With a communal history of being “discovered” through Euro-American colonialism, the Caribbean bears the geographic memory of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. Even after the abolition of slavery, Euro-American colonization continued through extraction of resources. The Caribbean, therefore, is in a unique position to help understand the afterlife of colonization and how it shapes the global response to climate change.
For artists from and working in the Caribbean, climate change threatens to eradicate not only the archipelagic landscape, but also the cultural memories of those communities. For example, Deborah Jack, Anina Major, and Leanne Russell draw on the Caribbean landscape by redressing the trauma of colonial extraction.
This ongoing extraction by multiple countries (sometimes on the same island) created schisms across identity and communities that defined what scholar Édouard Glissant called an “archipelagic thinking.” For Glissant, the unpredictability and multiplicity of the Caribbean were distinctively tied to its history and geography; now, those same traits are the building blocks for thinking critically about restoration in an environment whose future feels uncertain.
For Jack, Major, and Russell, their work is an opportunity to show audiences a lived experience of the Caribbean that maintains its cultural memory. Their work challenges the images of the Caribbean as purely a tourist destination environment. These artists use photography, ceramics, and installation to create works that layer ecological trauma (both metaphorical and literal) with the impact of colonialism on climate change, while pointing to alternative, possible, futures of survival for the next generation.
As we celebrate Earth Day, and look at ways that artists consider the environment in their work, Artsy highlights three artists who reference the Caribbean in their practice to unearth fresh conversations on climate change.
B. 1981, Nassau, the Bahamas. Lives and works in New York.
Portrait of Anina Major by Melissa Alcena, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Anina Major is an artist working in installation and sculpture, primarily through the medium of ceramics. Her work examines the memory of the land, in particular how it can trigger personal memories, creating a never-ending examination between self and place. By using craft techniques, Major hopes to reclaim and rebuild experiences by evoking displaced objects into her ceramic forms. “There is a poetic parallel between my work and lived experiences; moments of vulnerability placed under challenging circumstances evolving to a permanent, yet fragile state,” she said. “The ceramic process, as a metaphor, lends itself beautifully to these feelings of loss and gain.”
Major likens cultural memory to ecological memory. Having lived in an extreme low-elevation coastal zone, where the coast is always in danger of shifting, Major is well aware of the immediate threat and changes of climate change. In her work, Major turns to preserving cultural practices of those communities that are in danger of disappearing, practices that she believes are just as important as the biological and infrastructural concerns. This can be seen in her intricately woven, pleated ceramic sculpture jars that incorporate both the body and the landscape into their visual identity.
“Every year, I witness the straw work made by my grandmother deteriorate and can’t help but notice the metaphorical parallels between this object and threats of dissolution posed by the impact of climate change on my cultural heritage. Intimate objects created with love and care from a variety of locally-grown, biodegradable palms and plants, serve as tangible evidence of a nurtured kinship with our African ancestors and our close relationship to the land,” she said.
B. 1970, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Lives and works in New York.
Portrait of Deborah Jack, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
Deborah Jack works across video, collage, and photography to evoke the haunting side of Caribbean ecology. She does this by making images of storms, coastlines, and nature to emphasize how the shore is an ongoing site of departure and arrival, and “a place of embrace and erosion,” as she put it. Jack incorporates her childhood memory of Sint Maarten (where she was raised) with the larger colonial history of the island to examine how one’s cultural experience of the land is shaped by historical factors.
For example, her 2018 media installation Drawn by Water Sea Drawings in 3 Acts, Act One Wait/Weight on the Water examines the shared vulnerabilities created by climate change across geographic zones by overlaying footage of the tide on different coastlines in Sint Maarten and Scheveningen in the Netherlands onto one another. This approach to artmaking emphasizes that climate change will impact everyone, no matter where they are in the global socioeconomic hierarchy.
Having grown up with hurricanes before the advent of the Weather Channel, Jack described how her community had to rely on changes occurring in the air and the water to sense a storm approaching, which she describes as an invaluable way of learning to feel nature in order to be responsive to it. It is this embodied feeling that Jack injects into her immersive media installations. “All these experiences with nature during my formative years now intersect in my practice. [I am] thinking about what memories are embedded in the landscape and wanting to create a visual mythology around that,” she said.
“I think that [seeing] the climate apocalypse as inevitable is a function of white supremacist capitalism that believes that the world ends with them. However, we in the region have gone through several apocalyptic events and we are still here,” Jack said. “We have the power to imagine a different existence as opposed to ending.”
B. Nassau, the Bahamas. Lives and works in Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, the Bahamas.
Russell’s practice uses photography to map out generations of memory across the Caribbean. She achieves this by superimposing archival images of her home island, Green Turtle Cay (part of the Abaco islands), with contemporary images to highlight the significant ecological changes that have occurred over the past century, while also paying attention to the folklore that still survives.
Green Turtle Cay is considered a “family island” of the Bahamas, far from its capital of Nassau and thus more rural. Russell uses her work to examine how an island nation (like the Bahamas) can have its own dislocated island sites that can be overlooked, when need-based aid is dispersed following a hurricane or other climate catastrophe. Following Hurricane Dorian, which severely impacted the Bahamas, Russell began overlapping archival images from the Great Hurricane of 1932 with her firsthand photographs from Dorian and its aftermath. “The work speaks to the commonality of those two cataclysmic events, and how, eerily, nothing has changed in almost 80 years,” she said.
“Many people never come face-to-face with the effects of climate change. For people in the Caribbean and island countries in general, climate change and global warming are real life issues that affect daily lives, and threaten their future and the future of their island homes. We see the tides ebb and flow on a daily basis and feel the effects of them as sea level rises and storms become bigger and stronger,” she said. “While the science of climate change rings true globally, it is small, island, developing states such as the Bahamas that are on the front lines of climate-change disasters, but are powerless to reverse the crisis via their own efforts.”