Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Conjuring Spirits and the Art of Samuel - Part II

Carving with hair symbolic of memory

Back in San, Juan, the Coral Princess, dubbing itself “a small boutique hotel” adequately met our needs for the remaining two nights. I loved its palms, lavishly cascading in the yard, the tiny two-person pool, the lemony and earthy colours they’d used to give the impression of hominess and warmth. I appreciated the little Jacuzzi on the roof where I had a moment alone with my thoughts and another chance to feel the sun enriching me with the Vitamin D I lacked. Something in me had changed. I felt more alive. I had made the resolution that this trip was blessed. I had felt the presence of our ancestors throughout the journey on the islands. An inner voice was telling me that “there was more” that the trip was not over. Yes, we were back on land, in Puerto Rico, we didn’t have the pressure of returning to the ship before it potentially sailed without us, but the experiences so far had not ended. There was some kind of secret joy inside of me which I couldn’t quite share with the others. But it was agreed that we would do our ritual of libation in Puerto Rico the following morning, and I was very much looking forward to it.

There was a festive vibes on the streets of San Juan because we happened to be there on the last Sunday of the month (of November), the end of a week-long Jazz festival. We walked through the buzzing main street heading towards a supermarket to buy the gifts with which to honour the ancestors at the sea. We also sought last minute gifts, local music (some classic salsa) on our way. And we found our music – live. Bomba is a drum that plays to a dancer’s movements. There are two drums; one keeps its rhythm whilst the other precisely matches the dancer. Two elders, who had recently marked 100 years of the Bomba tradition in their family happened to be on the street and gave us a sampling of the sound. A sister took to the challenge and danced since it was a compulsion of spirit she couldn’t resist. It reminded me of a similar scene of drumming in Guyana on emancipation day.

We were up and out of the hotel by 7.30 in the morning. The beach was minutes away. Gathered in our circle of eight, we nested our gifts – fruits, sweet bread and a little bouquet of flowers on the sand. We spoke our tribute to our ancestors. We told them we remembered and will honour their humanity; we remembered their great capacity for love even when they were being cast as human cattle; they had love for each other and yet for us – even when we did not acknowledge them the way others devoutly acknowledged their ancestors. We could not be on these islands without honouring them. We remembered the ancient ones who never knew the horror of enslavement, who enriched the world with true civilisation (with art, religions of Truth, holistic education, healing traditions, science and so forth). But here on the island we particularly honoured those who endured that bitter fate and fought for their freedom and ours. We told them we would remember every one of them from all the islands – not just those we had visited – so yes we remembered One Titty Lokhay of St Maarten. We remembered our immediate and familial ancestors. We called those names we knew but in our hearts acknowledged the good ones we didn’t know but whose spirit lived with us, guiding and protecting us always.

We sang “By the rivers of Babylon” and other tunes to inspire them to manifest. We poured bottled water on the sand, white rum too. We sipped some of the rum and puffed a few smokes from a cigar - calling them. We lit incense and soon a splash of sunshine radiated on the offering, within a moment delicate drops of rain graced our expectant faces and we recognised the blessing. And so we would know and believe they were with us the most delightful rainbow arched before us like a magical arm extending toward our hearts. We vibrated in the moment, laughed and cried and marvelled, said many more thank yous to them, waved toward the sky and felt humbled at being in the powerful presence of spirit.

And this before we met Samuel Lind.

We had met our tour guide on the ship. It was no coincidence. On one of the “dress up” formal nights we wore traditional (African) clothing. Carlos asked if he could take a photo with us because he loved our dress. He was from Puerto Rico and had his own taxi service. We agreed that we would hire him on our return, since we hadn’t seen the island, and longed to visit Old San Juan.

When we called him he insisted we go to Loiza, where the most concentration of Africans lived on the island. It was a Monday morning, the town was too quiet since most people would be at work. He had hoped to take us to the Ayala family who maintain African traditions, particularly the craft of mask making on the island. We sort of wilted when we saw the house was locked up.

Across the road we had noticed a sign for – “Estudio del arte naturaleza y cultura de Samuel Lind.” A member of the Ayala family, sensing our disappointment that his family’s “museum” was closed said we should instead visit the studio.

Did that rainbow on the beach disappear? Or was it some kind of arrow shooting through time and space to lead us precisely where we needed to be?

Our first greeting into the studio was a wood carving of a sister, her long locks Samuel told us symbolised memory. Her locks were gathered into an upright pole on which her head and shoulders rested in a powerful display of conceptual symmetry. There was mystery and light emanating from every corner of the studio. Every painting and sculpture was infused with the magnificence of spirit. It seemed we were gliding through the studio, floating in the haze of an intersection between the spiritual and physical world.

This and the above image are of Bomba Dancers

Osaniyin, orisha of herbs

Samuel Lind seemed nervous as he described his creations and what had inspired him to do each piece. At first I wondered why, thinking that despite his artistic brilliance, he didn’t believe in himself. But the apparent nervousness was also excitement; he said he was glad to see us – as though our meeting was a long time coming and overdued. That other thing we were promised – that un-ended experience the spirit intuited to me the day before was now tingling my bones.

Downstairs, the studio tailed off into two smaller rooms, both greeting us with more resplendent carvings and powerful images. Samuel, born in Loiza, had created a space for the manifestation of ancestral spirits which were enshrined in the pieces. Not only ancestors but orishas like Osaniyin, the god of herbs and healing who was present in several images. It seemed natural that Osaniyin was his muse; but for me the relationship was more than this. Muse and artist were the combined force of creative expression. Samuel told us that we would recognise nature (Osaniyin) everywhere in his art. He showed us a “mock up” of an enormous carving of the Orisha that is resident in a Park on the Island.

This beautiful space colouring our senses with something enchanting was also where Samuel lived with his wife Nina. The studio was slightly off radar, in this seemingly hidden part of Puerto Rico, where Africans were marginalised. Samuel had faithfully brought life to his home town by capturing the everyday activities and cultural experiences of his people. The Bomba Dance, with which we had been treated the previous night, was featured in a number of the paintings and prints. Masks and masquerading also featured in his art; many of these images embodied the cultural mestizo of Puerto Rico. In some of the festival prints, Orishas like Legba were represented alongside Spanish conquistadors, with a Bomba drum acting as the base or root of the image. Each of these inflections was part of Samuel’s cultural experiences and therefore coalesced in his work.

Festival Print

Samuel and the proud lady in blue

Of course the space could not be complete without representations of the Taino. Bold, stunning faces, mainly of women embodying the indigenous spirits stared back at us as proudly as each African portrait. There are patchy tales about the town being ruled by a female “cacique” (a title given to indigenous chief or ruler) prior to Spanish conquest, from where it’s possible the name was derived. Puerto Rico, particularly Loiza where enslaved Africans were shipped by the Spanish has a history of “rebellion” as much as there was on any of the Caribbean islands. Forced to live together, naturally there would prevail a cultural mixing between the Taino and Africans, but also combined forces of resistance. Samuel captures this by ascribing pride to every piece. As with the African carvings and paintings of Africans, no Taino woman or child looked forlorn or sombre but exuded pride and power –light majestically radiating from them. The sculptures and paintings resonated the deep textures of culture and history – in the clothes/costumes, dances and symbolic gestures.

When he introduced us to the lady wearing a blue dress, it was impossible to resist the energy she possessed. Carlos, our guide was struck for the first time in his life by “goosepimples” – he kept asking us what the strange feeling coursing through his body meant. I can’t recall if anyone answered him because we were also feeling the energy building in us. Some of us simply embraced the feeling and cried. Others kept theirs in the confines of their heart, perhaps to release in privacy.

In a private back room we were privileged to see the wall size impression of “Terra Mujer” (mother earth). From that quieter place she could inspire the artist to produce many more magnificent pieces. The earth mother – the force of creation was powerfully represented by her son Samuel. The orishas and the ancestors anchored him and empowered his creative abilities. He told us that prior to our visit he was feeling unwell but as we embraced him for a last goodbye he said his ancestors had blessed him that day. But it was we who had been blessed all the way by the wonderful grace and love of our ancestors. I saw in Samuel an incarnated brother, I saw in the group with whom I travelled the reunion of family, which was vibrated in the exchange of our deep embrace. Hidden in the marshes of little Loiza tucked away in Puerto Rico, the spirit of ancestors remain. It was an honour to embrace them in that ritual of creativity so wonderfully expressed in the art of Samuel Lind.

Terra Mujer

Shout out

Conjuring Spirits in the Caribbean and the Art of Samuel Lind - part I

A quick glance of the islands

Outside the Ayala museum in Loiza, Puerto Rico

After a few days I justified the apparent extravagance by accepting that it was a divine gift. Although the trip – a cruise – was a year in planning it was my third for the year (after Ghana, Barbados, Guyana and Surinam). And again, I’d be going to the Caribbean. How and why – since I think things need to have some kind of spiritual purpose lest instead of alignment there is whimsical indulgence.

In any case I felt I’d been blessed already for the year with the earlier trips so I didn’t much aspire to anything and simply sauntered along with my seven companions. In truth, the only thing I hoped to do was a ritual of libation by the sea.

An unsavoury feeling must enrapture any African travelling on a ship across the Caribbean. So long as you stay inside the ship you can convince yourself you’re in an immense, luxurious hotel; one that moved without your awareness until the next morning when it arrived at a different island. You hardly feel the ship’s movements. But you cannot deny knowing of the misery your ancestors experienced in vessels less grand across those very waters. It’s as though you’re redoing the journey in a mirage of fantasy and opulence.
We set off from Puerto Rico toward Barbados. From there we would travel back, via St Lucia, Antigua, St Maarten, St Croix (US Virgin Islands) and back to San Juan (the capital of Puerto Rico). We only had a few hours on each Island before we had to get back onto the ship.
Our ship was the one of the right -"adventures of the sea"
what does this scene look like with these two docked side by side?

I loved these effervescent waves

Inside of the ship

It seemed superfluous that I should be back in Barbados since the island was featured in a recent post. Again it’s impossible to think of the island as anything other than beautiful, a darling of quietness and relaxation for tourists. Last time I was there they were discussing the introduction of fees for education; it seems the government is going ahead with this plan as the global economic crises hits the serenity of the island. Like everywhere else it’s forced to make cuts – and like its Metropolis (England), education is one of many victims.

The day we arrived in St Lucia, it was overcast, which added a rainforest feel to it. Winding roads, homes precariously built on stilts, the permanent threat of hurricanes, breath-taking views, particularly of the Piton Twin Mountains were all part of the island’s makeup. We loved it and dreamed to return for a longer stay. The mud bath in the sulphur volcano springs was joy for our skin, a high point of things to do and see there. Where they used to grow and export bananas, the island now relies solely on tourism. This would be the case for most of the islands we visited. A few of us dared to have a snake rested on our shoulders. I leapt from the mini-bus to try this curious thing I often saw people do. Though somewhat petrified, there was something liberating about the experience, and it allowed me to deal with a lifelong fear of the creatures. I have since convinced myself that my embrace of the snake was symbolic of Wata Mammi, a powerful entity within African spiritual tradition.

The Piton Mountains, St Lucia

Some were braver than others, the smiles masking fears! Or was that just mine?

Antigua had the most stunning view of the Atlantic from Shirley Heights. The rich aqua of the water seemed unreal – the image itself seemed enhanced somehow. In this area you’ll find Fort James, which was built by the British in 1706 to secure the island from mainly Spanish and French invasions. Despite this impressive view of the Atlantic the Fort had an eerie, sad feel about it. Antiguans limed at Shirley Heights on Sundays, so I imagine it would come alive differently then, and at night. Nelson’s Dockyard, though beautiful held the despicable misery of navy slaves. Concrete imported onto the island from Europe was used to build the dock, but enslaved Africans worked on it. It’s a cultural heritage site, in pristine condition, thus to better serve the prestigious annual yachting events, no doubt adored by wealthy European, particularly the British Royals. From the dock there’s an easy view of a house owned by Prince William which he inherited from his great aunty Margaret, whose partying on the island many of us might recall.

View of the Atlantic from Shirley Heights, in Antigua

We were told that there wasn’t much to see on St Maarten– that the French side was better. Here, on the Dutch side they had some lovely beaches but it was mostly fit for shopping. Previously the island was renowned for producing salt, having established the trade from its many salt ponds, but now it relied entirely on tourism. The Cruise ships, some carrying up to 6000 passengers, have their interests by the dock (tourist shops, especially jewellery). The make-ship town just outside the dock discourages cruisers from going into the actual town. We found a cute African Market (boutique) hidden among the multitude of shops in Phillipsburg; I believe it’s located on Front Street – where all kinds of retail outlets - selling clothes, jewellery and tobacco are located.

We were curious about the history and struggle of Africans on the island, since it’s one we knew little about – except that like the previous two we’d visited Africans were enslaved there; and like other islands the indigenous population had been annihilated by Europeans following Columbus imperialist adventures. And so we learnt of One Titty Lokhay, an enslaved female ancestor who would escape to Sentry Hill after committing acts against the plantation owner. She was caught and one of her breasts was removed. There’s apparently a memorial statue in her honour, which we never saw. We were grateful to Jennifer, a taxi driver and tour guide for eventually warming to us and sharing the narrative. As she did so she told us she had goosepimples. So it was that along our way we were conjuring of spirits.

All the islands were spotted with churches on every corner. This one is curiously on the shopping street in St Maarten.

St Croix was bought by the US in circa 1917 for $25 million. Before then it was owned by Denmark, though it had been fought over and owned by seven European countries – the arawaks and Caribs and then later Africans being victims of this economic barbarity. We arrived on a Saturday. Mr Ford, our taxi –driver/tour guide wanted to impress on us how quiet the island was. He took us to the airport where we saw about 10 or so passengers either coming in or leaving the island. If you’re looking for an ultra-lazy, subdued (let’s say “tranquil”) travel experience in the Caribbean (for whatever the reason), you’d find it in St Croix. In the centre we found some lovely jewellery shops but we were pleased to stumble on Riddims, selling Regga music by both local and international artists, clothes, jewellery and natural body care. The green juice and ital soursap juice we sampled from an Ital restaurant was a welcome treat from all the meaty choices on the ship.

From this quiet island we will remember the wonderful troop of iguanas that came out to greet us. There were eight of them to match our eight. The king (I’m sure it had a crown) strutted before our taxi, in the middle of the road, and paused long enough for us to take photos. The queen (as I’d like to imagine it was) was not far behind him but hung out in this little spot, again waiting and poised long enough for photos. The others were a mix of colours and sizes, at once curious looking and spectacular. I felt that these forthright, ancient creatures embodied the spirit of our ancestors.

So much more could be said about the islands – everyone heavenly. Despite the shared history of conquest especially the formulaic presence of Forts as Europeans entrenched their imperialist wings and claimed their portions of their new found gems, the islands have their own unique stories. The beauty and sunshine, the epic views of the Atlantic didn’t stifle the tangible haunting of slavery and the extermination of the original peoples of the islands. And now the people are forced to contend with a reinvigorated wanderlust called “tourism.” Still, I’m sure those smiles weren’t all phoney.