2022 Bermuda Biennial

Re-Examining History

Dr Kristy Warren and Ami Zanders

Art allows us to tell our stories. Never was this more evident than in Embers, the first collaboration between academic Dr Kristy Warren and artist Ami Zanders

The short film, which was produced for the 2022 Bermuda Biennial, layers animation, archival research, legend, symbolism, and poetry to explore the life of Sally Bassett. This unique approach produces a nonlinear narrative, immersing the viewer in Bassett’s story as “a sense of the real and the imagined, past and present” fuse together.

As the Biennial comes to a close, we caught up with the pair to discuss why re-examining history means thinking creatively, how objects hold our memories, and why, when it comes to understanding the past, traditional historical sources alone are not enough.

BNG: Ami, last time we caught up (in August 2020) you had just begun experimenting with animation, having discovered the Stop Motion Animation app on your phone while confined away from your art studio during the first Covid-19 lockdown in England. This ultimately led to you changing the direction of your final MA Fine Art project at Liverpool John Moore University. How has your interest in animation developed since then?

AZ: I want to do more of it but I need more time as it’s a long process. This year, life and work have changed, giving me more freedom. I want to get back into it, but I also need to think about technology. I’m working with a phone on its last leg. My poor little phone can only handle about 15 seconds when I need about three hours’ worth of work. So that’s a bit of a problem, but it’s not stopping my love for it, or wanting to make more and working on ideas that are going to happen in the future.

BNG: How did your collaboration on Embers come about?

KW: Ami decided I should be an artist.

AZ: There was more to it than that. It was during the first year of Covid-19 – shortly after George Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. A social media post about the Tucker sisters led to us discussing the Sally Bassett bell. My sister Karla (Ingemann, the Appraisal Archivist at the Bermuda Archives) and I had one, but we thought it was from the American South. In talking with you we learnt that the bell was Bermudian, not from the south. Also, you have good ideas about releasing bad energy from artefacts that we’d been talking about since before Covid-19 started. 

KW: Yes, I see these objects as holding our memories. It is memories that a lot of us have ‘forgotten.’ What frustrates me is that much of this so-called forgetting is the result of purposeful erasure.

AZ: That’s what I thought was interesting. But, also, I think you’re an artist anyway. And you’re doing cool things.

Left: Dr Kristy Warren. Photograph by Alia Hamza. Right: Ami Zanders.

BNG: Kristy, this is your first exhibition. As a lecturer in Black History at the University of Lincoln, you have previously approached similar subjects from an academic perspective. However, this project re-examines history through an experimental lens, using a collage of archival documents, legend and symbolism. In what ways can an artistic approach such as this help us to tell our stories?

KW: I have only been employed as a lecturer for one year. When we began working on Embers, I was a post-doctoral researcher. I’ve worked across a few different universities and projects on short-term contracts. Through these various research projects, along with other work and education experiences, I learnt that traditional historical sources alone are not enough.

For one thing, it’s difficult to find the voices of the enslaved in archival sources. So, it’s necessary to use a range of sources that are stored in different archives and libraries, which were written and assembled by people who didn’t value us, to find fragments of our voices and experiences. We also need to pay attention to the narratives that have been passed down orally.

What I found so powerful about Sally’s traces in the archives is that she doesn’t speak much. Why would she speak to them? She’s already been to court before; they’d already decided to punish her. The stories that were passed down in Bermuda suggest that Sally Bassett saved her voice for other enslaved people. When she left the courtroom she spoke to them; I’d suggest this is because that’s who mattered to her.

AZ: You were talking before about the role of sailors in helping Sally. This means what happened her would have been passed on to the other islands through those same networks.

KW: Yes, they’re all connected. Bermudians would have learned of events on other islands. So, it makes sense that people on other islands would have known what happened in Bermuda. Because if these sailors are, as Dr Clarence Maxwell says, bringing back these goods, they’re also bringing back knowledge and ideas. And they’re taking knowledge and ideas when they go.

A memorial to Sally Bassett by local artist Carlos Dowling was commissioned by the government of Bermuda and unveiled in the grounds of the Cabinet office in 2009.

BNG: You worked with Karla Ingemann, the Appraisal Archivist at the Bermuda Archives on the project, along with research by historians Dr Clarence Maxwell and Dr Quito Sawn. Why was it important to you to include original archival documents in the projects alongside hand-drawn elements?

AZ: For me, it was about the layers of the piece to ensure that it was not a linear narrative. So, I layered the legend using the Bermudiana flower with the formal histories by using the archival documents. In this way, you have a sense of the real and imagined, past and present all coming together. This combines to create the post-cinematic effect where you’re taking the foreground, the background and everything in between and mashing it together.

Using historical documents in the video gives the viewer an idea of what they look like. This provides a historical element to the piece. The script is very ornate so it also acts as a decorative part of the piece.

KW: As much as I hate what they obscure, I like looking at archival documents. I love that there is a place where documents are held, that I can draw them out of that place and put them in a space for so many more people to see them.

AZ: As for mentioning Karla, Clarence and Quito, it was really important for us to acknowledge those who have been part of uncovering this story for and with us as a key element of the work is transparency. This is not to say they’re the only ones exploring this story, as Sally has long been part of Bermuda’s narrative.

BNG: Sally Bassett’s public execution is the most well-known part of her story. However, the film also focuses attention on her trial almost 20 years earlier, in which she and another enslaved Bermudian known as Indian Tom were accused of damage to property and livestock. For this, Sally Basset was sentenced to be ‘whipped the length of Southampton Parish’. The telling of these events is overlaid with images referencing the Little Green Door Tea Garden and Shop, run by the Tucker Sisters from 1909-1958 (during which time Bermuda was segregated), where they sold a brass dinner bell in the likeness of Sally Bassett. In what ways does the use of a non-linear narrative such as this help us to re-examine history in a way than a purely academic approach perhaps cannot?

KW: We drew on academic work to help us. However, I think creating something like Embers allows for a form of engagement not often available in academic work.  For me, this includes using poetry, which isn’t common in historical research; it lets me use my imagination. I also love how the format of the video allows viewers to tie the pieces together themselves.

AZ: From an artistic point, the Tucker sisters are so celebrated as wonderful artists, but it’s interesting to look at what they valued or who they were. They weren’t for women’s liberation, even though they owned their own business. They weren’t for racial equality either, as we see through the Sally Bassett bell, which kept Sally Bassett in servitude.

So, we combined what we can learn about the Tucker sisters’ association with the bell with what we know about the story of Sally. We don’t know the full extent of what happened to her. We just know what is in the court documents. We also know about the bell. So, the point of Embers is the layers of Sally’s life – past, present and future.

KW: That’s a really important point because re-examining history means thinking creatively! So, it’s really what you just said to me. Yes, we have these court records, but that’s not Sally’s life. That’s not who she was.

A Bassett bell produced by the Tucker sisters and sold at the Little Green Door Tea Garden and Shop.

BNG: In what ways does art help us to tell our stories?

KW: I think that creative visuals help us to remember the stories.

AZ: There are a number of examples of this in Gombey culture. Take the capes that Gombeys wear; they have Bible stories on them. Some of their movements also reference Bible stories, from what I’ve read. So, we’re constantly telling stories through the work.

BNG: You mention in your artist statement that this film is the first in a series. Can you please tell us more?

KW and AZ: Hold this space. We have many ideas but can’t give too much away. We’ll be sure to stay in touch.