Research in archives in the UK, Mauritius, South Africa, and India has uncovered a wealth of textual and visual material documenting the lives of nineteenth century Indian indentured labour migrants. This material suggests that nineteenth century labour migration was not simply a story of coercion and exploitation, as traditional narratives state, but also created opportunities for enterprise and socio-economic advancement.
Artist Danny Flynn has created a series of posters and art works to illustrate these research findings. The free-standing historical banners explore the diverse lives of Indian labour migrants and their descendants in the Indian Ocean from the eighteenth century to the present day, highlighting the many contrasts and contradictions that characterized their varied experiences through a series of Juxtapositions of images and texts.
The Coolitude screen prints draw upon the rich collection of photographs of Indian immigrants in Mauritius taken from the 1860s onwards, either on arrival, or more commonly after indenture when they applied for ‘old immigrant’ tickets. These historical photographs have been transformed into visually beautiful screen prints, many of which have been overlaid with historical documents taken from the indenture period.
Also participating in the Leeds Exhibition is Andil Gosine, of York University, Toronto, who is compiling a visual indenture archive and has provided six black and white photographs of ‘indenture artists’ [RamabaiEspinet, Richard Fung, RoshiniKempadoo, Sharlene Khan, Wendy Nanan and Joy Mahabir]taken for his photography performance Cane Portraiture series. The idea for the project came about from Gosine’s investigations of his family albums, which featured individual and group studio portraits taken in 1960s and 1970s Trinidad. As in other former sugar colonies, studio backdrops of the images included settings like Paris’ Eiffel Tower, London’s Big Ben, and the Swiss Alps: places colonized peoples dreamt of going to, cultures they were supposed to want to become. Staging the project in North America and Europe, Gosine re-imagined the studio portraiture tradition, and set out to update the direction of longing; “it’s now the places they left that immigrants feel nostalgic about,” he says. Cane Portraiture interrogates this nostalgia, returning the subjects to the place that birthed them —the sugarcane plantation, and with it, colonialism, slavery, indentureship and neoliberalism. As Andil explains “I wanted to place us all back in the plantation, to insist that there is no getting out of the historical experiences of slavery, indentureship, plantation economies. Those European backdrops prop up the notion of Europe as the dreamy ideal—well actually that Europe was built on its colonization of the Global South, and whatever dreams we might now have, there’s no getting out of the historical fact of the plantation economy that underpins the relationships of the present.”
The Exhibition is taking place in Room LG 10, Michael Sadler Building, University of Leeds and will be open to the public between 2pm – 5.30pm on Monday 27 June and 9am – 2.30pm on Tuesday 28 June.