By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
On Wednesday, June 1, the Ford Foundation Gallery hosted an opening reception of “everything slackens in a wreck,” an exhibition running from June 1 to August 20 curated by Andil Gosine. The exhibition is the first the Gallery is hosting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Gosine, a Professor of Environmental Arts and Justice at York University in Toronto and the author of Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex and Law in the Caribbean (Duke, 2021), named the exhibit after a phrase in “Cale d’étoiles,”a poem by Khal Torabully. Torabully wrote that “everything slackens in a wreck,” referring to Indians traveling to the Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji and South Africa between the years 1838 and 1917.
Continuing the theme of wreckage as a symbol for colonialism, Gosine coined the term “wrecking work” to describe how migrant women use creative tactics to disrupt gender norms and the status quo, shattering the so-called “natural order” of things. “The framework of this exhibition bears broader relevance, as evidenced in 2020 by the myriad responses to the pandemic and the stunning force of the Black Lives Matter movement; however bad things get, the human spirit and our survivalist drive force new shifts and invent new paths,” said Gosine.
In her book “Coolie Woman,” which the exhibition features in a library as suggested for further reading, Gaiutra Bahadur details the painful and traumatic voyage over the “kala pani.” Along the journey, the Hindu caste system grew vulnerable as a result of the crossing of waters to migrate to foreign lands. These voyages brought to the fore systems of patriarchy and incidence of violence, including and especially gender-based violence, which are yet to be undone. The subsequent migrations compelled indentured workers to reckon with not just their own cultural identities but their very survival. The exhibit uplifts the endless potentials for long-standing resilience when presented with imminent destruction.
“everything slacks in a wreck,” which photos simply do not do proper justice to, features the works of Margaret Chen (Jamaica/Canada), Andrea Chung (United States of America), Wendy Nanan (Trinidad and Tobago) and Kelly Sinnapah Mary (Guadeloupe). Each of the four women trace their heritage back to indentureship. Using humble mediums such as paint and papier-mâché as well as foraged items like wood, shells, and sugar cane bark, the artists reimagine possibilities fusing traditions and identities. Each carefully selected piece evokes the nostalgia of back home, while presenting deeply probing questions to viewers.
Upon entering the gallery, viewers are greeted with an adorable blue cherub adorned with a Pride rainbow. Wendy Nanan’s “Baby Krishna” seems to display the diversity of faith emblematic in the Caribbean – the fun-loving Hindu deity with angel wings hanging above is a sight to behold. The artist herself grew up in Trinidad among both Hindu and Christian practices.
Margaret Chen’s “Cross-Section of Labyrinth” is a 22’ wide floor work that she indicated took her two full years to create, beginning in 1993. With the support of local villagers, Chen collected countless shells and single-handedly carved wood on plywood to create a larger than life structure brought together by a centrifugal force of power. On the night of the exhibition opening, Chen, 71, replied with a chuckle to the question of how she put the mammoth piece together: “With many many glue sticks!” She noted how shells are integrated into so much of Eastern culture and how they were adapted to serve varied functions in the Caribbean.
The exhibition features two iconic series of works by Kelly Sinnapah Mary: five large scale paintings comprising a triptych and depictions of the artist’s parents and 20 sculptures from her series “Notebook of No Return.” Sinnapah Mary grew up not knowing about her heritage as a descendant of indentured Indian workers brought to Guadeloupe. “When I was a child, I considered myself to be Afro-descendant. The story of my ancestors was never told to me – either in my family or at school,”said Sinnapah Mary. Through her art, Sinnapah Mary is able to both seek and shed light on what was missing in her own story. The artist can be found in her own works including in one of her sculptures through which she reimagines the Hindu Goddess Durga as a uniformed schoolgirl riding a tiger.
In the days to follow, the Ford Foundation’s indoor garden will feature a soundscape produced by Gosine in collaboration with Jahajee Sisters, a local New York City based gender justice organization. The collected sounds that comprise the score were the women’s responses to Gosine’s questions “What brings you joy? What brings you comfort?” To create the work, the organization produced sounds from objects reminiscent of their migration histories, including the pot spoon used to stir a carahee.
Simone Jhingoor and Shivana Jorawar, Co-Executive Directors of Jahajee Sisters said, “Indo-Caribbeans are here. We’ve been here in the US and in New York City for a very long time. Yet, we’re still not seen. Our lived experiences that sit at the intersections of multiple oppressions, including our struggles as an immigrant community, go unknown. The exhibit that Andil Gosine has curated creates visibility; it is an opening for our indelible mark on the South Asian & Caribbean diasporas to be recognized.”
‘everything slackens in a wreck’ will be open for viewing at The Ford Foundation Gallery located at 320 East 43rd Street in Manhattan on Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through August 20, 2022.
The gallery is accessible via the 4,5, 6, 7, or S subway to Grand Central Station. Main entrances are wheelchair-accessible and have power-assist doors.