By Tim Gihring //
In 2019, the Art Gallery of Ontario purchased some 3,500 photographs of Jamaica, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, taken between 1840 and 1940. They had been collected by Patrick Montgomery, an archivist in New York, and capture the changing lives, landscapes, and labor conditions in the century between emancipation and independence. Julie Crooks, head of the AGO’s department of the Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, says the images floored her with their range and depth when she first encountered them—a social history rarely contemplated by visitors to the islands today
“Fragments of Epic Memory,” on view at Mia through July 9, is the first exhibition of these photographs, combining a selection of archival images with contemporary artworks from the Caribbean and its diaspora. I talked about the show with Crooks, who first organized the exhibition in Toronto, and Casey Riley, head of Global Contemporary Art at Mia, who led its installation in Minneapolis.
Julie, how did you learn of the Montgomery collection and what were your thoughts when you first encountered it?
Crooks: I’d heard about this archive of Caribbean photography for some time—it was like an urban legend. In 2018, when I was attending the AIPAD photography show in New York with my wonderful colleague Sophia Hackett, the curator of photography at AGO, we arranged to visit Patrick Montgomery’s loft—the former loft of Robert Mapplethorpe—and he started pulling out boxes. There were yelps, there were tears, and just an overall excitement about the range of photographic material and objects that he had.
What were the original purposes of these photographs?
Crooks: Some are early tourist views—landscapes, seascapes, densely packed markets—showing this exotic tourist destination, which was marketed as the new Mediterranean. But there’s also commercial photography of the industries around agriculture and extraction. Despite emancipation, extraction is continuing, just of different resources.
Riley: There’s also studio portraiture and family albums. One of the real strengths of the collection is that it encompasses such a broad range of photography, from the familial to images for the marketplace and everything in between.
There are so many stories among these images, like the history of Indian and Chinese indentured laborers recruited to the Caribbean after emancipation—stories that tourists sequestered at Sandals are not likely to learn.
Crooks: This really strikes at the heart of the show—to contest the sequestered perception of the Caribbean, the stereotypes you encounter as a tourist. Because once you get out of the compound at Sandals and drive to Kingston, you are confronted with the reality.
Even in Toronto, which has a huge Caribbean community, the show raised a lot of questions for viewers—about those connections to South Asia and China, for instance. We’re all living in a bubble of some kind and it’s important to think about these continual migratory patterns and extra-territorial connections.
Riley: It’s a huge reason why I wanted the show to come to Minneapolis, where there’s often a desire to get away for a week in the winter—if at all possible—to someplace warm. As Julie noted, there’s a certain set of associations with the Caribbean as a site of leisure, a place of pleasure, without a lot of reflection on the complicated history and rich culture that defines the region today. I wanted Mia’s visitors to contemplate their relationship to these places and to appreciate the global impact of Caribbean arts and letters.
One of the contemporary artists in the show has described it as “tidalectic”—ideas flowing back and forth. It’s not a strict juxtaposition of past and present, point and counterpoint.
Crooks: I think about it as a dialogue, which is what “tidalectic” is alluding to: point, counterpoint, point. Given the setup of the show, you encounter the contemporary, then you go to the table case where you see a historic photograph, then you go back to the contemporary. It makes the viewer part of the unfolding—you’re actively participating in the revealing of these histories.
The show evokes the histories of both the Caribbean and the people who left—the diaspora. How do those connections show up in the art?
Crooks: The modern and contemporary artists in the show who are in the diaspora are reimagining and rethinking these histories—what they mean to them. Sometimes it’s biographical, positioning oneself within the diaspora, but often it’s reclaiming those histories in a very particular way. All of these artists, I think, are grappling with that sense of belonging.
They’re also contesting, in some cases, the very idea of photography. In many of the historical images, the power dynamics reveal an imbalance—most of these individuals did not have a say in how they wanted to be represented. One of the artists in the show, Rodell Warner, in digitizing the photographs and giving them a kind of three-dimensionality, is taking this on and saying no, I want to give them a sense of agency. It’s an example of how a contemporary Caribbean artist continues to think about home and reimagine it in the diaspora.
Riley: At the core of the show is a radical reassertion of Caribbean thought: intellectual, artistic, and otherwise. It sneaks up on you—there’s something so seductive about the visual material in this show; it feels like a kind of renewal, especially within the context of a US-based art museum. It’s always interesting to work with scholars like Julie who are not in the United States and are thinking about hemispheric histories. There’s so much more to history than we Americans tend to see. We can’t get out of our own way, in a sense, and one of the great things about this show is that an American curator would not have approached the material like this.
There’s a large video installation in the show called ...three kings weep…, by Ebony G. Patterson, that you can see from one end of the exhibition to the other and shows three black men crying as they slowly get dressed. What drew you to this piece?
Crooks: As we were planning this show—in deep lockdown, working at home—the racial reckoning around George Floyd’s murder was playing out on TV. We had to include this work because it speaks to a moment that I think even Ebony, the artist, was not prepared for—the synergy between the work and what was going on. When you sit down in that space, it is about reverence, a chapel-like setting where you are meant to contemplate, to grieve, to think very deeply. The effect of the men crying, the butterflies gently fluttering in the background, the poem “If We Must Die” that is being read—all of it converges in this beautiful mourning piece.
Riley: I knew it would act as a tractor beam to draw people into the space, and I also felt it was important to have a monumental work that expressed a real human response to the matters we have been grappling with here in Minneapolis. Since the murder of George Floyd, we have been at the epicenter of a renewed conversation about justice for Black life, and here was an opportunity to create a space of care, contemplation, and veneration. And that is indeed what has happened. There are always people in that space, of all ages and backgrounds, and it’s quite moving. It’s a space for respect and I think people understand that from the moment they enter.