True story, when I was at school I used to say that I was half-caste (not the politically correct term these days). I’m not, but people believed me. I thought that if I could be half white then I would be accepted in my predominantly white school. It worked to a certain extent and I was. I think that should tell you something. Even black people didn’t believe I was black. Admittedly I am quite light skinned but that’s just genetics for you.
Thinking about this body of work began when Isaac my son was born. It was important to us that he had both of our surnames. I’d always known that my surname had a dark past but somehow it didn’t really register. I even knew that on the island of St Kitts where my parents are from the phone book is half full of people who have the surname James.
I scratched the surface last year when I produced a triptych called ‘Life Archipelago’ an autobiographical piece that started to look back at my own history but it only went as far as my grandparents.
When I first put pencil to paper I was too raw. I had too much to say and not having a clear idea about how I wanted to say it. It was like having all channels trying to play at equal volume at the same time. This was as a result of reading books and a series of articles about race, St Kitts and its history. I should add talking to my dad. Our family history has been a closed subject, my grandmother refused to ever discuss it. This meant that we only ever knew what we actually lived if that makes sense. What happened before was not up for discussion. When my late aunt attempted a family tree many years ago it caused such huge problems that it was quickly forgotten and never spoken of again.
That being said having all this new found knowledge resulted in an outpouring of all the ideas being merged together almost. It was then that I realised that in order to make something remotely coherent it would mean slowing down to a certain extent. The fervour has had a benefit though it allows me to think more abstractly about the work.
Some of the symbols that recur throughout are from my own personal visual dictionary if you like, the others are from Nigeria and the African continent. There are also a few that were found on St Kitts left by the indigenous tribes that predate slavery on the island.
The work has become all encompassing, as there are so many things that are linked together. It’s when you look back that you start to remember things that you had almost completely forgotten. Obviously when you look further back you discover things that you never knew. It has also led me to ask a lot more questions. The work I have produced is part autobiographical, historical, documentary, exploratory and my own feelings about a variety of issues surrounding race.
It is by no means at an end as there are gaps that need to be filled; I need to spend some time reflecting on how I want to develop it. I want my children to be proud of their African heritage as well as their Anglo/Irish. I also want them to understand it and that knowledge is power.
If you got this far then well done.