I Am Because You Are: a thought-provoking exhibit at the BNG
Some years ago I was having lunch with friends when, in the course of conversation, someone suggested that a certain individual needed a brain transplant. I do not recall who they thought needed such, but it got me thinking: if that was ever a possibility, who would the recipient be?
The Gherdai Hassell exhibition at the Bermuda National Gallery, while not about brain transplants, is about something almost as drastic. It is about forcibly transplanting individuals from one place to another – from one way of life, from a particular culture, a particular language and all that it entails and so much more, to a completely new and foreign situation, all without consent. I write, of course about the institution of slavery.
The exhibition title I Am Because You Are suggests that we are who we are because of our backgrounds. As Ms Hassell states in the exhibition catalogue, the title is based on ubuntu, an African proverb. She says that it is taken from the Zulu phrase, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu meaning: a person is a person through other people. But if that background is torn forcibly from you so that everything in your new situation is completely foreign, who are you? This exhibition is basically about identities, fractured identities.
I understand that Ms Hassell was motivated to investigate the issue of slavery, because a relative had managed to put together a family tree, going back eight generations to an ancestor who was forcibly removed from Africa and taken to the West Indies as a slave.
Because of that piqued interest, Ms Hassell visited the Bermuda Government Archives, to see if she could learn more about her family. In that endeavour she was less successful, however, it did broaden her interest of slavery generally, for it was there that she discovered the Slave Registers.
The exhibition, which is in the National Gallery’s Watlington Room, is divided into two sections. On entering the show, to the left, there is a series of 350 “unique” portrait photos. I say unique because the artist has actually combined the photographs of different individuals so that they are seen as one.
On the right side of the gallery are six mixed-media portraits that are based on photographs of slave descendants taken by N. E. Lusher in the 1890s.
The six mixed media (oil paint and acrylic) portraits are actually collages. The artist initially painted these portraits on paper, but then ripped them horizontally and then glued them back together so that each portrait has obvious “scars” across their faces. She said that she saw these “scars” as metaphors of their torn lives, of their multilayered identities, both imposed upon and stolen from the enslaved.
The 350 photo portraits exhibited in the gallery are all printed on transparent acetate sheets. Underneath each portrait are African names, but these are imagined by the artist, as their actual African names are now lost. Instead, upon being “purchased”, the enslaved were given new names, including the surname of their owner.
The Archive’s Slave Register indicates each individual’s race (sometimes black, often coloured) and profession, such as mason, seaman, domestic etc. If you look carefully the information can also be seen beneath the transparent photo portraits.
Much of the information used in creating this show came from the Bermuda Government Archives, including the Slave Register which was produced shortly before emancipation so as to compensate the ”owners” for loss of “property”. Included in the exhibition, the artist has created her own slave registry with 350 unique “individuals”. Ms. Hassell says that her own register is a magical realist take on the historic ledgers in the archives.
Although each work of art can be appreciated as a stand-alone, what makes this exhibition so especially powerful is its presentation as a group. It is most compelling as an installation.
This is a thought-provoking exhibition and for me, it has provoked all kinds of thoughts. Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire, including Bermuda, 187 years ago, the long-term effect of that scourge is still impacting us. No matter our background, slavery diminished all of us and continues to do so. Obviously, it damaged the black community far more severely than that of the white, however, for us whites it has often desensitised us to much of human suffering from just one perspective – consider the enormous waste in human potential this institution caused.
Sad to say, the abolition of slavery was not universal; in some parts of the world, it is still ongoing.
This is a highly recommended show, but in visiting it, you need time. It’s not an exhibition that should be rushed. Additionally, it is an exhibition that should stimulate and add to the ongoing conversation on racial matters.
I Am Because You Are, the first solo exhibition by Gherdai Hassell, is on view at the Bermuda National Gallery through September. With museums currently closed, the show can also be experienced as a virtual walk-through on www. bng.bm