Nadine Hall: From Dropsy to High Art – Repurposing Her Great-Grandmother's Recipe
Nadine Hall, Heirlooms Unchained, 2020. Crochet thread, starch, handbag, wooden chair, fabric, starch, steel chains, shackles, 15.5' x 5' x 10'.

Nadine Hall is one of Jamaica's emerging conceptual artists. She just completed her MFA at Miami University with an impressive edible show, entitled Reclamation and Remembering: Ode to the Building Blocks of My Narrative.

Hall is featured in this year's Biennial with a piece entitled Heirlooms Unchained, which she claims "explores narratives of perseverance, resistance, and survival against adversity, and illustrates an ominous era frozen in time". That era frozen in time to which she refers is the buried memory of being raped by her father; she is a survivor, like so many women everywhere. Many artists explore art as a way to walk through childhood trauma and emerge at a place of healing, but Hall's work is not just therapy. Such work rises to the level of fine art when it transcends that initial impulse and becomes an installation that effectively weaves the personal with history, the memory and naming the abuse, and releasing into the creation of a transformative object that offers a different entry point for many, facing childhood and adult trauma.

Hall's Heirlooms Unchained achieves this transcendency because of the various spaces that she intersects, and the diverse signifiers, which jolt memory. The chains with cuffs attached to the end, the spotless white sheet, and the crocheted ill-shaped balls hanging from the ceiling suggest a protective enclosure as well as a room of torment; it invites and repels. In exploring the concept Hall charts the genesis of this piece: "In 2019 while I was going through a period of reflection on my journey to becoming an artist, it emerged out of an urgency to break my silence about the rape and sexual molestation that I experienced during my childhood. This installation celebrates my victory over these traumatic encounters. My father was an alcoholic and a paedophile. My mother was aware of his sexual deviance but chose to ignore it. Heirlooms Unchained … reflects a story of hope and triumph…We are now on the outside of that space of trauma and desolation looking in!"

Hall's ambitious installation reminds us of our common pain and how revealing vulnerability can be healing. I had the pleasure of attending her Reclamation and Remembering: Ode to the Building Blocks of My Narrative in May 2022, and as I entered the gallery I was hit with whiffs of sugar, coconut, and water, the primary ingredients in coconut drops. The sweetness wafting into the gallery is an experience on its own, especially given Jamaica's history with sugar, its sweetness, bitterness, and overuse that is killing us. Hall's mother died in 2013 from complications from diabetes. Hall begins this journey with her matrilineal great-grandmother Abihail Bogle, a farmer, and one of the first persons in her community to own a house made of concrete. To be the first in a rural community to own such a dwelling bestows an honour, so these confectionary masonry blocks harken to a successful past and usher in a successful future through the ability to create art by the granddaughter for whom the blocks represent possibilities.

Matrilineal lineage is a theme woven through the work of many artists and Hall expands the landscape to include specific aspects of Jamaica's culture. Viewers will be struck by the "fusion of … culinary arts, installation art, and sculpture". This approach incorporates the processes in creating the installation. What might not be obvious are the labour-intensive skills required. "The works are primarily sculptures constructed with reclaimed wood, tchotchkes, and mementos, work tools, sprouting coconuts, reclaimed pallets, dinge-covered concrete blocks, a food basket, and banana leaves, photographs, and video," Hall stated.

Hall must be congratulated and encouraged to continue to reference the environment. She painstakingly collected the abundance of coconut utilised in the exhibition from friends and neighbours. She recalls making peanut cake and coconut drops in high school for lunch money, as her market-selling mother taught her to make them so she could be financially solvent. It hints at generations of Jamaican women passing on culinary art for economic sovereignty.

As enslaved people, we sometimes do not pay enough attention to alternative economic structures that allowed our ancestors to survive. It is this aspect of Hall's work that must be plumed.

Reclamation and Remembering: Ode to the Building Blocks of My Narrative, is a fitting tribute to matrilineal heritage and is a salute to our grandmothers who left us a roadmap from slavery to reparation.

— Opal Palmer Adisa, Cultural Activist

Heirlooms Unchained, 2020 (detail).
Heirlooms Unchained, 2020 (detail).
Nadine Hall, Reclamation and Remembering: Ode to the Building Blocks of My Narrative, 2022. Panoramic view of the exhibition featuring: sugar blocks, concrete blocks, sugar bricks and pavers, coconuts, coconut drops, peanut cake, reclaimed wood, found objects, video, photographs, kerosene lamps, machete, coconut dehuskers, hook stick, gilded mirror with text, banana leaves, basket.
Nadine Hall, Arc of the Covenant, 2022 (detail). Concrete blocks, coconut drops on silver étagère, water, sugar.
Nadine Hall, Queen Abi #1, 2022. Coconut, water, sugar, concrete blocks.
Nadine Hall, Coconut Drops on 2-Tier Etagere, 2022. Archival Inkjet Print, 40" x 53" (Photo: Nadine Natalie Hall)
Nadine Hall, Legacy and Redemption, 2022. Archival Inkjet Print, 40" x 53" (Photo: Nadine Natalie Hall)
Conceptual Artist Nadine Hall.

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