Travels with Jacqueline Bishop


Travels with Jacqueline Bishop

Sunday, July 14, 2019

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It happened again last year, this thing that happens to me every few years — I developed an itch to travel. One year, as a junior in college, I packed my bags and headed to Paris, and from Paris to other countries in Europe. Another time the itch was for a year in Morocco. Mexico and Canada have also been itches that needed to be scratched.

This time around, though, things were different. To begin with, I'd finally decided to indulge a lifelong goal of pursuing a doctoral programme in art history. In fact, I knew exactly what I wanted to study. Growing up in Jamaica, women all around me were always making crochet, appliqué and embroidery. In my own family, there is a long history of patchwork and mat-making. So I developed an extensive research proposal on the decorative and ornamental textile traditions of Jamaican women, which I sent on to several scholars in the field to get feedback, and applied to a programme in London. Luckily, I was accepted, and so began my sojourn.

I uprooted a carefully ordered life in New York City and moved to a place famous for its grey skies and incessant rain. I'd been warned about how sad and dreary the London winters could be, the days starting late and nights coming on early, with few hours of actual sunlight between. But I fell in love with London. I found an apartment near Brixton, a heavily trafficked black British neighbourhood, and my first day in London a brother of mine took me to Brixton market, where I bought june plums, breadfruit, sweetsops, mangoes, naseberries, starapples, fresh-cut callaloo, salt fish, and so on.

As it turns out I don't think it rained quite as much as people say it does; it drizzles and mists quite a bit, but there's never full-blown rain. The winter, to someone used to the frigidity of New York, was downright mild. The days were shorter and darker than they were in New York, but to a doctoral student who spends most of her time going to Britain's amazing archives when not going to London flea markets, the dark was okay.

From London, and no doubt because of the work I was doing, came an invitation to give a talk in Barbados. What exactly, would this talk be about? Then one day, while walking around Streatham, I came upon Namba Roy Close. Namba Roy was a Jamaican writer and visual artist of Maroon heritage, who had migrated,decades before, to London. He wrote The Black Albino and produced such iconic pieces as Jesus and his Mammy and Accompong Madonna. I decided he would be the subject.

At the airport in Barbados, everything was overpoweringly bright and colourful, after months of the London grey. The small bright creole or chattel houses, despite their painful history and association with slavery, reminded me of my love of the Caribbean vernacular. And the food. Bajans can cook some good food! Caribbean plants and flowers everywhere. I revelled in my time there.

Even before I had got to London, the Italian scholar of Caribbean literature Michela Calderaro had been talking about me coming to Venice and Vicenza to give a series of readings at a literature and poetry festival held in both cities, respectively. Back in London, after Barbados, the good news came that I'd been formally invited.

Venice not only looms large in my imagination, but holds a place of great importance in my life as a visual artist. I went to school there. When I exited the Marco Polo airport I was hit by that familiar sharp briny smell of the lagoon; a wonderful homecoming! Venice, with its houses on the water that seem to be floating (though it is really you who are moving) is a magical place. There are very few words to describe it. Yes, it is very much a city that some say is sinking, and sure enough, the first floor of the hotel where we writers were staying was flooded, but as is my wont, I always forgive Venice its environmental transgressions.

One afternoon, I gave my minder time off, and wandered the campos and small lanes and bridges of this hard-to-describe place. It is amazing how much the brain retains and remembers. Before long I found the boat, docked at the side of the canal, from which I used to buy fresh vegetables, decades ago, as an art student. The small café which sold the best seafood sandwiches, and the place where I would gulp down endless gelatos. Then I found myself standing in front of the small apartment that I had once rented. It still had a garden – a highly prized commodity in Venice – on its ground floor which still grew poisonous pink oleander flowers. An art store was just around the corner from this apartment. I would buy my supplies there and head on down to the art studios. I was so surprised to find, in that long-ago life in Venice, what I considered Jamaican and Caribbean flowers growing and thriving in this concrete city: lush red hibiscuses. Back then, I was in the throes of a dissolving relationship with a man from Istanbul, Turkey. My love of flowers would form the basis of much of the work from that time in Venice. But so much more remains. My first collection of poems, Fauna, and my doomed love affair, as detailed in my second collection of poems Snapshots from Istanbul, mark a time when so many things in my life nevertheless came together.

Back in Italy now, I stood on a stage in the magnificent Auditorium Santa Margherita, dressed in green, black and yellow, and had the experience of a lifetime reading my poems in English to an appreciative audience, and then hearing those poems read back in Italian by Michela Calderaro, in her steady beautiful voice. I would get to tell that room of people that my aunt, Venice, had been named for their enchanting city.

From Venice, we poets were driven an hour-and-a-half into the beautiful Italian countryside to the poetry festival in Vicenza, where there were readings in ornate castles. On my last day in Italy, the organiser of the poetry festival in Vicenza arranged a meeting with me and art students from a local high school. What he did not tell me was that we would be meeting in an atelier that had been passed from father to son for several generations. When I stepped into the building, the 20-odd students had one of my poems “Calling me Back Home” translated into Italian and each of them had made an etching based on the poem. The etchings are now being bound into a book for me by the atelier. I can't adequately express how moving an experience this was.

Then for the summer I was back in New York and getting ready to leave yet again, this time for Argentina. Once a year, the School of Liberal Studies at New York University, where I teach, holds a summer symposium at one of the university campuses. This year it was being held in Buenos Aires, which turned out to be quite an interesting experience. On the one hand, I was taken aback by how much parts of the capital city looked like Paris, with its grey and beige buildings. It was hard for me to situate myself in that South American country for much of the time that I was there, except for the times I travelled to the outskirts of the city, the home of the Argentinean football team, Boca Juniors, where brilliant colours appeared on the small houses, and large murals on the walls along the streets. These murals told a different story to the “official” one I kept hearing about Europeans populating an unpopulated land. In these murals, there was an indigenous and African presence I often felt was either being denied or elided in Buenos Aires proper.

It might sound macabre, but one of my favourite things to do is visit cemeteries. Cemeteries are where you often get a history of a place, however slanted. Oftentimes, as well, there are some wonderful works of art to be found there. Two of my great passions then, visual art and history, often come together in cemeteries. The mother of all beautiful cemeteries is to be found in Buenos Aires. Carefully preserved lanes of beautiful tombs featuring outstanding works of art are in the cemetery at Recoleta. We all hope that Recoleta will indeed be the final resting place of Evita Peron, whose body has been moved around so often; stolen and transported from one country to another. Wandering around this cemetery didn't at all feel like most cemeteries that are tinged somewhat with sadness. It felt as though I was walking through a carefully curated moment in Argentina's past and present. Recoleta is a living cemetery, despite the fact that some tombs are so ancient they have tumbled in on themselves. Curiously enough, this all adds a kind of nostalgic beauty in which the past and present intersect with each other.

I would end a year of travelling almost at the same place where I started. I travelled to Santa Marta, Colombia, at the invitation of the art historian Erica James, to be part of her panel, “Immaterial Beings: New Approaches in the Study of the Portraits of the Unknown and Unnamed Black Subject in the Caribbean”, held at the Caribbean Studies Association Conference. Here, finally, I could take stock of a year of research that had seen me spending innumerable days in archives both in England and in Jamaica. Colombia has all the energy that I was looking for in Argentina. It had, too, the fruits and flowers of my childhood in Jamaica. Santa Marta is a gorgeous seaside town lined with the sculptures of indigenous people. It is also a place where you see many Colombians of African descent. There are huge murals featuring black women. I completely admired the way that some Colombian women would ride sidesaddle on the backs of bikes, holding ever so delicately onto the drivers, ankles neatly crossed as if they were in their living rooms.

It was June when I arrived in Santa Marta, and unbearably hot. Pink bougainvillea and mangoes and guineps were everywhere. I even spotted, from a taxi, my favourite fruits, naseberries. I will admit that the signs on the side of the highway warning of snakes did give me pause. The less said about the airport at Barranquilla, the better. I also won't bore you too much with how a policeman stopped our taxi, of all the cars on the highway heading to the airport my last day in the country, and detained our driver for the flimsiest of reasons for more than an hour, and how when we finally arrived at the airport at Barranquilla with one hour to go before our flight left, we could not however find one soul to check us in. We missed the flight and had to spend the night there in Barranquilla (at our expense) and buy a new airline ticket the next day.

Instead of going down that anger-inducing road, let me tell you about the amazing baked fish and sweet rice we had that last night in Barranquilla. And the day I gave my paper at the conference in Santa Marta, how well received it was! How astonished and charmed everyone was by the work I was doing, bringing to the forefront Jamaican women's decorative and ornamental traditions. This is what I choose to remember of my time in Colombia.


Jacqueline Bishop

Associate Professor Liberal Studies

New York University

726 Broadway

New York, NY 10003

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