Arts & Culture

Cartographies of change

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he stubbed his toe and bled it out and we are covered in this blood and dust. The legacy of the social affliction of discovery remains with us, mapped into our guts as we ascend the unholy heights of exploitation and social death.

Blues and greens, aqua and whites, pinks and cayenne, cover our eyes in the stunning beauty of overexposure: tourism, industrial rape, resource mining and land grab, as well as disease, spread, as new cartographers draw lines of tropical delight. We cannot escape the blood of conquest, as Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, Latin-American writers, depict in their fiction and criticism.      

Cartographies of change are constant, as yachts take over sloops and small, local fishing boats are swamped by multi-storied Hatteras.  The change is not problematic, the change is real.  We see the flags’ remapping of territory and corpses as a geographic act of salvation. Geography determines one’s humanity, as we see in the collection Surveying the American Tropics: A Literary Geography from New York to Rio (2013) as well as Dr. Krista Thompson’s An Eye For The Tropics (2011). The descriptors of empty and uncivilised, wild or savage lands are common where beasts and monsters reside.  Today, the descriptors have changed only slightly to include similar words, but usually used to describe poor sh*thole places.  Indeed, the language of representation is co-opted by those leading those sh•thole places. In Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, (1988) the writer offers:

“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by aeroplane, you will land at the V. C. Bird International Airport. Vere Cornwall (V. C.) Bird is the Prime Minister of Antigua. You may be the sort of tourist who would wonder why a Prime Minister would want an airport named after him–why not a school, why not a hospital, why not some great public monument. You are a tourist and you have not yet seen.”    

Kincaid points to understanding through seeing.  In seeing comes understanding, or does it?  Does the visual challenge perception or does it simply allow the status quo to remain the same?  The encounter between worlds, one as old as time, the other as warring as old, has been equally violent for both sides.  Today, the violence is different as legislation rolls back the post-Fordist advances in climate protection put in place since Reagan, the planet is being rapidly jettisoned into obscurity.

As Benitez-Rojo puts it so well, chaos theory runs amok on the repeating island.

Perhaps the depiction of the Dominican countryside by late Dominican artist Belkis Ramirez—whose works are featured in” The Visual Life of Social Affliction” or VloSA at the NAGB —issuing from a coffee cup, or reducing into it, speaks to the visual language of mercantilism. A woodcut featured in Julia Alvarez’s A Cafecito Story (2002) shows reductionism or ascension, but we are erased by the image that shows the centrality of coffee in the New World experience, which Columbus began as he penned an unreal description of the Indies that have ruled our visual cartography to this day.  The gaze must be challenged, and this is what Ramirez’s work does, it gets the viewer to see the expected, the stereotype, the norm, differently. We see nothing but the black liquid filling cups, swirling into million-dollar empires for corporations Illy and Starbucks, no question as to where this comes from until now.

The Bahamas, though, has no coffee, no morning Joe to speak of, no plantation culture to write about, no exploitation, because, as we are taught, slavery was gentler here; it was different.  The scars of exploitation, torture and rape, remain cast in stone, but the leaders in retelling silent tales are experts without knowing it of re-speaking Columbus talk.  Bahamian artist Blue Curry (whose work is also in VLoSA) and others like him capture this and shift the focus of their language to show how their scaffold tones and cayenne-pepper words transcend post-colonialism to repaint colonial cartography of settlement.     

As the Sahara dust blankets the Caribbean, changing climatic conditions, what we see and how we see it alerts and shifts. Seas wash over us, drowning coasts; violence erupts as land erodes into nothingness and water world becomes a reality. Heat kills! Yet politicians say and do nothing, their place is safe in Heaven, somewhere between I95 and La Southwessera, Little Havana, and Miami.

These are all points at risk of a big whale of water swallowing them due to sea-level rise. The race has turned into a trot, but the tortoise may win in the end, as the stepladder ascends from the sea, so too does the resilience of Caribbean peoples.  We may be consumed in the dark liquid cafecito, eaten in banana farms and laid on as white and pink maps of emptiness, but there are scaffolds that work to unframe social affliction, even when it comes from within where the gaze is an internalised self-hatred that is as strong as binding tides.  It may be only after the encounter between New and Old Worlds, or after the post-post-post of this current banana beach story, that we can see ourselves out of the way of danger.

Can we ascend biblical Jacob’s ladder, as so poignantly demonstrated in Kara Springer’s The Earth and Its inhabitants (2019), or have the leader’s insistence on backward colonial gazing with decisions that hurt all, including themselves, through short-sighted destructive decisions made to line pockets and render their friends, lovers and family richer as the sea rises around about?

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