One of the theoretical pillars of the Natural Histories exhibition is our interest in how artists have utilised natural history motifs to speak about the different aspects of human history and experience. Perhaps informed by his childhood fascination with nature and collecting specimens in his native Australia, Colin Garland makes eloquent use of the inherent beauty and symbolic content of natural elements found in his compositions. There are three works by Garland in this exhibition: Venus Reliquary (1977), Patoo (1994) and the thematically rich In the Beautiful Caribbean (1974).
Looking at the contents of the jewel box-like container represented in Venus Reliquary, one is inevitably reminded of the collections of species of exotic marine life amassed by pioneering natural history scientists like Sir Hans Sloane, the so-called cabinet of curiosities. Seemingly opened for the viewers’ perusal, the massively scaled work magnifies its precious contents, a variety of seashells and coral, the shells represent prosperity, the feminine as well as the spiritual aspect of life, rebirth and baptism. The coral referred to as the sea tree was a symbol of the Great Goddess and was linked to fertility, like Venus whose reliquary it is. Born of sea foam and depicted in classic works like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486) journeying to land on a scallop shell, the variety of shells here could be representative of the many transatlantic journeys that transformed the Caribbean.
Mutability and transformation seem to be an abiding theme in Garland’s Venus Reliquary; one that is also found in his triptych In the Beautiful Caribbean (1974). In the left panel, the pale yellow light of dawn – a time of introductions and beginnings – transports us into a mysterious landscape that unfolds in layers, pristine and beautiful. The palm tree and hibiscus flowers stereotypically place you in the tropics, but we quickly realize that this is the Caribbean, and not just one island but an amalgam of several. The species depicted in the first and second panel, in an illustrative style usually favoured by scientists such as the 18th century Linnaean illustrator Goerg Ehret, removes all doubt as to where in the world we are: a red-billed streamertail hummingbird, a swallowtail butterfly, and an angel fish, all of which are endemic to Jamaica, and two beautiful specimens of the scarlet ibis, which is the national symbol of Trinidad and Tobago.
Robed in the red, green and gold usually associated with his spiritual belief, a Rastafari man – who evokes Jamaican culture as well as the Caribbean’s diasporal origins – dominates the first panel of the triptych. In his right hand, he holds a staff, ambiguously carved to be both phallic and representative of a female figure: possibly a statement on the strength of patriarchy in the doctrine although he wears a seashell pendant, an allusion to the feminine. Above his outstretched left arm, you begin to see in the lowest landscape layer, fossilised shells that, like the Venus Reliquary, seem to reference long histories and transformations.
His gesture invites you into the second panel, which disrupts the initial idyll with more disturbing, surreal imagery. The rapidly transitioning sky indicates the passage of a significant time period and hints of tragic events and allusions to colonialism make themselves evident: first in the disconcerting weeping, brown-skinned sphinx whose body becomes the cabriole leg of an 18th century style table. She is a figure whose hybrid state seems forced; a reference perhaps to the unions between white British slave masters and the enslaved African women.
The mysterious gaping-mouthed figure on the tree trunk behind her – possibly a dead or abandoned, crying baby – reinforces the aura of misfortune but alludes to mysticism as well and the self-contained night sky above the figure features two stars that may reference the Vodou belief that stars are the re-ascended souls of the dead. Death, the spiritual and mystical are frequent themes in Colin Garland’s work but it is the main focus of the third work in the exhibition, the screenprint Patoo (1994), a fantastic depiction of the avian often referred to as the Duppy (ghost) bird. Believed to be a harbinger of death and misfortune in the Caribbean, this work sees the eponymous bird emerging from behind a smiling mask of humanity, the mysticism of the afterlife creating a disturbing tension with the real world.
There is a similar tension between the spiritual and real world in In the Beautiful Caribbean. Above the vignette with the mysterious “baby”, we seem to be confronted with a very harsh reality: three figures, two male and one female, are positioned left and right of a board shack and are obviously living in abject poverty, seemingly divorced – perhaps to their detriment – from the mystical element in the centre of the composition. On the left of the shack, we see the first male figure, his back turned to the viewer, he recedes to the point that he seems to be fading away. The female figure on the other side of the shack is not only clothed but also is in a more commanding position. This represents an ideological shift from the first panel where the female element had been alluded to but objectified, to a position in which the matriarchal structure – in societies of absentee fathers – has become dominant. The men themselves are now naked, objectified, and seemingly disenfranchised; certainly, the younger of the two seems emasculated as his genitals are obscured by the Nautilus shell helmet of the policeman in the foreground. The gesture of the younger man, who faces the viewer, is similar to that of the Rastafari in the first panel but this is less of an invitation and more of a plea: “Look at the state that I am in and see the other side of the story”, represented by the glistening modern buildings below and the curiously denuded landscape in the third panel.
The young man is however dwarfed by the figure of the policeman, whose own sexuality is, in contrast, almost over-emphasised by the form-fitting amalgam of archaic and modern elements that make up his “red-seamed” uniform – the red-seamed uniform being another part of the colonial legacy, at least in the British colonies. The suggestive way in which he almost caresses the assault rifle (another phallic symbol) seems to be shifting the gender dynamic again, but in a more disturbing way: empowerment through the threat of violence. His threatening presence is however challenged by the almost violently billowing fabric that emerges from around the sphinx’s neck, a possible reference to the force of history and the level of consciousness and resistance it may inspire.
In many ways, the sphinx and the policeman represent the past and present of the Caribbean. The sphinx looks directly at the viewer, demanding acknowledgment of herself and the tragedies she represents. The policeman, a figure who has arguably become an accomplice in those tragedies, however looks away from her, denying her and denying the negative impact of the inherited colonial value system he seeks to maintain. The mongoose at his feet represents an alien invasive species that was introduced into the Caribbean during the colonial period and that ended up doing more harm than good, much like colonialism itself.
The policeman appears to protect the alien-looking, shiny high rise buildings in the background, the foundations of which feature a ghostly white male figure, who could at once be both a reference to a bygone plantocracy as well as its more recent descendants. The equally ghostly child in the adjoining third panel is harder to interpret but may represent the present-day progeny of this plantocracy, a beneficiary perhaps of the new exploitation to which the Caribbean is subjected.
The buildings lead us into the third panel which shows a denuded landscape, under a sunset sky, where the interventions of man seem to be scars on a once-ideal landscape. Roadways cut brutally through the landscape and signs of industrialisation and pollution show the impact that apparent progress can make. The parachuting man in his blue and red uniform, white star on his helmet seems to bring Cuba into the story and his uncertainty as he tries to land on the island while being buffeted by the winds of history in the second panel alludes the uncertain relationships that existed between Communist Cuba and the other Capitalist supported Caribbean islands. And arguably he represents an alien ideology also.
There are however signs of hope and transcendence. In the lower section of the central and third panel we see a table, which contains several symbols associated with spirituality and love. The nutmeg and the green bottle with the pink and white beading bring to mind Haitian Vodou altars, especially those associated with the loa of love and beauty, Erzulie, who favours nutmeg vanilla perfume jewelry and the colours pink and white among others. Garland, who frequently visited Haiti, would have been familiar with those symbols. The “kitchen bitch” tin oil lamp on the same table is not only a traditional domestic object but is also symbolically associated with hope and enlightenment – In the Beautiful Caribbean was painted in 1974, the year in which the Jamaican literacy foundation JAMAL was established and JAMAL used the kitchen bitch as its symbol.
In the Beautiful Caribbean is a visually beautiful, thematically rich work that was created during the year in which Michael Manley declared the then ruling party’s allegiance to democratic socialism, one of many momentous social and political developments in the Caribbean around that time, and it reflects an acute awareness of the Caribbean’s geopolitical role. It can be regarded as an allegory of Caribbean history, its tragedies and its resistance, its natural beauty and riches and its despoilment, and its role in the geopolitics past and present as a place of discovery, exploration and transformation. This takes us right back to what the Natural Histories exhibition seeks to examine: the historical and postcolonial political and ideological significance of natural history themes and tropes that reference control and exploitation but also provide opportunity for resistance and critical engagement.