Gardening in the Tropics
An essay about Annalee Davis's practice.
By Evelyn O’Callaghan
Annalee Davis, Study with Queen’s Anne’s and Motherwort (Second spring `studies’ series), 2020, mixed media on plantation ledger page, 15 x 9 1⁄4 in (38.1 x 23.5 cm)
In her poem “Brief Lives” from the collection whose title I have borrowed for this essay, Olive Senior writes: “Gardening in the Tropics, you never know/what you’ll turn up. Quite often, bones.” History in the Caribbean is just under the surface, dating back to not more than a few centuries ago, and that is why it is obsessively revisited by the region’s writers and artists who are all engaged in turning up and reassembling the bones of the past. Senior’s metaphor for what she does in her collection of poetry is gardening; Annalee Davis’ is excavation. Her concern in this complex exhibition is the land, specifically the Barbadian land on which her family live and where she has her studio: quite literally, “the ground between my feet.” That this land is the site of a former sugar plantation, in production from 1660 to the 1980s, presents her with lots of bones to “turn up.” And because this land has been in her family for one hundred years, these bones, these archives, these shards of the past, the artefacts she chooses – what she makes, and what she selects to write or paint on – all have to do with the land. The main motifs are from the soil: sugar cane stalks and roots; wild plants, the uncontrollable profusion of nature that springs up in cultivated and rab lands alike, making a nonsense of human borders and fences and plots; and shards of pottery made of either local clay (used for the manufacture of gutters and funnels and other vessels for the sugar works) or imported porcelain (used for tableware) which can be
found just below the topography of the estate, testifying to long gone human settlements, humans enslaved or free, white or black or mixed.
Annalee Davis. Levelling the spirits with cerasse bush (Parasite on gold series), 2017, mixed media on plantation ledger page, 15 x 9 1⁄4 in (38.1 x 23.5 cm)
But as this is also a series of personal stories told through a variety of media – drawings, collage, paintings, pottery and photography – there are also motifs drawn from family and national history: maps of the plantation, handmade thread work in the pattern of the local Queen Anne’s Lace plant, ledgers of payments to plantation workers, family group photographs from a bygone age, the will of a slave owner, teacups and saucers. These motifs are gendered to a great extent, drawn as they are from both the domestic realm (porcelain tableware) and that of sugar production (clay vessels for the works). Women on the plantation made lace and made and drank tea; men were concerned with mapping and planting, reaping and processing the sugar cane. There is a kind of visual dissonance between the phallic imagery of the strong, rooted sugar cane stalk in the ‘long drawings’ and the delicate tracery of the Queens Anne Lace pattern stenciled onto the ‘ledger drawings,’ suggesting the gaps, the spaces, the silences in the story of sugar cane and of plantation history. This exhibition aims to weave these silences and spaces back into the narrative, and to insert the personal and familial into the historical.
And the silences are, of course, the silences of the unnamed enslaved whose names are not entered in the pages of the payment journals found abandoned in an old book keeper’s office because, unlike the plantation workers listed therein, they were unpaid.
Like the records of tonnage of sugar produced listed in the ledgers, they were represented – in texts and visual images – in terms of a homogenized commodity, evaluated only in terms of monetary worth and product produced. The economic story told by the ledgers is overwritten here in “F is for Frances.” Davis draws on the 1815 will of Thomas Applewaite, who owned Walkers Plantation in the early nineteenth century. The will specifies that his favorite “Girl slave named Frances shall be manumitted” while five other enslaved women are to be left to his five granddaughters. Two hundred years later, Davis spells out Frances’s name using found potsherds, clearly referencing the other enslaved women, women (like Fran-ces) without ‘sir-names,’ who were handed on as chattel and whose only archive is the wills and deeds of their owners. It is a tricky business, this, to make something beautiful out of such an ugly past, but Davis' work is clearly honouring all the ancestors whose bones/memories/histories are intermingled with the rich earth beneath her feet. The photographs of the artist “sweeping” the cane fields is another ritual performance of – for want of a better term – detoxifying the land. This methodology of over-laying continues in the suite of five “ledger drawings” and twelve “wild plants” which redraw the maps of commodification of place and persons in the service of profit.
Installation view of Annalee Davis's drawings at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.
In the first, she creates palimpsests which reconfigure the neat vertical columns of monochrome handwritten figures by horizontal bars of color, flower-like circles of filigreed lace patterns, shadowy outlines of ancestral family pictures and arresting images such as a bright blue cup of tea – that “blood sweetened beverage” – from which a vivid red liquid splashes, presumably as a result of the addition of sugar. In another, a table of profit and loss is sharply contrasted by an impressionistic landscape where layers of brown and green and blue evoke the natural environment that is elided by mercenary concerns of plantation (then) and capitalism (now) to the environmental detriment of the very earth we walk in these islands. In the second suite, the cream pages are overgrown by paintings of local wild plants in the same Victorian rose that predominates in the exhibition, disrupting the cartography of how the plantation is subdivided for optimum land use, but that of colonial discourse: facts, figures, orderly borders and neat legal or pay or slave lists are irreverently and beautifully written over by nature, by the common, the ordinary Barbadian weeds and wildflowers that flourish wherever land is left to its own devices.
What Davis seems to be invoking in the viewer is a kind of stereoscopic vision that simultaneously sees the skin of things and the bones beneath, the land and what lies below, history and what it hides. The tea service installation that completes the exhibition encodes such a strategy. Made of indigenous clay in collaboration with a local potter, the cups, rather like the lace flowers, have holes and gaps cut out of their surface; that which is missing is integral in the design. But into these jigsaw gaps are inserted fragments of the found porcelain and the whole is glazed in the signature colours of cream and Victorian rose so that the surface is once more a seamless whole. A utensil that served as a vessel for the “blood sweetened beverage,” is here made, unmade and remade as an act of actively inserting the past into the present, an owning of the land by the artist. Derek Walcott’s analogy in his 1992 Nobel Lecture is much cited, but nonetheless apposite here:
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars…. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.
The reference to “white scars” that seam the reassembled fragments in Walcott’s metaphor is also apt to this exhibition, because owning the landscape – in the sense of affirming connection to and love for it, rather than legal possession – is not necessarily straightforward in a racially stratified country like Barbados, a slave colony since the seventeenth century and one in which relationships between black and white are still politically fraught for many. Given Davis’s ethnicity and her family’s plantation background, claiming belonging to this space, the plantation and the rab land which will, periodically, cover and transform human cultivation, might be considered problematic. It is to her credit that she faces up to this awkwardness, indeed forces the uncomfortable subject out of embarrassed silence and insists we listen. An adjunct part of the exhibition is “White creole conversations,” recordings of twenty five interviews about what being constructed as “white” across the Caribbean means to those so labelled. It is revealing of how disparately people experience their so-called racial identities. Again, the collage of voices is part of digging below the skin, excavating the pieces of our regional identity and putting them in conversation with each other. It is no longer possible to argue for a simplistic equation of Caribbean identity with “non-white” or with any single ethnic or other group; the African, the Asian, the white creole, the Jewish, the Portuguese. Indeed, it was the contact, admixture and all manner of combinations of such ancestral legacies that made the region global long before the term gained currency. Annalee Davis’s “gardening in the tropics” is an act of conscious reclamation of “this ground below my feet,” acknowledging what Walcott calls “the sigh of History” which permeates its surface and the bloodshed and horrors it witnessed, but also the beauty, sustenance and preciousness of the land. It is interesting to discover that touching the plant or the leaves of the Queen Anne’s Lace plant (Daucus carota or wild carrot) can cause photosensitivity: exposure to sunlight after handling the plant can result in burns and blisters in some people. So an encounter with the Queen Anne’s Lace images in this exposition can provoke withdrawal into darkness, into silence, the spaces integral to the pattern/the holes in history. Davis insists on bringing these stories into the light, no matter how sensitive the viewer’s skin may render them. Learning how to handle such images and to metaphorically reduce our “photosensitivity” to them is a kind of testament to the enduring power of the land to heal, to offer us the opportunity to evolve.
Evelyn O'Callaghan is Professor of West Indian Literature in the Department of Language, Linguistics and Literature, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Barbados. She has published two books on Caribbean women's writing and co-edited a collection of interdisciplinary essays on Caribbean Irish connections, as well as authoring one piece of historical fiction. Other publications in scholarly journals and edited collections focus on early writing from the region, eco criticism, visual and scribal narratives of Caribbean landscape and feminist theory. She is on the editorial board of Caribbean Quarterly and other postcolonial literary journals and is editor in chief of the Journal of West Indian Literature.