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  • Subverting Colonial Portraiture: A Contemporary Memorial to the Women of Egypt Estate
  • Joscelyn Gardner (bio)

Pointing to omissions in the history of colonial representation, Creole Portraits II (2007), commissioned for the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition “Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art,” plays on strategies associated with eighteenth-century European portraiture in order to open up a space in which the traces of a disordered past can be reconstituted from a post colonial feminist perspective. In this large contemporary wall installation (15' × 9'), the women of a particular colonial sugar estate are commemorated through a series of framed “portrait heads” and text panels that replicate an eighteenth-century “gallery” of prints while speaking to the submerged and painful history of plantation slavery.

Each delicately engraved stone lithograph is individually named for one of the women who lived on Egypt Estate in Jamaica in the 1700s—Nago Jenny, Old Moll, Accubah, Egypt Susanah, Margaritta, Coobah (or Molia), and Quasheba. Glimpses of these women’s lives have been gleaned from asides in the personal diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, who lived in Jamaica between 1750 and 1786. In over ten thousand manuscript pages providing detailed accounts of daily events that took place on his sugar estate, he also shamelessly documented both his long-term relationship with his “slave-wife” Phibbah and his countless sexual encounters with other dependent female slaves. It is in these nonchalant records of “mastery” that we gain some insight into the lives of the many women lost to official anonymity on Caribbean plantations. The names of seventy of these Egypt women, both enslaved and free, are inscribed on text panels within the work.1 [End Page 112]

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Above: Nago Jenny [Detail from Creole Portraits II]

Following pages: Creole Portraits II: A Collection of Singular & Scarce Creole Portrait Heads to perpetuate the Memory of the WOMEN of EGYPT ESTATE in JAMAICA, wall installation with stone lithographs on frosted mylar and vinyl wall elements, 9′ × 15′

[End Page 113]

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[End Page 114]

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[End Page 115]

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Accubah [Detail from Creole Portraits II ]

[End Page 116]

Building on an earlier series of lithographs entitled Creole Portraits (2002–2003), in which the (imagined) subjects are similarly inverted, each portrait illustrates tools of torture used during slavery entwined within intricately braided hair. Iron collars, bridles, shackles, and a “man-trap” appear as horrific decorations within the elegant hairstyles.2 Simultaneously attractive and repugnant, these ambiguous portrait heads allude to the performance of identity that was central to eighteenth-century portraiture. Here the head becomes a field of inscription on which narratives of power (or emasculation) can be read. The symbolism of the wig, as visible index of (male) authority and status in colonial portraiture, is subverted through its association with the implements of torture commonly used to control and punish slave bodies on the colonial Caribbean plantation. The strict regulation of the hair into Afro-centric styles ironically conflates eighteenth-century European fixations on hair or wigs (worn by men) as signifying social order, with the (female) Creole’s ability to empower herself by expressing her (non-European) postcolonial cultural identity through hair design. The fact that several of these implements also recall a history of subjugation of the female body in seventeenth century Britain—where the bridle or branks (a metal head cage with a built-in gag3) was used to publicly humiliate women who “talked too much”—further underscores their importance as visual symbols of both patriarchal and colonial dominance.

Eighteenth-century portraits were traditionally invested with strict symbolic value. As material possessions they functioned to promote wealth and position in a society that prided itself on its ability to “order” the world. According to Marcia Pointon, portraits were incorporated into interior décor as an integral part of the construction of the owner’s identity—“a systematic reconstruction of the past which served to secure and fix the individual historical life.”4 Portrait paintings of “illustrious men” were either copied by engravers or simply invented. The exchange value of prints (like slaves) became...


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pp. 112-118
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