Complex creole

By Ingrid Persaud

On the Map, directed by Annalee Davis (32 minutes)

Still from On the Map by Annalee Davis

Still from On the Map, dir. Annalee Davis. Image courtesy the filmmaker

Barbadian artist Annalee Davis’s first short film, On the Map, is a difficult work, for several reasons; but even if you don’t understand it, you won’t forget it. This is a narrative of different voices charting the experiences of undocumented migrant workers — particularly Guyanese — working in Barbados. It is also a narrative about Caribbean identity and personal identity — mapping Davis’s self-identification as a “complex creole.” And if jamming these three issues into a thirty-two-minute piece were not enough, she also considers the tourist’s gaze upon the Caribbean as a destination of sea and sex, in contrast to the gaze of the undocumented migrant worker seeing these same sites as places of exploitation and poverty.

On the Map begins like a documentary, investigating the formation of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), quoting the relevant treaty provision, showing old footage of Princess Margaret, and moving through a “talking-heads” selection of different voices sharing their views. We hear from a man outside a rum shop, a businessman, academics, and cultural producers like Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall. These voices articulate what most of us know: that, as postcolonial peoples who carry the traces of so many races and cultural influences, we already have a sort of CSME running through our veins. But this is only the amuse-bouche to prepare you for what I think is the essence of the work — the “creole chant,” which Davis recites to the strains of original music by David Alvarez.

I would almost have preferred that Davis had made two works — one centred on this chant, and the other with the documentary material and interviews. She begins by stating, “I am the complex creole,” and continues:

My context is the Caribbean
An archipelago crocheted into a crossbreed
Of carnival, class, and commesse
Cognisant of Columbus
And the Commonwealth
That created these confused colonies

Her setting is “more chaos than community,” where she anoints herself “with a communion of cinnamon, coffee, and cumin, cocoa, cotton, and cane,” to the refrain, “I celebrate the chorus of the creole chant.”

The lyricism of this chant vividly evocates her love-hate feelings towards the Caribbean, and is overlaid with beautifully framed images of Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados. But she is right to have used the word “complex,” because the notion is deeply problematic, opening a hornet’s nest of what is encompassed by the term “creole.” Is Davis a complex creole or is she part of the much-discussed creole complex? Any voice that lays claim to the complexity of what it means to be a Caribbean person, and names it — in this case, as creole — should not be surprised when other voices whisper about their exclusion. Indo-Caribbean people, for example, would not easily identify themselves as creole — complex or otherwise. So, ironically, the attempt to confront the Western gaze that has “othered” the Caribbean person in turn can itself be accused of othering those Caribbean people who do not “commemorate the cobweb we have become.”

And before you can make sense of all this creoleness, On The Map moves back to those undocumented migrant workers, the voiceless, who are given anonymity and the opportunity to tell their stories. Theirs is an existence of quiet horror and silent abuse, even more reprehensible because we are exploiting our own people, who belong to the very single market we are trying to create. But even in presenting these awful stories the artist cannot resist the beautiful. One woman tells her tale through the veil of a mosquito net that envelops her sadness and increases her isolation.

We know these film genres — the talking heads, the activist’s protest, the documentary, the poetic. They all lay claim to the space of the art gallery’s white cube. What ultimately makes On the Map so difficult is that it resists easy definition. It is a little of all these genres stacked together for the viewer to unpack. I think the film will sit as easily in the white cube as in the town hall. But the work will of course mean very different things in these disparate spaces.

On the Map has already been screened at numerous conferences, academic institutions, art galleries, and public spaces from Colombia to Canada to Grenada, with further appearances planned throughout the Caribbean and in Britain. See www.creole-chant.blogspot.com for future screening dates.

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The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008

Ingrid Persaud is a Trinidad-born artist who lives in Barbados. She recently had a solo show of new work, You Go Down the Ladder I’ll Shine the Torch, at the Barbados Museum.