For our exhibition The Past is Present, on view until September 22, APG's Esther Griffin will be talking with the participating artists about their entries to the show and the way they reference histories and memories. Next up is Deborah Jack.
Deborah Jack is an artist whose work is based in video/sound installation, photography, painting, and text. Her current work deals with trans-cultural existence, memory, the effects of colonialism and mythology through re-memory. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group shows in the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe, including at the 2014 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, Brooklyn Museum, Jersey City Museum, Western Michigan University and El Museo del Barrio. Jack is an Associate Professor of Art at New Jersey City University.
You come from the Island of Sint Maarten, the land of salt, in the Caribbean. Your work is very much influenced by the history of the island. Why do you feel the urgency to document this history in your work?
Because Sint Maarten is a smaller island in the region, I felt that a lot of the focus in terms of stories and information was mostly based on tourism. However, what you package for tourism tends to be sterilized history and sometimes abbreviated. Many people are also not aware that the island was colonized by the Dutch, which feels like a form of erasure – sometimes intentional, sometimes not – so on some level it is about reclaiming that history. It is a very specific story about an island with and abundance of salt and how that is tied to a history of Dutch power in the region. Holland is a small country; how does it get economic might and how did it establish that?
More importantly, it is also about creating mythology. I am interested in stories and so thinking about the hurricanes and connecting the salt in the rain during hurricanes to the salt industry and the salt-pans on the island, was really how I started initially. For me it is about representing smaller stories. I am creating an archive of images that are not coming from the smaller islands that don’t have access and resources of larger cultural institutions.
Also, when I was younger I read a lot and the stories were always about some other place. So, I wanted to make stories about my own space, even if I was making them up. If history is constructed of many stories, I wanted to contribute to what I see as the story of my island. That even in a country that is 37 square miles, you could look around and there is enough material to access and use in my work.
In creating your own stories and mythologies, you hit on some serious subjects…
Absolutely, in terms of being able to convey a message and to get the viewer to think deeper about it, stories are an effective way to deal with some of the larger and heavier issues. The work is about getting people aesthetically and emotionally involved: the first point of entry is the aesthetic, a sort of visual seduction I am engaged in to get people to deal with the heavier topics of Ritual, Colonialism, Memorial etc. .
Your video The Water Between Us Remembers researches themes like memory, migration, Trans-Atlantic slavery, borders, and re-generation. What message (or memory) do you wish to convey mostly?
The arc of my work has been dealing with the death during Middle Passage and mainly work from the site that British Scholar Paul Gilroy refers to as the Black Atlantic, so the middle passage and the movement of people from Africa to the New World using ocean currents. So, one aspect of my work is rooted in the sea and the sea is a site, the sea as History, the sea as Memory and the sea as the present. Especially the sea as a burial ground of sorts, it has a lot of bodies and has a lot of weight to it. However having done a lot of work about the sea, I wanted to shift focus to the land and think more about the shoreline as a liminal space. One where the which is where the sea meets the land, and that is constantly in flux.
In previous work I introduced this girl figure. At the time she was a lot smaller, about 4 or 5, now she is older, a young teen. I wanted to construct a narrative that was about what it is like living on an island, how you are aware of the edges of your living space, especially when it is a small island, from where you can see the shore from almost every point, which gives you a different relationship to the land and the space you live in than if you are in a space that is landlocked.
In the video you see the little girl carrying a bunch of flowers, for me representing memory. Those flowers are tied in Sint Maarten to the emancipation of slavery; the oral history says that when emancipation was proclaimed on the island, a lot of the enslaved people broke branches off in celebration. Nature is a big component of the work and I am always thinking about how nature deals with memory and creates memorials out of the atrocities of History. I was thinking about this flower that blooms only in July and by August it is gone. The idea of looking at seasons as a form of memory, that is nature’s way of creating memorials. The young woman is performing a ritual of sorts and she is using these flowers as an offering to the shore, this space that is in flux. In the video she moves from interior space of the island and she goes towards the shore, to the edge so to speak and taking the flowers to the sea. That is what that particular piece is about; ritual, about her having this very small gesture.
When you look at the video, certain moments where we see the water meeting the shore it is actually Scheveningen in the Netherlands. So, you have the shore of Sint Maarten and the shore of the Netherlands. I didn’t want people to necessarily being able to tell and to make assumptions about the waterline. It also shows a shared sensibility, a shore awareness between the two countries. Holland being below sea-level, also has a strong link with water, so there is that relationship as well. There are a lot of layers to the work; the sea and the salt connect both countries in many ways.
As an artist you work with photography, video, sound and text. In this video you show almost idyllic scenes of Sint Maarten, but - in general - it has a bit of an ominous soundtrack to it. Are these additional ways of communicating (moving images, sound) that attracts you to video?
The initial sound that you hear is part from what is called The Rossby Whistle: about two years ago scientist in England discovered that the Caribbean Sea was emitting a sound that could be heard in outer space. It is a sound that stays layered under the video, even when you think you can’t hear it, it is there. In a way, I wanted that drone to be the heartbeat or the pulse. Later on, orchestral music comes in followed by piano music that almost sounds minimal. I use dissonance as a strategy, so there are some off-notes, notes that are bent and the layering of sounds. I do that to create a certain level of unease, because the images are so lovely and you might think it is a lovely soothing piece. But the intent is not to soothe, so I use sound to create tension. Also, sound has an emotional impact on people, even if they are not necessarily aware of it. It is an intentional device to create a reaction. Then, at the end of the video you hear a woman singing which is almost a lament in a way, it serves to ground the piece. This way, it is not just an aesthetic exercise, it is not all sweet.
In early work, I was apprehensive to use any tropical colors, because I think there is this default setting people from outside the Caribbean have of the island: people think of it as an island of escape, relaxation, fun and a place to get away. Coming from earlier colonial ideas, like this place is not inhabited, there is no depth there. I did not want that in my work. Even though I do use more tropical visuals in this work, the sound kind of counteracts those ideas.
You moved to the US about 15 years ago. Did this change in place have an impact on your work?
I left to pursue my MFA and to find a community of artist that were engaged in the kind of ideas and work I wanted to make. So it was what I call a voluntary exile. The access to resources, materials and the time and space to make my work was a major shift. The MFA program opened up my knowledge of Art and concepts I hadn’t been exposed to at the time. Eventually I felt like I was able to make the art that I wanted to make about the island and to have a broader audience that would read the work differently. I saw my work as being part of a larger global conversation and not just limited to one island or a region. At the time that I left the work was more representational Landscape and portraits. I was interested in Abstraction and Minimalism and there wasn’t an audience for that. But I go back often. All the images and videos (except the ones from Holland) are shot in Sint Maarten, but I don’t edit the material there, I just capture it. When I am back in the US, I work on the footage, because I do want to work from a space of memory and longing that gives me a different perspective. It’s a mode that I enjoy working in.
Who do you collect, who hangs on your wall?
I have a rather eclectic and small collection. Two pieces that stand out are a painting by Jamele Wright Sr., because I love how he works with found material and how he uses fabrics and Georgia red clay to tell stories. His unorthodox use of materials speaks to me. I also have work of Nate Larson from the project Geo Location he collaborated on with Marni Shindelman. They are contrasting artists that evoke a different emotional response from me.