Stacey Tyrell’s work draws from her own family’s histories of immigration. Some of these journeys were enforced, such as the middle passage between the 16th through 19th century when slaves were brought from Africa to America and the West Indies. Some were coerced such as the ‘Windrush’ generation, when Britain mobilized the rhetoric of national identity to encourage citizens from colonies in the Caribbean to immigrate to the UK, whereupon they found themselves in fact largely excluded from the narrative of ‘British’ identity. Some were chosen, like her family’s move to Canada in the 1960s and 70s. And Tyrell herself has emigrated: after growing up in Toronto she has lived in the US for the last fifteen years.
Her projects connect these individual and familial experiences to overarching structures of power like colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy and race as a social construct. Great White Hope is a series of still lifes of a seemingly endless collection of skin whitening products while Chattel is an exploration of the legacy of slavery still visible on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean where her father grew up. Backra Bluid, is a series of self-portraits: ‘Backra’ is an 18th century slang word for white person or master, and ‘bluid’ is the Scottish word for blood or kin. In these images the artist constructs herself through make-up and photoshop into imagined versions of her white relatives. Her most recent work, Pour la Victoire, sees her once again transforming into white figures, this time the Athenian-looking national allegories of key colonial powers.
In this interview for LensCulture, Tyrell speaks about the family backdrop behind her interests, the importance of visualizing and connecting hidden traces of colonialism and the importance of acknowledging these histories as part of national narratives.
Clare Samuel: Your series Chattel documents the island of Nevis where your parents grew up. The word means an article of movable property, and it also means ‘slave’. You’ve noted that “nearly every aspect of the island, its structures and people have at some point been chattels”. The way the title situates the images, especially the portraits, really hits home the horror of people classed as objects. Can you tell me about the photographs of broken-down farm machinery and the empty shells of buildings?
Stacy Tyrell: The machinery and buildings that you mention are the ruins of the centuries-old sugar trade that was the main industry on the island. Almost all of the mechanical parts used to process sugar cane were imported from England and Scotland beginning in the late 18th century as the industrial revolution took hold, allowing plantation owners to harness the power of steam to speed up production. The buildings are a lot older and are what is left of the windmills that were used, along with animals and humans, to power the machinery. It’s also interesting that the entire trade created a captive closed market for goods manufactured in Europe.
That history permeates our everyday lives in so many ways we are unaware of. The products, and the money that was generated, fed Western economies and set the ground for the democracies and wealth that we all live in now. The fact that we all still use sugar, silk or tea or any of these products, just on a quotidian level, shows that it’s all around us. But then there are the deeper ways in which, even to this day, certain laws are structured for certain people.
CS: The project traces the hidden, widespread consequences of these histories. Where do you see these histories of slavery and colonialism haunting our world today?
ST: Entire towns and families were transformed. In Nevis, there is a family called the Pinneys, who owned a lot of land—there’s even a beach and resort named after them. But what you don’t see is the huge scale of their effect on the other side of the ocean. In Bristol, England, there’s a historical mansion called the Georgian House that is the end result of all of the blood and sweat of my ancestors in Nevis that afforded this family a certain lifestyle, and created the infrastructure that made that man a member of British high society.
I still have a lot of relatives in the UK, and the Windrush experience is still a very sore spot. A lot of the beautiful buildings there wouldn’t exist if it were not for that money rushing in from the colonies, and many people are now in public life that would not have that status if not for those profits. And the people that created that wealth are still oppressed to this day. There are tentacles of slavery’s history all over—across all the continents. There’s a lot missing in the Western conversation on it, such as Spain and Latin America’s role. The vast majority of Africans were brought to South America and Mexico. They helped building this huge system of colonialism.
CS: You are constantly collecting images, objects and data. Sometimes these have directly become a series, like Great White Hope, but more often it’s background work that leads to producing a series, or even just one image. The term ‘research-based practice’ is popular right now. I’m not sure if you identify with that label, but can you speak about the importance of research for you and how you started working this way?
ST: Well, it started with wanting to find out more about my mother before I knew her—she was a child of the Windrush generation—and wanting to know the many layers of that story. That was the seed that this way of working blossomed around.
In relation to that term, yes I do, but at the same time the fact that it’s a new thing is sort of at odds with the idea that there’s so much research that goes into all artists’ work. Whether you see it or not, and whether that research is actually going to the library and taking notes, or just observing or experiencing things in your everyday life. It’s part of my personality to enjoy reading about historical events and stuff so that leads to more of that background of my work.
There is so much information out there that people are generally not aware of, just sitting there in books and archives. The way history is presented to us is through a very particular lens. Certain narratives rise to surface, stay in the background or just disappear. The same event is taught in schools in different countries in completely different ways. For example, how the Vietnam war is taught to Vietnamese children versus in the US.
The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ is important to me, but also questioning who the victors are—primarily white men—and how their beliefs echo through to now. Enlightenment ideas of racial hierarchy persist even though we know that they were pseudo-science. Rudyard Kipling’s concept of the ‘white man’s burden’ was used to frame colonialism, and taken up by, I believe, Roosevelt. So this great American president was going around the world with this belief. He visited Brazil where they had a program to whiten the black population. But the general public just knows these figures as faces carved into a mountain, or inscribed onto banknotes. That’s where their knowledge starts and stops. So it’s the drive to research and understand these kind of things.
CS: You grew up here in Canada but you’ve lived in New York City for the last 15 years. How differently do you think the two countries deal with, or narrate, their histories of colonialism and slavery?
ST: There are marked differences. I love Canada. It’s where I’m from, but they completely omit their complacency and compliance with a lot of the American laws that helped perpetuate slavery. And there was also slavery within Canada; of the Indigenous communities, as well as the small African population. In the US, the African-American narrative is so present. At least there’s a willingness for the most part to note, “we were a part of this very horrible thing and that has made the race relations in our country very complicated.” Whereas Canada wants to step in and be the good guy. You can still be the good guy but admit to the history of what has happened.
It’s a shame because for generations certain racial problems have been framed as being strictly an American problem. “Oh, that doesn’t happen here, we fixed that in the 60s.” I’ve heard all these things come out of the mouths of people here. And this gives rise to the question: why do we have to talk about or deal with this again? There needs to be more of a movement towards acknowledging these histories. Although, I have to say, things are a heck of a lot better in terms of race relations here than in the US within everyday experiences. But you don’t have to go very far back to see that the roots of racism are still there and are very familiar. Black people of different origins here still find themselves marginalized in the same ways as in the US. There needs to be some acknowledgment that that’s happening.
CS: In the recent past Canada has attempted to reckon with Indigenous relations more. We’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Enquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. But in these endeavors, and I imagine in efforts the US government makes to address their ‘complicated’ history, there’s always a bottom line in admitting liability—and it’s that they don’t want to be financially liable. Honoring land treaties and issuing reparations for slavery are never seriously considered by them.
ST: The people it affects don’t have economic power to impact on policy and procedure. With the Caribbean particularly, these countries that fought hard for independence were then just cut loose. After Colonial powers had pumped them for all the money they were worth, there was no support during these huge transitions. Nevis had land so rich for growing sugar that they purposely never grew any food crops—slave owners were rich enough to just import it. That’s the reason for the current situation in Haiti, because it was fined and penalized by France continually.
It’s the same sort of situation with the Indigenous population here. When I think back to what I was taught in school, it was shamefully little. “Oh, seven major tribal groups, not much known about this one, all these ones died.” That’s the end of the story. And now maybe double that is taught. But double is still almost nothing. It’s really crazy to think about how many other people and histories silently occupy this country.
CS: In Backra Bluid the white figures that you become are uncanny; doppelgangers with slight variations. There’s this slippage between real and unreal, their faces are unsmiling masks, and the smoothness of the skin is featureless. Did you always want this play between falseness and veracity? How would the series be different if you’d made them more ‘convincing’?
ST: There was always something uncanny that I wanted, and a ‘tell’ if you look hard enough. And of course, there were technical and budgetary challenges, so all that blended together to give this effect.
A lot of the visual research I was doing was in Victorian photography where you had to keep very still so there’s a stiffness to the poses. I also wanted the images to have that quality some paintings have, where the eyes are always on you no matter where you stand. Very off-putting! It also wasn’t necessarily the point to make them as real as possible. I thought back to that Benetton ad campaign, where they made the queen very convincingly African, but it still looks ‘real’ and like her. But, to me, my figures are not so much real people. They are more like creatures, and that plays into the use of certain markers that I equate with having that type of whiteness. It’s a kind of drag: private school uniforms, designer clothes logos. I was digging through thrift stores looking for visual punctuations to lead the viewer to thinking of a certain social strata.
CS: Are they all completely imaginary? Or are some of them based on real relatives?
ST: A lot of them are archetypes, but then also composites and caricatures. Not necessarily of individual people, but more types of people I have observed. In my previous day job at a photo studio, a lot of people came from upper class or rich backgrounds. On weekends they’d go to the country club or the yacht club, and the activities they’d do would be things like horseback riding. That’s their social world. And I thought about the schools they would’ve gone to growing up, so it’s culmination of all of those things and my own ideas and biases.
CS: Did you think about these images occupying a certain time period? It’s hard to pin down in most of them. They could be contemporary or from different times in the 20th century. But there’s one that stands out as a more historic period costume—the Scottish one.
ST: That was actually my friend’s old highland dancing costume from the 1980s! I remember as a child there were some kids’ parents would make them go to these lessons and competitions, and I remember thinking they were so cool. Which is hilarious because when I talked to my friend she hated it and thought it was so dorky! Certain ones have the feel of a historical time period. That friend is Canadian but of Scottish descent. Given the style of the 1980s, and the colour palette that was available, it is already an interpretation by one older time period of another. Taste changes—the highland costumes being made now would be slightly different.
CS: In that series you transformed yourself into white women from the age of 9 all the way to 62, and in your newest work Pour la Victoire, you again become white feminine allegorical figures, this time strangely ageless. For Backra Bluid did you think about transforming into male relatives, or was gender a sort of through-line for you, a way that you felt more connected to these characters?
ST: I thought about doing male characters, but the female ones did speak to me more, so that’s where I went with it. I think it also had to do with how much more I would have to change my face. It would be a lot more manipulation to make it close to natural and read as male. And I was interested in how I only had to change my face very slightly in this surface way to completely transform how I’m interpreted.
CS: Pour la Victoire is a series on ‘national personifications.’ These are Athenian figures that countries involved in the transatlantic slave trade have invented to use in propaganda, especially during the colonial era. They tend to relate to concepts like liberty or wisdom, traits at that time usually associated with men, yet the majority of these constructs are women. In most of their representations, they don’t seem like real women of flesh and blood. Are you making a connection to gender?
ST: That’s exactly what’s going on: white femininity as a justification for violence. The reference to Roman and Greek society as the pinnacle of civilization. And depicting these women as so virginal all plays into this concept of nationhood as something pure that men need to rally behind. A sexualized woman wouldn’t be respected, but because it’s seen as this pure cause that is ordained by God, this mission to bring enlightenment and culture to these dark corners of the earth. The way visually to get people behind that is to have a female figure who is virginal, benign, but also a little matronly. And like she needs protecting.
A figure like Britannia has been referred to for centuries and she was perfect to illustrate ideas to an illiterate population in an obvious and cartoonish way. For example she’s depicted as opening a book to these savage looking figures. People immediately sort of understand what’s going there. I started off with the main players everyone thinks about as involved in the slave trade; England, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland. But then Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark all had a huge presence. Even Malta, the knights of Malta, or Poland, and Prussia. They were involved by making specific barrels used for those industries. All of these little connections. Some were a little surprising but also not really, because when you look at the spellings of some places in the Virgin Islands, they are definitely Swedish and Danish names.
These countries do partially recognize that they were involved. It suggests that the majority of the white population do actually care about learning that part of their history. There’s a lot of people in Europe that can’t wrap their head around actually how bad it was in terms of the chopping-off of limbs and the torturing of people in front of their family—that this was happening up until 70 or 80 years ago, if not even as we speak! In different ways and in different places.
Not to harm anyone’s national identity, but there needs to be an awareness of the fact that no country, especially in continental Europe, is exempt from having participated in this. It’s impossible to think that England or Spain on their own 100% perpetuated and maintained all of this yet somehow managed to pass through all these other countries on their way to where they were going, and that the other countries didn’t participate in this economic bonanza that sort of fell into their laps.