In talking to someone recently about the new set of plates I had completed, The Market Woman's Story, in which I traced the figure of the huckster, higgler, vendor from the period of slavery until today while enveloping her in fruits and flowers, he pointed out that my first collection of poems, Fauna from Peepal Tree Press, had a section that did a similar thing, for in it I was using local Caribbean flowers to tell Jamaican women's stories. I suddenly realised that I had a long history of using floral imagery to represent female concerns.
For many years I was a closet visual artist, though the work I did produce beginning in primary and high school was always about plants and flowers. I remember once, for example, as a wee thing at John Mills All-Age School, that I got transported while drawing repeatedly the roots of fat sugar cane stalks. It was the most wonderful feeling. Over the years I kept drawing and painting in secret: gigantic blue flowers. But I kept putting visual art to the side all the way through high school and my undergraduate years, though, unfailingly, I would take visual art classes here and there, but never quite centring art in my life. After all, what was one to do with it?
In 2003, on a lark, I applied to the master's degree programme in studio art at NYU, quite sure that I would never get in. Maybe I was more interested in the fact that the programme was in Venice, and whenever I thought of that city, romantic ideas of gondolas sprung to mind. By then I was living in Brooklyn and had a tiny easel set up in my dark damp kitchen where I kept incessantly painting flowers. No way would these strange looking flowers get me into art school. But I did get into art school and the summer of 2003 saw me in Venice, Italy, trying to understand what these flowers meant to me and why I kept painting and drawing them. One of the instructors mentioned something about women's stories but that seemed too easy to me, although my mother bending over and tending a big white unfolding night-blooming cereus on her verandah in Constant Spring, my grandmother going to bush swinging a cutlass and clearing the way, and my great-grandmother walking through the district of Nonsuch with a heavy metal jug on her head and tin measuring cups in her hand selling fresh cow's milk, did come to mind.
Bits and pieces of the story would wend its way into a 2007 publication, Writers Who Paint/Painters Who Write, in which I presented a series of small blue and white evanescent flower paintings. I remember the painter, writer, and philosopher Earl McKenzie, with whom I shared the publication, saying to me, "Looking at [the paintings], I can just tell a woman did them. They are saying something about femininity and womanhood."
I would give art school an eight-year break, whilst I tried to sort out my feelings both about it and about what these flowers were saying. During that time, I followed in the footsteps of my great-grandmother and grandmother, making patchworks, two of which would go on to represent the United States abroad. Here again flowers were bursting out all over the place.
I returned to art school in 2011 with a renewed energy and focus and started centring the flower more in my work. By then I'd decided to embrace instead of running from the female associations with the flower. For my 2012 thesis show I ended up merging the floral and the female images to recall a time long gone in Jamaica for a series called "Childhood Memories". Works from this thesis would eventually be curated into successive biennials at the National Gallery of Jamaica.
Having interrupted my master's degree at NYU, I decided to go for an MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) from 2012 to 2016. MICA allowed for much experimentation and here I started looking at the various tropes developed of Caribbean women. In 2015, I did four patchwork quilts, where each patchwork had an image of a woman in my family — my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, myself. All these patchworks were set against the Jamaican landscape and had lush floral images. Soon I did a quilt titled "Flamboyant" in reds and oranges based on the tree of the same name, fiery and spectacular in sight when it blooms. Not long after that, I started doing paper collages of my mother, and flowers, which ultimately would lead to this most recent work, The Market Woman's Story.
My great grandmother was a market woman as was my grandmother. First, I did a painting of a market woman. Then I did several drawings of market women. Next, I started making paper collages of market women. I even chose a market woman for the cover of my book of interviews on Jamaican women writers, The Gift of Music & Song: Interviews with Jamaican Women Writers.
At the time that I was actively working on the figure of the Market Woman I was living in London working on my doctorate on Jamaican women's decorative and ornamental textile traditions. In my studies I started to realise that on one hand, the market woman/huckster is the most ubiquitous figure to emerge from plantation-age Jamaica. Yet as pervasive as the figure of the market woman is in Jamaican and Caribbean art, she remains critically overlooked. I was also thinking, too, of the wonderful dishes that the women in my family would keep in mahogany cabinets that would be taken out only on Sundays and special holidays and occasions, used, carefully washed, and put back into those cabinets. In this set of 15 dishes, I am both paying homage to the market woman — centring her importance to Caribbean society from the period of slavery onwards — and placing her within a critical context. I place the market woman within a long tradition of female labour found in diverse imagery sourced online, including early Jamaican postcards, paintings of enslaved women from Brazil, the colonial paintings of the Italian Agostino Brunias, and present-day photographs, collaged alongside floral and abolitionist imagery. What I hope these works demonstrate is that for centuries the market woman has been a fixture of our society. She got off those boats where she was enslaved, and she started walking and selling. She has always been nurturing and taking care of us. She deserves our utmost respect. Since my primary school days, I now realise, I have been developing the imagery and the language to honour her.
— Jacqueline Bishop