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Mary Prince: in her own words

Important and provocative: the Gardner Installation based on the autobiography of Mary Prince is exceptional and should be seen

Great news: Joscelyn Gardner’s Mary Prince multimedia installation at the Bermuda National Gallery is being held over until next Thursday. So, for those who have not already seen it, there is still opportunity to do so. For those who want to see it again, here is another opportunity.

In case you missed out on what this installation is all about, it is an artistic video experience on the life of Mary Prince, one of our national heroes. In one video, Mary is placed in the centre, in a theatrical, stage-like setting, but with an audience on another screen at the back of the gallery. The video audience is made up of individuals who represent varying opinions — some from the time of Mary Prince; others from today.

The installation is based on the autobiography of Mary Prince, who as the star of the show; she is empowered as she tells of her life. She is surrounded by individuals, her owners, who are shown as cut-outs that do not move, which seems fitting, as they come across as unmoving, unconcerned as to her suffering, both physically and emotionally. Joscelyn Gardner employed a postmodern technology, but has turned it into a period piece, a kind of 19th-century toy theatre.

Most of us Bermudians probably know something about the life of Mary Prince, first through her autobiography, but also through her being made a national hero.

Her autobiography was first published in 1831 in London, where it made such an impact on the anti-slavery movement that it went through three printings during its first year.

The book is credited with playing a pivotal role in the abolition campaign. The autobiography also had detractors, those who favoured slavery and especially her former owners, who, in 1833, sued the publisher for libel and won. In 1828, her owners at the time took Mary to England. Once there she was free. In Britain, slavery was not legal.

In a recent conversation, artist Gardner stated that in making this installation, she hoped to facilitate through art a positive dialogue on matters of race. African-American philosopher, bell hooks seems to concur when she suggests aesthetics — our shared love of beauty — as a possible bridge between varying classes of people.

I seldom use superlatives when writing reviews, but the Gardner Installation is exceptional. Certainly, for the Bermuda National Gallery this artwork is new territory. Thinking over the past 25 years that the BNG has been open, I do not recall ever having seen an art video of this magnitude. I understand that it took three years and at least 30 people to get it all together. Of course, this does not guarantee success, but in the hands of Joscelyn Gardner, who researched, planned and directed its creation, it is a great success.

This is an important, provocative exhibition and one I recommend seeing, but it will take time — it is not a show you can rush.

It also takes concentration, as there are conflicting voices: that of Mary, but also those other voices that intrude and interrupt her. That was intentional, but it does not make for easy listening. This kind of debate, a discussion on race, is often difficult — what with varying opinions and it can get emotional and heated. Gardner’s installation is designed to provoke, but hopefully will make for more light than heat. Go and see it for yourself.