Caribbean Being and Becoming in “Fragments of Epic Memory”

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Ashley Raghubir (Momus) reviews “Fragments of Epic Memory,” curated by Julie Crooks, which was on view at The Art Gallery of Ontario until the end of February.

In his 1992 Nobel Lecture The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, Derek Walcott characterized Caribbean poetry as a remaking of fragmented memory. The Art Gallery of Ontario’s Fragments of Epic Memory, curated by Julie Crooks and the first exhibition organized by the institution’s Department of the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, takes its title and framework from Walcott’s lecture. The curatorial premise, then, draws on a conceptualization of the Caribbean as an archipelago and diaspora in shared relation. Despite fragmentation and difference across language, geography, and history, communities are forged, often through artistic expression. The exhibition presents a thematic survey of modern and contemporary works by 36 artists of Caribbean descent (Frank Bowling, Aubrey Williams, Wifredo Lam, Sybil Atteck, Christopher Cozier, Nadia Huggins, Sandra Brewster, Ebony G. Patterson, Natalie Wood, and more) alongside the first presentation of images from the AGO’s Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, which focuses on a century of colonial photography from 1840 to 1940.

As a Trinidad-born person raised in Canada whose ancestry reflects the region’s histories of enslavement and indenture, Fragments of Epic Memory is affecting precisely because it includes more than one archive. In addition to photographs from the AGO’s Montgomery Collection, the exhibition’s modern and contemporary artworks draw on personal and collective memory of multiple lived realities, histories, and art histories across the Caribbean and its diaspora, to offer a polyvocal account. And while Caribbean survey exhibitions commonly draw on frameworks of multiplicity, Fragments of Epic Memory extends this by responding with a multitude of voices to the singularity and fixity of the colonial gaze.

[. . .] My recollections of San Fernando, Trinidad are few and fragmented, a nostalgia more imagined than real. For this reason, I am drawn to Trinidad-born artist Nadia Huggins’s video Circa no future (2016-19) which captures childhood memory in formation. In the work, Huggins documents a group of young adolescent boys as they dive off a coastal rock into the sea waters of Indian Bay in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Circa no future takes its title from text on one of the boy’s T-shirts. With this, Huggins signals the indeterminacy of a precarious future, although the work is, above all, a depiction of Caribbean boyhood. [. . .]

[. . .] Caribbean art is neither wholly indebted to Euro-American artistic traditions nor is it without its own modernisms alongside the contemporary. The Montgomery Collection presents images of Caribbean lives during the colonial period—often exploitative and at times self-fashioned—that implicates many of us in the conditions of their making. But the exhibition presents memory-making as ongoing and contemporaneous. So as someone who remains deeply curious about their birthplace and family history, I know that what I am searching for is not in the exhibition’s display cases but in the memory work of the modern and contemporary Caribbean artists included: those who hold the past close as they look forward.

For full article and photo gallery, see; Download article as PDF

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[Shown above: Kelly Sinnapah Mary, “Notebook of No Return,” 2017. © Kelly Sinnapah Mary.]

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