I have long admired Deborah Jack's work, which is often a series of lyrical portraits that evoke memory, resistance, loss, migration and hope. In her photographs Jack skillfully constructs and deconstructs what viewers think we know, what at first seems obvious, to show us a hidden world of repressed memories. Her photographs are essentially her struggle to understand self and country, place and belonging. They are works that seek to both show and tell about the missing half of the story, the story renowned poet Lorna Goodison insists must be told.
In many ways Jack's life -- and work -- parallels the history of the Caribbean. Born in Rotterdam, Holland, to parents who claim ancestry from many parts of the Caribbean, she is the product of migration. Indeed, it is precisely her memories of her island home of St. Martin, real and imagined, which give the island its central importance in her works. "St. Martin is not like the other Caribbean islands like Haiti or Jamaica," Jack contended in an earlier interview I conducted with her, "where people know their folklore and traditional stories; this is not as widespread in St. Martin. My counter to this absence is to create these mythologies/this mythology that has been lost.
"Some would say that, well, you are making this up, to which my reply is that most of history is a construct, anyway. History is a story. If this story is in the back of my mind I take the prerogative to say that this is a cultural/ancestral memory."
And so it is in her latest body of work in which Jack charts the journey of a young girl around an island. I am taking the prerogative to call this island St. Martin. Says Jack, "This young girl is both ancestor and descendant. Her journey begins inland, and she makes her way to shore only to return to the center. This is her impulse as a form of re/membering what was lost/forgotten." Jack continues, "The young girl travels across visible and invisible boundaries until she comes to the shore. The shoreline literally represents the edges of the island, which represents the transitional space of departure and arrival. It is a season of bloom."
A season of bloom. That phrase alone indicates that Jack is a poet. In addition to being a visual artist she is also an award-winning and accomplished poet with two collections to her name. In fact poetry was how Deborah Jack and I first came into each other's lives, for we met, many moons ago, in a summer poetry workshop at the University of Miami, taught by none other than Lorna Goodison. I still have an image in my mind of the tall, graceful Goodison floating to class on a carpet, it seemed to me, of the same red flowers that Jack utilizes in her latest body of work.
For Jack, the blood-red flowers that bloom in abundance all over her beloved St. Martin -- indeed, all over the Caribbean -- "are at once metaphors for the wounds of history combined with the beauty of regeneration. Blossoms erupt on hillsides, in valleys and flesh. The foliage cloaks the soil that nurtures and buries our histories." "My work," Jack goes on to explain, "explores the relationship of the natural world to memory, personal and cultural. The hurricane, the sea, the shore, the land and the flora all play a role in creating memorials. In these narratives I've created a seasonal memorial. These works of mine are cycles of memory."
If her work seems hauntingly familiar, maybe this is so because it engages one of the essential tropes of Caribbean literature and visual arts: the Caribbean being this beautiful but also terrible place. One cannot deny the beauty of Jack's St. Martin: the lush green of the trees, the strikingly flamboyant orange/red flowers. But within this beauty other narratives are being told: ghosts lie in wait and coexist with the inhabitants of the island. The color of her flowers, for example, recalls the bloody history of the island. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that this reclamation is all carried out in a gendered space, the Motherland, with its focus on the vegetation of the island. The fact that the only person we see in these photographs is a young girl with blood-red flowers all about her seems to indicate a rite of passage to becoming a woman. Consequently, there is no denying the story of survival and incredible beauty that is at the center of the story. As I look at Deborah Jack's latest series of photographs I think, Long may Deborah Jack sing! How lucky are we who are able to hear her songs.
Until next time.