Here is part 2 of my extended interview with poet and artist Jacqueline Bishop (you can read part 1 here):
VP: Your involvement in quilt making has broader implications for your work and some have used the term “patchwork aesthetic” to describe it. Could you explain this with some examples? And please tell us about your Conversations and Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica series.
JB: I think that at its best critics can help us as artists (writers and visual artists) to understand what our preoccupations are. In a sense no one will ever know my work as intimately as I do, because I after all make these works. But someone outside of myself might be able to see and point out something that I did not see. And so it was with Cheryl Sterling’s article on my work “Jacqueline Bishop Jamaica Views, Frames, Vistas and Images” (Wasafiri Issue no 81, Spring 2015). In her article Sterling talked about the “…remnant, piecework, multiple frames, texts and images” in my work and suddenly I started to see the patchwork aesthetic in my photographs and paintings.
In four untitled quilts that I made recently, one for my great grandmother, one for my grandmother, one for my mother, and one for myself, you can see not only the familial dialogue at work in these quilts but the patchwork and piecing aesthetic that I am pulling directly from my great grandmother and my grandmother. This work arises from another body of work, “Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica,” in which I focused on the landscape of my troubled but beloved homeland of Jamaica. The untitled quilts are paying homage to the women in my life who gave me the skills and the sensibility that I now have as both a writer and a visual artist.
The colours used in the untitled quilts are deliberate. I started the group out with the small dark woman, my great grandmother, described by many as fiery, and who was not a woman to be joked with at all. She was fierce and fiercely protective and loving of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all of whom she considered her blessings in life. The overwhelming red colour used in the quilt is a reference to her fiery disposition. But because of how she physically looked and because we are from Portland and not far from Moore Town there were always whispers that my great grandmother and her people were Maroons, and that too plays into the colour used in her quilt. If you look closely you will see that the centre of all the untitled quilts have a central image that I collage in Photoshop and had printed onto fabric and used in the quilts. In the image of my great-grandmother, she has a map of the Caribbean collaged with her face to indicate the central position of power of women in Caribbean societies.
For my grandmother I used the colour green because she was a farmer and was always growing something. Green too was always reminiscent of the mountains of the district of Nonsuch. My grandmother’s quilt then pays homage to green and growing things. I put my mother in various shades of blue (again thinking of the mountains of Nonsuch and the blue mountains of Jamaica) but also because of the ocean that surrounds the island of Jamaica. If you look closely at the central image of my mother in her quilt she is collaged with one of the tiny islands — Navy island — off the coast of Portland, but that island is also the island that those of us who have migrated carry with us at all times, and is really a stand-in for the island of Jamaica. The quilt I made for myself is of course in purple that colour being a result of all the other colours combined. In my quilt I am a child and the words heritage on African textiles used in the quilt pays homage to my African Diasporic heritage. These four untitled quilts are a direct outgrowth of the quilts from the “Conversation Series” and “Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica” body of works.
The “Conversation Series” are quilts that myself, my great grandmother and grandmother made. As I have stated before I would come to have, after my great grandmother died, a series of quilts that she had made during her life. Spectacular quilts. Bold in colour, composition and design. A strong indication of who this woman was and what she thought of and how she lived life; what she thought was beautiful. But here and there some of the quilts were in need of repair; and one or two of them unfinished: I was only too happy to complete the quilts that were uncompleted and to repair the ones in need of repair. In so doing I had a strong sense that, again, I was having a conversation with my great grandmother; trying as best I could to stick to her aesthetic sense, even as I sought to insist on some of her/our quilts, my own aesthetic sense. I loved the piecing of things together; of trying to make something whole out of pieces; of something old taking on new life; of one thing becoming another; of making so much beauty out of the scraps of life. As these works were exhibited and I had to answer more and more questions about them I talked to my grandmother and she too, my grandmother, ended up making and sending to me, five gorgeous quilts. These quilts of my grandmother and great grandmother’s and my various interventions on these quilts became the basis of “The Conversation Series”.
By the time I finished working on my grandmother’s and great grandmother’s quilts I was hooked. This was at a time when I was looking for a way to pay homage to my great grandmother and to my troubled but beautiful homeland of Jamaica. The “Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica” series consists of nine blue, green and purple quilts in which I am responding to the landscape of Jamaica. And what did I miss more than the flora and fauna of Jamaica—the legendary mountains. Those dark blue mountains. Those purple-blue mountains. Those emerald green mountains. Because I am also a poet, I wanted to pay tribute to the mountains in the form of poems. Praise poems. Odes. A form that elevates the person, the object, the occasion. Which, of course, are what the quilts in the series, “Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica”, are to me: A celebration of the landscape of my homeland even as they are a celebration of the creative life of my great grandmother and grandmother who are both now one with the mountains of my troubled but beautiful homeland.
VP: I am, because of the work by you we have had in our recent Biennials, most familiar with your photographic digital collages. There seem to be three major elements in these collages: Jamaica’s mountain landscape, flowers, and photographs of family members. Please talk about the significance of each of these elements and how they work together to convey your thematic and aesthetic concerns? How do you make these collages, manually, digitally, or some combination thereof? And how does your technique compare to the traditional quilt-making process?
JB: I think the landscape and family photographs connect me back to Jamaica, and may also be a response to being an immigrant since I have lived in the United States for several years now. In working with the Jamaican landscape and with family photographs I get to be back on the island and to be with loved family members. The flowers are also a nudge to femininity and womanhood since as with my literary works I am particularly preoccupied with telling women’s stories.
But these photographs, particularly the floral and landscape photographs are about something additional as well. I use the flowers as a means of identifying myself as Caribbean, as Jamaican, but also they, like the landscape are used to engage some of the common tropes, maybe even clichés of the Caribbean, that has to do with tourism, the tourist eye, exoticism and what I am calling tropicalism. What is particularly interesting to me about these ideas is that they do not negate (for me) the absolute beauty of the Jamaican landscape and Caribbean flowers. So they carry multiple meanings.
There are several ways in which I make these works. For a long time when I was still using film I would try to print one negative over another. Then Photoshop came along and I found that I could collage digital images easier in Photoshop. Lately, what I have been doing is tearing apart different photographs and reassembling them into collages that I then photograph and, in a series of paintings, I have actually collaged images onto canvas and then painted onto the canvas. It took me a long time and only after critics pointed it out to me for me to realize how indebted my work is to the patchwork tradition of my grandmother and my great grandmother. These days when I look at my work I can see more clearly now the patch-working, quilting, montaging, collaging that goes into my photography, painting, drawing pieces. To my mind, these processes are indistinct from the patchwork making that I still do and that my grandmother and great grandmother did.
VP: Memory is central to your work, it seems, and so is family and place. Please tell us more about these themes, with regards to your art and your literary work?
JB: I think all of the themes above are linked and is related to the fact that I am an immigrant artist and that I came to my professional career as an artist outside of the island of Jamaica and while living in different places (the United States, France, and Morocco in particular). In so many ways, as an artist I seem to be looking back at Jamaica and that would partially explain why memory, family and place is so central to my work.
VP: You are a “writer who paints and a painter who writes,” to paraphrase the title of a 2007 Peepal Tree Press anthology that featured your work. There is a fertile but at times often problematic relationship between literature and art – problematic among others because the literary world tends to have a reductive view of art as illustration. How do you see the relationship between the two, particularly with regards to your own work?
JB: Great question! Where to begin in answering this question? I feel like both sides of myself are sitting at opposite ends of a table looking at each other. One of the most illuminating conversation that I have had with someone on this topic is with Donna Weir-Soley who is herself both a writer and a visual artist and she said to me that for her, the visual arts function in a place where words fail her. I thought that was pretty interesting. Of course writers are loath to admit that words and language can fail in any circumstance but I think Weir-Soley might be on to something here.
When I lost my grandmother I found that I had no words to describe what her life and her loss meant to me. Because I am the writer in the family naturally everyone turned to me to write the eulogy and I found myself wondering, how do you encapsulate an entire life in so few pages? Even if the few pages had turned into a book I would not know how to do that. The best representation of her life I felt were the patchworks she made and we hung during her funeral services.
What I am saying is that the visual arts, like poetry, functions largely in the symbolic. Things are not laid out for you like they tend to be in a novel per se. And that might be the challenge of the visual arts, particularly so for those who you rightfully point out tend to see it as too reductive. But I have to tell you that the reductiveness goes in both directions because I cant begin to tell you how many times in art school that fellow students and even faculty would write things that they were calling poems and short stories that, to my eyes, were anything but. Poetry is particularly abused in art school. So this reductiveness is an idea that cuts both ways.
VP: Finally, to return to the conversation we had some time ago: what are your views on women’s art in the Jamaican context, and the social and racial dynamics that surround it? What are in your view the untold stories in Jamaican art that need to be uncovered?
I have spent a lot of time listening to women artists in Jamaica and interviewing several of these artists and what I have found is a reluctance to look at issues of gender and particularly issues of race and class in Jamaican art. This is just a conversation, for whatever reason, we are not prepared to have at this time. It is true that many Jamaican women artists tell me that they feel they are given the exact same treatment as male artists on the island, and, indeed they often point out prominent female artists in or from the island. But what I find missing from this discussion is the class and oftentimes colour and racial privilege these artists enjoy and which has helped them attain the positions that they now have inside and outside of Jamaica, their immense talents notwithstanding. For the record, I place myself squarely in the same position of many of the female artists that I am critiquing. I grew up working class, which, though not middle class, set me up to be able to take advantage of the educational and other institutional support that I have been privileged to receive so far.
What exactly do I mean by this? Had my mother not migrated to the United States and subsequently “send for me” I don’t know if I would have had the chance to professionalize my art practice. I see the exact same thing going on in Jamaica and there is a feeling that if we talk about the ways in which coming from a certain class (and indeed racial background in Jamaica) sets one up to have a successful career in the arts this somehow negates all the hard work that goes into being an artist, which I do not feel it does. But we are reluctant to look at this and name it for what it really is. As a friend of mine said to me recently, trying to have a discussion about colour and particularly class privilege in Jamaica is as difficult as trying to have a discussion about racial privilege in the United States.
I think if we want to figure out the covered-up stories in Jamaican art we are going to have to do two things. Firstly, we will need to have that uncomfortable discussion that we don’t want to have and which leads to art being considered “for some people” and not others which is really a class-based discussion. And, we will have to challenge and interrogate what exactly is visual and other forms of art. Maybe we might also need to pay more attention to the sharp and pointed distinctions often made between fine art and craft.
For me the visual culture of Jamaica is very rich, beginning with our stunning landscape. My mouth drops open time and time again when I drive across the island at how beautiful the entire place is, and I remember the late writer Wayne Brown saying to me once, the irony of Jamaica is that such terrible things can happen in such a beautiful place!
But apart from the landscape the actual things that Jamaicans make (and made) is (and was) just quite rich. Let’s take up the subject of material culture, for example. So much gets wrapped up in that term but here at least the visual art becomes more expansive. Cooking, for example, becomes a performance and visual art form. I am really waiting for the day when Jamaican food gets an exhibition. A friend of mine, a photographer, just introduced me to some gorgeous sign-paintings that a man was making and I ended up purchasing some. So signage and sign painting are another form. From my childhood I remember some really amazing carts that peddlers would push around and the murals on walls and in bars and saloons.
And then there was the fashion that came out of dancehall culture, before everybody started looking like everybody else and wearing so-called name brand clothes. The tailors and dress makers that would make these clothes! I think the early outfits of people like Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton by themselves would make an excellent exhibition and would be a remarkable display of the dexterity and ingenuity — indeed the artistry — of tailors and dressmakers that we are in the process of loosing on the island. Dancehall culture itself, particularly early dancehall culture and what it produced (as opposed to the trained artists who work on it and represent it) with its clothing, its signage, its magnificent dresses and its gorgeous wigs and how this all impacted the larger world is an exhibition just waiting to happen and to travel the world. Dancehall’s impact has been so tremendous! Dancehall culture though is largely its music and, these days, sound and music is becoming a visual art form, so that too is an area worth exploring.
In addition to which there is also many iterations of fibre arts, including patchwork making and mat making, that, to these eyes qualify as art. If indeed, we want to answer the problematic question of what the enslaved took to Jamaica and made in Jamaica, and particularly the female enslaved as we go in search of, to quote Alice Walker, “Our Mother’s Garden”, and the possible reverberations of these in today’s Jamaica (i.e. the silences, absences and erasures in Jamaican art) material culture is where we will have to look.
JACQUELINE BISHOP is an award-winning writer and visual artist born in Jamaica, who now lives and works in New York City. She has twice been awarded Fulbright Fellowships, including a year-long grant to Morocco. Her work exhibits widely in North America, Europe and North Africa. She teaches in Liberal Studies at New York University; and is the author of The Gymnast & Other Positions, which won the 2015 Bocas Award, nonfiction, among other books. She writes a monthly column on visual arts for the Huffington Post. Visit her website at http://www.jacquelineabishop.com
All photographs in this post are courtesy and copyright of Jacqueline Bishop, all rights reserved; the copyright for the text is shared between Jacqueline Bishop and Veerle Poupeye.