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From the Wreckage of Caribbean Migration, a New Kind of Beauty

From the Wreckage of Caribbean Migration, a New Kind of Beauty

It was curiosity about his own family’s fraught history of migration, from India to Trinidad, that persuaded Andil Gosine, a curator, artist and professor, to begin thinking about ways to connect with other artists who shared his history.

Gosine’s great-great-grandparents went there as indentured laborers, part of a wave of over half a million migrants from South Asia and, to a much lesser extent, China, who came to the Caribbean from 1838 to 1920.

These men and women, desperately impoverished, were brought to replace people of African origin who had been forced to work on plantations until slavery was abolished in the British Empire. The new arrivals entered into what they were told were short-term contracts that, in reality, offered only the slimmest possibility of freedom. Many had no idea where they were being taken. Their working conditions were dire and women in particular were subject to sexual abuse and forced marriage. Few migrants ever managed to make it back to their countries; they stayed on, becoming an integral part of their new homes.

Gosine, a guest curator at the Ford Foundation Gallery, has highlighted the experiences of people like his forbears who, despite the violence and economic bondage of their lives in the Caribbean, created new forms of culture and new ways of thinking that endure today. The exhibition, “Everything Slackens in a Wreck,” is a lush introduction to an international and multigenerational group of female artists of Asian-Caribbean origin: Margaret Chen, Andrea Chung, Wendy Nanan and Kelly Sinnapah Mary.

The idea began brewing a decade ago when Gosine, who teaches environmental arts and justice at York University in Toronto, visited “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” a show presented simultaneously at the El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum, and the Queens Museum.

“I was struck that among the hundreds of works on view, the only evidence of an Indo-Caribbean presence in the islands was a photograph titled ‘Anonymous Coolie Woman’ by a French photographer,” Gosine said in an interview. (Coolie is an outdated, pejorative term for an Asian indentured worker, though some among the younger generation are reclaiming it.) “But one of the largest immigrant communities outside these museums’ doors, in New York City, is Indo-Caribbean,” he pointed out. “New York is home to the largest Indo-Caribbean diaspora in the world.”

Gosine’s goal was not to organize a survey of Asian-Caribbean art, or an exhibition about indentured servitude. He wanted to find work that embodied the beauty that resulted from these complicated histories of immigration and cultural mixing.

In 2009, Andrea Chung, 43, a San Diego-based artist whose Trinidadian family line includes Black, French, Chinese, Arawak, and possibly Indian ancestors, traveled to Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean that was a stop on the indentured labor circuit for Asian workers. She wanted to learn more about indentureship and about the workings of the global sugar industry, which drove such migrations.

“I was doing a tour of the sugar chimneys — the brick structures used to burn the scraps of the sugar cane harvesting process,” she recalled, “and I noticed weaver birds had made nests out of the sugar cane leaves. It struck me as ironic that the product that destroyed so many peoples’ lives and shifted the world in so many different ways could become this new creation.”

Thirteen years later, Chung has revisited that memory with “House of the Historians” (2022), a sculptural installation fashioned of sugar cane and reeds commissioned for the show. She taught herself how to weave to recreate the distinctive “apartment nests” of the birds, she said. “It’s such a great image about how we share this history but we also build this community and culture out of it.”

Around 100 egg-like baskets are lashed together at the gallery, dripping with narrow, fibrous sugar cane leaves and hanging above a heap of sugar cane bark. Sourcing the cane products was a four-month process, complicated by Covid; in the end, Gosine had to phone someone living in his grandmother’s village in Trinidad to send bags of sugar cane to him. Chung laughed when she revealed that every time she touched the material she would break out in hives: “I am literally allergic to the material that my ancestors were brought over here to produce.”

Three large, striking paintings by the Guadeloupean artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary, 41, are part of her series “Notebook of No Return: Memories” (2022), that she began in 2015 while researching her family tree. When she was a child, she said in a Zoom interview, she assumed she was of African origin, if she thought about it at all. “My parents, especially my mother, didn’t distinguish between Afro-Caribbean or Indo-Caribbean — she felt we were all one people,” she said. “They didn’t really talk to us about the culture of our ancestors or speak their languages, and the distinct histories of those groups weren’t taught in schools.” It was only when she was older that she realized that her heritage could be traced back to South India.

A mural-size triptych depicts Sinnapah Mary dressed as a bride, surrounded by spiky vegetation, her skin covered with images drawn from Hindu mythology, European fairy tales and local folklore. Flanking it are portraits of her mother and father, their skin similarly adorned. The works speak to the Creole nature of Guadeloupean culture: Both the pastiche of stories and the plants — sansevieria (snake plant) and alocasia (elephant ear) — that came from Africa and South Asia with the enslaved and then with indentured laborers.

Her small sculptures made of paper, metal, mortar and acrylic paint, from “Notebook of No Return: Childhood of Sanbras” (2021), are hilarious and charming, disturbing and angry by turns: a three-eyed schoolgirl in pigtails rides a tiger (a reference to the Hindu goddess Durga), a naked girl lies prone with a plant growing out of her bare buttocks, and a severed, Mary Jane-shod leg is carried away by a small, furry animal. “What I really love about Kelly’s work is its honesty,” Gosine said. “It recognizes something fundamental about Caribbean Creole culture, which is the simultaneous presence of pleasure and violence.”

Wendy Nanan, 67, who lives in Trinidad, and Margaret Chen, 71, who is based in Jamaica have had long careers in their home countries, but less visibility in the United States or internationally, which Gosine was determined to correct. Much of Nanan’s work alludes to the mixing of cultures that typifies the Caribbean. “Idyllic Marriage,” a papier-mâché altarpiece from 1990, shows Krishna marrying the Virgin Mary, who seems to tremble in fear.

“The Indian indentured, hoping to move their children forward in a colonial society, adopted the master’s clothing, holding Hindu pujas at home while attending Presbyterian Sunday school,” Nanan said. “So the creolized callaloo society was formed.” She was referring to the signature dish of stewed greens served throughout the Caribbean.

Chen traces her family’s origins to another form of economic migration: Her Hakka Chinese grandfather left southern China in the late 1800s, arriving in Haiti and then Panama before going on to Jamaica, where he set up grocery stores and a furniture-making business that she alludes to in her installation, “Cross-Section of Labyrinth” (1993).

During a painstaking, two-year-long process, she laminated thin layers of wood, drawn from what she calls the “leavings” from the furniture workshop floor, into a floral motif that sits on the floor, 20 feet across. She carved the wood and embedded it with shells. The remnants evoke parts of the self that are left behind as we move and change — but the artist reclaims those bits and pieces here, turning them into something new, fragile, and beautiful.

Along with the four artists, Gosine has included a sound piece for the Ford Foundation’s soaring, plant-filled atrium in collaboration with an organization called Jahajee Sisters. It was formed in response to the high rate of gender-based violence in the Indo-Caribbean community, which the group’s co-director, Simone Jhingoor, characterized as part of the long shadow that indentureship has cast on the community. The group’s name translates as “boat sisters,” a term used by the migrants to describe the close relationships that formed between people who found themselves side by side on the long journey from South Asia to the West Indies.

Gosine asked the Jahajee Sisters two questions: “What brings you joy?” and “What brings you comfort?” In response, 25 members of the group sent in sound clips ranging from the whistle of a teakettle to the sound of a toddler singing. “There’s no way we can’t anchor to joy,” Jhingoor said.

The exhibition’s title comes from a line in a poem by Khal Torabully, a Mauritian poet. “The first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of the phrase ‘everything slackens in a wreck’ is the kind of loosening that often accompanies disaster,” Gosine said. “Yes, when indentured laborers arrived, conditions were terrible. But at the same time, caste fell apart. Gender relations were vastly reorganized. People were forced to renegotiate the terms of their relationships.”

For Chung, too, there is beauty in the spaces opened up by such pain. “The trans-Atlantic slave trade ripped people away from their homes and their cultures and their traditions, and then indentureship did essentially the same thing,” she said. “And yet, through all of that messiness and trauma, cultures were formed.”


Everything Slackens in a Wreck

Through Aug. 20, Ford Foundation Gallery, 320 East 43rd Street, Manhattan, 212-573-5000, fordfoundation.org.