New-Found-Lands: Exploring historical and contemporary connections between Newfoundland and the Caribbean diaspora
by Mary MacDonald
As I enter the Afronautic Research Lab, two otherworldly beings smile and gesture for me to sit. I am to read with the others. As the lights shift from red to green, we pour over 18th-century ads for slaves from Canadian newspapers and other texts. A voiceover and magnifying glasses help us to enlarge the details: 1734 – a Montreal slave Marie-Joseph Angélique is accused of starting a fire that burns down 46 houses in Montreal; 1791 – Black Loyalists flee Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone out of fear of recapture and sale into slavery. Our guides are descendants of the Dogon, a West African people whose advanced knowledge of the stars has led them to interstellar travel. They have returned to Earth to help us illuminate these hidden histories and challenge the dominant Canadian myth of a country free from slavery.
The Afronautic Research Lab is a performance project by Toronto-based artist Camille Turner and part of the exhibition New-Found-Lands at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s. According to curators Pamela Edmonds and Bushra Junaid, the exhibition explores historical and contemporary connections between Newfoundland and the Caribbean diaspora. Featuring 10 artists in a wide range of media – including video, painting, installation, performance and photography – the exhibition traces 300 years of near-invisible relations between these island cultures. In addition, accompanying the exhibition were artist talks, a keynote presentation by Halifax scholar Dr. Afua Cooper and a community dinner highlighting cross-cultural culinary implications.
The history between Newfoundland and the Caribbean is often summed up in an exchange of two ingredients – salt cod for rum. This simplified narrative of early Newfoundland often includes reference to the world’s colonizers – English, French and Portuguese–fishing vastcod stocks off the Grand Banks. However, little account is made of the black slaves who worked on these ships, their labour contributing to the growth of one of the world’s first transatlantic economies. Furthermore, Newfoundlanders are quick to point out how their fish fed the world yet conveniently forget who they fed, pointing to artist Roxana Farrell’s installation title and the 6oo ooo pounds of cod a week (2016) that was sent to feed slave populations. New-Found-Lands reveals many of these details, implicating a more complicated account of settler culture in Newfoundland and, by extension, Canada.
Sandra Brewster’s Rum (2016) alludes to this imperfect practice of cultural memory. Her distressed gel transfer features an image of the Demerara River in Guyana, known as a site of rum production, obscured by a swash of brownish ink that evokes dried blood or perhaps rum itself. Playing with the veracity of the photographic image, first through its material state, then second through its treatment, the artist points to the mutability of memory but also to the bodily repercussions of labour, which turns this water into rum. Similarly, Anique Jordan’s ghostly photograph Fish Market (San Fernando, Trinidad) (2015) exposes the ways in which black women have been able to make a living processing sugarcane and its by-products, menial labour that is both visible and invisible.
The connection between water and labour and the movement of black bodies on the Atlantic both past and present, is evident in many of New-Found-Lands exhibited works. Alison Duke’s multi-screening installation Reflections of Wata (2016) contrasts Sierra Leone, Newfoundland and the Caribbean through a contemporary portrait of Johannes Massaquoi, a medical technician who was recruited to Grand Falls, NL in the 1960s. Here Massaquoi’s own Super 8 clips, along with the artist’s footage, feature the ocean prominently. Duke also provides a physical carafe of water through which to view the installation. This sits beside Wayne Salmon’s On the Wharf (2000), in which children jump in and out of the water as nameless ships wait like sharks in the distance to dock and take away goods. At Salmon’s artist talk, he struck a chord with the Newfoundland audience when he spoke of the historical exploitation of islands, places where ships are constantly coming in and taking and wharves are important sites of people and opportunities leaving in addition to goods. Both Duke and Salmon employ water as a transactional metaphor to describe the circulation of black labour on the Atlantic.
Whereas Tamara Segura’s narrative short film Song for Cuba (2014) portrays a certain lingering nostalgia for a place that was, or an experience that was, Angela Baker’s painting Ackee and Salt-Fish (2016) reminds us that Jamaica’s national dish grew out of necessity and economic slavery to fish merchants. A combination of both islands’ ingredients, the dish can be noted as an example of a now hybrid cultural product rather than an isolated transaction. Anita Singh’s ceramic installation Isolated Showers (2016) also suggests an elemental experience with the land through small ceramic forms that mimic natural shapes and textures of a newfound environment. These works reflect broad experiences among the Caribbean diaspora and how artists are responding to a dislocated yet multi-sited present reality.
It is difficult to name an exhibition in recent memory, presented within the Newfoundland context that so fundamentally shifts the authorship of this context as New-Found-Lands does. Refreshing and honest, Junaid’s curatorial impulse to reconnect with her roots as a child of a Nigerian father and Jamaican mother growing up in Newfoundland is important. Not only does it affirm a common experience as one of few black families in a place predominately white and generally myopic about its orjgins, but the exhibition also challenges this view of history: of here-to-there migration with eyes-open multi-directional movement. Not a historical show but a contemporary working through of ideas past and present, New-Found-Lands succeeds in inscribing the presence and experience of Black persons in Newfoundland by expanding definitions of place and complicating ideas of the periphery and Newfoundland imaginary.