Just a year after opening in the space of the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, the Ford Foundation Gallery closed in March 2020 as the coronavirus forced closures around the world. Marking his comeback after a two-year hiatus is everything relaxes in a shipwreck, a group exhibition curated by Trinidadian scholar and artist Andile Gosine who presents an intergenerational dialogue between artists Margaret Chen, Wendy Nanan, Kelly Sinnapah Mary and Andrea Chung. The four women share a heritage in that their Asian ancestors were brought to work in the Americas after the abolition of slavery. The title of the exhibition, taken from a poem by Mauritian author Khal Torabully, evokes the destructive legacy of colonialism, as well as its creative growth. Reflecting on the complex consequences of engagement, the exhibition explores how these four artists respond to their shared diasporic heritage.
While each artist brings their personal stories to the show, their shared stories and experiences manifest in common themes and materials, especially organic materials. Suspended from the east gallery ceiling House of Historians (2022), a sculpture in the shape of a giant bird’s nest by Chung. Made on site from leftover sugar cane, Chung was inspired by the weaver birds she saw in Mauritius that build communities of nests in former sugar cane fields. The artist used sugarcane from Trinidad, a nod to his mother’s heritage, which often features in his work.
Writing in the exhibition catalog, Chung compares the shape of his nest sculpture with the history of immigration. A member of the younger generation at forty-four with Sinnapah Mary, forty-two, Chung saw his family build his life in the United States, a country his grandfather thought he had gone to when he left China to end up in Jamaica. . All ties with his family severed, he was forced to create a new life. Crafted from scraps from the sugar industry, Chung’s nest takes something steeped in horrific history and creates a home, much like his grandfather and indentured migrants built homes out of painful situations.
Also made of reused organic materials, it is Labyrinth Cross Section (1993), a 20-foot-wide sculpture by seventy-one-year-old Chinese Jamaican artist Chen, which takes the form of a leaf spread across the gallery floor. Crafted from scrap wood from the artist’s family furniture business, the work tells a personal story of Chen’s family and rich carpentry heritage. In the center of the sheet is a series of circles that form a spiral. Four petals surround the labyrinth-like spiral, each representing the four directions (north, south, east, west).
The sculpture is covered with shells collected from the mangroves. Talking about his work at the opening of the exhibition, Chen reflected on his sculpture as a container for seashells and explained how looking at each seashell brings back memories of watching people eat the contents, sucking up all the fruits from sea they once held and throwing the rest aside. Its shells are rough, broken and mismatched, as if the whole room was once underwater, a nod to the passage its ancestors took to reach Jamaica.
Chen’s work is steeped in history. Scraps of wood and shells, which once served different purposes in their previous roles, are given a second life. The story of the work itself is continually evolving as it is presented. Inevitably, the shells fall off and are replaced, and the acrylic paint is touched up over time. The work also tells a larger environmental story of the relationship between man and nature, with the former consuming and discarding the latter.
Seashells also appear in a set of pod-shaped papier-mâché sculptures that hang along the wall. Painted in varying hues of pink, purple, blue and gold, the pods are by Indo-Trinidadian artist Nanan, sixty-seven, and made from fallen palm branches. While Chen emphasized the organic quality of the seashells and chose a range of shapes and colors to create a natural look, Nanan selected pristine seashells which she meticulously arranges on each piece.
A film by Gosine shows how the artist creates his pods. The camera pans to crashing waves and seashells waiting to be picked up as Nanan shares memories with her mother of her visit to the beaches of Manzanilla, making art from a young age – the only one in her family to do so – and being teased in elementary school for her Indian heritage, the racism she continued to face later in life. “You learned to survive,” she says in the film. “You just had to withdraw into yourself and get on with your work. You have learned to make a place for yourself. The Nanan shells are arranged inside and burst from the slightly parted lips of the pods. Her sculptures resemble both natural and human elements and can be seen as plant pods or depictions of female anatomy.
A similar blend of nature and the human body appears in the large-scale figurative paintings of Indo-Guadeloupean Kelly Sinnapah Mary, the only artist to contribute two-dimensional works to the exhibition. In a monumental triptych, each panel measuring over eight feet high and six feet wide, she painted a young woman with black, curly hair. Set in a dense field of green snake plants, the woman wears a white wedding dress and gold necklace and earrings as she gazes into the distance with bloodshot eyes. Her dark skin is covered with green plants and palm trees. On his neck and chest is a small house and an ominous scene of a lion confronting a child. Sinnapah Mary’s entire work is titled Non-return cardwith additional information after a colon, Memories (2022) in the case of the triptych. The title of his work is a play on the seminal work of Aimé Césaire, the Martinican author recognized as one of the founders of the literary theory of negritude who promoted black consciousness and African culture.
The exhibit is supported by several notable features and design elements. Just outside the gallery space is a beaded blue exhibition banner by Antiguan artist Amber Williams-King. Welcoming visitors with the banner is a soundscape produced by Gosine and the New York-based organization Jahajee Sisters. The score, which crosses the interior garden of the Foundation, features twenty-five women from the organization who respond with sounds to the questions: What makes you happy? What brings you comfort? Inside the gallery is a carefully chosen selection of books for visitors, as well as a bibliography to take away for further reading.
The exhibition presents a relatively small sample of the work of the four artists, however, the show seemed as far from small as possible. Each work may be the subject of a review. Visually captivating and culturally, historically and emotionally complex, the four artists tackle complicated shared histories. The exhibition is a powerful reminder of the possibility for beauty to come from darkness and pain, and of the endless creative capacity of the human spirit.