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“A Palimpsest of Upkeep”

This is a palimpsest of three images reflecting on the motif of black laborers and land in the Caribbean.

Curated by Danielle Roper

The Afro-Dominican artist Joiri Minaya’s artwork titled “The Upkeepers” is an ironic engagement with histories of black labor and visual imaginations of the Caribbean as touristic paradise. Her collage showcases a silhouette of a smiling woman adorned with a gold chain, earring, and a cut up bikini top. The ocean looms in the background of the portrait and is adorned with bright red and pink hibiscus flowers, a cocktail, and other tropes of tropicality.

The woman’s silhouette and face are fleshed out with an afterimage of slavery—an 1891 photograph titled “Santa Cruz—It is sugar everywhere: the grown people are cutting in the fields” by Susan De Forrest Day. Day’s photograph shows black cane cutters and workers in the field posing for the camera. 

Some stand with arms folded while others chew the cane. The gold chain of the protagonist of Minaya’s collage seems to wrap around one of the worker’s wrists. In using Day’s image, the protagonist of Minaya’s collage reembodies the afterimage of slavery referencing the relationship between black labor, captivity, and land in the Caribbean. 

Because Day’s photograph is in itself already an afterlife of slavery, such as depicted in “Cutting the Sugar Cane (Antigua) (1823) by the painter William Clark. Clark’s painting showcases enslaved black people harvesting crop, cutting cane, loading horse carriages, as a white man sits casually on his horse beneath a palm tree talking to another enslaved black man. The violence of African enslavement is almost naturalized in the image of the picturesque Caribbean landscape.

But Minaya’s collage both invokes and refuses the visual genealogies that link black labor to land and to paradise. The image of the smiling native of the collage is disrupted by the dual signification of her gold chain, deployed as a subtle reference to black captivity and the surrogation of the woman’s face with the image of black laborers invokes histories of black exploitation.

Moreover, she wields Day’s photograph to invert the dynamics of the gaze. In Day’s image, the black laborers return the camera’s gaze, looking back almost defiantly, consuming the product of their own labor. In the collage’s use of fragmentation, it forces the viewer to reckon with a black gaze and to face the violent processes through which the Caribbean comes to be imagined as paradise.

The title “Upkeepers” refers to those who see to the maintenance of the land, production of sugar, economies of enslavement, system of racial capitalism, and tourist industries built on the instrumentalization of the black body. “Upkeep” invokes a sense of continuity that references the ongoing work the black body is made to do in material and visual economies to keep imaginations of the Caribbean as paradise intact. It also refers to work of the visual in naturalizing and rendering invisible the violence of this past.

Referenced works

Image 1: Joiri Minaya’s “The Upkeepers” (2021)

Image 2: “Santa Cruz” It is sugar everywhere—the grown people are cutting it in the fields (1899).

Image 3: William Clark’s Cutting the Sugar Cane, Antigua (1823)