“Everything slackens in a wreck,” wrote poet Khal Torabully about the migration of Asians to the Americas in the nineteenth century. Between 1838 and 1917, over half a million indentured workers were taken to plantations in Guadeloupe, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere, intended as replacement labor following the abolition of slavery. Their subsequent experiences and those of their descendants revealed their sea voyage as a place of destruction and creation, a concept Torabully termed “Coolitude,” after Aimé Césaire’s “Négritude.” East and South Asian migration to the Caribbean is marked by violence similar to (but not the same, and not equal to) those of the system of slavery that preceded it. And like enslaved and formerly enslaved people, these migrants were and are also engaged in “wrecking work.” Blows were struck to the Hindu caste system, patriarchy, and other systems of power, new forms of culture and knowledge emerged, and, more often than not, better material living conditions for subsequent generations resulted.
The artworks that comprise everything slackens in a wreck demonstrate both this long, continuing history of survival and the particular contours of the artists’ lives and their necessary choices within the various spaces they inhabit in the Americas. Margaret Chen (Jamaica/Canada), Andrea Chung (USA), Wendy Nanan (Trinidad and Tobago) and Kelly Sinnapah Mary (Guadeloupe) share a lineage in indentureship, and each contends with the complex legacy of this heritage over a century after their ancestors boarded ships headed from Asia to the Americas. They grieve and criticize the enduring, destructive impact of processes of colonization, but in their practices—whether giving new life to old discards or proposing new ways of looking—they also recognize migrants’ determined survivability. They find and activate productive opportunities in the midst of crisis.
Image caption: Kelly Sinnapah Mary, Notebook of No Return: Memories, 2022, Acrylic on canvas.