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Slave portraits help piece Bermuda’s history together

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I Am Because You Are: For her first solo exhibit at home, Gherdai Hassell wanted to create something “really powerful”.

Her canvas was the Bermuda National Gallery. Inspired by her own family tree, she decided to fill it with art that would share what was for her, an untold story.

“My aunt collects all of our family memorabilia – all of the photographs from everybody, newspaper clippings … she just kind of keeps everything. She had this binder that had pictures and images and then there was also a family tree in there and it was really interesting because I had never heard about it before or seen it.”

Laverne Albouy’s research went back eight generations, to Papa Short. A member of the Igbo tribe in West Africa, he was enslaved and taken to the Caribbean island of St Kitts. His descendants ultimately made their way here.

“I was just floored,” Ms Hassell said. “Being in Bermuda and having this kind of history, you don’t hear about what your family lineage is, or no one actually knows. So to be able to actually have access to that information was really powerful to me, especially as a visual artist.”

She went to the Bermuda Archives to see if she could track down anything more. While she found nothing about her own family there, she did discover something she hadn’t previously known existed: the Bermuda Slave Registers. Dated from 1821 to 1834, they kept track of slaves and their owners to ensure the latter were compensated for the loss of their ‘property’ upon emancipation.

“I was born and raised in Bermuda, had many social studies classes and when I think about the ways in which slavery was kind of talked about and discussed or taught, it was always from an ‘other’ perspective; that it didn’t really necessarily happen here in Bermuda,” Ms Hassell said. “So to come face to face with the actual history, the tangible fact that this was something that happened here just really moved me and I felt like I needed to do something with that.”

She was also intrigued by another archive find – photographic portraits of the descendants of slaves, taken in the 1890s by NE Lusher.

From those came the idea for the painted portraits that now feature in her exhibit at the BNG.

“All of the faces are painted from the people in the pictures,” Ms Hassell said. “What I did was I split the faces up and I kind of mixed together their identities.

“Kind of what I was thinking about when looking at this history is we don’t really know the truth of it or what happened or who people actually were. Languages were lost; families were mixed up and separated. I wanted a way to represent that and so that was the idea for the ripping of the faces and piecing them back together which I felt to be really important to do because we have this history but we have since which progressed from that as well.”

As pleased as she was with the paintings she felt she needed something more in order to give the space its due.

For the past few years she’d collected “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of archival images and kept them in her iPad. Although she had never dreamed she might one day put them to use, it struck her that they could be part of a large-scale installation.

She included them alongside a replica of a registry book with 350 reimagined names and identities, also attaching information from the Bermuda Slave Registers.

“When I came across the registry books it clicked to me that, in looking at the registers, there were hundreds and hundreds of names of people that had no faces,” Ms Hassell said.

“I felt it to be one of the most important things I’ve done with this exhibition. The exhibition is called I Am Because You Are which is based on an African proverb, ubuntu, which means I’m a part of you and I stand here because you came here before me.

“I am [is a] powerful statement. Anything we say after the words I am is factual and becomes true. We’re looking at this history that these people kind of had placed upon them; I felt it really important to be able to decolonise the archive in some way by taking back their humanity and giving them an African name and allowing them in this moment to claim that.”

Ms Hassell is pursuing a master’s degree in contemporary art with the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. At the moment she is based in Manchester, England because of Covid-19.

Showing her work as part of the 2020 BNG Biennial “was a fantastic opportunity” for her as an artist.

“But at that point I was like well, you know, people love what I’ve done with the Biennial but I don’t know if I want to do that.

“The response [to I Am Because You are] has been more than I could have even imagined. We’ve had people come in here and had real emotional and visceral response to this work. Some people have cried. When I was making the work I knew it was going to be powerful but …. it’s different actually seeing people’s reactions … I’m just so moved by it. It’s a dream for me.”

That her family approved was also important.

“I have a really big family and also a really tight-knit family and they’re so proud of me [that I was] able to take our family history and come up with an idea that is so much even bigger than us. I made the work, I had the idea for it but our family history is also the history of so many other families as well. I think among the Diaspora there’s a common thread of this kind of shared collective history and experience and so what I love is that people can come in here and see themselves reflected.”

Next up is an exhibit in May at the National Museum of Bermuda.

“I’m really excited about that and then thereafter I’ll be in school online in Manchester. I finish in June of next year and after that we’ll see. I want to do some residencies and try to get into some fellowships and things like that. It’s exciting.”

I Am Because You Are is on at the Bermuda National Gallery through September

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Published March 22, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated March 22, 2021 at 10:37 am)

Slave portraits help piece Bermuda’s history together

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