Awarded a Catapult Stay Home Artist Residency for the period of October to December 2020, Sonia began a collaborative artist’s book project that explores our transient existence in an age of climate injustice, engaging with repurposed texts. Over the course of her residency she shared updates on her progress through her Instagram account and blog entries on the Catapult platform.
In the first blog post, Sonia introduces her focus for the residency:
“Where is home?” is scribbled into the space underneath a small black-and-white photograph of people standing among rubble. The photograph is one of many drawn from the Malone family archives, once belonging to Jack Malone, resident of Green Turtle Cay on the Abacos in The Bahamas, where in 1932, The Great Abaco Hurricane decimated the community, and where in 2019, Hurricane Dorian undid nearly a century of resilient rebuilding across the Abacos before going on to put more than 60% of Grand Bahama underwater.
In the first weeks of my residency, I find myself taken by this piece of archival material, provided by Abaconian artist Leanne Russell who, since the passing of Hurricane Dorian, has been creating photographic compositions that superimpose these archival images documenting the damage of The Great Abaco Hurricane of 1932 on top of her own images that capture the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019 in the same settlement.
Examining her work, I am reminded of a quote I heard recently: that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself—but it often rhymes. Like Leanne’s current body of work, my creative projects engage with those familiar echoes, mining archival materials and examining them through the lens of contemporary experience….
… I admire artists who are able to process their trauma through their work in the immediate aftermath of the event. Only recently have I felt ready to engage with what Hurricane Dorian brought into earshot for me—the familiar tune of existential dread humming through every hurricane season, rising in pitch as I witness storms decimate fellow Caribbean communities, coming to a deafening roar as it hits home.
To live in the Caribbean, especially in this time of climate injustice, is to confront, but also ignore, your vulnerability and lack of agency in the face of what feels both everyday and terrifyingly inevitable.
Though I set a specific task for myself for this residency that directly engages with a two-volume travelogue from 1901, I find myself at the opening of this residency engaging instead with Leanne’s compositions, creating a book that examines intangible heritage. That is, it examines loss as our birthright. It also examines resilience, touching upon the dual realities of anxiety and perseverance for those of us who live in a geographical space under constant threat of erasure due to climate injustice.
How do you express compound erasure? That is: how do you make a blank page more blank? For each spread, using the shape of its source archival photograph, I cut out a square on the blank page opposite each of Leanne’s compositions. Using an accordion book structure, this cut-out becomes a window, revealing the back of the previous page, and in the revealing, the title of the source photograph drawn from those handwritten notes in the almost century-old photo album. Read the book in the opposite direction, and the window instead isolates the archival image within her compositions. But in that moment of turning the page, the cut-out is a complex negative space: a perceptible loss, an intangible record, a paradoxical burden, a lens or cipher, carried by the reader through space and time.”
In the second blog post, Sonia explains how she is engaging collaboratively with Leanne’s work:
“When Leanne Russel shared her photographic compositions with me, she included a copy of an article that gives a harrowing first-hand account of a tourist’s experience surviving the 1932 Great Abaco Hurricane, published one year after it made landfall, in Harper’s Monthly Magazine. Written by Terence Keogh, who arrived to Green Turtle Cay a day before a hurricane, he sheltered in The New Plymouth Inn during the category five storm. Leanne found this article while she was assisting the owner of The New Plymouth Inn to catalogue all of his documents that survived Hurricane Dorian. Feeling that it might have a place in this collaboration, and knowing that I seek preexisting writing as raw material for my projects, she kindly shared it with me.
I’ve started to engage with the twelve-page account to see what I can mine there, hoping to compliment Leanne’s approach of re-presenting archival material through the contemporary lens and experience—except with language instead of image. This generally aligns with my writing practice of creating erasure poetry, which is generated by erasing words from an existing text to reveal a new text and arrangement. Think of a redacted government document—except in my case, my interest lies not in what is eliminated, but what is left behind, and how the method of its making says something about these narratives in juxtaposition. Overall I don’t seek entirely new narratives, but an opportunity to present other narratives within and alongside, especially if these alternative narratives can expose or complicate the gaze of its original narrator.
Erasure is often made chronologically on the text—that is, the writer strikes out the text as it lives its static format, forming their poem from what is left behind in the order that text remains. I employed this method when I made an erasure of Richard Ligon’s “A True & Exact History of the Iland of Barbadoes”. I tried to take that approach with the article, but it did not feel right. After a week of false starts, I decided I had to destroy the text in order to speak through it—I fragmented the language as if it too had experienced the force of the hurricane as described by Keogh in the piece. Taking it one page at a time, I deconstruct the columns into dozens and dozens of words or phrases and construct a new poem from the debris. Ephemeral until I fix them to some form later, I’m storing the poems and their “leftovers” in plastic baggies, which have become perhaps (one of) their unlikely final form(s).
Erasure has both aesthetic and political concerns—how the text is presented is weighed against the ethical implications of striking out text. My approach concerns itself first with the politics—the aesthetics come in later, during its presentation. I attribute this concern to living in the Caribbean, which was historically formed by various acts of violent erasure, as well as exists today with the constant threat of erasure, and to me these are related through time and space as the same constant destabilizing force of modernity.
Thus to engage with erasure in my writing practice as a Caribbean person is a political act with important significance, and I choose to wield this tool of oppression on oppressive archival texts—that is, text written from the outsider’s perspective about the Caribbean—to reverse this destabilizing gaze. This is complicated by the positionality of my own identity as a first-generation white Bahamian, and what it means for me to engage with the archive of white voice in our history. A final complication in the case of working with this article by Keogh, which I will touch on more in the next blog post as I work through these poems, is my positionality as a Bahamian who did not directly experience the full impact of Hurricane Dorian, and my concern to avoid appropriating this experience.”
In the third blog post, she gains some clarity on the project and admits the limitations of a residency at home:
“…Uprooting and leaving everything behind in “regular” residencies is so helpful for the creative process, and I’m finding it very hard to create the boundary I need around my practice in the face of everyday demands and responsibilities, as well as continuing to adjust to the “new normal”.
Nevertheless I’m trying to show up for my work with the creative energy it deserves, continuing to take apart the pages of “Hurricane In The Bahamas” and find the voice that emerges from the debris. My rules are simple:
- Only make one poem per page (there are 12 pages)
- Only use the text available on that page
I had considered making more poems, mixing up the text further, but I feel it’s right to end up with only 12 poems. Mostly because I have been engaging with only 12 of Leanne Russel’s photographic compositions in her book, and that’s no accident, right?
So as I finalize this exercise, I’ve been thinking about how this all comes together—if it does. How do the poems live—do I type them out? Do I incorporate the fragments? Do the poems have a place alongside Leanne’s photographs in the same book, or not?
I feel the poems must live as they are. That is: I can’t re-type, or re-write the poems elsewhere. They are born of destruction, and must come to the reader in fragments. I think it is powerful to encounter them in that way. The plastic baggies that store the fragments have also become surprisingly forceful objects that demand to be part of this piece rather than a temporary storage solution in my studio, but it remains to be seen how exactly…
…In any event, I did gain some clarity on how the text will live in Leanne’s book. I had been struggling with how to set the titles of her photographs, playing around with typefaces that look like they’ve been written in pencil to echo the handwritten notes underneath the archival images of the 1932 hurricane in the Malone family album. But I didn’t like it, so I set it aside. Recently I realized I have plenty of text at my disposal. What if I found the words I needed from the debris? This way, the projects become a little more intertwined. Trying it, I feel it works, and I might even play with placing fragments onto these pages to see how far I can push it.”
In the fourth and final blog post, Sonia reflects upon the highs and lows of the residency, and a valuable encounter with Debra Providence, a Catapult visiting curator:
“This “stay-at-home” residency was the best solution for a year defined by social isolation, but with it came many personal difficulties of creating hard boundaries around my creative projects, work projects and the demands of home to meet my own expectations of how much work I should complete in a “normal” residency where we relocate with only our creative project in mind to nurse, contend with, and grow with undivided attention. Reflecting on the past eight weeks, I find myself wishing I had done more, but trying to remind myself—in all things 2020—that one can only do their best in a pandemic, and that I have been very lucky to get the chance to start something new and exciting in my practice. I would not have gotten this far on my project without it.
In the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the Catapult visiting curators, Debra Providence, an educator, writer and researcher who teaches creative writing and literature at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. Well, if I’m being honest, I did most of the speaking—something I didn’t realize until we neared the end of our time together. I think I am also missing that aspect of a traditional residency where one creates in a space alongside other artists, and therefore constantly engages in illuminating conversations about craft or informal workshops/reflections. I had few people to speak to about my creative process in this residency, and found I had a lot pent up to say or work through out loud. So even though, when Dr. Providence could get a word in, I left with some key resources for further research she suggested, I found the most helpful aspect of the visiting curator visit was just the chance to lay everything out and clarify, out loud, this project. I am relieved to say it all made sense, when I heard myself. I am grateful for her attention and thoughtful responses!
I end my residency with clarity and direction on a project that I couldn’t have moved off the backburner without the support of this Catapult initiative. I’m so grateful that my practice has been able to take a few steps in a new direction concerning itself with climate injustice in exploited and vulnerable places like the Caribbean. As we move into the uncertainty of 2021, I am glad that I have a project that I can continue to shape and finalize. Finally, I owe so much to Leanne Russell, who has been so generous in sharing her creative practice and resources and trusting me to engage with her work via “The Things We Inherit”. I hope our collaboration will endure long after the book project has been editioned.”
“The Things We Inherit” is still in progress. You can glimpse updates on Sonia’s Instagram account.
The Stay Home Artist Residency was one of six opportunities to support Caribbean creatives offered by the Catapult | A Caribbean Arts Grant initiative, a COVID-19 relief programme made possible through a collaboration between Kingston Creative, Fresh Milk, and the American Friends of Jamaica. Targeting participants living and working across the Caribbean, these funded opportunities aimed to bring collective visibility to over 1,000 Caribbean-based artists and enable their growth, especially those exploring broad critical themes of culture, human rights, gender, LGBTQIA+, and Climate Justice from Caribbean perspectives. Read the Jury Report and announcement here.