Living Beings as WITNESSES

Artist Jamilah Sabur now in residency at Flagler College


In Jamilah Sabur’s video piece, Untitled (almond tree: 11 McKay Terrace, Kingston 11) 2017, a computer-generated image of an almond tree sways silently against a black backdrop. Stripped of context, the image has no more power than that which depictions of trees inherently evoke—perhaps the viewer gets a twinkling idea of environmental stewardship married to the cost of industrial farming, perhaps it’s just a tree. However, in the wider context of her work, the almond tree gains the weight of narrative, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the memory of landscapes. The tree as a living being as a witness […] so much memory retained in these landscapes,” said Sabur.

My Queen Before You Go Tell My Horse, a 2016 performance, was a response to the exploitative policies that have set the stage for Jamaica’s looming economic and environmental crises. During the piece, performed at Miami’s Maggie Knox Gallery, the artist took the role of an Obeah priestess summoning the spirit of Michael Manley. “Manley, the late former prime minister of Jamaica, was a globally recognized revolutionary figure, a leader in the fight against economic inequality across the developing country. In Sabur’s work, Manley addresses the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank,” wrote the Miami Rail in describing the piece.

Works like Sabur’s, where history is the medium, raise important questions about objects and ideas that are often relegated to neutrality, anonymity or simply unquestioningly swallowed. Similar to Fred Wilson, whose institutional installations mine museum collections he then re-situates; like the placement of flawless sterling silver flagons next to slave manacles, Sabur takes existing situations/stories and repurposes them. Currently the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum at Flagler College resident artist, Sabur said: “My practice is multi-modal and interdisciplinary; a lot of it comes from a conceptual space, so thinking about the idea and the medium that I work through fluctuates—recently I have been working a lot in performance, and some of what I am working on here will translate into a performance I’m working on.” It’s slated for April 2018.

“In St. Augustine, I am centering my practice on the St. Johns River. When I got here, I was washed with a feeling that there’s been an erasure of the memory of the Timucuan Indians,” she said. As she approached examining the history of this place, she reminded herself to “to start at the beginning” in this situation, which means looking at the time period when the Spanish arrived.

Sabur has been working with the city’s library, looking through the collection of one of the missions and making plans to visit the mouth of the St. Johns. “[I have] this desire to constantly connect the dots,” she said when asked how she moved through her research. “There’s a cause-and-effect relationship, so I think the idea—lately a desire—to exist in the present moment [while also] thinking about how to remember the lives, the events … I feel like we live in a moment when there is so much collective amnesia.”

In discussion with an artist of Jamaican descent making work that directly addresses the unequal balance of power among countries in the Caribbean and America and Europe, it’s impossible not to address Puerto Rico. “It’s sad to witness the delay in support for Puerto Rico. They are attached conceptually to the U.S. but have no representation in Congress where one can advocate fully for the people who live on the island. In my research on the river, I stumbled upon the Jones Act—foreign originating goods must be routed to Jacksonville to be dropped off and then rerouted in a Jones-compliant ship. That has made food and other goods on Puerto Rico twice as expensive as [they are] in Florida.”

She then again cites Tell My Horse, noting that while it was specific to Jamaica, it can speak to the entire Caribbean as a plea to cancel the debt of those nations and to implement a strategy similar to the Marshall Plan, to address the coming hurricanes and earthquakes. “I can’t see the future, but I can see the past,” said the artist, whose poetic approach to art-making signified through her body and the artifacts she creates peels away the layers of neutered academic language to reveal the beating hearts of peoples who have lived here, died here and been forgotten here; and how that legacy of invisibility has tangible, contemporary repercussions.

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