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Creole Portraits 

In this series of ten lithographic prints, I experiment with representing a shared Creole identity by constructing ambiguous images of the back of female heads that recall nineteenth century abolitionist illustrations. Playing on Marcus Wood’s observation in Blind Memory (2000) that slavery’s memory has been objectified with emphasis on the tools of torture rather than the slave body, these images subvert the reading of these whips, collars, chains, and branding irons by illustrating them entwined in exquisitely braided hair. Recalling the site of hair as the second most important corporeal sign of race, these inverted “portraits” seek to “name” the women lost to history. As site of both a ritual enactment of love between women (the slow, careful act of braiding hair) and the pain associated with the physical and mental degradation of slavery, these images resonate as metaphors for the weightiness of history in contemporary postcolonial life. Both attractive and repellant, the hybrid images seduce the viewer and open up a space for contemplating the shared (repugnant) experience of slavery and its after-effects. The strict regulation of the hair into defined Afro-centric styles also ironically conflates eighteenth-century European fixations on hair / wigs (worn by men) as signifying social order, with the (female) Creole’s ability to empower herself by expressing her (non-European) postcolonial cultural identity through hair design.

In this mixed media installation titled Stained, the portraits have been placed on white cotton pillowcases embroidered with the names of the women they depict. A video in which my hands are seen scrubbing a white sheet in a wash tub accompanies on an adjoining wall.

Black Hair / Her-Stories, and Joscelyn Gardner's Inverted Portraits, by Charmaine Nelson in FUSE Magazine, Vol. 27, 3, Fall 2004

Black Female Hair and the Body as Site of Colonial Horror, by Charmaine Nelson. Panel paper for the Barbados Museum, May 2004. (Download PDF)

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