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Bringing Mary’s story to life

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Joscelyn Gardner believes things are never black or white.

And so it's the grey bits she's chosen to highlight in her exhibit featuring the famed Bermuda slave, Mary Prince. It opens at the Bermuda National Gallery tonight, alongside the Bermuda Biennial.

“Today, and even at that time, everybody has different points of view and different conversations to bring to these issues,” the Barbadian said. “When her narrative was written she was giving it orally to a British woman, so she would have had her own slant on things. There are choices being made there — there's an agenda. [With my installation], even though she's being given agency, she's still being manipulated in a way because she's a player.”

The History Of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave was published in the UK in 1831. Ms Gardner created a toy theatre to tell the story, using separate screens for audience and spectacle.

The small-scale sets were popular in the 1800s; people would buy them already printed and add props, characters and a playbook to mimic plays shown in big theatres, at home.

More than 30 people worked for three years on Ms Gardner's project. The script is based on the text from Mary Prince's book, while the pictures and costumes are digital prints of the etchings.

“She had several owners,” the artist explained. “They've been stereotyped to be seen a certain way, so in each act they remain literally the same. They're cardboard cutouts. If you look at them closely, you'll see them blinking, breathing. They are alive but they have been silenced.

“It's very much Mary's story.”

The “audience” is composed of people for and against slavery. Ms Gardner interviewed Bermudians while researching the project; their voices are presented along with the dialogue of Mary's owners.

“Ideally, I would love contemporary Bermudians to [be] part of the audience,” she said. “They may want to argue with what's going on and talk back.”

The art professor at Fanshawe College in Canada said she has always sought to give voice to the silenced. Although Mary Prince's historic text was “well received by those against slavery, there was also a host of people who were against it”.

“Things are never black or white,” she said. “While I deal a lot with literally black and white, there's a lot of grey.”

Mary Prince, a Bermuda national hero, has played a part in her work for years.

“When the opportunity came up to do a show at the [BNG], Mary Prince is Bermudian so it seemed like a natural fit. A lot of my work has a feminist post-colonial methodology involved in the research, so I'm always looking for voices that have not been heard. In her case, she was heard and I find that interesting too.

“Two libel cases came out, so we have voices documented. I thought wouldn't it be interesting to bring those voices out of history and throw them at it and see what the discussion was then and how it relates to what it is now.”

Ms Gardner moved to Canada 15 years ago. Although born and raised in Barbados, she has also lived in West Africa, Guyana and Antigua.

Her father worked at Barclays and the bank would send him to England in the summers.

“My mother loved art, but was not into contemporary art, so we would go to the galleries and look at artists from [the 1800s], dragging me around old houses and portraits,” she remembers.

“This period is important to our history in the Caribbean because the foundation is colonialism, which obviously had a huge impact on this part of the world.

“I grew up in Barbados and my family go back to the 1600s on both sides, so I've dealt with a lot of what I call ‘creole identity'.

“I've reclaimed the use of the word creole from the 18th century when it was used to reference bodies that were born in the Caribbean to differentiate from bodies that were born in Europe or Africa. It was a term that suggested cultural difference.

“In Barbados, slavery is something that is discussed a lot in public media, but nobody talks about it in social situations.

“The white population make up seven per cent of the population so, as an artist, I felt I needed to confront that.

“There are real reasons for it being a topic of discussion and until we deal with it we can't move past it. If you don't acknowledge what went on and how we got to the point that we're at, you're sweeping things under the carpet, so my work is about revealing all those voices that have not been heard and what happened.

“The more I've researched, the more I've realised how horrific it was. You don't grow up knowing that. You don't grow up hearing about it because it's swept under the carpet.

“It's all influenced who we are today — what goes on economically, politically, in every layer of our social existence. That is what I'm interested in exploring and trying to bring different voices while being aware that I have a particular identity and therefore a particular slant, but I'm open about that.”

Ms Gardner will give an hour's talk at the BNG tomorrow, starting at 12.30pm. Admission is $10 for members; $15 for non-members. RSVP on 295-9428 or director@bng.bm. Black Mary; or Molly, “Princess of Wales”, a two-channel video installation that runs for 33:41 min is part of Bermuda Bienniel and runs until November 26.

Joscelyn Gardner. (Photograph by Nadia Hall)
Three-year project: one screen of the Black Mary or Molly, “Princess of Wales” exhibit, which opens at the Bermuda National Gallery tonight. (Photograph by Nadia Hall)
Joscelyn Gardner. (Photograph by Nadia Hall)
Joscelyn Gardner. (Photograph by Nadia Hall)

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Published June 16, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated June 16, 2016 at 8:40 am)

Bringing Mary’s story to life

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