How We Came to Be and Why We’re Here: In Conversation with Djenabé Edouard

Here & Home

The Riverdale Hub

Mayworks Festival of Working People & the Arts

Felicia Byron, Sydellia Ndiaye and Shai Buddah, curated by Djenabé Edouard

Here & Home Postcard. The Dive by Felicia Byron. Photos courtesy of Djenabé Edouard and the artist.

By Elizabeth Polanco

My eye first lands on the soft pink ear of a conch shell resting on a stack of books that are arranged just so. Crochet doilies make spiderwebs on a carved wooden coffee table and the soft red arms of a couch. Leaning against a steamer trunk with a record player rigged on top is the shining face of Rita Marley; I catch her smiling up at me through the thin plastic of a vinyl sleeve.

Mismatched wooden frames, the kind that would dot a grandmother’s wall with dated photos of weddings or graduations, enshrine a variety of portraits. There’s a smiling line of schoolgirls in lilac uniforms. There are solemn men, a mother and child, and boys playacting toughness. A young boy backflips off a pier in a glorious arc, his arms outstretched to the streak of azure waiting below.

Everything here – the photographs, the living room mise en scène – has been tenderly assembled to create the visual language of somewhere. The room is permeated with a distinct, diasporic feeling of place and belonging – to a somewhere that isn’t here. Yet this space understands that a sense of home can be conjured by something as simple as a meal, a song, a photograph, or a dance.

Here & Home, a group exhibition at the Riverdale Hub, explores the rocky, tenuous borderland between these two disparate places. In collaboration with Mayworks, the labour-centered community arts festival, the show celebrates Afro-Caribbean experiences of migration while addressing the difficult realities — exploitation, alienation — forged by unjust systems of labour. The exhibition is a patchwork of different mediums, featuring portraits from the photographic series “Out of Many, One People,” by Felicia Byron, “Visionary,” a choreographed dance film by Shai Buddah, and “Wild Flower,” a poem by spoken word artist Sydellia Ndiaye. It’s a project deeply invested in exploring how it feels when home is beyond reach, and cultivating growth often means forsaking the fruits of your labour.

I spoke with multidisciplinary artist Djenabé Edouard, the show’s curator, whose devotional approach to bringing visibility to Afro-Caribbean narratives and legacies radiates throughout Here & Home. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Here & Home Installation Shot by Djenabé Edouard. “Wild Flower” by Sydellia Ndiaye. Photos courtesy of Djenabé Edouard and the artist.

I’d love to start with your vision of the show and how things manifested.

Right away, looking at themes of labour in the arts, I was immediately thinking about the photographer Felicia Byron and her work. I had actually mentored her as part of the NIA Centre‘s Creative Catalyst program in 2020; she showed me this series [Out of Many, One People] and it stuck with me for a while.

I was thinking about creating a dualistic approach within the Afro-Caribbean lens of here and home and what that feels like — where home truly is for Afro-Caribbean people of the diaspora — and Felicia’s series stood out as such poignant portraits of folks from Jamaica. It felt timeless, in the sense that we can always pinpoint these little cultural moments within these portraits and relate to them. People at the opening reception made remarks that these photos feel like they’re from St Kitts or Barbados, all the different islands. That was the key point, that it resonated with the whole Caribbean diaspora.

It was around themes of labour and legacy and migration and belonging, and how we have this nostalgic feeling of family being elsewhere, and our home being where we are. There’s a lot of layers to it, but the portraits were the cornerstone.

Then Sydellia’s poem followed. I had followed her work for some time and that poem really stood out as something that could be versatile, that the context could shift towards relating to someone in the labour field, who may not feel nurtured or even visible.

Felicia Byron. St. Hilda’s Girls. (Brown’s Town, Jamaica 2015). Photos courtesy of Djenabé Edouard and the artist.

One thing that really struck me in the exhibit was the lived-in feeling. There’s a couch, records, and even the frames for the photos — these feel like they would be in someone’s home, they’re not sterile gallery frames. I was curious about the importance of reminiscence or nostalgia to this show.

Creating a sense of home was a very big part of it. We wanted to create a living room installation and I actually worked with my mother, who selected the frames from Value Village! It was really meant to feel quaint and homey in that sense. Some of the pieces came from my mother’s house, like the conch shell, and that’s my vinyl player. It was about creating that space where people feel like they belong, and it feels familiar and nostalgic.

Felicia brought in some books and other trinkets from her mother, so it was a culmination of these little collected items from past generations. That’s what made it even more special. It was across time that these things were collected, instead of my contemporary belongings. We looked for those pieces that we could be like, “This is what I saw when I grew up.”

I feel like it’s more effective in creating recognition for a viewer than just looking at a framed photo on a wall. There are other markers in the space that tell you that you can see yourself here.

It was so important for people to feel like they were allowed to engage with the living room space. Often in galleries, you see this sterile set up, and I wanted people to feel like they could sit on the couch, flip through the books, hang out and take in the work.

Here & Home. Visionary Still. Choreography by Shai Buddah and Cinematography by Patricia Ellah. Photos courtesy of Djenabé Edouard and the artist.

Scanning the show, there’s a lot of different media being used. There’s photography, dance, and spoken word poetry — was it intentional to have artists from different pockets of the art world?

I wanted to merge these different mediums, as far as text, visual art, and movement — I felt like there’s these different capacities to evoke emotions from each of them. The dance piece was created specifically for Here & Home. Shai choreographed it, and Patricia Ellah was the cinematographer. That piece was really to speak to how the Afro-Caribbean diaspora moves through migration, emotionally, and how disorienting a lot of that can feel.

The dance itself was very intricate, in that it had these moments of rejoice, and other moments of depletion, sadness, and hopelessness. We wanted to capture the range of emotions that happens for folks who remove themselves from their initial home, and in coming to a new home feel alienated, unsure how to belong, how to feel and fit in. Those elements of culture shock came into play as well. The different mediums were very intentional — I wanted more ways than one to express the emotional arcs of migration and shifting where your home is.

Felicia Byron. Ride Through Town (Discovery Bay, Jamaica 2015). Photos courtesy of Djenabé Edouard and the artist.

Since this exhibit is in collaboration with the Mayworks Festival, there’s a heavy focus on labour. Can you speak to wanting to show the Afro-Caribbean experience and its relationship, as fraught or interconnected as it is, with labour and migration?

A lot of Felicia’s portraits spoke to the folks that are in the labour field, but with an intent to humanize them — to humanize our family members who work hard to give us the privileges we have, to put us in the positions we’re in as the following generation. And Sydellia’s poem was the narrative arc of how Afro-Caribbean people engage with the labour force and the sentiments that come from that: not feeling nurtured, like they don’t belong, and constantly questioning their worth.

We also had the chance to engage with the Black Class Action lawsuit folks. We went through a lot of their materials, and these narratives were coming up again and again. These workers come to a place to plant their seeds and grow, but they’re being continuously stifled, unable to be promoted, and kept in these same positions for years on end.

These were the big things we saw across the board, how stifling it can be to migrate and labour in a new place and not feel like you can grow there. You’re this specific cog in this specific wheel and that’s your only position. And it made me think back to a lot of my own family members — my uncle came from Jamaica; he was a butcher and had his own shop there. Here, he’s working for Maple Leaf and he’s still a butcher, but he hasn’t been able to cultivate more autonomy or promotions.

We create comfort back home, but we know that the shift is inevitably to grow and to access more, and that’s where the disconnect comes. With not being able to access more, we’re not able to give back to the next generation, and that creates a rupture in the legacy that our communities are trying to build overseas.

Legacy was an inherent theme that was going to run throughout the exhibit. 

You’ve written about preserving oral histories and its importance to your work. There’s so much that can be left behind — memories, myths, even entire ways of living or taking care of the land. What is it about that idea of legacy that attracts you as a curator?

It’s such an underlying factor in making work as an Afro-Caribbean person. It’s the same way that making art as an Afro-Caribbean person is inherently political — we’re always trying to build a legacy through art and tell our stories, ones that aren’t often told in the broader context of academic spaces. It becomes the only medium in which we can tell our stories — through art, through creating space for other artists. Legacy was an inherent theme that was going to run throughout the exhibit.

Sydellia’s poem follows you as you move throughout the gallery, it’s not fixed in one place. Can you speak to that process, and the intention?

That ended up being the most difficult part. Initially, I thought to have it in its own space, but I saw the value in breaking it up into stanzas and lines and placing it in particular areas, around certain photographs, to further amplify the message or call to it.

When Sydellia and I spoke about doing that, she was very open to it, which I was happy about — I know most artists want their full piece to be acknowledged as is. So that choice was intentional, but the actual placement and decisions were difficult. We tried to let it flow.

What would you like to see more of in curatorial practices, and in art spaces, moving forward?

More work from artists of colour, women artists. I advocate very heavily for Afro-Caribbean art and culture and heritage, and specifically, the female gaze. It’s a component that’s often missing — the female gaze unfiltered or unobstructed by male perspectives or input. That’s something we often lack in the art space. You’ll see female artists in a show, but with a male curator, and it’s still going through their lens. Being able to work with all women, all Afro-Caribbean women, and be the curator, was a very privileged opportunity for me. Allowing our work to speak from the core of our heart, what we really wanted it to mean, and how we wanted it to resonate was very important.

I also love that you got to collaborate with your mom on this. Legacy is really the glue between this show’s themes.

She’s such a creative person; I always love to engage her in that way and create that dialogue through art. And seeing work across generations is important — the older generation still has a lot to say, and we don’t take it in. We feel like we know what’s best now, how things work. But in the spirit of preserving oral histories, there’s still so much that has been left unsaid, so much that they can offer us, show us, teach us. We get wrapped up in this contemporary lifestyle — tech, advancement — and we forget the past and the value and gems that exist in those ideologies and ways of being. When we hear more of these backstories, of our families, we recontextualize our own stories in new ways. We have a broader perspective of how we came to be and why we’re even here.

Here & Home runs from May 2 – 18, 2023 at the Riverdale Hub as part of the Mayworks Festival of Working People & the Arts. You can find more of Djenabé’s work on her website and social media.

On May 17 at 7PM, attend a performance by spoken word poet Sydellia Ndiaye at the Here & Home Closing Reception.

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