all photos courtesy of the artist
Jacqueline Bishop's celebrated piece Tristes Tropique I (2013), exhibited in the 2014 Jamaican Biennale, is part of the artist's larger engagement with the utopic and the dsytopic, the local and the global, the image and the gaze, in representations of the island of Jamaica. In this piece, Bishop restructures and recasts portraiture as a means to engage with nature and the naturalistic in order to dialogue concerning the authorship of Caribbean subjectivity. This work is an interposition between the two parts of Bishop's A View from Afar series that I call Landscapes: Jamaica (2010-ongoing) and the Dudus Chronicles (2011), which together represent a juxtaposition of the different Jamaicas she depicts in her work. Bishop's artscapes sit in the midst of dialogic engagement between the rural and urban contexts in Jamaican society; between the gaze up close and the romantic gaze from afar; between a sense of outsiderness and insiderness, but always in a space of belonging to an island that is rimmed and defined by racialized capitalism, a legacy of colonial disequity, touristic dreams and delusions, and violent social relations that spring from its inability to reconfigure its broken economical terrain. In effect, these artscapes allow for art and politics, the abstract and the material, the analytical and the activist, to commingle and resonate through processes of unsettling accepted suppositions, conceptualizations, narratives, and edicts.
Tristes Tropique is an obvious invocation of Claude Levi-Strauss's (1955/1961) famous text, and Bishop uses the title as an evocative reminder of the melancholy and distress that undergirds Caribbean life. Levi-Strauss's work is a memoir that also becomes an ironic critique of the impact of human exegesis in forms of domination and exoticism under the prism of tourism, travel, and study. With this particular image, Bishop, like Levi-Strauss, creates a self-reflexive work that imbricates the fragility of the ecology and the place of Jamaicans within the narratology of Island life. This work, measuring 50.8 cm × 25.4 cm, is part of a new, ongoing photographic series by Bishop. The work is formed out of ripped, jagged photographs, pieced back together in odd, asymmetrical patterns, and in the midst stands a black-and-white image of a child surrounded by a mix-match of tropicality, a testament to people who are often unseen and a place that is so paradoxical. However, it is very much representative of how Bishop generates her own aesthetic form in her use of the techniques of intermedia, bricolage, and collaging, which I call “patchwork aesthetics,” a form which Bishop says derives from her foremothers who were visual artists.
In Tristes Tropique I, Bishop builds on Levi-Strauss's critique of how the indigenous are misinterpreted and elided from Western narratives by simultaneously interpolating her ancestral connectedness in the mixed media she employs and by creating a different subject view that emanates from within the photograph, welling from an iris that gently overlays, but does not obscure, the black-and-white image of the child. The outer portions of the photograph are scenes of nature, the lushness of the bush, with a ring of bright pink bougainvillea across the top; the child—a studio portrait of Jacqueline Bishop herself—sits in its midst outlined by the shape of an eye, with its looming iris (Fig. 1). Only the lower half of the child's face is seen, along with her upper torso; her eyes are obscured by the bougainvillea that blocks her view, but since she is placed in the middle of the iris, she implicates the gaze facing her. This would normally control her representation. Here, it does not. In effect, Bishop creates a visual doubling of the gaze from inside the photograph and the perception from the viewer outside that allows for a reinscription of Jamaican subjectivity. The external perspective, in looking at the photograph, may have dismissed the child by never allowing her dimensionality, but Bishop forcing her viewers to also be viewed shifts the terrain of subjectivity. By inverting subject/object positionality, Bishop represents the importance of self-definition, self-imaging, and self-imagining, especially given her insider/outsider relationship with Jamaica.
A View from Afar begins with the celebratory narrative of Jamaica in vistas of the bucolic nature of the island and hinges on the romantic gaze from near and far, in the characteristic, picturesque beauty of life in the “country,” views that tourists love. Bishop's series is about the life of the folk, but it is not folksy. So we must ask, what do these paintings say about the simple life in the country, in a little cottage made from wood, colorfully painted, sitting in an idyllic setting, surrounded by lush vegetation? Juxtaposed is the second half of the series, which highlights Bishop's exploration of the oppositional dynamic of the urban jungle, where one yard is a compound that houses many families; where, at times, flushing toilets do not exist; where one has to guard self, family, house, and possessions from all forms of forced infringement; where drugs, murder, and rape are as commonplace as the bananas sprouting off a tree in this beloved country. Bishop's images gesture to and frame a pivotal period in the recent history of Jamaica. The drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke is the subject-object, the hero-villain, whom Jamaicans simultaneously adore, excoriate, protect, and long to forget. Jamaica has more than two sides, we know, but the contrastive modes of these rural and urban scapes allow for these two emblematic realities to speak to each other through this collection in a way that they may not in the geopolitical prism of this land.
I place the series of A View from Afar and Tristes Tropique I in the overarching motif of Bishop's patchwork aesthetics due to her intertextual layering of media, image, text, color, and language to recast the narrative of belonging to the island-nation. Bishop's aesthetic style invokes so many other artists, as seen with Romare Bearden's use of mixed media, Betty Saar's assemblages, Kara Walker's silhouettes, and Carrie Mae Weems's photomontage in what Caroline Brown describes as a “revolt against discursive certainty that visual realism produces” (2012: 14). I also consider the overall trajectory of Bishop's work of diaspolitan significance, in that it interrogates the structures of power and the limits of economical, social, and national mobility, while it embeds a particularly ancestral thread—a link, even—in its aesthetic formation. I have coined the term “diaspolitan” from “re-diaspora,” a term I previously created to refer to the continual transnational movement of diasporic citizens (Sterling 2012: 346–57), those who are descendants of an already-named and often-celebrated diaspora that began with the transatlantic slave trade. They are often the children of immigrants, who traversed one diasporic space to another in search of economic betterment. The diaspolite tend to be a particularly politically conscious, knowledgeable, and most likely creative lot. Bishop's work captures the antithetical dynamics that not only define the island, but travel with the diaspolite to generate narratives of accord and discord, longing and remembrance, desire and shame, which simultaneously propels and embellishes their journeys “home” and everywhere else.
Landscapes: Jamaica stands in patent contrast to the urban unrest in the Dudus Chronicles in A View from Afar. According to Bishop,
I was looking at some of the local and global forces that gave rise to both the situation with Dudus and with Jamaica's positionality as a tourist destination. But I guess I was asking in the tourist pieces, a tourist destination for whom? Because it certainly is not that way for most Jamaicans.1
I call these portraits Landscapes: Jamaica because of the focus on views and vistas in the paintings, which, says Bishop, began creatively as an interrogation, but end up as an interpolation of the deliberate writing-out of the peoples of the Caribbean from the colonial encounter until now. The Caribbean is an invented space, constructed as a space of primal beauty, an idyllic tropical locale with amazing vegetation that borders on the surreal.2 Its original peoples were either conveniently written out of the narrative or reinvented as fossilized, childlike primitives and, of course, in the actual narrative of history, exterminated. The implantation of Africans on its shores did not change the essential image of the islands, but only of its peoples as an ignorant, idolatrous, recalcitrant lot best bred for work. The consumerism of the modern-day Caribbean is still based on the tropes of its magnificent and unparalleled combination of sun, sand, and sea that undergirds the adverts telling all to “Come to Jamaica, your new Island home,” that “It's better in the Bahamas,” where it is “Beautiful by Nature.”3 As Mimi Sheller (2003: 36) points out, these advertisements are used to sell tourists everything in the Caribbean from all-inclusive deals, cruises, time-shares, villa packages, and ecotourism getaways, emboldened by images of the bountiful rainforests, unspoiled beaches, winding falls, and greenery beyond compare—and, I would like to add, access to copious ganja and darker bodies to fulfill all your erotic fantasies. The Caribbean in its lived reality—its current state of rapid urbanism (as seen in the second part of Bishop's series), species loss, degradation of beaches, and shifting ecologies—is not the subject of these gazes (see Baver and Lynch 2006; Goodbody and Thomas-Hope 2002; UN Economic Commission 2015; Inter-American Development Bank 2015).
Bishop's Landscapes become testaments to the iconic beauty of the Caribbean, but it is a beauty that is perceived through the tourist gaze that continues to white out the social and economic deprivation under which a majority of Jamaicans live. Like Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place (1988), Bishop uses the visual to recode the tourist preoccupation with the superficial. Such a gaze, as the only sense perception, engenders consumerism and materialism and the legitimization of capitalist commodification as normal practice. The Landscapes are done on a series of wooden 12.7 cm × 17.8 cm ovals, which share a similarity of form with the Dudus Chronicles to become a storytelling moment and a commentary on the contemporary challenges Jamaicans face. These oval shapes bring to mind Victorian portraiture and framing, but that is the limit of their identification with any Western, “high” artistic form. Bishop simultaneously breaks down the ideals of portraiture, as seen in Tristes Tropique I, where the stillness of the pose and the attempt to capture the best self is effaced and blurred in the image of the child—who is the artist herself—to evoke an ethereal, otherworldly quality that is embedded in her larger artistic repertoire of engaging with nature, family and ancestry, and politics. Landscapes comprises only nine images, which could easily be transposed to the postcards that tourists buy as reminders of amazing vacations in such a beautiful country. Bishop intensifies the coloration of these images, and so the shanties, shacks, and wooden structures that she paints and places in the landscapes stand out against the lush foliage of the verdant hills, brownish-red earth, green grass, and the bluest of blue skies.
Such a suffusion of color mimics the actuality of the Caribbean day that transfixes tourists. Bishop's canvases convey this saturation of color, creating a sensory overload that mimics the tourist experience of breezing by in air-conditioned vehicles and wondering, “How can a place be so beautiful?” To this end, she uses the entire color spectrum in each image; however, she subverts this delusional narrative of Paradise Gained by using as dominant colors the red, green, and gold that are painted on shacks all over Jamaica. As the reggae group Steel Pulse, who recode Rastafari ideology in their lyrics, sang, “Red for the blood that flowed like a river, /Green is for land—Africa, /Yellow for the gold that they stole,”4 thereby placing this series in what I call an “alterstory,” the other side of history that is usually written out of accepted narratives of missions of moral good and righteousness. The color coding becomes its own alterstory of Jamaicans deconstructing their positionality in the world and their creation of alternate ideologies of belonging, not just to the island, but to the continent of Africa.
Each image tells its own story, but together they form an intertext, a collective chronicle that informs any aware traveler that these shacks that dot the Jamaican roads are not just picturesque vignettes attesting to a people's love of color. Significantly, people are missing in each image because they are not the objects of the gaze, but they are interpolated through the ephemerality of these structures. What the tourists do not see, but what is emphasized in Bishop's placement of color, is that the flimsier the shack, the more colorful the structure, as the owners paint different colors on different pieces of wood that are only nailed together to create a shell (Fig. 2). One has to wonder, do the tourists ever consider the people who live in these sweet, simple dwellings or even ask themselves, “Do they step out of their one room that contains all they possess in the world and see the lushness of their landscape? Do they think each morning as they bathe from a bucket or a pipe outside, ‘Aren't I lucky to live in paradise?’ When a hurricane blows and threatens life and limb, are they saying, ‘Come back to Jamaica?’” But these are the questions that are evoked by Bishop's sequences.
I would like to address three of the Landscapes images that (Figs. 3–5) continue the dialogic interconnection between text and image found in the Dudus Chronicles. In each, Bishop uses a preponderance of black paint on the structures to decenter the background of tropical lushness. All three images depict vendor shacks, with signs proclaiming the wares for sale: Cold Beer, Jerk Center, and Reggae CD. Blazoned on this last shack is another sign, “Future Walmart,” that highlights the consumerists' dreams and/or fears of its occupant. What these signs tell us is that these are not picturesque spaces created for the gaze of others, but centers of industry, sources of economic growth and wellbeing, of striving and determination for betterment. These dwellings are testaments to Jamaican agency and aesthetic sense. Traditionally, these one-room shacks are the homes of the rural poor who simply cannot afford more, but many a relocated Kingstonian, escaping gang violence and poverty, also built edifices like these to begin life anew. For many Jamaicans, who only have sunshine and the cast-offs of others, the landscape around them is part of their fragmentation; it is not especially lauded or considered extraordinary, it simply allows them to live with next to nothing. Bishop's intention here is to open up the discourse on these mixed-up, patched-up existences of Jamaicans on the margins, but to tell not just the age-old tale of victimhood, but also of extraordinary resilience. She is generating the visual alterstory, and her aesthetic sense and representational choices are also a part of the story.
THE URBAN SPACE: THE DUDUS CHRONICLES
From May 24-May 27, 2010, Police and Army assaulted Tivoli Gardens, one of the most (in)famous Ghettos in Kingston, leaving behind as least 74 people dead, 73 Tivoli denizens and 1 police officer, and over a thousand men were sent to detention. This was all in the attempt to extradite Jamaica's leading drug dealer, “Dudus” Coke, the “Don” of Tivoli to send to the United States. [“Don” has become the local term used to refer to gang leaders.] Dudus and his posse escaped from early on in the assault processes. However, the officials claimed that many of the dead were his gunmen, even though stories reveal that many innocent citizens were brutalized and killed, or detained and suffered under torturous conditions for days after the attack (Schwartz 2012).
The sequence of events before, during, and after the blitzkrieg is the subject of Jacqueline Bishop's Dudus Chronicles, an eight-sequence collection of images, simultaneously painted and imposed on 20.3 cm × 25.4 cm oval frames. Bishop uses these frames to recreate the story of Dudus's capture, but within the elliptical story of the African Diaspora. The frames can thus be read linearly or circularly; on a vertical or horizontal axis; as a series of parallelisms; or on an elliptical curve. I begin the reading of the Dudus Chronicles as both linear and circular, as Bishop creates two very different framings of Africa. The first painting is a map of Africa, with the edges of the Mediterranean and Islamic worlds, so close, but really so far from the continental shores (Fig. 6). This is a map of Africa in the transition from its great empires to its colonial states. It highlights trading routes around and into the continent and Europe, as well as the land bridge of the Sinai peninsula, which makes the crossing from Egypt to Jerusalem, the Euphrates River, Mecca, and all of Arabia just a walk away. The map, in shades of faded green, pink, yellow, and red, is superimposed on the canvas like a collage, a palimpsestic insertion in an overall sea of colors: greens, yellows to gold, and black—the colors of the Jamaican flag. The enduring relationship to an African origination is, of course, the flagstone of Jamaican culture. Here Bishop begins Dudus's narrative in the story of exile from a continent, in the forced removal of its people, in the earliest stages of a capitalist commodification of darker bodies, and the brutality, violence, and dehumanization that was endemic to transatlantic slavery and the replantation of African peoples in the Caribbean. This omnipresent but obscured history gestures to the logic of the next image, which is a map of the Americas and the Caribbean imposed on a sea of blues and greens, the Caribbean Sea. And at the top of the map, in the shape of an archipelago, is a newspaper cutout of parts of Dudus's story (Fig. 7).
Implicitly these paintings tell us that the level of directed violence engaged in capturing Dudus is not new—it does not occur in a void but is part of a long story of Africa and the West and the ability of imperialistic centers to batter their way to the rightness of history. When I first heard Dudus's name, I thought it so curious that this nickname is the Yoruba word for “black.” Even though no-one can say for certain where the name originated, in popular mythos it is said that Dudus got the name because he wore African-styled shirts like the Pan-African leader Dudley Thompson.5 However, I could not help but think that, like so many words in patwah (the language of the Jamaican nation)—nyam for “eat,” bise for “kola nut,” or dokunnu for “boiled pudding”—“Dudus” was a transliteration of Africa in Jamaica. In the accepted histories, we only get partial knowledge, the knowledge that emboldens the conquest. This alterstory is not Bishop celebrating Dudus; rather, she is telling the Jamaican version of the narrative, even when her gaze is from afar.
In the same way that the drug lord Pablo Escobar was given the moniker “Robin Hood” because of his philanthropy in building hospitals and housing for the poor and taking care of his people (Pobutsky 2013),6 Dudus was the quintessential Jamaican badman, the gangster turned hero, whom the denizens in the ghetto-yards of Tivoli Gardens simultaneously loved, respected, and feared. This love of the badman may have begun in slavery, because in narratives by white authors, the good, obedient slaves—the Uncle Toms in the United States, the Pai Joãs in Brazil—were the celebrated lot, but the Jamaican narrative celebrates the rebellious and revolutionary leaders like Cuffees, Sam Sharpe, and Paul Bogle. These were not leaders who roused choruses of “We shall overcome some day” or used the phrase,“Turn the other cheek” in response to the violence done to them; rather, they met violence with violence. No doubt Django, of the movie Django Unchained (2012)—if he had indeed existed—would today have a statue in downtown Kingston. The specific badman trope became popular through the movie The Harder They Come (1972), which told the story of gangster Ivanhoe Martin, based on a real character of that name from the 1940s. In this film, Jamaicans saw themselves: their incredible poverty and struggles against forces of oppression and repression in the state. Reggae pervaded the film and began its global transition there, and patwah was its language. When Ivanhoe died in a blaze of guns, it affirmed a message of death over slavery manifested in this neocolonial sufferation.
Dudus was primus inter pares among Kingstonian gangsters, the Don among Dons, and he ruled Tivoli with an iron fist. It was common knowledge that an eye for eye was the rule of law. If someone stole, his arm would be broken; if he raped, he was beaten near to death; and murder would only end one way unless it was by the Don's order. It was said that murder rates dropped to zero during Dudus's reign (Jaffe 2012: 85). Tivoli was so safe that each Wednesday night it had a dance on the streets called passa passa, where the locals would dress up, form groups, and compete with each other over the best dancehall styles. In fact, tourists would bus into Tivoli on Wednesdays to watch the dancers. It was an amazing scene: buses of foreign tourists disembarking in the middle of the night or early morning in one of the worst ghettos on the island to watch what had become one of the most riveting live performances by the youth. The Don would ride through in a darkened vehicle around 4 or 5 am. The music would stop, the dancers still themselves as the vehicle snaked through the street, and then they would line up to greet the Don as he extended a hand through a half-opened window. One never saw Dudus during these drive/crawl-bys, but the power was visceral because nothing else would stop this youth force, as passa passa continued through the early morning with dancing in the midst of traffic.
Bishop's following two frames attest to how much the people of Tivoli supported Dudus. In one, a woman's face, taken from newspaper clippings, is imposed on a pink and yellow background; in the other, with a red and gold background, protesters raise arms in the air, reminiscent of the gesture for black power, with the title of an article clipped from the Jamaica Observer saying, “Search for Dudus” (Figs. 8–9). Dudus received unconditional support from both the people of Tivoli and the government. It is easy to understand why Tivoli residents supported him. In a country that has almost no welfare system, no real social security, and few jobs for the poor, the Don took over the functions of the state. Dudus set up a social security system where residents could apply for financial help and for health and education benefits, a justice system that held local trials, and provided employment for the residents. He even paid the costly electricity charges for Tivoli residents (Jaffe 2012: 85, Schwartz 2012). Bishop's pieces highlight the period when Tivoli residents came out on the streets and launched protests against Dudus's extradition. In an article in The New Yorker, reporter Mattathias Schwartz (2013) wrote about a protest in which thousands of Tivoli women walked with placards expressing statements like, “After God, Dudus Comes Next!” and “Jesus Die for Us. We Will Die for Dudus!” Bishop's use of pinks, reds, and yellows applies to this combination of force and femininity, as she highlights the faces of these women either in mid-shout or staring purposefully ahead. What she does not address is how the prime minister of the country, Bruce Golding, delayed Dudus's extradition and even hired a law firm to lobby the US government, until increased pressure from the United States, which even involved revoking the visas of Jamaica officials, forced him to fully comply (Schwartz 2013). The power of the US government was so ubiquitous that many plane flights to Jamaica were canceled. I remember trying to get a flight during that period to Montego Bay. I could not find one that was going directly; they all would have taken me between seventeen and twenty-four hours to get to an island that is only three-and-a-half hours away. This may well explain the bit of disbelief in these two frames, and Bishop's “Why?” registers in her focusing less on the individuals and rather on the acts of protest.
Kingston is divided into the hills and the downtown. The hills are home to the Jamaican middle class and the rich and are dotted with magnificent houses and townhouses. They were also color-coded, as the wealthier sectors house lighter-skinned or brown-skinned Jamaicans. The ghettoes are for the poor, black masses. Tivoli, in particular, was created from a mud-and-wattle slum through the direct intervention of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga (who later teamed with Dudus's father, the Don of his time, Lester Lloyd Coke, known as “Jim Brown”), and it became a bastion of support for the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). Gang politics ensued from the 1980s on, and these slums became “garrison communities” whose populations swore loyalty to either the JLP or the People's National Party (PNP) (Jaffe 2012: 84–85). So people would and did die for Dudus, and the irony of Dudus's arrest on the outskirts of Kingston becomes the subject of the next three images in Bishop's series.
The background of the first of these images is painted in variegated pinks that gesture to the feminization and reduction of Dudus's status during his capture. It features a black-and-white image of Dudus in the wig in which he was captured, juxtaposed on an abridged image of Africa. On June 22nd, the great Don, dressed as a woman, was sitting in car, allegedly attempting to reach the US Embassy, when he was identified and arrested. With his five-foot four-inch, slightly rotund frame, Dudus could have easily passed for a woman during the month the police and military sought to capture him (Fig. 10). A Dudus in drag is easily a tropic reminder of the trickster figure Anancy, who uses guile and deception to manipulate the gullible, lie, cheat, and even shift genders to gain any advantage in an oppressive system.7 Anancy stories originate with the Akan people in West Africa and are meant to uphold the Akan moral and social order, but they changed in Jamaica's slave society. The Jamaican Anancy, as characterized by Emily Zobel Marshall (2009: 126–50), is much more aggressive, even violent, and definitely ruthless,8 yet he cunningly employs his capacity for disruption and confusion to undermine any domination by others and to assert his own power and agency. At the height of his influence, Dudus mimicked Anancy's subversive capacity as a figure of the crossroads between life and death and a symbol of psychological and actual resistance; and while Anancy is often cruel, he helps those who can help him. Yet Dudus's feminization is also in conversation with Africa's loss of power, as the Africa we see in Bishop's image is, significantly, missing its curvilinear extensions on both its west and east laterals. The continent's reduced form, with Dudus imposed on it, speaks of both the fragmentation of identity of diasporic citizens and the belaying of power. Dudus's transition from a heroic, iconized subject to an imprisoned and caricatured object becomes complete in the next two frames.
The first is of Dudus in the standard pose of surrender, with his hands on his head, obviously under arrest. Behind Dudus, in the background of the painting, is a disembodied face hovering and watching (Fig. 11). Whether the face is meant to be emblematic of the masses who supported him, the ancestral forces to whom we are all linked, or even his father, who died in a fire in Tower Street Correctional Center in Kingston while awaiting extradition, is left for the viewer to determine. In this frame of blues and whites, Dudus is painted over in white, made into a ghostly figure, a mere figment of power or the desires of the poor to have representation in the island nation. The second frame begins a reversal in the journey we have taken; centered in the frame is a circular return, which takes us back to a map of the Caribbean. It is a course of visual memory ruptured by slavery, colonization, and now the pandemic violence of the neocolonial state. Dudus, pictured in custody in the upper right, is in opposite alignment to a series of words or sentences placed upside down and backwards in the bottom left, just like the world he comes from and the world he inhabits. Also placed in the formation of an archipelago, this graphotype is impossible to read and understand, much like the incomprehension of an outsider who reads about the Dudus saga (Fig. 12). How can a drug dealer hold a nation hostage? Why does the US military employ strategies of surveillance and lend its military power to assault poor people on a small island-nation? Why does it need to stop the movement of Jamaicans in and out of their homeland? What power does it derive from the continued destabilization of a region that cannot really sustain itself? This series seems to be about Dudus, but Bishop's alterstory tells us so much more about Jamaica's positionality, both past and present, in the story of world power.
The last frame brings us back to Africa, but an Africa transformed, an Africa informed by the miasma of its children in the Caribbean. But more than one Africa is on this frame. An Africa with a newspaper clipping imposed on it, about violence perpetuated by security forces in Jamaica, is painted in blues on top of an old map of Africa pasted to the frame. Each image on top of the other is a layering of history, an intersubjective discourse on the question of nations, of domains, and of the belonging of peoples (Fig. 13). Ending and beginning with images of Africa, it often gestures to a symbolic return, especially from the diasporic perspective of an imagined Africa to reinstitute the past and generate a hopeful future. Yet Bishop's Dudus Chronicles becomes a patchwork, a piecing together of the silences of history and the refusal of dialogue, which leads to a reminder that the visual and the visible do not always connect in the reality of geopolitical space.
“Piecing” means the sewing together of small fragments of fabric cut into geometric shapes, so that they form a pattern … “patchwork” is the joining of these design units into an overall design. The assembled patches are then attached to a heavy backing with either simple or elaborate stitches in the process called quilting. Thus the process of making patchwork quilt involves three stages of artistic composition, with analogies to language use first on the level of sentence, then in terms of the structure of a story or novel, and finally the images, motifs, or symbols … that unify a fictional work (Showalter 1999: 39).
The similarity of construction in both sequences of A View from Afar and Tristes Tropique I is recognizable and disorientating at the same time. The patchwork motif informs Bishop's creativity as she uses this type of remnant, piecework, multiple-frame texts, and images not only to depict the stories of fragmentation of the Jamaican populace, but also as an intrinsic form in her aesthetic development and consciousness. In an interview, Bishop told me that she learned quilting from her grandmother and found out that she was from a long line of foremothers who were visual artists. In fact, Bishop has been working with patchwork, creating a series of quilts in her Conversation Series and Odes to Mountains of Jamaica (Sterling 2010) in which she simultaneously lauds the beauty of her district—Nonsuch in Portland—and praises the creative vistas of her foremothers. In a quilt made as a homage to her grandmother, Bishop also centers and decenters imagery by placing photographs of her grandmother in the middle of the piece (Fig. 14). Its outer edges, constructed from multiple strips of green cloth, mimic the verdant, mountainous landscape that inspires her. Whereas Tristes Tropique I comments on narratives of and about Jamaica, Bishop allows this piecing together to be an evocation of the lasting connection between the living and the dead, of how ancestry is key to her creativity, and how the preservation of living memory works within Caribbean subjectivity in remnants, scraps, and patches that would only be discarded in a more materialist, commodified space.
Naming an area “Nonsuch” deserves its own exploration, which we simply cannot do in this article. Yet imagine the aesthetic arc that must inform an artist like Jacqueline Bishop, coming from a place called Nonsuch to becoming a diaspolite, whose transnational movements are ordinary and everyday. Such transnationalism is found within the scope of intellectual inquiry, cultural knowledge, and travel not just from one country to another, but one continent to another, to live, to work, to think, to be. It is informed by multi-linguistic abilities that allow for interaction on more than a cursory level with other cultures and peoples, but it is also formed from a sense of identity that comes from her sense of belonging to a home world. It is important to understand that the diaspolite is not the cosmopolitan, who eschews home for a rarified elite stratum that bonds on purportedly universal humanistic values—values that have been configured by white elites across time, that demand one conform to their measure, their aesthetic sense, their logic of human interaction, their codings of history, and their codings of art. Nor is the diaspolite the Afropolitan, who similarly longs for affirmation of a rarified existence as an elite transnational product of Africa who can go anywhere. The diaspolite takes home with her, but home is configured from not only the nation of immediate origins, like Jamaica or Panama or Peru, or the nation she lives in, which is often a western metropole, but also an ancestral connection to a source history coming from Africa. The diaspolite has a deeply centered sense of self from her positioning of home that allows her to interact, appreciate, be a part of other cultural selves, lives, and places without disturbing her center or her sense of authority over the way she constructs, deconstructs, and interacts with the world. This is what is found in Jacqueline Bishop's art and it becomes important to understand, as the aesthetic that informs her creativity is marginalized in the world of art.
Quilting, or patchwork as it is called in Jamaica, is the work of women and is still considered folk art. The recuperation of the quilting tradition in the art world as textual herstory, as homage to the inventiveness of women, as record of a cultural and political past is only recent, especially with the acclaim given to quilters from past to present like Harriet Powers and Faith Ringgold. However, in Jamaica, the tradition is still little known, and in this way, Jacqueline Bishop is pioneering the placement of patchwork on the national stage. If we are to use the terminology of naïve art because of the techniques that Bishop employs—i.e., her use of photography, wood, the size of the works, the paper/canvas collaging, her saturation and piecing together of color—it would be reductive. The famous linguist and cultural historian Olabiyi Yai (1999: 32–35, 39) points out the patronizing connotation of the term “naïve art,” as it is used mainly to refer to works of formerly enslaved or colonized peoples. The art world is more deeply stratified than this particular oppressed/oppressor paradigm; it depends on codifications and classifications, and Bishop's postmodern palimpsestic approach to art in her use of the techniques of intermedia, bricolage, and collaging is harder to classify. Nonetheless, I term her work “patchwork aesthetics” because of the ways in which she pieces together the fragments that address her creative scope, to do what Elaine Showalter (1999) refers to as the “telos of patchwork” to tell a unified story.
This patchwork aesthetics has its beginnings in the back-stitching that Bishop's grandmother taught her, which has a larger trajectory in the logic that the enslaved brought with them from across the waters. The most obvious rendering of the tradition is through the character of Pitchy Patchy within the Jonkonnu masquerade tradition that takes place at Christmas time. The Pitchy Patchy costume is made from layers of brightly colored, sewn cloth that covers the masquerader from head to toe. While Pitchy Patchy may have some European resonances, it is dominantly considered a remnant of Jamaicans' African past. Its site of origin in West Africa is debatable, however, as it has remarkable resemblence to the Yoruba Egungun, Fon masqueraders, and even Sande masks, but it is an affirmed invocation of the ancestors and its significance as a warder of the negative forces of the dead exists across diasporic spaces (see Bilby 2010; Harrison 2008: 93–95; Nicholls 2012: 11–12).9 However, the dominant cultural carryovers from Africa in Jamaica are from the Akan people in present-day Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, and a lesser but extremely significant one is from the Mande peoples, who inhabit the areas of Senegambia, Mali, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Within these traditions men were the cloth makers. Most of the cloth was woven in brightly colored strips sewn together to make a larger cloth that was then tied around the body. Everyone can now recognize Akan kente cloth, with its richly striped patterns pieced together. To add to our visual codex, Robert Farris Thompson (1984) points out the “visual aliveness” and vibrancy of Mande textiles, in which the aesthetic sense demanded that the colors deliberately clash, that various patterns and narrow strips are joined together. In what he calls “rhythmized textiles,” Thompson tells us that “as multiple meter distinguishes the traditional music of black Africa, emphatic multistrip composition distinguishes the cloth of West Africa and culturally related Afro-American sites” (1984: 209–10). Naturally, slave societies re-coded women's work in its own logic, and so women became the seamstresses and, by extension, the producers of textile art.
Bishop is a deeply committed artist who, in inheriting the ways of making art from her foremothers, transforms her aesthetic legacy into different series of multimedia engagements that complement her social activist position. Her overarching motif of Tristes Tropique hinges on that engagement with the political, but it is also an engagement with the sensory in its profusion of color, image, and text layered on top and beside each other to create her patchwork aesthetics. Patchwork patterns are more noticeable in Landscapes: Jamaica, as each piece of color on each wooden board, on each shack, could easily be a piece of cloth joined to form a quilt, a story, a particular story of the lived experience of the Jamaican underclass. However, it is also apparent in her use of color in the Dudus Chronicles; her layering of newspaper clippings, photographs, and maps comes from a sense of arrangement that understands that the affective end of such layering is a sense of movement, a contrastive highlight that recodes and almost hyberbolizes moments of reality to allow for their deconstruction.
Jamaica is apprehended and depicted as an island-nation, famed for its transcendent beauty and marked by its amazing geography: its translucent waters, its white (but, slowly, increasingly brown) beaches; its food and climate; its not-always-so-nice people, but always, its abundant ganja. It is the home of reggae, Rastafari, and Bob Marley. Tourists love this view and it is often represented in the longings of the diaspolite, who reconstructs an idyllic island home. But this is not Jacqueline Bishop's vision, and as she says:
I guess for me Jamaica is the beautiful terrible place. The place of longing and loss. The natural beauty of Jamaica is beyond compare and so are the people and the cultural products. But our history has its traumatic and that trauma is ongoing and often turned on one's self and manifested against others in the most cruel and inhuman ways. That's my understanding of Jamaica.10
Jamaica, along with its famed beauty, is also the home of Dudus Coke; the home of an underclass that only gets inclusion in the national discourse when they are represented by the “badman.” It is a state that often cannot and does not take care of its people, where basic services are doled out according to relations of clientism, where the welfare of its people is paid for by drug dealing, and the poor are really given no choice but to die for their Don. This is the present day Tristes Tropique.
Jacqueline Bishop, personal communication, 2017.
This is the logo on all the advertisements for Turks and Caicos.
This title of this Steel Pulse song is “Worth His Weight in Gold” and is a homage to Marcus Garvey.
See Paul 2010 for an explanation of the connection between Dudus and Dudley Thompson.
Pobutsky (2013) extends the analysis of how Pablo Escobar was heroicized in popular fiction to encompass other drug lords like Chapo Guzman.
See the story “Annancy in Crab Country” (Jekyll 2005: 70–73), where Anancy cross-dresses in a long black frock and pretends to be a preacher to trap the crabs. He brings his friends to form a congregation, has them play music, and baptizes them to gain the trust of the crabs. When the crabs agree to be baptized, he does so in boiling water and finally gets the meal he wanted from the beginning.
In Jamaica, the trickster's name is spelled Anancy and in Ghana, Anansi.
These authors focus on the African roots of the Jonkonnu and Pitchy Patchy. Bilby (2010) uses the term Jankunu, but points out its other referents like John Canoe, Jonkonnu, Junkanoo, and John Kuner.
Jacqueline Bishop, personal communication, 2017.