Head to Head: Masculine and Feminine Approaches to Decolonisation. Taino sculptures from the Caribbean

by Rachael Minott

This paper was adapted from a spoken word piece delivered at Mona Campus in Kingston Jamaica in December 2019. As a Jamaican living in the UK, speaking in Jamaica about Jamaican artefacts also held in the UK what had begun as an academic paper became a personal and artistic expression. The combination of my professional, artistic and personal interest brought forth a sense of intimacy that had been missing from some of my academic thoughts on decoloniality. As such it brought my practice as a researcher closer to my practice as an artist.

The idea of intimacy was the catalyst for questions around gender and how decolonial practice might be considered alongside ideas of femininity and masculinity. More and more of my thinking on decolonial theory is being developed by having conversations with the women in my life, and a lot of my thinking has been changed by revisiting Audre Lorde’s writing. In my mind, femininity was about nurturing connections, about growth through care and healing while masculinity was tied to ideas of growth through strength, power and tactical gains. The articulation of the masculine is a discussion largely of power and patriarchy, the feminine about intimacy and feminism. While I am roughly using binaries of masculine and feminine as a way of illustrating some of my thinking, I am in no way advocating for gender essentialism. However, this idea of gendering decolonial practises, as a critical tool is what I will explore in this piece.

How many stories can one object tell?

This was the question at the heart of the 100 Histories of 100 Worlds workshop, held on Mona Campus, University of the West Indies, Jamaica. It was a critique of the concept presented in A History of the World in 100 Objects project by the British Museum, which proposed that 100 objects from the museum collection could tell the history of the world. The critique was that this was very limiting, layered with colonial concepts of a singular history and was a thinly veiled justification of the museum’s possession of their global “universal” collection, despite debate over the legitimacy of ownership and provenance of many of the objects listed. As such I chose to explore this question by using objects listed in the original British Museum project.

My world began in the Caribbean and so it feels fitting that my exploration would centre around the Caribbean objects listed, and so I used a Taino Ritual Seat (duho) Am1949,22.118 [Figure 1] as my starting point. This is not my first interaction with one of the Taino objects held by the museum. I had previously written an essay about the display and loans of Am1977.Q1-3 [Figures 2-4] across Europe.1 In the exhibition text they were heralded as, ‘probably the finest works of wood sculpture produced in the Americas before or since Columbus’.2 I critiqued this claim in their presentation in Europe, while repetitively denying loan requests made for these objects to be displayed in Jamaica.

I had also previously explored Taino cosmology as a part of my artistic practice creating the piece Deminán Caracaracol and Caguama [Figure 5] which I originally made in 2014 and restaged in 2019 during my exhibition, ‘Thinking about Jamaica’ [Figure 6]. For my purposes of gendering decolonial practise, it is useful to me that Damian Caracaracol, the male figure, was the bringer of food and water, and knowledge of fire to man. Daminan offended Bayamanaco, the grandfather spirit, in the process. Bayamanaco in his anger spat herbs and creative powders onto his back. From this spit and herbs Caguama was born. Caguama was ‘the progenitor of the Taino people—the most ancient of all ancestors’.3

Caguama roughly translates as large sea turtle with sea turtles being strongly symbolic of the Arawakan peoples as one of their main sources of protein and thus one of the most common archaeological remains. For me it was also important that the turtle population was decimated by the demand for their shells as raw manufacturing materials within the capitalist enterprise of the colonial machine.

The object, the Taino ritual seat, duo, is described in A History of the World in a 100 Objects as being used by Taino chiefs to contact the spirit world.4 MacGregor’s co-author José Oliver asks us to think of the duho not as furniture but as an anthropomorphised person, upon whose back the sitter perches. And as a person it contains a spirit or a cemi. The main use was in a ceremony called ‘kohoba’. Kohoba is a word for a hallucinogenic drug, which is still used today in South America for the same purposes – in order to have a contact with these spiritual beings. And this is how they formulated policies because they consulted these supernatural beings – about who to marry, who to go to war with, who to make peace with, who their daughters should marry, and so on.5

I like to imagine the connections between the duho and my artwork in this idea of the back, Caguama growing from the back of Damian Caracaracol, and the Taino sitting on the duhos back to learn and grow.

Have we become like Caguama birthed from the back of Damian Caracaracol as he rests on all fours, providing structure and support? If we are all born from his back, must we look to each other for council? Do we embody or ancestors and our gods?

The Object Journeys

How did this duho and the other Taino objects held by the British Museum, arrive there? We made a similar journey across the Atlantic sea; the last leg of the Triangular Trade, once reserved for material good like these objects, is now a migrant highway.

The duho from Dominican Republic is listed on the British Museum website as: “Found in a cave in Santa Domingo” called Duho; Arawak craftsmanship, 15th century. For the figure representing Boinayel the Rain Giver (Am1977, Q3, andCarved canopied cohoba stand, Am1977,Q.1) it notes that it was, ‘referred to in Archaeologia,1803 as being exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries of London on April 11, 1799, having been found in a cave in June1792.’6 The cave is listed as Verve cave in Clarendon, Jamaica. The method of acquisition by the British Museum is currently unknown.7

These objects have been exhibited extensively around the world, listed as the best examples of pre-Columbian art, but they have never been loaned to their countries of origins, despite loan requests.8 It was looking at these object journeys that inspired me to create my own. This act of control over what were the region’s oldest masterpieces, objects generally unknown to the people of Jamaica, angered me.

The original display of my sculpture came with a note about the myths they represented, as well as an object biography. The imagined narrative was that it had been discovered by Christopher Columbus who ordered it to be brought back to Spain as a gift for queen Isabella. Only when it was damaged during transport did they realise it was not made of gold but clay. As a result Columbus devalued it, and so it was not gifted as intended, but put in storage indefinitely until it was acquired by the International Gallery of Jamaica (my invented institution) and then redisplayed for its historical significance not its materiality.

I had to destroy my original sculpture after first exhibiting it in 2014, because it was both too heavy and too fragile to move. I chose to keep the heads. At the time I told my family I was channelling the British Museum’s energy, thinking then of the Parthenon marbles — and these objects certainly have their place alongside the Parthenon marbles in discussions on repatriation.9

Despite destroying the majority of this sculpture in 2014 I redisplayed the heads in 2019. When I redisplayed it I added a catalogue card, using the British Museum object number for the figure of Boninayel, and mixed the curator’s notes, regarding date of manufacture, culture of makers, provenance and curator’s notes, with descriptions to match my wok and the stories of Daminan and Carguma.

I am recapping my practise to date as a means of reflecting on what had been an attempt at subversion of the structures already available to discuss Caribbean culture. These structures were created during the colonial period and so maintain the same understanding of the world, civilisation and power created by the colonialist.

I want to classify this as the masculine version of decolonial practice. It centres the structures of power, by referring back to it constantly. It is concerned with taking power, taking the tools of colonialism and changes who sits at the top of the pyramid. This approach is deeply patriarchal; it includes misogynoir, and often its by-product is subjugating other people or spaces to assume power. There is often collateral damage, and those who suffer are ultimately the most vulnerable, rather than those who are most at fault. This in itself might be considered the legacy of colonial strategies of divide and rule.

For example, my approach does no damage and is of little concern to the British Museum, but could be seen as superseding other indigenous voices as, by using the colonial structures to describe my work, I also am supported by the other power of colonialism, fitting in to algorithms we use today to structure and share information, including writing articles and being published by so-called authoritative journals and publishers. Yet I have no Taino ancestry. I do not mean to exaggerate my impact or my damage, but it is clear to me that I could assume a space of authority, leveraging other allocations of power I have received by working within museums and cultural institutions, that my practice critiques. And while this method of decolonial practice does provide information on hidden histories and revelations of injustice, it does not centre people, nor healing. It remains an element of discussing the world through objects, and not through subjects.

And so I am taking today an opportunity to reimagine this process, by imagining a feminine version of decolonial theory.

I want to imagine, how decolonial theory can centre individuals, care, repair and imagination, grounding my reflections in the personal, what I was taught as a child, how I speak with my peers, my elders, my youngers [Figure 7]:

The Taino are not dead, they did not die.

Colonialism did not end them as our schools taught us.

They are the ancestors of our land. The objects they made were concerned with the imagination of our world.

Their stones represented zemis, and gods as the mountains, and those of us who leave and come home can feel the mountains within our heart.

While they may not be my direct ancestors, we are connected through Jamaica, or Xaymaca.

Boinayel cries and forms the rivers, in the land of wood and water.

We know that the rivers are a source of life. They are important and healing. They provide but must also be cared for.

This duho, is a vessel to connect the ancestors of the Caribbean to their ancestors.

It was a tool to connect us through time and space, and today it still has this power. Sitting on the backs of the giants who came before us.

They bear our weight, they support our growth.

The hardwood used to form this piece, has weathered many storms, it would have survived hurricanes and earthquakes, colonialism and enslavement. It survives to remind us that we can survive.

Time is an idea. It isn’t a line, is an ever-swirling storm and flowing river. We will never return to the same moments, but we will bring elements of the past with us, and the future as well.

What can we learn from the Taino ancestors of the Caribbean? What do we know about our land now? What do we value? If they were present, what debates would we have?

Would we discuss the value of war in the search of peace? Would we warn them about embracing strangers? Would they warn us? Would we challenge their understanding of nobility?

Would it be like a debate of the dinner table with our elders today, eating bammy and being reminded that it was once called casebe and ingested by the Tainos? Trying to challenge old thoughts born from old worlds, while also trying to absorb stories and narratives of lives lived, lessons learnt and sacrifices made?

My imagining of the feminine version of decolonial practice for me, is an intimate conversation, with questions that are theoretical and thoughtful. It is the search for connections. For some lesson to have been learnt from someone else’s sacrifice.

It doesn’t need to be in a museum, and ideally it would be in a domestic space, a grandparents house, while we eat at the dining table, under blanket, pouring over photo albums, sewing clothes.

It would not be a struggle for power, but more a tool of radical self-care. It would be about remembering and growing, not a denial of pain, but an acknowledgement that in the process of healing, anger is an early step. It must occur, but we cannot live within anger. It is not sustainable.

I am at the start of this process in imagining this way to be decolonial, and I hope learn from as many others in this process. I want to talk so others know what I am thinking, but primarily I want to listen, so that we can grow together.


1 Rachael Minott, ‘Can Taíno culture be used to decolonise representations of Jamaicans?’ Sainsbury Research Unit, 2017

2 William, Fagg ‘Tribal Image: Wooden Figure Sculpture of the World’ British Museum Press, 1977, 1

3 Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson, “Mother Sea Turtle” Times of the Islands: Sampling the Soul of the Turks and Caicos islands. 2008, accessed 04/07/2020 https://www.timespub.tc/2008/04/mother-sea-turtle/

4 Taino Ritual Seat, A History of the World in 100 Objects Status and Symbols (1200-1400 AD) Episode 5. Podcast. Neil MacGregor and José Oliver. (3 June 2010, BBC Radio 4) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00st9zg

5 Ibid.

6 Stool; duho Am1949,22.118, Object record, British Museum Register 1949 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am1949-22-118

7 Figure Am1977,Q.3, Object record, British Museum Register 1949 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am1977-Q-3

8 Joanna Ostapkowicz, “The Sculptural Legacy of the Jamaican Taíno Part 1: The Carpenter’s Mountain carvings” Jamaica Journal 35,3 (2015) 54

9 Gareth Harris, “Growing pressure on the British Museum as Jamaica is latest government seeking return of objects”, The Art Newspaper, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/jamaica-british-museum 8 August 2019


Figures

Figure 1: Stool (with anthropomorphic figure), duho made of wood, gold. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 2: Figure with canopy (facing left); Taino wooden figure © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 3: Carved bird-faced figure (deity?) made of wood. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 4: Male figure (deity?) made of wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 5: Deminán Caracaracol and Caguama (2014) Rachael Minott

Figure 6: Possibly representations of Deminan Caracaracol and Caguama (2019) Rachael Minott

Figure 7: Collage: Head to Head (2019) Rachael Minott


Bibliography

Carlson, Betsy and Keegan, Bill, “Mother Sea Turtle” Times of the Islands: Sampling the Soul of the Turks and Caicos islands. 2008, accessed 04/07/2020 https://www.timespub.tc/2008/04/mother-sea-turtle/

Fagg, William, ‘Tribal Image: Wooden Figure Sculpture of the World’ British Museum Press, 1977

Harris, Gareth, “Growing pressure on the British Museum as Jamaica is latest government seeking return of objects”, The Art Newspaper, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/jamaica-british-museum 8 August 2019

MacGregor, Neil and Oliver, José, Taino Ritual Seat, A History of the World in 100 Objects Status and Symbols (1200-1400 AD) Episode 5. Podcast. Neil MacGregor and José Oliver. (3 June 2010, BBC Radio 4) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00st9zg

Minott, Rachael, ‘Can Taíno culture be used to decolonise representations of Jamaicans?’, Sainsbury Research Unit, 2017

Ostapkowicz, Joanna, “The Sculptural Legacy of the Jamaican Taíno Part 1: The Carpenter’s Mountain carvings”, Jamaica Journal 35,3 (2015) 54

Stool; duho Am1949,22.118, Object record, British Museum Register 1949 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am1949-22-118

Am1977,Q.3, Object record, British Museum Register 1949 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Am1977-Q-3

2 thoughts on “Head to Head: Masculine and Feminine Approaches to Decolonisation. Taino sculptures from the Caribbean”

  1. Really interesting piece, I enjoyed it. I’d have loved to see a close up photo of the catalogue card you created for your work. The feminine half, if I may call it that, of the piece reminded me of several poems in an anthology of Caribbean poetry put together in the 1950s that draw on the ancient history/archaeology of the Caribbean and really help to emphasise the human stories within this remote past.

    Like

  2. Hi Amara, Thanks for reading and your comment, I will update my artist website soon with more images, but for your reference the content of label i created was:

    Object no: AM1977, Q3
    Object type: figures

    Culture: made by Arawaks; made by Taino period: 15th C (late)?

    Provenance: acquisition details unknown; previous owners unknown status: acquired

    Curators notes:
    Found in Vere cave, Jamaica (West Indies) by a British surveyor

    Possibly the best surviving representation of pre-Colombian art in the Caribbean

    These heads were part of a larger, life size sculpture of two intertwined people that was fixed to the cave, the heads alone were salvaged
    Possibly representations of Deminan Caracaracol and Caguama

    Like

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