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A photo of Sasha Kay's "Sighting Black Girlhood" Exhibition. A printed photo of a young black girl nested in a potted plant.

Issue 005 Winter 2023 Features

Relating to Natures

Dispatches from the Loophole of Retreat: Venice

A lecture by Deborah Anzinger, excerpted and transcribed with an introduction by Rashida Bumbray

From Sighting Black Girlhood, Kingston, Jamaica, 2022; artwork by Sasha Kay Hinds, all images courtesy of Deborah Anzinger

Deborah Anzinger’s explorations of fugitivity and resistance in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country, a site of historical refuge and resistance for Maroons, were a direct reference for the framing of Loophole of Retreat: Venice. 

I’ve spent the past two years organizing Loophole, a symposium focused on Black women’s intellectual and creative labor, conceived as an extension of artist Simone Leigh’s US Pavilion exhibition for the 59th Venice Biennale. Part of the early curation process included conversations with Simone, as well as with Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman, about the framing of the gathering. The invitation to the 65 participants—scholars, filmmakers, performers and poets was “carte blanche.” Each woman and femme was issued an open-ended invitation to speak about her own work and highlight topics of her own interest or expertise. The conceptual framing draws from the 1861 autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman who, for seven years after her escape, lived in a crawlspace she described as a “loophole of retreat.” Jacobs claimed this site as simultaneously an enclosure and a space for enacting practices of freedom. As a larger framework for the constellation of presentations at Loophole, however, we identified a group of key directives to guide our collective thinking:

– Manual: Of or pertaining to the hand or hands. Inspired by “Manual for General Housework” from Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.

– Magical Realism: Defined by Caribbean poet and theorist Kamau Brathwaite as a larger cacophonous movement—a radical disruption of Western progressivist history.

– Medicine: Using the qualities of science, plants and animals to cope with the natural and supernatural world around us, inspired by the work of root and leaf doctors, traditional healers and conjurors of the rural Black American South and the Global South.

– Sovereignty: The title of Leigh’s US Pavilion exhibition, speaks to notions of self-determination, self-governance, and independence for both the intellectual and the collaborative.

And finally,

– Maroonage: Maroon refer to the people who escaped slavery and created independent communities on the outskirts of enslaved societies.

Deborah speaks of the environment of Cockpit country and the strategies of the maroons that required interdependence with the landscape. Her work today brings forward the practices of freedom that are necessary during this moment of crisis—climate crises, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, climate justice, racial justice, decolonization, landback, and the fight against the resurgence of fascism. Through her work, we understand the urgent and continued need for transnational solidarity and collaboration. And that these contemporary crises often have local historical solutions.

—Rashida Bumbray
Curator, Loophole of Retreat: Venice

A collage by Deborah Anzinger.
Deborah Anzinger, Coy (2016), acrylic, styrofoam and live Aloe Vera, mirrored plexiglass on canvas, 54 x 72in.


Deborah Anzinger: Good morning. What a privilege to follow Vanessa Agard Jones’s talk and to be here with everyone. Thank you Simone Leigh. Thank you Rashida Bumbray. Thank you to the entire Loophole of Retreat team for working your magic so that we could all be here together.

I’m going to start my presentation with a short excerpt from Myal, written by Erna Brodber:

Long conversations between herselves, took place in her head.
Mostly accusations…
‘He took everything I had away. Made what he wanted of it and gave me back nothing.’
It was you who let him take everything. You gave him everything.
“But I didn’t even know when I was giving it, that it was mine and my everything”
How could you not have known? Mule, With Blinders on. You wouldn’t listen, you wouldn’t see.1 

That’s a monologue where Ella has suffered a breakdown—a splitting of her selves.

On one level, the novel tells the story of a community dealing with two cases of spirit theft being experienced by two young women in their rural community, in a small town in Jamaica: one being by an unsuspected Black male elder, who in spirit has crept into the bed of young Anita in a desperate attempt to regain his virility. The other instance is by the white American husband of Ella, who has been taken from Jamaica to meet in the US, away from her Black farm worker mother. In the US she now passes for white and serves as a muse for her white American husband’s minstrel shows.

On another level, Myal tells the story of the subversive, largely unseen, largely unspoken, but retained ancestral ways that a marginal community—led by Miss Gatha, who Brodber calls a systemic force, a coconut tree in a private hurricane—reorganizes for itself the relationships between race, gender, and class that have been imposed on it from slavery.

This unspoken retention itself is a type of maroonage.

“There is another world besides the one you know. I have been there. I will not deny the fact of my experiences.”2 

This is a birthing moment between multiple people that occurs almost entirely in an outwardly unspoken spiritual domain. 

Ella’s monologue, on the other hand, indicates the economy of life, the problem at hand, how imperial, colonial, extractive social constructs organize that economy and even become internalized. This is the point of departure of my work as an artist.

A framed piece of artwork by Deborah Anzinger.
Deborah Anzinger, Growth Index 5 (2019), Acrylic and synthetic hair on paper.

While Wilson Harris, a writer of Black and Indigenous reorganization through magical realism in post independence Guyana, states in a review he wrote of Erna Brodber’s work, “Is it not possible to see Ella as a victim of an enlightenment that has long concentrated in the humanities on patterns of behaviorism as a logical field in itself?”3 

For me, Ella’s monologue resonates in a firsthand way—lived reality. I responded viscerally as if in a memory of a conversation I once had had with myself, “A voyage of the psyche”, Harris puts it.4  That same economy of life that precipitates Ella’s breakdown is what black geographer Danielle Purifoy gets at directly in her essay, “Birthing from the Bottom.” Purifoy states, 

The Bottom is the entanglement of Black peoples with the extraction and commodification of natures for the development of wealth and power—for the sustaining of white-dominated political space.
    Per Charles Mills, the Jamaican American political philosopher, the Black peoples and spaces constituting the Bottom are construed as the morally debased and waste-producing parts of the body politic—in other words, as a wilderness to be acted upon by “civilized” white space (Mills 2001).
    Black people under this white imaginary are thus part of an undifferentiated extractable resource. Such is the character of the continuing plantation economy, per Jamaican economist George Beckford—the replication of colonialism and its ecology onto contemporary landscapes […] through new configurations of resource extraction and wealth production (Beckford 1999).
    Through isolating consolidated power and wealth so far from the sites of production —and reality—that its holders believe they can survive without the Bottom, indeed, without a functioning planet […]5 

Purifoy lays it out:

The conditions generated by these configurations indicate with some certainty that this system cannot continue. When it crumbles, what will emerge?
     The constitutive subordination and “thingification” of Black peoples and natures requires not only a rearticulation of Black liberation, but also a major change in the characterization and valuation of natures.

The bottom, Purifoy tells us in Black feminist tradition, is “the space where possibility exists for true revolutionary loving liberation.”

In an evolving material experimentation, my work concerns itself with this “recharacterization” and “revaluation” of the natures Purifoy writes of, to develop a syntax that centers and shifts the ways that Black female embodiment is paralleled with the land. Shifting this value through aesthetics and praxis, I’m driven by the question: what are the ways for this revaluation to feed back in a life-giving way to the local reality of the fertile, fecund, wilderness situated at the bottom–ecologically, socio-economically and spiritually?

A wooden sculpture piece by Deborah Anzinger hanging from a high wood-beamed ceiling.
Deborah Anzinger, Training Stations (ceiling detail), Kingston, Jamaica, 2022.

For me, aesthetics is a means of thinking through these ideas but also a point of departure to move beyond the limitations of art and symbolism. Thinking about feeding this fertile wilderness I started working on Training Stations (2022), an in situ sculpture project in Maroon Town, St. James, Jamaica through the Soros Arts Fellowship and later as part of UPenn’s Just Futures Initiative. The project was started on historical familial land that my great grandparents purchased at about the time Africans could begin to legally do so in Jamaica. The space carries family history but also history tied to emancipation from slavery. The environs of Maroon Town is where many Africans escaped to and hid from coastal plantations. It’s where the Maroon wars between runaway Africans and colonial British forces were fought and won by Africans. It’s where the infamous Maroon peace treaty was signed granting autonomy to the Cockpit Country from the British in 1738. Today, the Cockpit Country is a target for mining. Training Station involves efforts to archive, reforest and make space for forms of ancestral knowledge through sculpture and craft. It’s an effort to relate to natures in equitable and ecologically generative ways.

Thinking about fertility, labor, and the erotic potential and upending its relationship to mining began with aesthetic gestures. In my past work, the loaded meanings and values of particular phenotypes I reference (e.g. Afro-Kinky hair and living plants), are brought to the fore when confronted with reflections of the viewer in a system of aesthetic reorganization. Through abstraction there is reference to the body of the subject, but there is a denial of access to it–even as its erotic potential is at play.

I’m going to get back to what I’m working on in the studio but first I want to change gears to thinking broadly about working in ways that create tangible value shifts that feedback into the local socio-economic reality and the kinds of environments we create for ourselves in a life-giving way, through art practices. A few years after completing graduate school, I moved back to Kingston where I started New Local Space. The structure of NLS came largely in response to the realities of being an artist in Jamaica: no public funding to apply to, and no art residency programs. Any type of incubatory support was missing.

Through NLS there are a number of important art practices we’ve been lucky enough to encounter and support. With each residency or fellowship project the issue of equity always comes up in some way. The diversity of art practices and experiences means that we collectively and continually roll that issue around, seeing it from a number of positionalities, looking at the challenges and the way forward. Responsibility for and accountability to each other has helped to facilitate this and built into the model of the residencies and fellowships.

Sasha-Kay Hinds works through performance, video and photography moving from interrogating her own experience with teenage pregnancy to exploring broader themes of failure and pain in relationships, attending quests for joy and freedom. In her own words she “draws from the insecurity of intimate narratives, complicating notions of self-identity and intersectional feminism, embracing mystery, solitude, and “sass” to propose layered and complicated notions of beauty. Importantly her work also shines a light on the lack of legislative support for child protection, reproductive rights and victims of abuse.

Joni Gordon deconstructs her experience as an immigrant worker in the US State Department’s Summer Work and Travel Program, which recruits tertiary students from low and middle income countries to work for minimum wage in the U.S. The program describes itself as a means for cultural exchange and financial empowerment to afford education in students’ home countries. Joni provides a counter narrative of debt and discrimination that underpins these programs, fleshing out the link between geopolitical power, racial discrimination, the realities of individuals in the Global South and personal trauma.

A photo of an artwork by Oneida Rusell. A velvety deep orange fabric with the word Island embroidered in light off-white thread above a fabric silhouette of two mounds and a palm tree.
From Sighting Black Girlhood, Kingston, Jamaica, 2022; artwork by Oneika Russell

In terms of support structures for individual residencies, NLS provides a 300,000 JMD work stipend, 24 hour access to studio space for 10 – 12 weeks, professional studio visits, and a solo exhibition. The curatorial and art writing fellowship follows a similar model with work stipend, and committee of mentors who offer guidance in methods, inquiry and practical concerns of exhibition planning. The podcast program works in tandem with the residencies and fellowships.

Recently, for the portraiture project Sighting Black Girlhood (2022), which we presented in partnership with UPenn and the University of Johannesburg, NLS invited four women artists in Jamaica whose practices are invested in Black female subjecthood to create a portrait of a young woman in her life collaborating with her in its making.

Oneika Russell created a portrait of her past student Michaella Garrick, also inviting Garrick to contribute her own autobiographical work to the exhibition. In Oneika Russell’s statement she says:

I first met Michaella while offering a workshop titled ‘Life After Art School’…. One of the points of the workshop…is to ensure that self-care and rest are an integral part of the process. I noticed she nodded about this during the lecture. I met her again at the opening of her final year show and her installation was a space made from woven sugar cane and at the center were beds laid out under the open sky. Michaella shared her struggles to reconcile her childhood living on Monymusk Plantation with her mother, a worker… the tensions and traumas of family heritage [tied to the plantation], paternal absenteeism.. physical and mental weariness… and a need for healing. Michaella’s work however was intricately crafted for other women to find refuge. Through her story and her work she echoes in a specific but very central way how black girls often carry an exhaustion through life from all that we fight through– often for others. I make this work to celebrate the many young women I have taught who have had to overcome great hurdles to pursue a creative career. Often this creative practice is its own path to being comfortable finding rest and peace with oneself and one’s experiences.

Going back to the current work I’ve been doing in situ and in the studio. For Training Stations, a lot of the planting being done involves learning about how the land has changed—and the new challenges this presents—and responding. So far, more than 200 trees have been planted, including Cashew, Avocado, Blue Mahoe, Mahogany, Cedar, Pimento. I’ll end here by coming back to this image from my studio, it’s from a recent body of paintings with cookshop charcoal, an essential but undervalued and loosely protected natural resource in Jamaica. How does our value for charcoal shift with a change in perspective from seeing it as an essential fuel for survival in local marginal economies, to seeing it as a luxury consumer by-product whose value is tied to parameters removed from local realities of black communities in the Global South?

What is the potential of that shift to feed our fecund wilderness?


  1. Erna Brodber, Myal, Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc, 2014, p 84.
  2.  Erna Brodber, Myal, p 91.
  3. Wilson Harris, “The Life of Myth and its Possible Bearing on Erna Brodber’s Fictions Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home and Myal,” Kunapipi, 12(3), Wollongong: University of Wollongong Australia, 1990, p 91.
  4. Wilson Harris, “The Life of Myth and its Possible Bearing on Erna Brodber’s Fictions Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home and Myal,” p 90.
  5. Danielle Purifoy, “Birthing From the Bottom,” in An unlikely birth / Deborah Anzinger, edited by Daniella Rose King, Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2021, p 36-37.