Built of red brick with contrasting yellow brick dressings in 1896, the exhibition Rum Retort has been sited in the Tobacco Warehouse, Greenock. A B-listed building, it bears the remains of its former uses, as a warehouse for tobacco and whisky, and as a stationing point for American soldiers during the Second World War, to name two. Looking out of the windows onto Clarence Street, the view is crowded by shipping containers at the waterfront terminal. At the height of the triangular trade, as many as 400 ships arrived annually into Scotland through Greenock, arriving with sugar and tobacco. Like the Tobacco Warehouse, the local visibility of the Sugar Sheds testifies to the extensive links between Scotland and the Caribbean. Abram Lyle, born in Greenock in 1820 and a former Provost of the town, founded a sugar refinery in his own name, which was later to merge with a rival company, to become Tate & Lyle.
The linking of Scotland to the Caribbean and vice-versa through sugar is visualised in the rusting Scottish-produced sugar refining machinery shown in-situ in the Nevisian landscape of artist Stacey Tyrell’s ancestry. Slowly rusting, the images as documentation in the Chattel series take on a new resonance within the condition of the Tobacco Warehouse building. The links to Greenock and sugar are also acknowledged in the work of Barbadian-based artist Nick Whittle, Return, Returning, Returned. The corner of each edge of the plinth upon which his newspaper boats sit are marked by a tin of Lyle & Sons Treacle, crowned by a Sansevieria Trifasciata plant. Known as the snake plant, they are often used during Caribbean funerals to mark the grave. Rayanne Bushell’s sound work, How to Limbo similarly departs from funeral rites, in this work focusing on dance. Whilst we often think of the limbo as working our way down towards the ground, it is said that previously the dance worked in the opposite direction, from the ground level upwards as part of funeral processions, representing a coming-back-to-life and originating in the slave ships.
Graham Fagen’s print series depict the three ships, the Bell, Nancy and Roselle, on which Scotland’s National Bard Robert Burns bought tickets to travel upon depict the vessels of the triangular trade. In the case of the “Bell” and “Nancy,” both ships were in fact due to leave from the port of Greenock. Alluding to the final destination of the triangular trade, Fagen’s second work in the exhibition Our Shared, Common, Private Space from 2011 references the use of teeth as a marker of health, when slave owners would come to auction, intrusively opening, prodding and peering into the mouth of those for sale for signs of ill-health and age. The work borrows from the display of the sole surviving set of dentures used by George Washington, held in the collection of Mount Vernon, the plantation he and his family owned throughout his lifetime, with 318 slaves onsite at the time of his death in in 1799.
The works from Barbadian artist Annalee Davis Sweeping the Fields and Queen Anne’s Lace make a similar gesture to the remembrance of colonialism, and especially that of the site of the sugarcane plantation. The action of sweeping and cleansing, documented through a suite of photographs, developed out of her walking the fields of Walkers dairy farm in Barbados, where the artist lives and works, the site of a former plantation. Alberta Whittle’s video work Mammmmmyyyyywaaaata Presents Life Solutions International: Go Home/No Home also looks to restorative post-colonial acts, focusing on the lack of reparations from the colonial administrators to the former colonies, despite the compensation made to the slaveholders as a consequence of the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. In this work Whittle takes on the role of the Mamy-Wata spiritual mermaid-like figure, the veneration of whom travelled with enslaved peoples from West Africa to the Caribbean. Likewise Barbadian artist Ronald Williams appropriates the mythology of the Greek Gods in his series Alpha, re-imagining and combining these with imagery and references from contemporary black culture through digital collage. The individual works each represent a character: the “bad” boy, the “party” animal, the trickster, etc.
While Whittle paints her body electric blue to take on the role of Mamy-Wata, artist Stacey Tyrell uses make-up to assume various identities. In the case of Mara (17 years) and Inghinn(20 years) both from the series Backra Bluid, Tyrell uses make-up and Photoshop augmentations to whiten her skin, whilst wearing costumes considered specific to Scottish and Irish traditions. In doing so, Tyrell wishes to highlight her often unacknowledged Scottish DNA as a result of the owners and employees on the Caribbean plantations. Correspondingly, Ewan Atkinson in his diptych Bubalups/Mother Sally: Private Audition uses his own body, costume, make-up and props to take on the Mother Sally character, usually performed at Crop-Over, Barbados’ version of carnival. Although traditionally performed by men, the tradition has become sanitized over time and with the tourist market in mind, and is now usually performed by women. Tourism marketing from the mid-20th century, stereotypical images and issues around authenticity are all of influence and at play in Atkinson’s poster series Only in Our Imagination, in which the eight works selected promote the artists’ semi-fictional alias, The Neighbourhood.
In a similar vein, Trinidadian-based artist Rodell Warner’s animated GIF Palm/Spectrum speaks to the stereotypical images of the Caribbean that first colonialism and secondly tourism has moulded, through the motif of the palm tree. Rotating against a backdrop of bright colours and pastel shades, the artist has described how this image at the same time does represent a certain reality of the Caribbean; aspects of fun and coolness. Finally Katherine Kennedy’s light installation Diametric Accord 1 and Diametric Accord 2 flows against the tide of these outside perceptions, charting the artists’ own travels outwith the region for exhibitions and residencies and mapping out these locations through cartography as well as iconic buildings and monuments. The reflection of her design and images via light on to the wall of the warehouse suggests the opacity of the outsider’s understanding of new locations, and the rainbow of perspectives - of places and spaces - we each gain from new travels.
Rum Retort is curated by Tiffany Boyle and Natalia Palombo for Mother Tongue and brings together the work of 10 artists based in the Caribbean and Scotland. The project has its roots in a curatorial research residency undertaken by Mother Tongue with Fresh Milk Barbados in early 2015. The exhibition seeks to re-trace and activate the connections between Greenock, Scotland and the Caribbean, but not to be contained solely by these. More than this, the exhibition through its process and journeys seeks to establish new artistic dialogues and future possibilities.