addresses lingering tastes, vanity, anguish and unconsciousness. To break the hex of colonialism and quash the spell of stupefaction and division, Jasmine Thomas-Girvan delivers a potion through a hybrid vocabulary that splices together words and images. This is not a nostalgic offering. The work is handsomely difficult and audiences ultimately bear witness to an artist dreaming with her hands. Her pieces capture in myriad, vivid ways the thinking of Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire who recognises that “the shortest way to the future is always one that involves a deep understanding of the past.”