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Seeing History at The Jamaica Biennial

It is said that when Jamaican entrepreneur and gold miner George Stiebel built what was to become the island’s first black-owned mansion as the first black millionaire in 1881, the wife of the then British governor, Anthony Musgrave, was appalled that a black man could reach such prominence so close to her residence done by Zerorez at Kings House. She refused to drive past it and in demanding an alternative route, Lady Musgrave Road was constructed to bypass Stiebel’s Devon House. Out-of-sight and, wishfully, out-of-mind.

 Stiebel’s story has been described by some as something like a fairytale. He was the son of an unnamed black “housekeeper”– there is no other mention of his mother in records – and Sigismund Stiebel a German-Jewish businessman. The young Stiebel went from being bullied at school for his mixed parentage and dropping out to making a fortune for himself – with some initial financial support from his father – with entrepreneurial gusto, from local carpentry to arms dealing and gold mining in the Caribbean and Latin America.

 He married and had two children. After the death of his daughter in 1922, Devon House exchanged hands twice between 1923 and 1968, when it settled in the lap of the recently-independent Jamaican government. It is now a protected national treasure in the center of Kingston that offers some black pride to many of its Jamaican visitors and an alternative to the white-owned grand plantation houses around the rest of the island.

 In February 2017, the Jamaica Biennial, for the second time since its first edition in 2002, installed an exhibition at Devon House— in addition to works presented at the National Gallery in Kingston and National Gallery West in Montego Bay— with a series of compelling interventions by Jamaican and Caribbean artists and its diaspora.

The decision, National Gallery of Jamaica Director Veerle Popueye says, was made as an attempt to move the conversations normally restricted to the art community in the traditional space of the National Gallery downtown and make it more accessible to the general public.

 Devon House is fashioned in the Georgian-style of architecture popular at the time. Standing in the upstairs vestibule, overlooking the balcony and the surrounding lawns, slits of sunlight slip through the near wall-length louvered windows. In the grand ballroom next to it, the natural light glistens against the chandelier filling the room.

 As George Stiebel firmly asserted himself into the Kingston upper-class milieu, owning numerous buildings and businesses across the country – and etching himself into history – so to have the artists asserted their work and corresponding stories in his house.

Collectively the works speak to the idea of legacy and remembrance. Conscious of his blackness and his wealth, I wonder if Stiebel concerned himself with what his legacy would become and how he would be remembered.

By centering the stories of forgotten ancestors and embracing their strengths, their vulnerabilities, and their losses in a society that has yet to fully honor them, there is a leveling in the balance of power for their descendants who may never know their names.

In the dining room on a table set with fine china and crystal, molded black arms stretch out from a silver cloche as though clutching at the air and reaching for help, drowning perhaps. Further down on the table, silverware crushes a black body. On a chest across from that, a silver pick pierces through a black head that lies on a platter.

 Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s Parallel Realities, Dwelling In The Heartland of My People jolts the viewer. Her work is not inconspicuous.

 At this table, I don’t picture George Stiebel dining with guests. Instead, I imagine diners of the past at one such table in one such plantation house somewhere on the island. The red ropes that are strung around the room and over the table, are the blood from the broken backs of those laboring the fields. More arms reach for the skies between what looks like miniature trees and grassland. Thomas-Girvan’s installation is a poem dripping in tragedy.

 In The Root of The Matter, Sharon Norwood’s digital collage, the artist reimagines historic images of white upper-class women in the 1840s – sourced from The Met in New York –  by covering the faces and bodies of the figures in the pictures with tightly coiled hair, another black aesthetic asserting itself. Here we see white women at leisure, in a garden, or in a tea room, not too dissimilar to the one that Norwood’s work hangs in, in Devon House. The work evokes questions of beauty and aspiration. Looking at it with a contemporary eye, I am reminded of the fashion magazines, blockbuster films, and television shows – the modern day equivalent of the aspirational painting – where the high life is often associated with whiteness or close proximity to it. By using hair, a long-held signifier of beauty across numerous cultures globally, to communicate this Norwood challenges the notion of what is deemed to be beautiful and whose beauty is deemed worthy of celebration.

There are hands upstairs in the master bedroom in an installation by Andrea Chung. Around the four-poster bed on the dresser and in the adjoining bathroom, black and brown hands of mothers, grandmothers and “housekeepers” who ritually delivered babies are poised to receive life using traditional methods slaves brought with them from Africa. With hands coming out of the walls and resting in basins, looking at Chung’s Pure I imagine the faceless women, whose hands provided care for countless infants and their mothers over the centuries.

 In the sewing room, Thomas-Girvan has another work entitled The Real Princess. The photographic image of said princess sits atop a chest of drawers filled with bones and mirrors and skeleton hands. The crown – in the style of the Mende people of Sierra Leone I would later find out – on her head indicates royalty while her body is a Taino zemi. Inscribed on a mirror on the side of the chest there is a translated poem by the Cuban poet Nancy Morejon that reads:

 Who tellest thou these things

These histories loaded with pain

Who tellest thou the rot with worms

And stench and tellest thou

This is Ambrosia?

Who severs your tongue and

tells you to sing lullabies to babies?

Are there pupils in their eyeballs or

blood in their veins?

 Mirror Mirror who tellest thou these


 When George Stiebel looked into the mirror what did he see? Now, as a made man in one of the finest houses in one of the finest capitals in the Caribbean, how many times did his mother, the unnamed housekeeper, ever come to his mind?

 In the children’s room, there is a grainy black and white image of a woman on the wall. Her name is Theresa Stiebel-Jackson, the daughter of George. Perhaps this was her room as a child. In the picture – not part of the exhibition – she looks somewhere between pensive and stern as all good sitters did in the early 20th century. Within seconds I am joined in the room by two women, twins I observe, and one of the House’s tour guides, Barbara.

 They are white. Pale skinned and blond haired. They are Jamaican.

 “You see, look!” says one of the sisters pointing toward Theresa’s picture. “It’s the same bracelet.”

 Taking a closer look at the wrist in the frame I see there is indeed something that stands out against the fade of the painting.

 “I have the bracelet!” she exclaims. Noticing I’m the fourth person in the room, she turns to me.

 “I inherited this from my grandmother,” she says. “Theresa is my ancestor.”

 The room closes in on us. For a moment in this old house, built for a black Jamaican-German Jew, the tour guide and I are silent, staring at a piece of Venezuelan gold on a white woman’s wrist.

 Stiebel’s legacies – and that of his mother – were standing in front of us.

 “The world met in the Caribbean,” Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall once said in his documentary series on the history of the region.

 It is well known that that history is a tragic one. From the killing of the indigenous Taínos by European voyagers and the centuries-long horrors and violence carried out against West and Central African slaves to the exploitation of Asian indentured laborers. With emancipation came increased migration from China, from Lebanon, from Syria, people looking for opportunities.

 Indeed stories like that of Stiebel’s – children of black housekeepers and European masters who done good – are not uncommon.

 “Out of many one people” goes the national motto touted as a means to celebrate the country’s multi-cultural roots and diversity; class, color, and creed aside.

 While the saying does have some bearing, for many tying up and ribboning these histories and their present day incarnations and implications into a neat adage is not enough. This is perhaps the reason why the interventions at Devon House were so powerful. That the narrative behind the work manifested in real time and real life in that three-minute exchange about a simple gold bracelet made it all the more poignant. And begged the questions, what happened to the mothers of such offspring who were left behind? What became of their other families, and their families’ families? How has history remembered them?

There was another inscription on the mirror in the sewing room. It read:

 Mirrors are filled with people

The invisible see us.

The forgotten recall us

When we see ourselves, we see them

When we turn away, do they?


Billie McTernan is a writer and editor covering the arts, culture and political affairs across Africa and the black diaspora.

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