Whitehot Magazine

Salt, (re)memory, and aftermath: an interview with Deborah Jack

Deborah Jack: 20 Years, installation view. Birdie Piccininni for Pen + Brush, New York.

Deborah Jack: 20 Years

Pen + Brush, New York, NY

Through February 19, 2022

By MARLY PIERRE-LOUIS, February 2022

The first retrospective of 20-years of Deborah Jack’s work is now on view at Pen + Brush until February 19th, 2022.  To encounter Jack’s work is to sit at the shoreline of colonial histories, to face a storm surge and live to hear the melodies of the next day. Stories of the past and present, trauma and healing, remembrance and forgetting, erosion and rebirth, are told through sound/video installations, photographs and paintings. Over her decades-long career, Jack has mined these spaces as sites of cultural knowledge, creating deeply conceptual work in conversation with a chorus of contemporary Black theorists and artists. I had the pleasure of Zooming with Deborah Jack recently where we reflected on the theoretical language and experiences that inform her point-of-view and what she’ll be questioning next. 

Marly Pierre-Louis: I'm really interested in what led you to Toni Morrison’s concept of re-memory and how it shows up in your work.

Deborah Jack: The history of St. Maarten was really kind of distant for me growing up in the 70s and 80s. I was thinking about those absences from a place of wanting to tell stories. I was thinking about the fact that I didn't know what things looked like; everyday things like what does a house look like in the 1950s? What kind of curtains? Just that kind of vernacular. I wanted to delve into memory and think about it in relation to history. What we remember, what got documented, what didn't get documented? So, Morrison was a text that a mentor of mine said maybe you should look at, and I found that essay the “Site of Memories” and everything clicked. The way she wrote about memory as a sort of energy from the past and this notion of unresolved, unrecognized trauma, and how maybe what couldn't have been dealt with in that particular moment could have traveled through time and generations and looked for a conduit for that story to be told for that memory to be remembered at a time when it could be unpacked and dealt with. And then the connection to water. What struck me is the story about the Mississippi River flooding, and that idea that when a river flooded it wasn't flooding, it was just remembering where it used to be. All of those things they just clicked for me in that essay, and it ended up being like a point of departure. I was playing with this idea of the hurricane at that point. Like this notion that the storm is this seasonal memory and that nature is dealing with the trauma of the Middle Passage. And it seemed so far-fetched and then when I read her article, I was like, Okay, maybe it's not. 

Deborah Jack: 20 Years, installation view. Birdie Piccininni for Pen + Brush, New York. 

MPL: Trauma and healing is central to your work as a site to draw from. I'm curious what that process is for you and the value of trauma in your work. 

DJ: I guess nature is the thing that sort of taught me and has given me these ideas. Because I thought about the trauma that happens to the landscape in a hurricane. I remember losing a house and a roof in 1995. I remember coming out in the hills and it looked like all the leaves had been stripped off the trees. Like they've been set on fire in a way, this very brown landscape. And it felt in that moment, where do you begin? Within a week, I remember seeing this little bit of grass. And I just went okay, I think it’ll be okay. It's gonna grow back. That notion that the place of trauma is also the place where the healing happens. I don't have to go somewhere else to fix it; this moment is going to be resolved here. 

MPL: I was thinking about your use of salt and Christina Sharpe’s concept of the Wake. It seems to me that you're working with the liminal spaces between past and present, between trauma and healing. Is salt a kind of conduit for you?

DJ:  Definitely. As you're thinking about trauma and healing in the same place, salt was something that had that kind of duality to it—it preserved and it corroded. And so I was thinking about the preservation of memory, but also in terms of what we choose to forget. And this idea of remembrance and amnesia and that there was an in-between maybe or a flux between the two. And so salt for me was a really great material to use because it had so many layers. [I was also] thinking about the use of it in ritual and what it meant for purification. And that we’re made up of salt in our blood as well. So for me, it was this really great space for imagination.  

Deborah Jack: 20 Years, installation view. Birdie Piccininni for Pen + Brush, New York. 

MPL: In your work “This Time Fire” about the protests that took place on the French side of St Maarten in 2021, you chose to photograph the landscape, what was left behind, instead of the protesters themselves. I'm curious about that choice and what the aftermath means for you. 

DJ: What does that mean to document bodies of people, black bodies, in the aftermath of violence? And how do you tell a story without implicating people? [My plan was to] photograph some people who were willing to come on camera and the more I thought about it, the more I was like, ‘No, I don't want to do this’. That there must be [another] way to talk about these protests. And for me, that was aftermath. After Hurricane Irma and Maria hit, in the immediacy there was this sort of political struggle that was happening in terms of getting aid and what you have to  give up to get this aid and I remember writing in a post on Facebook: sometimes the aftermath is the storm. The storm in a way is a catalyst, what comes after is actually the storm or that the storm reveals things. When the storms are that strong, so much is stripped away [from] the landscape. And so a lot of things are laid bare. What ends up being laid bare is also a lot of political and governmental issues. That idea that the things that cause the most damage aren't necessarily damage that the storm has done, but the weaknesses that were already there because of mismanagement or racism or colonialism. WM 

Marly Pierre-Louis

Marly Pierre-Louis is a writer, poet and maker originally from Brooklyn currently based in Amsterdam. Her work explores Black, femme literary traditions and strategies of survival. She’s a first generation Haitian-American, a big sister, a mother, and a Taurus through and through.

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