By Asher Mains
This article was written for the catalogue of the Official Grenada National Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia in 2019 and expounded upon the curatorial theme, “Epic Memory”.
The Grenada National Pavilion at the 58th La Biennale di Venezia took on St. Lucia’s Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel speech, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” as the curatorial theme. Walcott, ever self-aware, discusses the Antilles as greater than the sum of its parts. Re-framing the region as invariably civilised despite lacking the physical elements that are conventional indicators, Walcott’s Caribbean civilisation is a social one. In addition to being social, he establishes a pluri-conceptual framework of self in relation to place and in relation to the other. Within this paradigm, a multiplicity of cultures arrived in the Caribbean, one way or another, and what resulted is a region uniquely synthesized and forever destined to grapple with its own complexity. This, in the face of the Antilles marketed as a tourist-destination, a simple place, Walcott responds,
“They know nothing about seasons in which leaves let go of the year, in which spires fade in blizzards and streets whiten, of the erasures of whole cities by fog, of reflection in fireplaces; instead, they inhabit a geography whose rhythm, like their music, is limited to two stresses: hot and wet, sun and rain, light and shadow, day and night, the limitations of an incomplete metre, and are therefore a people incapable of the subtleties of contradiction, of imaginative complexity. So be it. We cannot change contempt.”
More so than re-establishing the boundaries of interpreting the Caribbean, Walcott lays the groundwork for how we can further engage the imaginative complexity of the region as a model for thinking towards the future.
“Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.”
“All of the Antilles, every island, is an effort of memory; every mind, every racial biography culminating in amnesia and fog. Pieces of sunlight through the fog and sudden rainbows, arcs-en-ciel. That is the effort, the labour of the Antillean imagination, rebuilding its gods from bamboo frames, phrase by phrase.” (“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992”)
This active, irresistible, engagement with what we can ‘remember’ as a way of guiding us forward engages our human faculty in a way that is unique in a global context. Walcott all but says it – by engaging with each other, by being self aware, by taking the best parts of our histories and processing the worst parts in the end results not only in a civilised people but one that is uniquely capable of dealing with globalisation.
“We are not prompted solely by the defining of our identities but by their relation to everything possible as well – the mutual mutations generated by this interplay of relations”, Édouard Glissant helps continue where Walcott left off. Glissant, in Poetics of Relation, eloquently describes a Deleuzian model of interaction amongst cultures and individuals that is rhizomatic, dynamic, and fluid. In Poetics of Relation, Glissant stresses the idea that adaptation is predominant trait of the Caribbean region. Rex Nettleford, the late Jamaican scholar and choreographer, in Caribbean Cultural Identity, asserts that it is the role of cultural producers in the region to engage in the dynamic and ongoing process of “adjustments, rejection, affirmation and innovation.” which has been central to the Caribbean experience since the Conquest (Nettleford, 1979). It is this creative mode that has produced what Glissant refers to as Echos-Monde or moments that emerge from Chaos-Monde as universally relatable and aesthetic expressions of humanity. “Echos-Monde thus allow us to sense and cite the cultures of people in the turbulent confluence whose globality organizes our chaos-monde. They pattern its constituent (not conclusive) elements and its expressions.” Like Nettleford, Glissant describes the Poetics of Relation (and for our purposes, the artistic expression that results from it) as something that, “senses, assumes, opens, gathers, scatters, continues, and transforms the thought of these elements, these forms, and this motion.” (Glissant, 2010). Echos-Monde are the fragments that emerge that are able to tell the world about itself. One has to ask at this point, if one has access to a multiplicity of memories and experience and if one is not bound by monolithic or hegemonic structures, what are the depths of our creative and expressive capacities?
Memory and Power
One of the hallmarks of many Western societies is a profound origin myth that centres the people group as the heroes and gives them legitimacy. Glissant explains this as establishing filiation or a lineage and is an effort, using history and memory, to explain why this community is justified in its power. “No myth ever provides for the legitimacy of the other… Either the other is assimilated, or else it is annihilated.” (Glissant, 2010). In this way, memory can be tyrannical, particularly when communities are told what they should remember by a power group or when the community in power references their Golden Age as justification for current actions. There is an embedded violence in filiation. The chaos-monde is categorised by the community with the longest and most glorious memory.
Glissant proposes that as opposed to adhering to the “sacred power” of filiation that our mode of relating to one another is defined by expanse rather than depth. He references this Aesthetics of Diversity, “Diversity is not the melting-pot, the pulp, the mish-mash, etc. Diversity is differences that encounter each other, adjust to each other, oppose each other, agree with each other and produce the unpredictable.” (Glissant 2013). Memory, in this instance, becomes a tool of relation. “For we are able to untangle this web, pondering it together and recognizing ourselves side by side within it.” (Glissant, 2010). This is the same voice Walcott used when describing a parallel, yet disarming filiation with Western society in his poem, “The Sea is History”. In it he cites Biblical filiation and the corresponding elements found in relation to the Caribbean paradigm as a way of neutralising the legitimacy that Western society and colonialism claimed. The poem creates no heroes or a basis for annihilating the “other” but references imagery that is familiar to anyone in the region, causing us to coalesce around our collective sensorial memory. After drawing parallels to the Biblical filiation and its implied violence, Walcott summarises the poem claiming that only after that lineage has ended can we really claim that history has begun. Walcott, in The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory hints again at this, “There is a territory wider than this – wider than the limits made by the map of an island – which is the illimitable sea and what it remembers.”
I would be remiss in spending so much time with the texts of Walcott and Glissant if I did not summarise with their common reference to the beach. In the Caribbean, the shoreline is a highly politicised space and the juncture for many locals’ encounters with “the other”. It is also a site of exploitation and loss and a place where foreigners come to have their expectations of the Caribbean realised. Glissant, in observing a visitor’s reaction to the beach, “…beneath this insipid facade, we rediscover the ardor of a land. I see the mockery of the image, and I do not see it. I catch the quivering of this beach by surprise, this beach where visitors exclaim how beautiful! how typical! and I see that is it burning.” (Glissant 2010). At the end of establishing the poetics of relation, modeled by a region that has exhibited exceptional civility, capacity for creative expression and a propensity to be able to process globalisation, the region is still subject to stereotypes of idyllic holiday destination. One cannot refute that the region’s beauty is also exceptional but what is at stake is the suppression of what can be considered a full expression of humanity with the schizophrenia of capitalism.
“This is how the islands from the shame of necessity sell themselves; this is the seasonal erosion of their identity, that high-pitched repetition of the same images of service that cannot distinguish one island from the other, with a future of polluted marinas, land deals negotiated by ministers, and all of this conducted to the music of Happy Hour and the rictus of a smile.”
“The Caribbean is not an idyll, not to its natives. They draw their working strength from it organically, like trees, like the sea almond or the spice laurel of the heights. Its peasantry and its fishermen are not there to be loved or even photographed; they are trees who sweat, and whose bark is filmed with salt, but every day on some island, rootless trees in suits are signing favourable tax breaks with entrepreneurs, poisoning the sea almond and the spice laurel of the mountains to their roots. A morning could come in which governments might ask what happened not merely to the forests and the bays but to a whole people.” (“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992”)
The region, as a site of active engagement with the fragments of Epic Memory, is fighting a human struggle, not for legitimacy but for contingency. The region will continue to “adjust, affirm, reject, and innovate” particularly in its artistic expression but this is done while simultaneously insisting that a visitor’s memory of our beaches does not encapsulate the expanse of Caribbean consciousness. “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” (“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992”). Reassembling epic memory depends on people who are willing to be engage fully with what it means to be human and how we can then relate.
Glissant, Edouard (2013). Introduction à Une Poétique Du Divers. Gallimard.
Glissant, Édouard, & Wing, Betsy (2010). Poetics of Relation. The University of Michigan Press.
Nettleford, Rex (1979). Caribbean Cultural Identity. Center for Afro-American Studies and UCLA Latin American Center.
“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992.” Nobelprize.org, http://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1992/walcott/lecture/.