We Suffer to Remain started as a way for the British Council – through the work of Scottish artist Graham Fagen – to remediate and make linkages to a shared history connected to the legacy of slavery. A history hidden and poorly articulated and realised within our contemporary society. A history that bears implications far and wide as the oppression and social codes birthed in the wake of this history has left edible scars for us to reckon with.
Fagen’s 2015 Venice Biennale project “A Slave’s Lament” finds itself at the core of the exhibition, and it is likened to that seed and the way we begin to unpack our reality, unlearn and relearn our history and unravel the sentimentality and untruths that we have picked up along the way about ourselves. The navel string and centre of our truth are tied profoundly and intrinsically to the Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery pioneered by the Empire.
Fagen’s project takes Robert Burns’ poem of the same name penned in 1792 and presents it in a reggae sound clash/mash-up type with UK based reggae artist Ghetto Priest, singing a haunting refrain over and over with a symphony of strings as an accompaniment to his booming presence. This is a lament to the landscape and the body; here is where the suffering begins and here is where we, as a people show up to endure, persevere and press on.
And so, the invitation to three Bahamian artists to respond to Fagen’s work became the premise of “We Suffer to Remain”. John Beadle, Sonia Farmer and Anina Major, the first practising locally the others responding to and making work reflective of the Caribbean and Bahamian space from multiple sites across the Caribbean and the United States. Like the flux and fluidity of our spaces, these responses have become more meandering, discursive and challenging during their development over the last six months. The legacy of the birth of the contemporary Caribbean, it is merely just one way to read the complex projects developed for the exhibition that lend and extend voice to how post-colonial nation-states, grapple with their becoming.
John Beadle continuing the work produced for the National Exhibition 7 in 2013 “Antillean: An Ecology”, goes even deeper with rigour and intent into amassing figures in “Cuffed: Held in Check.” Here the figures become more explicit and connected to a power and hierarchy that was somewhat ambivalent in prior iterations. Here with the expansion of the figures and the way that the bodies are held as chattel can’t be mistaken for anything else.
Sonia Farmer has constructed a unique letterpress print project based on author, illustrator and plantation overseer Richard Ligon’s study of Barbados written in 1657. Using Ligon’s book– "A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados"– a piece of literature is one of the first accounts of sugar production and the plantation system in the Anglophone West Indies. Farmer continues to work within abstraction to reformulate and interrogate narratives around the act of slavery and the pseudo-historical way in which an Englishman like Ligon viewed the plantation system, the environment around him and various circumstances linked to the enslaved and their behaviour.
Anina Major works with sculptural objects fashioned out of various materials including glass, stoneware, sand and iron to move us from the outside of slavery deeply into the physical and psychological innards with the hopes of unpacking trauma connected to the institution of slavery and its lasting impact on black bodies. Using sculpture and moulding as a device and conscious action, Major elicits, provokes and challenges how we think about the things that are left behind–the residue, scars, ruins and the body as more than strange fruit.
The narratives present in We Suffer to Remain works bring attention back to the rich tradition that call and response can afford in the development of national dialogues and art practice. It helps us to remember our history and it shines light on the most important parts of ourselves, not diminishing our past or turning it into a linear narrative of horror and guilt, but truly making this moment discursive and expansive which brings generosity back to our creative environment where we can continue to build on these critical historical moments that have shaped us. These conversations however difficult and tense, are also momentous and timely. They must have safe ground whereby as a nation we can start to come out of our shell and know our pasts as it is a mirror by which we can come to know, see and appreciate aspects of contemporary/current existence.