Remembering the Caribbean

Presented by: Lois Weinthal, Evan Jerry

Introduction to the Project A photograph captures the history of a place and people in a single shutter frame. A captured moment reveals time, location, and cultural cues, all contributing to an overall atmosphere of place. This project titled: Remembering the Caribbean, used vintage photographs from Caribbean history ca. 1900 as a prompt for deconstructing images to understand changes to the vernacular culture. The people, details and setting in the images convey a specific time in the Caribbean where European colonization was impressed upon the local culture. The works resulted in an installation as part of a juried competition for a one-night citywide event under the umbrella theme of ‘Memory Lane’. Photograph as Visual Foundation to the Project This project began with an analysis of vintage Caribbean photographs in order to understand the origin of the people, clothing, and objects in view. From the 1500s onward, the colonial period in the Caribbean resulted in European settlers imposing their design principles onto the Caribbean islands causing an arrested development of local design. The Europeans had their motifs and designs translated into local materials keeping with the original form as possible. In contrast, this historical period made it difficult for the Caribbean people to regain their identity through design and continues to do so. Through this analysis, a greater understanding of the contrast between colonization and vernacular came to the foreground. The photographs provided a conceptual base for understanding the hybrid of two cultures. In these photographs, locals are dressed in European influenced clothing carrying hand-made woven goods showing their skills in the form of utilitarian objects made from local materials. In other examples, locals are carrying fruits representative of the landscape and wearing headscarves that speak to their heritage. Project Objectives The objective of the installation was to highlight a contrast of two cultures – Caribbean vernacular and European colonization. By constructing forms that reference the people in the images, colorful areas were assigned to the vernacular Caribbean elements (headscarves, fruits, baskets) and the European influenced clothing was represented in a neutral textile. In order to respect the people in the photographs, light was chosen as a medium to illuminate their recreated presence from the inside. Based upon the research, a clear delineation was formed where the shoulder upward was the location of color as seen through headscarves and the way men and women carried local produce. Below the shoulder was the location of neutral clothing representing the imposed European culture. The contrast in identity between the neutral and colorful helped establish the contrast and conflict between what is vernacular and colonization. The Site and Installation The installation was located in a historic landmark building constructed at approximately the same time frame that the Caribbean photographs were taken, helping form a dialogue between site and installation. The specific building chosen on the site was the staging area for horses and vehicles inside the stable. The colorful forms were constructed out of mylar, allowing color and pattern to be printed on the medium and easily transmit light with LEDs on the inside. The clothing was made from muslin using patterns that reflected those in the photographs, and was placed over a mylar substructure allowing for inner lighting to illuminate the forms. The forms were suspended on a simple steel structure that fell to the background so that the figures and their vernacular elements could come to the foreground. In the course of the one-night event, over 800 people visited the installation. Emphasis on the Caribbean allowed us to reference the city in which this installation took place as it has a history of Caribbean emigrants who have played a role in shaping the city’s identity.

References:

  • Connors, Michael. Caribbean Houses: History, Style, and Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.
  • Sussman, Eve. 89 Seconds at Alcázar, video. New York: Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, 2004.
  • Wurtley, E. J. Souvenirs of Jamaica: Notes on the Manufacture of Curiosities and other Souvenirs. Jamaica: The Gleaner Co., Limited, 1906.
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