Inspired by island’s slavery past
Rule, Britannia. Rule the waves. Britons never will be slaves.
Cy Gavin has borrowed from this patriotic, mid-eighteenth century anthem for At Heaven’s Command, his solo exhibition at Sargent’s Daughters in New York.
While his work has often shown an attentiveness to the African Diaspora, his focus has shifted to particular places and historic events.
Some of the work was created here; the 30-year-old spent part of his time on the island in a cave and has incorporated Bermuda sand, his own blood and his Bermudian father’s ashes within the paintings. He spoke with Lifestyle about the experience.
Q: What’s the focus of this exhibit?
A: [It’s] a collection of five large paintings and one video — all created after a series of visits I made in 2015 to Bermuda, my father’s homeland. The work speaks to my interest in Bermuda’s history of slavery and its historic role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Two pieces on view, Sally Bassett, Laughing and Jeffrey’s Cave show familiar figures of resistance in Bermuda’s history; respectively, their defiance and marronage embody a spirit of self-determination that I feel worthy of commemoration.
Other pieces in the show address specific instances where hegemonic structures have apparently sought to erase the histories of people of colour in Bermuda. For instance, the painting, Rosewood Tucker’s Point Golf Club and Cemetery, came about after conducting interviews with Bermudians about the 1920s government-sanctioned expropriation of the largely black community at Tucker’s Town and then the 2012 removal of the historic Marsden Methodist Memorial Cemetery on the grounds of Tucker’s Point Golf Club.
The work calls to question valuation of black lives in Bermuda and the value assigned to sites of leisure and commerce. Besides the obvious disregard for the lives of those buried and their living families, the vandalisation of the cemetery at Tucker’s Point has larger reverberations. It was an apparently calculated and deliberate attempt to render history invisible and hearkens histories of ethnic cleansing as well as Bermuda’s history of institutional racism and slavery. While tombstones of the deceased may be bulldozed, history is not so easily rewritten, luckily.
How did you spend your time while here?
The work featured in At Heaven’s Command comes after two recent trips in 2015 where I camped out-of-doors, documenting the landscape/geological formations, flora, fauna and built spaces. I also conducted informal and recorded interviews with Bermudians. It seems important to mention I did not come to Bermuda with the idea of beginning any of my work. I came with a very different purpose: to establish a relationship with the island that was my own — one that was not influenced by what I had heard from family or by things I had read. It was through the profound experience of establishing that relationship, that this current body of work incidentally comes into being (the works on display are a smaller part of a larger ongoing inquiry and body of work). As the show’s title alludes (it is taken from the song Rule, Britannia!), the work on display not only considers the cultural conditions that brought about the British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, but also considers historical accounts, past and present, that address race relations in Bermuda. In thinking about Bermuda’s history as a way station for ships on the Middle Passage, I think this fraught history can be extrapolated to discuss activities of colonies formed in the Americas, West Indies, Caribbean and elsewhere.
Can you walk me through your process, citing one or two pieces in particular?
I work across many different disciplines — from painting to performance, sculpture and video — following whatever course best serves an idea. This means there is no formula and I can feel nimble in the studio. I do often begin paintings with language as an undergirding. That is to say that many paintings have written language underneath the paint. I do not plan out paintings greatly beforehand, but rather have an idea and respond to the painting as it develops. In Rosewood Tucker’s Point Golf Club and Cemetery, the painting was begun with a poem recited by the last member of the Tucker’s Town community, who was forcibly removed from her home in 1923. The elderly Dinna Smith, after being displaced, is reported to have recited a poem: “Goodwin Gosling is a thief and everyone knows it. He carries a whistle, and Stanley Spurling blows it.” That language set the tone for me as I began this painting and kept my purpose in the fore of my mind over the weeks it took to complete the piece.
I’ve read that you incorporated materials such as sand, blood, tattoo ink and your father’s ashes. Can you speak a bit about this?
I want the painting to acknowledge the fact that it is an object and since I mostly work on one or two paintings at a time, the painting is an index of a time and place. Therefore, the painting is a kind of time capsule or at times, a reliquary. To that end, I do often incorporate materials other than paint into a painting. This body of work represents reflections on a real experience in real places and real times, so I gathered materials during that period from those real places and I want the paintings to bear testimony to the experience. One painting shown at Sargent’s Daughters depicts my imagining of Sally Bassett. As it is said that the first Bermudiana flower sprouted from Ms Bassett’s ashes, seeds of this plant have been incorporated into the paint that makes up the figure. Other pieces in the show may also incorporate sand, my blood, dry media and inks — these materials are hidden within the construction of the paintings, not featured visibly or prominently.
Each painting that I’ve seen, has a black figure at the centre. Can you tell me a bit about this?
I am almost never thinking of a body as just one body in my work. In painting figures as black, I am visualising an idea really: one of a conflated black identity, thinking about the African Diaspora in toto, not just the experiences of African-Americans. This means taking a look at cultural productions of Africa, of Europe, the Americas and a global community of diverse lineages. This decision came from thinking of the self as a living expression of the sum total of ancestral genetic material and feeling oneself the beneficiary of aeons of traditions, wisdom and strategies towards self-determination.
While here, you lived in a cave. How was that experience?
This was harrowing. I was trying to better understand what it felt like to be exposed to the elements and feel what the escaped slave, “Jeffrey”, may have felt on the first days of his finding shelter here. In trying to understand this experience I felt I could better understand what was at stake for slaves at this time. To feel that risking one’s death (in being recaptured) was preferable to having all civil liberties stripped of one. The painting shows the actual view of the Atlantic (looking out towards Africa) as seen at night through an aperture in the grotto.
Who, if any, are your greatest influences?
My greatest influence comes from interacting with the world around me — like spending time in Bermuda. I also find great inspiration in film, music, live performances, literature, talking to people and plumbing my imagination.
Can you tell me more about the video work in At Heaven’s Command?
Now, O Now I Needs Must Part shows a character (myself) with Elizabethan minstrel attire and lute, seated at a beach in Bermuda. The character sings the eponymous song by John Dowland, while looking out across the waves towards Africa. These videos came about after considering the cultural climate immediately preceding Bermuda’s founding. So I delved into Elizabethan literature, poetry and music. Having worked with a singing coach and having committed many songs to memory, I performed them on camera on the South Shore.
You once worked as an opera producer. Can you tell us a little about that?
I was associate producer for Beth Morrison Projects in New York City. Beth has formed a community around the production of risk-taking new compositions by emerging and established composers. The company partners with institutions like LA Opera, Fort Worth Opera and the Brooklyn Academy of Music to present work that redefines the place classical singing inhabits today. This work allowed me to engage many of my interests (post-production, live performance production, visual arts and classical singing). Being involved in this kind of work also allowed me to understand first hand the immense amount of concentration, thought and effort that goes into artwork that may appear effortless.
And I have to ask: you headed post-production for Falcon Studios. How did you get involved in the porn industry?
I had worked as a producer for Carnegie Mellon University and The University of Pittsburgh in the development of two online video-based French courses and in the development of tools for curriculum reform in underserved schools, respectively. I left Pittsburgh during the economic downturn of 2008 and relocated to San Francisco, where I saw many more opportunities. Here I answered an ad asking for someone who knew a litany of speciality software and who had worked with transcoding media for many applications — work I knew well. At the interview, I realised where exactly I had come and finding the small number of employees there warmhearted, familial, professional and uncompromising in their work, I heartily accepted the job offer. The rigours of this environment prepared me for moving to New York and working in live event production and equipped me with an understanding of budgets, licensing, distribution and content traffic management. These along with invaluable professional competency in video post-production are all things I have been able to port to my own practice, especially with moving image work.
•At Heaven’s Command is on display at Sargent’s Daughters through Sunday, May 15.