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FILM

An Ode To Mary Prince

Joscelyn Gardner

The story of Mary Prince and her impactful contribution to the British abolitionist movement has been a focal point of Joscelyn Gardner’s work for many years. The Barbadian artist, whose mixed media artworks are rooted in her (white) Creole heritage, explores the influence of colonial and patriarchal systems on Caribbean history.

As we head into the Cup Match holiday this weekend and the emancipation celebrations that it marks, we look back at Black Mary; or Molly ‘Princess Of Wales’, a two channel video installation exhibited at the Bermuda National Gallery in 2016, in which Joscelyn brings to life the story of Mary Prince and examines both historical and contemporary viewpoints of her narrative.

Legislation was passed in Bermuda earlier this year renaming the second day of Cup Match Mary Prince Day in recognition of her pivotal role in the abolition of slavery, both in Bermuda and across the Caribbean. On the eve of this historic moment, we caught up with Joscelyn to reflect on Black Mary and discuss how, through her artwork, she attempts to “speak the unspeakable, retrieving atrocities that lie buried in our collective memory in order to reconcile the past with the present and move towards a metaphorical healing of wounds“.

BNG: When did you first come across The History Of Mary Prince and how did it impact you?

JG: I first read Mary Prince’s 1831 slave narrative in 2002. It is the only extant published narrative by a female slave that relates to the British Caribbean so it was an important document for my research on Creole women from the period. Mary’s story, “in her own words”, is possibly as close as you can come to gleaning what life would have been like for an enslaved woman at this time.

Mary Prince had a series of five different owners over her lifetime before she won her freedom. The hardship that she faced and the torture she, and the other slaves whom she lived with, endured at the hands of her owners is difficult to encounter. Once you have read it, you don’t easily forget it. Her voice made an important contribution to the abolitionist movement in Britain and it has been part of my work for several years.

Black Mary; or Molly ‘Princess Of Wales’ playbook.

BNG: How can art help us to understand and reconciliate the horrors of slavery and its lasting legacy?

JG: It is important that we acknowledge our colonial history so that we can learn from it and understand how its racist ideology has shaped how we think and how it continues to impact contemporary society. Art permits an artist to enter into a conversation with the viewer in a manner that allows the viewer to slowly discover and engage with what is being presented at their own pace. Everyone brings their own baggage to the viewing experience. No two viewers will leave with the same conclusions.

I believe that it is important for an artist not to be didactic in their work, but rather to open up the viewer to multiple viewpoints so that they can reach their own understanding of events. As we know, history is written by those in power. I believe that unearthing other voices from archival fragments can help us imagine what life was like for all subjects in a specific period.

As an artist with a postcolonial feminist perspective whose family history is rooted in the Caribbean, I am specifically mining history for the voices of both black and white Creole women of the colonial period. By confronting the harsh realities of slavery and its legacy, we can reach a better understanding of how black lives have been unfairly shaped by this racist system of exploitation, and by extension, appreciate how white privilege has been ingrained in contemporary society.

The 3D stage is based on a 19th century toy puppet theatre.
Detail of the replica was made for the installation.

BNG: The set for Black Mary; or Molly, Princess of Wales is based on early 19th century toy puppet theatre. What attracted you to this as a medium?

JG: I often draw on 18th and 19th century print history in my work since the printed image was a primary means by which Europeans inscribed and circulated their cultural beliefs. The 19th century toy theatre appealed to me on various levels.

Firstly, these miniature theatres were very popular in the early 19th century. Often, the plays staged in them enacted stories from exotic and distant lands that were filled with emotion, terror, and horror, but nevertheless ended happily. The stories would be told through song. Around this time, printed ephemera from these plays included images of the play characters, as well as sets, prosceniums, and playbooks. Wealthy people would have a miniature version of a theatre built, and children would read the playbook words and manipulate the characters as drawing room entertainment for the adults. By the 1830s, these toy theatres became more commonplace and the plots often involved anti-slavery sentiments. It therefore seemed to be an ideal medium through which to ‘stage’ Mary’s narrative.

Secondly, the idea of the ‘performance’ of identity is one that interests me. In his book titled The Repeating Island (1992), Antonio Benitez Rojo writes that “in the Caribbean, we are all performers….. we all try to act the roles that our skin reads out to us”. Colonialism dictated a hierarchy based on skin colour and we have (blindly) adhered to this over centuries. In the Caribbean, ‘performance’ of identity was very pronounced in the colonial period. The Creole population outfitted themselves in European costumes, mimicked European manners and customs, and paraded their worldly goods on the stage of thriving colonial port cities and plantation Great Houses, all the while feeding Europe’s prosperity on the backs of enslaved Africans who suffered brutal conditions in the construction of this wealth. They were essentially colonial puppets feeding into a racist ideology for economic gain. In the toy theatrical, Black Mary, the white Creole actors are silenced while Mary relates her narrative.

On yet another level, the toy theatre functions as a palatable way of presenting this cruel history to a contemporary audience, by concealing the horrors within an operatic performance which is appealing until one recognises what is being said. In some ways, the toy theatre functioned as a subliminal teaching device, encouraging children to ‘act out’ societal norms, thereby reinforcing them. In Black Mary, our heroine plays with her doll, imaginatively dramatising the actions of others upon herself as part of her narrative.

View of the audience at the Bermuda National Gallery.

BNG: The audience is used to express a variety of points of view across different time periods, genders and races as Mary narrates her story. Why did you choose to use this as a device and how did you approach the script?

JG: The individual responses from the ‘audience’ (the portrait heads) have been largely drawn directly from records of two court cases – Pringle v. Cadell and Wood v. Pringle – that were held in 1833 following the publication of Mary Prince’s narrative. The publisher (Mr. Pringle, secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society) accused Mr. Cadell (publisher of Blackwood’s Magazine) of libel for having slandered his and his family’s reputation in a harsh review of Mary’s narrative. Likewise, Mr. Wood, one of Mary’s owners named in the narrative, accused Mr. Pringle of bringing his name into disrepute. During the second case, Mary’s owners, as well as other people who had known her during her time in Bermuda, Turks & Caicos, Antigua and London, testified to her character.

Snippets from these opposing testimonies are presented as retorts to her story on the stage; some accusing her of heinous lies and others claiming her to be an honest and upright character. The contemporary viewpoints offered are taken from interviews with various historically knowledgeable residents of Bermuda who I met with while on a research trip to the island in 2015. I also attended a panel discussion held by CURB in which Dr Eva Hodgson spoke, and used some quotes from this source as well. Other viewpoints came from the controversy surrounding the publication of a Bermuda tourism brochure in 1994 which stated that the island “had a relatively benign system of slavery.” I hoped that the interjections provided by these disparate voices (from different age groups, genders, races and periods of time) would cause the viewer to interrogate questions around slavery’s legacy.

As we know, history is a construction and it changes according to the voices that document it. I provided a bench in the exhibition space between the audience video and the toy theatre video so that viewers could potentially react and add their own voices.

Theatre print sheets for Black Mary.

BNG: How long did the project take to develop?

JG: This was a very complicated project that unfolded over three years. I conducted research in London in the summer of 2013 (through a Canada Council for the Arts Grant) where, among other things, I researched toy theatres and theatrical productions at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Here, I was able to examine the copper plates used to produce the etched backdrops and paper cut-out characters for the theatres, as well as the miniature playbooks.

Back in my studio in Canada, the costumes for the (live) actors were all made from sewn and sculpted paper and the printed backdrops and stage props were created by making copper etchings in the traditional manner and then weaving reproduced text elements from Mary’s original published narrative into the images. I constructed a toy theatre using these elements so that I could reference it for the video.

The recording of the video footage and sound was done in several locations. Some of the still characters (the white family members and dog) were filmed against a green screen at Chapin Studio in Canada, and the main character, Mary, was filmed against a green screen at Andrew Hulsmeir’s Studio in Barbados. All of the sound was produced at Canefield Studio in Barbados, where sound director and operatic composer, Stefan Walcott is located and where the main actress/singer, Melanie Jean-Baptiste was based. The ‘audience’ video was also filmed in Barbados. All of the sound and video footage was edited in Canada – the animated toy theatre video was created in 3D animation using the live footage and still printed images in a simulated 3D space, and the audience video was assembled using a collage approach.

In all, over 40 people were involved in the production of this work! It was a considerably draining but rewarding experience. Everyone who worked on the project devoted their time and talents in the service of this important message.

View of the Black Mary installation at the Bermuda National Gallery.

BNG: What are your lasting memories of the exhibition at the Bermuda National Gallery?

JD: I was extremely pleased that the BNG invited me to exhibit this work in the heart of Hamilton, especially since Mary Prince had recently been named as a national hero in Bermuda. It was heartening to see the public engaging with the video installation, although I was not in Bermuda for very long once the show opened. I was fortunate to be able to speak to viewers during a public discussion about the work that was held at the Bermuda National Gallery that week. This was memorable owing to the interesting feedback and active discussion. I was also pleased by the educational material provided by the gallery so that school children could be encouraged to interact with the work.

Click HERE to explore more work by Joscelyn Gardner.

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FILM

Update: Voices Of The Pandemic

Watch The Teaser Video

Voices Of The Pandemic is a project by artist and filmmaker Milton Raposo, founder of Method Media and former deputy chair of the Bermuda Arts Council, which explores life in Bermuda amid the coronavirus outbreak and its effect on our communities. His previous projects include FABRIC: Portuguese History In Bermuda and Osbourne’s Day Out: North Rock Tank to North Rock.

The making of the film, which is part of the 2020 Bermuda Biennial programming, continues as the pandemic persists across the globe. 

As we enter Phase 4 of the reopening of Bermuda and the community braces itself for the impact of the arrival of the first tourists in almost four months, we take a first look at the documentary and the tales told so far

Click HERE to watch the preview. 

Voices of The Pandemic examines life in Bermuda amid the Coronavirus outbreak. Top: A deserted Front Street at the height of the rush during the lockdown restrictions. Photograph by Milton Raposo.

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FILM

Interview: Antoine Hunt

Mexico, mezcal and the meaning of home

Antoine Hunt is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work combines photography, sculpture, painting and film making. He has exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial 12 times. His 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork This Is Not A Home is a reflection upon his nomadic lifestyle which has seen him relocate his place of residence 19 times.

We caught up with Antoine to discuss the meaning of home and the making of his new feature length film In The Belly Of The Moon. The documentary, which recently premiered on i-Tunes, looks at the role of mezcal in both modern day Mexico and its folklore.

This Is Not A Home by Antoine Hunt, 2019. Mixed media, wood, oil pastel. 24 wood panels each 12 x 9 x 1 in. 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork.

BNG: Your 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork speaks to the notion of home, which is something that has shifted in ways that we could never have anticipated when the exhibition opened. Why did you choose to focus on this?

AH: In the last year I had an incident involving my health that left me feeling helpless and I realised that I had to dig deeper into my vulnerabilities for me to truly heal. These realisations led me to the understanding that my nomadic discontent made me feel like I never had a place that I could call home…

BNG: You split your time between Istanbul, Bristol, Mexico, Berlin and Bermuda. Why is this?

AH: Being a hapless romantic, Bristol, Mexico and Berlin are all places where I had followed my heart and found that each of these places had left indelible marks on my soul. 

Excerpt from In The Belly Of The Moon. Photograph by Antoine Hunt.

BNG: Where have you been sheltering in place?

AH: My very small flat in Bermuda has been my place of refuge, where it has been all too easy for me to bounce off the walls. All plans to be attending numerous film festivals have gone awry in the would be apocalyptic pandemic.

BNG: We’re spending more time at home than ever before. Have the shelter in place restrictions altered your attitude to what constitutes a home in any way?

AH: I am learning to not look at the place that I am temporarily occupying as a utilitarian, no frills, practical, just a place to temporary put stuff in.  But as shelter that is taking care of me and that I should take care of in turn. 

BNG: When you are able to travel again where are planning to go and why?

AH: Mexico will be first on the list as there is a film Festival in Oaxaca at the end of the year. Then onward to Canada to continue research for the next film project.

Excerpt from In The Belly Of The Moon. Photograph by Antoine Hunt.

BNG: Your feature length documentary ‘In The Belly Of The Moon’ looks at mezcal and the traditions that surround it. What attracted you to explore this as a theme?

AH: I’ve been going to Mexico off and on for the last twenty years or so. Mezcal had always been a part of partying. That is, mezcal is a small part of my research of all aspects of the Mexican culture. It was not until around 2011 that I had found a deeper appreciation for the spirit by way of a film festival in Guanajuato, where I screened a film and then shot a short love film centred around the sometimes unquantifiable effects of mezcal.

This led to shooting the beginnings of the finished film In The Belly Of The Moon. The film begins with an epic poem describing how the gods created mezcal and the film gets its name from tales told long ago. The story says that Mexico City sits in a lake and looking from the mountains the city sits neatly in the moons reflection.

Excerpt from In The Belly Of The Moon. Photograph by Antoine Hunt.

BNG: Could you talk us through the process of creating the documentary?

AH: At first it was elusive then it was hard, then it sucked and was eventually satisfying and not necessarily in that order. Shooting a feature film in a country where one does not have firm grasp on the language is not an easy thing. Topping that off with crew that did not appreciate not having the comforts of an air-conditioned studio to shoot in. The first day I fired someone, people got sick and not from the copious amount of mezcal that we drank every day!

There was an interesting visit to a rural hospital where I had to bring in our lights in order for the doctor to see what she was stitching. Then there was the time the crew dropped me off in the middle of nowhere so I could capture a time-lapse sequence and almost ended up as lunch for a pair of coyotes.

There are so many stories that lead up to me editing the footage over two painful years, including a near death experience. Not involving the coyotes. I learned much, not only about the technical aspects. I was forced to stretch and grow way beyond anything that I could have expected when starting out. Somewhere in this, a documentary was shot and completed.

Excerpt from In The Belly Of The Moon. Photograph by Antoine Hunt.

BNG: Film, photography and sculpture are all part of your artistic practice. Do the different disciplines feed into one another?

AH: All that I make in my art is connected. Each discipline has technical aspects that satisfy part of my brain. Working in film, photography, sculpture and paint allows crossover. Each one feeds the other. Ideas cross pollinate.  

BNG: What creative projects are you working on at the moment?

AH: In addition to the pre-production for the next film, I am working on a surreal photography based series that is destined to be displayed in the Bermuda National Gallery.

Watch In The Belly Of The Moon on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play

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FILM

Voices Of The Pandemic

A film by Milton Raposo

The 2020 Bermuda Biennial provides an engaging platform from which our island’s artists can tell their story. The Biennial  programmes which accompany the exhibition are focused on expanding this platform, creating dynamic opportunities for our communities to share their stories.

Voices Of The Pandemic is a project by artist and filmmaker Milton Raposo, founder of Method Media and former deputy chair of the Bermuda Arts Council, which explores life in Bermuda amid the coronavirus outbreak and its effect on our communities. His previous projects include FABRIC: Portuguese History In Bermuda and Osbourne’s Day Out: North Rock Tank to North Rock.

Shortly before the pandemic hit, the BNG received a grant from the Department of Community Affairs’ Cultural Legacy Fund to record the voices of the community. In light of the abrupt changes that Covid-19 has brought to life in Bermuda BNG has decided to direct the grant towards funding this important project as part of the 2020 Bermuda Biennial programming.  

The project invites you, the public, to share your experience of day to day life in these extraordinary times. The theme for this year’s Bermuda Biennial, Let Me Tell You Something, inspired by a quote from the late author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, asks artists to tell their own story. Now we invite you to tell yours.

We sat down with filmmaker Milton Raposo to find out more about the project and how people can get involved.

Photograph: Milton Raposo

BNG: When did you start working on the project and why?

MR: I started working on this project in mid-March, around the time that the uncertainty started to be apparent. Originally the idea was to record everything related to the crisis, but that wasn’t practical considering social distancing and other mitigation efforts. As the situation unfolded, it became apparent to me that a part of this was not being documented and that is the direct effect the pandemic has had on the average citizen, whether it be someone who contracted the virus or someone who has lost their job. There has been a lot about essential workers and some capturing of behind the scenes work but not a lot about the direct effects on people. To me, that is more interesting. 

BNG: The pandemic has affected us all in ways that are both universal and uniquely personal. How do you intend to capture this?

MR: The title, Voices of the Pandemic, speaks directly to that. There are so many threads to be pulled on but knowing what is emotionally unique to Bermuda while also relating to what is happening around the world is key. Our pandemic stories have a uniqueness but ithose stories also relate to what is happening to people in other places like Italy or Spain.  

BNG: The reverberations of the pandemic and its impact on how we live our lives will be long term and will evolve over time. How will the documentary capture this multi-stage process?

MR: My intent is to avoid making a “recap” documentary as such but instead to capture what is current and in the moment. Right now, there are people who are sick or unemployed with stories that are unfolding. It sort of pens me in with how I’m going to deal with those individuals down the line, if I bring them back, but that could also be interesting to the narrative. As Bermuda gets back to normal, I expect new stories and developments. We’ve all had a fundamental shift, or disruption, in our ways of thinking and every day practices and I expect stories to be revealed because of that.   

Photograph: Milton Raposo

BNG: What are the most interesting stories that you have recorded so far?

MR: Without revealing too much, one story is of one of the first people to get Covid-19; one of the imported cases. Another is of a tourism professional with a staff of 15 who didn’t even get the chance to gear up for the 2020 tourist season and now fears that tourism might be largely written off this year. Another interesting story I am working on getting is that of an essential worker in a position of prominence within their organisation who lost a family member to Covid-19 but they had to be on the job. And so while they were trying to protect Bermuda as a whole, their family suffered a direct loss.

BNG: What are you looking for in terms of submissions and potential interviewees?

MR: If people have been impacted by the pandemic in any way at all, they should reach out. No story is too small. People have to be comfortable with going in front of a camera and telling their story. I promise not to make it a long drawn out affair. Also, if they wish to send in a video describing what their current situation is like, they can. The camera phone has proven to be very useful tool! I’m trying to avoid lifestyle clips however. 

BNG: Are there are any stories that you are keen to capture that you haven’t yet managed to get on film?

MR: Yes, the hoax believer. There is a large segment out there that either believes this all a hoax or, for whatever reason, is not taking this seriously at all. Looking at social media, it appears there are a lot of people like that. I believe that voice should be included.

Photograph: Milton Raposo

BNG: What do you hope to achieve with the film?

MR: A few things. I’m a big believer in documenting periods of time of national importance and telling untold or underreported stories. I think this film will feed directly into the theme of this year’s Biennial, Let Me Tell You Something, which reveals some of these stories.

It’s cliché to say but I hope it will document a period of time in Bermuda’s history where we joined a global effort to push back against a serious threat to peoples’ lives and livelihoods. It’s easy to joke about the laid back attitude associated with island life but Bermuda hasn’t seen a threat like this since possibly World War II, or more recently the 1970s riots.

Bermuda is a great example of survival – from figuring out how to capture rain water, to riding out hurricanes better than anyone else, to being home to insurers who bail other global communities out of their own national disasters. In that sense, Bermuda routinely punches above her weight and reveals her own powerful, special voice.

If you would like to take part in the documentary please contact  programming@bng.bm. Submissions are open to Bermudians living both on island and abroad.