An Ode To Mary Prince

Joscelyn Gardner

The story of Mary Prince and her impactful contribution to the British abolitionist movement has been a focal point of Joscelyn Gardner’s work for many years. The Barbadian artist, whose mixed media artworks are rooted in her (white) Creole heritage, explores the influence of colonial and patriarchal systems on Caribbean history.

As we head into the Cup Match holiday this weekend and the emancipation celebrations that it marks, we look back at Black Mary; or Molly ‘Princess Of Wales’, a two channel video installation exhibited at the Bermuda National Gallery in 2016, in which Joscelyn brings to life the story of Mary Prince and examines both historical and contemporary viewpoints of her narrative.

Legislation was passed in Bermuda earlier this year renaming the second day of Cup Match Mary Prince Day in recognition of her pivotal role in the abolition of slavery, both in Bermuda and across the Caribbean. On the eve of this historic moment, we caught up with Joscelyn to reflect on Black Mary and discuss how, through her artwork, she attempts to “speak the unspeakable, retrieving atrocities that lie buried in our collective memory in order to reconcile the past with the present and move towards a metaphorical healing of wounds“.

BNG: When did you first come across The History Of Mary Prince and how did it impact you?

JG: I first read Mary Prince’s 1831 slave narrative in 2002. It is the only extant published narrative by a female slave that relates to the British Caribbean so it was an important document for my research on Creole women from the period. Mary’s story, “in her own words”, is possibly as close as you can come to gleaning what life would have been like for an enslaved woman at this time.

Mary Prince had a series of five different owners over her lifetime before she won her freedom. The hardship that she faced and the torture she, and the other slaves whom she lived with, endured at the hands of her owners is difficult to encounter. Once you have read it, you don’t easily forget it. Her voice made an important contribution to the abolitionist movement in Britain and it has been part of my work for several years.

Black Mary; or Molly ‘Princess Of Wales’ playbook.

BNG: How can art help us to understand and reconciliate the horrors of slavery and its lasting legacy?

JG: It is important that we acknowledge our colonial history so that we can learn from it and understand how its racist ideology has shaped how we think and how it continues to impact contemporary society. Art permits an artist to enter into a conversation with the viewer in a manner that allows the viewer to slowly discover and engage with what is being presented at their own pace. Everyone brings their own baggage to the viewing experience. No two viewers will leave with the same conclusions.

I believe that it is important for an artist not to be didactic in their work, but rather to open up the viewer to multiple viewpoints so that they can reach their own understanding of events. As we know, history is written by those in power. I believe that unearthing other voices from archival fragments can help us imagine what life was like for all subjects in a specific period.

As an artist with a postcolonial feminist perspective whose family history is rooted in the Caribbean, I am specifically mining history for the voices of both black and white Creole women of the colonial period. By confronting the harsh realities of slavery and its legacy, we can reach a better understanding of how black lives have been unfairly shaped by this racist system of exploitation, and by extension, appreciate how white privilege has been ingrained in contemporary society.

The 3D stage is based on a 19th century toy puppet theatre.
Detail of the replica was made for the installation.

BNG: The set for Black Mary; or Molly, Princess of Wales is based on early 19th century toy puppet theatre. What attracted you to this as a medium?

JG: I often draw on 18th and 19th century print history in my work since the printed image was a primary means by which Europeans inscribed and circulated their cultural beliefs. The 19th century toy theatre appealed to me on various levels.

Firstly, these miniature theatres were very popular in the early 19th century. Often, the plays staged in them enacted stories from exotic and distant lands that were filled with emotion, terror, and horror, but nevertheless ended happily. The stories would be told through song. Around this time, printed ephemera from these plays included images of the play characters, as well as sets, prosceniums, and playbooks. Wealthy people would have a miniature version of a theatre built, and children would read the playbook words and manipulate the characters as drawing room entertainment for the adults. By the 1830s, these toy theatres became more commonplace and the plots often involved anti-slavery sentiments. It therefore seemed to be an ideal medium through which to ‘stage’ Mary’s narrative.

Secondly, the idea of the ‘performance’ of identity is one that interests me. In his book titled The Repeating Island (1992), Antonio Benitez Rojo writes that “in the Caribbean, we are all performers….. we all try to act the roles that our skin reads out to us”. Colonialism dictated a hierarchy based on skin colour and we have (blindly) adhered to this over centuries. In the Caribbean, ‘performance’ of identity was very pronounced in the colonial period. The Creole population outfitted themselves in European costumes, mimicked European manners and customs, and paraded their worldly goods on the stage of thriving colonial port cities and plantation Great Houses, all the while feeding Europe’s prosperity on the backs of enslaved Africans who suffered brutal conditions in the construction of this wealth. They were essentially colonial puppets feeding into a racist ideology for economic gain. In the toy theatrical, Black Mary, the white Creole actors are silenced while Mary relates her narrative.

On yet another level, the toy theatre functions as a palatable way of presenting this cruel history to a contemporary audience, by concealing the horrors within an operatic performance which is appealing until one recognises what is being said. In some ways, the toy theatre functioned as a subliminal teaching device, encouraging children to ‘act out’ societal norms, thereby reinforcing them. In Black Mary, our heroine plays with her doll, imaginatively dramatising the actions of others upon herself as part of her narrative.

View of the audience at the Bermuda National Gallery.

BNG: The audience is used to express a variety of points of view across different time periods, genders and races as Mary narrates her story. Why did you choose to use this as a device and how did you approach the script?

JG: The individual responses from the ‘audience’ (the portrait heads) have been largely drawn directly from records of two court cases – Pringle v. Cadell and Wood v. Pringle – that were held in 1833 following the publication of Mary Prince’s narrative. The publisher (Mr. Pringle, secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society) accused Mr. Cadell (publisher of Blackwood’s Magazine) of libel for having slandered his and his family’s reputation in a harsh review of Mary’s narrative. Likewise, Mr. Wood, one of Mary’s owners named in the narrative, accused Mr. Pringle of bringing his name into disrepute. During the second case, Mary’s owners, as well as other people who had known her during her time in Bermuda, Turks & Caicos, Antigua and London, testified to her character.

Snippets from these opposing testimonies are presented as retorts to her story on the stage; some accusing her of heinous lies and others claiming her to be an honest and upright character. The contemporary viewpoints offered are taken from interviews with various historically knowledgeable residents of Bermuda who I met with while on a research trip to the island in 2015. I also attended a panel discussion held by CURB in which Dr Eva Hodgson spoke, and used some quotes from this source as well. Other viewpoints came from the controversy surrounding the publication of a Bermuda tourism brochure in 1994 which stated that the island “had a relatively benign system of slavery.” I hoped that the interjections provided by these disparate voices (from different age groups, genders, races and periods of time) would cause the viewer to interrogate questions around slavery’s legacy.

As we know, history is a construction and it changes according to the voices that document it. I provided a bench in the exhibition space between the audience video and the toy theatre video so that viewers could potentially react and add their own voices.

Theatre print sheets for Black Mary.

BNG: How long did the project take to develop?

JG: This was a very complicated project that unfolded over three years. I conducted research in London in the summer of 2013 (through a Canada Council for the Arts Grant) where, among other things, I researched toy theatres and theatrical productions at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Here, I was able to examine the copper plates used to produce the etched backdrops and paper cut-out characters for the theatres, as well as the miniature playbooks.

Back in my studio in Canada, the costumes for the (live) actors were all made from sewn and sculpted paper and the printed backdrops and stage props were created by making copper etchings in the traditional manner and then weaving reproduced text elements from Mary’s original published narrative into the images. I constructed a toy theatre using these elements so that I could reference it for the video.

The recording of the video footage and sound was done in several locations. Some of the still characters (the white family members and dog) were filmed against a green screen at Chapin Studio in Canada, and the main character, Mary, was filmed against a green screen at Andrew Hulsmeir’s Studio in Barbados. All of the sound was produced at Canefield Studio in Barbados, where sound director and operatic composer, Stefan Walcott is located and where the main actress/singer, Melanie Jean-Baptiste was based. The ‘audience’ video was also filmed in Barbados. All of the sound and video footage was edited in Canada – the animated toy theatre video was created in 3D animation using the live footage and still printed images in a simulated 3D space, and the audience video was assembled using a collage approach.

In all, over 40 people were involved in the production of this work! It was a considerably draining but rewarding experience. Everyone who worked on the project devoted their time and talents in the service of this important message.

View of the Black Mary installation at the Bermuda National Gallery.

BNG: What are your lasting memories of the exhibition at the Bermuda National Gallery?

JD: I was extremely pleased that the BNG invited me to exhibit this work in the heart of Hamilton, especially since Mary Prince had recently been named as a national hero in Bermuda. It was heartening to see the public engaging with the video installation, although I was not in Bermuda for very long once the show opened. I was fortunate to be able to speak to viewers during a public discussion about the work that was held at the Bermuda National Gallery that week. This was memorable owing to the interesting feedback and active discussion. I was also pleased by the educational material provided by the gallery so that school children could be encouraged to interact with the work.

Click HERE to explore more work by Joscelyn Gardner.