Exhibited at the Ford Foundation from 1 June to 20 August 2022, everything slackens in a wreck conjures visions of the Caribbean beyond reductive attempts at representation (fig. 1). Curator Andil Gosine’s major contribution to diasporic Caribbean visual arts bears witness to legacies of enslavement and indentureship in the Caribbean beyond ethnocentric, nationalist, and anthropocentric frameworks. This exhibition showcases artwork beyond tropes of longing. Turning instead toward collective reimagining, the show envisions how to rebuild outside of colonial frameworks.
I first encountered a Caribbean visual and sonic field of aesthetic practice that spoke to lineages of Caribbean indentureship—and my personal connection to this legacy as an artist of Indo-Caribbean descent towards the end of my PhD in 2020. Two years prior, I saw British Caribbean artist Roshini Kempadoo’s Ghosting (2004) series at Fotofests’ 2018 biennial, but I found that the Indian context muffled her work as one of few examples in the show to reckon with South Asian indentureship in the Caribbean. As such, there was little room to address the traumatic complexities of this history. By contrast, Gosine’s exhibition showcases artwork that contends with the legacies of Asian indentureship in the Caribbean, addresses the trauma of this history, and envisions these legacies beyond traumatic impact. Before entering the main spaces, viewers are greeted by amber williams-king’s blue tapestry with the words “everything slackens in a wreck,” drawn from Mauritius poet Khal Torbully’s work, legible in the textile’s design. To begin, viewers are plunged into the dark blue vastness of the sea. Fraying fabric in the tapestry becomes seaweed, hair, and waves—indeed, body, material, and sea are entangled here.
Gosine’s curatorial framings pursue various threads. Upon entering the galleries, select large-scale works have a commanding presence and demand focus. Although they physically impaired movement throughout the space, I was also given moments to breathe and reorient myself between artworks. Two such large-scale works that inhibited viewers movement include Cross-section of Labyrinth (1993) by Margaret Chen and House of the Historians (2022) by Andrea Chung. Both sculptures inhabited their own gravitational pull, drawing audiences towards and around them. Additionally, there were moments of surprise, with artworks in unexpected places: Wendy Nanan’s sculpture, Baby Krishna (2020) was located above the reception desk, and a sound installation entitled Jahajee (Overture) (2022) took place outside the gallery in the Ford Foundation Atrium, a collaboration between Gosine and the New York-based organization Jahajee Sisters. As audiences strolled through the gardens of the atrium, they encountered audio made in response to prompts of joy and comfort, building generative narratives into the exhibition outside of that of the traumatized Caribbean subject.
Where one artwork would swallow me whole and transport me to a completely different world, another asked me to build an intimate relationship with it. A group of large-scale paintings by Kelly Sinnapah Mary enveloped me as I first entered the gallery. The series, Notebook of No Return: Memories (2022), featured a central painting stretched across three panels (fig. 2). In it, a woman wearing a white garment is surrounded by snake plants, her face adorned with green, folksy illustrations of foliage, animals, people, and structures. On either side of this triptych were two additional paintings from this series featuring settings reminiscent of family snapshots. However, in each of these paintings, the sitter’s skin is similarly adorned in green illustrations of fantastical settings. In another section of the gallery was a long, inlaid shelf hosting a series of small sculptures from the Notebook of No Return: Childhood of Sanbras (2021) series, also by Mary. The sculptures allowed viewers to build a more invested connection with individual characters of Mary’s imagining. Both Mary’s paintings and sculptures materialize Caribbean bodies into living archives of history, mythology, and ecology.
Margaret Chen’s installation, Cross-section of Labyrinth, took up much of the floor space in the first gallery. As such, I felt like I was stepping into a tidal pool, encountering an object that resembled the rocky and barnacle-clad architecture of an intertidal shore. The spiraling centre reminded me of coconut tree bark, evoking the potential for growth. I appreciated Chen’s attention to the earth’s layers and the comfort that can be found there. These gestures convey a reflection of care for both human and non-human relationships, as Gosine introduces in his book Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex, and Law in the Caribbean (2021). When this care is generatively built into community, beyond human and non-human hierarchies, how might the planet repair?
If Chen’s work reminds me of the sea, Andrea Chung’s points toward the sky, or rather to nests partially suspended midair in the gallery. House of the Historians (fig. 3) is at once grounded and airborne; a pile of sugarcane bark and leaves littered the floor, and cloud-like nests made of sweetgrass, excelsior, and floral twine floated midway between the floor and ceiling. Chung’s installation reflects on how African and Asian diasporic people laboured in sugarcane fields to bolster European economies through the strategic use of material. The nests in House of the Historians are crafted with comfort in mind, utilizing soft and warm materials, while the sugarcane bark and leaves scattered on the floor below convey the wreckage of what the nests above leave behind—a metaphor for the legacies of colonial impact. Despite pointing to how hierarchies impact bodies’ movement and comfort, this work poignantly asks audiences to consider the resilience of the bodies that built these metaphorical nests, and what they made for themselves from the detritus left below.
Overall, the works in this show do not simply reflect legacies of Caribbean indentureship. Rather, everything slackens in a wreck complicates audiences’ perception of the Caribbean and its art. The “slackening” must be viewed as a careful tool for navigating the “wreck”—perhaps a tool that is necessary for rebuilding beyond and outside of colonial approaches to viewing art.
Notes on Contributor
Vanessa Godden (they, them)
is a queer Indo-Caribbean and Euro-Canadian artist, educator, and curator. They are based in Pickering, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nations, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. Godden is a sessional lecturer at universities across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. They are also the cofounder of the curatorial collective Diasporic Futurisms. They hold a PhD from the Victorian College of the Arts (Melbourne, Australia; 2020), an mfa from the Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, USA; 2014), and a bfa from the University of Houston (Houston, USA; 2012). Their work has been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions at organisations such as Articule in Montreal, The Fiona and Sidney Myer Gallery (formerly known as Margaret Lawrence Gallery) in Melbourne, Youkobo Artspace in Tokyo, ClampArt in New York City, and Aurora Picture Show in Houston.