Another post on Natural Histories, written by Nicole Smythe Johnson.
We end in earth, from earth began.
In our own entrails, genesis.
– Derek Walcott, The Castaway (1965)
Natural History has always figured strongly in visions of Jamaica. It is in the way the plantation system and its legacy orders the people of the region; classifying them into races, classes, colours etc. It is also in the use of bucolic landscapes as pro-slavery propaganda in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, in much of the world, Jamaica and the Caribbean are still visualized primarily as a tourist paradise of sun and sand, rainforests, tropical birds and flowers. This exhibition looks at the ways that Jamaican artists of the past and present have engaged this recurring aspect of how the region is visioned. Whether artists are challenging, re-interpreting or celebrating Natural History discourse, the conversations these works stage show the myriad ways in which nature and the study of it figure into how we understand ourselves and our experience of the world.
The trend is not unique to Jamaica or visual art. Versions of this conversation can be found in many of the Caribbean region’s creative outputs, which makes sense given the shared history of transatlantic slavery and cultural blending. In literature, writers like St. Lucian Derek Walcott and Guyanese Wilson Harris engage similar themes. Thinkers such as Martinican Edouard Glissant and Antonio Benitez Rojo of Cuba use the region’s natural features, particularly the sea, as a means to explore cultural, historical and geopolitical features of the Caribbean. Nature also figures strongly in the work of visual artists such as Cuba’s Wifredo Lam and Puerto Rican Arnaldo Roche Rabell.
This exhibition also builds on previous exhibitions such as the Institute of Jamaica’s 2007 Materialising Slavery exhibition which featured an installation by African American artist Fred Wilson. Wilson’s installation, An Account of a Voyage to Jamaica with the Unnatural History of That Place re-contextualised some of the Institute’s natural history and ethnographic collections to bring unexamined assumptions about power, place, privilege, and history to light. Another important reference is Susan Vogel’s 1988 exhibition Art/Artifact which sought to re-think the West’s engagement with African art by placing objects designated as art side by side with objects designated as artefacts, thereby questioning the values we assign to these categories and the places and people that create them.