A True & Exact History
Erasure of Richard Ligon’s “A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes” (1657)
Letterpress-printed and collected into a handmade clamshell box
5.5″ x 13″
Edition of 25
Winner of the 2019 Holle Award for Excellence in Book Arts, A True & Exact History (Poinciana Paper Press, 2018) is an erasure of one of the most formative descriptions of the English Caribbean in the seventeenth Century, Richard Ligon’s 1657 guidebook, A True and Exact History of Barbadoes. Using the language, imagery, and thematic drives at the core of this text to disrupt the teleology of colonial Caribbean history, these unbound poetic fragments scattered among a shifting landscape simultaneously re-create and resist narrative as a device of cohesive history, ultimately calling into question what it means to write “a true and exact history” of anything. Untethered to linearity, the book can be encountered in multiple displays and formats, including as a sound piece.
This project began during March 2016 at a writing residency at Fresh Milk, an art platform in St. George, Barbados, where Sonia encountered Ligon’s book through their Colleen Lewis Reading Room. With accompanying illustrations such as botanical drawings, architectural plans for a sugar mill, and even a fantastical topological map, this book is one part guidebook, one part candid travelogue, another part serious natural history, and yet another part business manual. The text to this day remains a paradoxical and problematic narrative, enduring through the sheer luck of Ligon’s arrival during the early years of the sugar trade that gives historians today a glimpse into the way Barbados was transformed economically, socially, and physically during the transatlantic slave trade. Indeed, the Caribbean space continues to be shaped and defined by the voice of the visitor who makes himself the protagonist of spaces occupied by other bodies and silenced stories. As a person from the Caribbean, Sonia’s poetic erasure of Ligon’s book explores her preoccupation with the single Caribbean story, using erasure as a tool of disruption to investigate this existing narrative, question its inherent power structure, and make room for other marginalized voices.
Her final artist’s book challenges dominant ideas of voice, gaze, space, and ownership in the ever-elusive idea of “paradise.” Evidence of a traditional book—folios, the hand-drawn margins echoing the original design of Ligon’s book—come in an out of focus. After dissecting Ligon’s topological map, she scattered his drawings across these unbound pages. These rootless fragments interact with multiple voices on a shifting grid, never allowing readers to gain a strong foothold in its landscape. These readers are invited to follow the text linearly, flipping the pages contained in its box; or drop into any point of the narrative as they encounter it in grid form, mounted onto the wall; or even remove the pages from its box to rearrange into their own narratives. One part book, one part map, one part box of postcards, this artist book holds little reward for its explorer, however: This dismantling of language, of space, has no ultimate intention of reconstruction—the very unsettled result is actually the desired result, because it is the state closest to the greatly unsettled space of the Caribbean. When we subvert the locus of power and privilege in this linear narrative, we can explore history as an intersectional, dispersed, and subjective act, one that is present and ongoing. Therefore to resist the idea and motives of what a complete history represents is to recognize how its framework is contextualized into present problematic realities of Caribbean identity and geography.
A True & Exact History was completed at the University of Iowa Center for the Book in Spring 2018 in an edition of 25 copies with the generous support of the Caxton Club. The poem is handset in Elizabeth Roman and the running heads and folios are handset in Van Dijck. Images lifted from Ligon’s botanical drawings, architectural plans, and topological map of the island of Barbados were reproduced in polymer. The book is entirely letterpress-printed on Lettra Ecru paper and housed in a handmade clamshell box.
A True & Exact History was first exhibited in Nassau, The Bahamas, at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas in “We Suffer to Remain”, a 2018 exhibition in collaboration with the British Arts Council. To mark its finassage, the poem was reimagined as a performance using eleven speakers to represent the eleven separate parishes of the island. These voices—an ex-pat, an immigrant, an undocumented island resident, an island citizen, an African slave, an historian, a colonial slave master, an indigenous person of the Caribbean, the Edenic island, the colonized island, and the free nation—inhabited and exchanged the threads of these dispersed narratives in front of the grid of the book pages mounted on the gallery wall. The artist book has since been exhibited in Barbados at Fresh Milk; in Trinidad at Granderson Lab and at Alice Yard in collaboration with Toofprints; and in Iowa City at the University of Iowa Center for the Book’s KK Merker Gallery. Multiple performances of A True & Exact History have taken place, including at What Happens: An Evening of Poets Theater at the University of Iowa.
Photographs courtesy Dominic Duncombe/Stop Motion Productions