We do not come from a place that makes it easy to hold onto archives. Insects love to munch and nyam on the corners of birth certificates and letters (regardless of importance), the sun bleaches photos too close to windows in no time and, sometimes, like last year, seawater surges up so high that we lose everything material that we ever owned. Sometimes we lose more than just material. Whether we mourn lives lost, or the material memories we had of our lives, hurricanes are a moment of clearing. They are a painful, violent reminder that we must pull ourselves from our regular lives and that we cannot keep going on as we were, complacent. They are a reminder to think forward.
But how do we move forward when we have lost the cultural material of the past? This isn’t just a problem with life post-Dorian in The Bahamas, it’s been our problem for years now. Between bad record-keeping, lack of care for our cultural material and an internalized sort of self-hatred for our difficult history, we have continually had a problem with keeping traditional records in The Bahamas. Looking into your family lineage in the Caribbean is difficult if you have Black ancestors, let alone the climate and environmental issues that come along with trying to preserve things in a space that seeks to disintegrate the organic matter of your family memories and swallow them back into the earth.
Cydne Coleby’s “Specimen” (2019) installation of digital works for the “Refuge” exhibition gives her own investigations into this difficulty around considering space and family pre- and post-Dorian, and how time is demarcated through tragedy but also through regrowth. Coleby was in New York visiting with family, and set to return to Nassau when the storm was raging over Grand Bahama. “Whilst I watched my country be ravaged by this beast of a storm through the tiny screen in my hand, the world around me carried on as though nothing was happening. I felt alone; very distant and different from those around me.” The impacts of Dorian were felt across the nation, not just in our northern geography, but in the diaspora too – a fact we tend to forget, and for good reason. When dealing with the immediate aftermath of destruction, the first thought is the things needed to continue to exist – food, water, shelter. To tend to the things we need to live, however, the things that give life meaning – love, emotional wellbeing, having a purpose – are harder to pin down and affect the collective. We all feel it, it just hits differently.
“In the duality of this experience, I found deep appreciation for having access to these family stories. Dorian took with it so many lives, stories and history as it washed away personal archives. In the wake of this destruction we were forced to embrace a new narrative. This hurricane marks a turning point in our lives, forcing us to categorize memories within two boxes, those “before” and those “after” Dorian.” And Coleby does precisely this. She boxes in and frames her new narratives, merging past, present and tentative future together with old analog images, current photographs and forward-thinking digital sketches of the future all collapsed into one. She creates her own archive and her own order, new categories for thinking through the sediment and rubble of memory; it is a redefining through experimentation.
“Specimen” (2019) examines how catastrophic events and personal traumas redefine an identity. An individual is altered within themselves (psychologically and physiologically) as well as externally through a newly established and single-minded perception. “In the work, I grotesquely modify old family photographs, substituting select elements with imagery of decay and environmental unrest, as a way to illustrate the lasting transformative effects this trauma has [on] personal stories and history.”
And this is the history of this place, though trauma need not be the only way we define ourselves. We need not always see the material of slavery, colonialism, revolts, or sites of the dreams of independence and decolonizing to know it shoots across time like an arrow into our present. But our history is not only these difficult things, it is also the memory of the landscape, of the everyday lives as much as the monuments.
St. Lucian poet and literary force Derek Walcott (continuing on as a memory now himself) gives shape to this often nebulous understanding of time, history and memory in our region. “Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of history dissolves. We make too much of that long groan which underlines the past. … The basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong.”
As we work to rebuild not just homes but archives and personal legacies, Coleby’s reworkings help us to dare to have some hopefulness and agency. We can take the fragments remaining and insert ourselves back into our narratives (overrun by colonial thinking, by media consumptions of the tragedies of the Global South), and we can give ourselves definition – on our own terms.
“Refuge” began as an open call for works following Hurricane Dorian, as a way for the wider art community of The Bahamas to begin to process and heal after the storm. “Refuge” will be on view through March 29, 2020.