His ancestors were forbidden from bringing their instruments to Canada; that's why he makes them today
Sobey nominee Tyshan Wright makes art about the ties binding Jamaica and Halifax and his own Maroon culture
It's been almost six years since Tyshan Wright left Jamaica for Nova Scotia. Now a nominee for the 2022 Sobey Art Award, one of Canada's most prestigious honours in the visual arts, there was a time when Wright would never have considered leaving home. "I didn't even have Canada on my radar," says the artist — but that changed when he met his wife, the artist Shauntay Grant, former poet laureate of Halifax.
The duo has collaborated in the past; Grant wrote a poetic response to Bench Drum, a work Wright debuted as part of the Atlantic Vernacular Digital Exhibition in March. That piece, like much of Wright's current work, references traditional items from the Maroon culture he was raised in — racla and bass drums, for example — while considering the transatlantic slave trade, and the movement of his enslaved ancestors from Ghana to Jamaica to the Canadian province he now calls home.
In 1796, a group of Black freedom fighters, the Trelawney Town Maroons, were exiled to Nova Scotia following an uprising against the British in Jamaica. Their time in Canada was short; within four years, much of the community would sail to Freetown in Sierra Leone. And Wright's work currently explores and speculates on that history.
When the Maroons were brought to Canada, they were forbidden from bringing the ornaments and musical instruments that were sacred to their culture. These are the objects that Wright builds, using wood and beads and fabric from both Jamaica and Nova Scotia, and the work might suggest an alternate timeline where Maroon culture thrived on the east coast.
CBC Arts reached Wright by phone to learn more about his work, and his plans for the Sobey Art Award exhibition which will arrive at the National Gallery of Canada this fall.
What was your work about before you came to Halifax? What I'm familiar with, it's so tied to the history of both places — Jamaica and Canada — so what were you working on before moving here?
My main work, what I was doing there, was jewelry — Indigenous jewelry using indigenous beads. I would go into the forest, so to speak, and literally search for these beads.
Were they traditional designs? Your own designs? What can you tell me about what you were making?
Some of them were my own designs, and some of them were traditional. The beads in themselves are very significant, you know — very significant to the culture.
For instance, I work with the "horse-eye" bead. That bead tends to bring positive vibrations within your life or your surroundings. Another bead is called "lady scoot," and it symbolizes the blood that flows through our veins. Teardrop is another; that type of bead helps an individual who is mourning.
And also keep in mind that I'm working with these beads, you know, knowing that these are live materials that I'm collecting from nature. If you should drop one in the sand, it would produce a new plant. And so knowing that everything that I'm working with, it's life in itself — it gives me a pleasure. It brings me a peace, you know. It brings me a level of peace just using these natural, life-giving beads to create something that can bring a sense of balance to someone's life.
When you left Jamaica, how did that change what you do as an artist?
I like to look at life from the perspective that we're constantly evolving.
Life decided that, OK, you know, the work that you have done in terms of the jewelry? Maybe it's time to expand the artwork, so to speak. It's really a continuation of the artwork. Moving here, it expanded on a much larger scale.
During the transatlantic slave trade, Maroons were exiled here to Nova Scotia, and during the exile they were denied these ceremonial instruments. These instruments were very significant to them. It's where they find their peace, their joy. It's where they find their freedom — where they find their god, so to speak.
Just to bring these instruments to a place where they were denied them so many years ago is extremely humbling.
It never once occurred to me that Canada would be where I would be working from today. It just goes to show how even though we may think we're in control, there is something much larger that's really at work.
The musical instruments you make: what can you tell me about them? What are they?
So during the transatlantic slave trade, when our ancestors were brought to the Caribbean, they literally came with nothing physical, you know, nothing tangible. All they came with, really, was their knowledge of survival, so to speak — their connection with nature and sound and vibrations. And so out of the struggle for freedom, they created these sets of instruments.
Creating these instruments, it's keeping the spirits of the old ones alive; it's keeping the culture alive. It's keeping me alive.- Tyshan Wright, artist
Today, they play a very significant role within the Maroon culture. They're still used today to connect with the ancestors — asking for guidance and giving thanks for the legacy that the ancestors have left. They are filled with so many stories, and even today, these are the same drums [they play]. They create good vibrations in these folks' lives.
Creating these instruments, it's keeping the spirits of the old ones alive; it's keeping the culture alive. It's keeping me alive.
I hope when people look at these instruments they realize, OK, though we struggle, there is still hope. There is always hope to create a better tomorrow. It's all about the decisions that we make today so we can create something more beautiful, more magical and more healing.
What are you working on these days? I noticed you were part of an artist-in-residence program at NSCAD: is that still ongoing?
I finished the residency at NSCAD. I did a piece — an instrument — there. It's called Between Sovereignty and Slavery, and I can tell you, I will definitely be showing that piece at the National Gallery. That was the latest work that I've created.
I'm also working on a set of bass drums, and for these bass drums I'm using local materials and rum barrels to create these ceremonial instruments.
I find the rum barrel very interesting because of the history of cane and rum — and you know, the rum that was stored in these barrels, it was shipped all over.
Congratulations, by the way, on the Sobey nomination and the exhibition. I should have said that right off the top! Can I ask how you found out and how you reacted? What was that day like?
I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old and, you know, they're very active. (laughs) It was roughly one o'clock in the day, and that's when both of them take a nap. I was outside, just sitting down and relaxing and meditating, so to speak. And then something just said to me: you should check your phone. I saw the email, and I went outside and I sat back in the same position. I just continued in meditation, filled with joy and humility, just to see how life was unfolding itself.
Beyond what it means on a personal level, what does the Sobey nomination mean for you professionally? Are there opportunities you hope it opens up?
Definitely. I know I will be on different galleries' radar. And I hope it will open up more opportunities, not just for myself, but for the community back home.
The prize money: do you have plans for it?
Well, first, I'm going to invest some into the artwork, because there's definitely tools that I really need, machines that I need. I also will be giving back something to my community because that's where the art comes from and that's where the struggles still continue.
I'm living here in Canada, but you know, my hometown of Accompong is in my heart and I've been there for 37 years and I've seen the struggle.
Where in the community do you see yourself investing?
At this point, I'm looking at education, and I say education because I can say for myself that I had never really been given the opportunity — a real good shot at it.
It goes back to how the system was designed. It's an Indigenous community within Jamaica, and you know, the pride and success of a community is based on how well educated the people are. If you stifle them academically, then you stifle the community.
I've been talking to my wife, and so far we're looking at scholarships. Maybe scholarships, but nothing's concrete yet.
I must say, it's really a humbling feeling — not just for myself, but also for my community and my ancestors — to be a nominee for this award. I just want to thank every individual who basically made this possible, directly and indirectly.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
The work of the five artists shortlisted for this year's Sobey Art Award will be on view in a special 2022 Sobey Art Exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada starting October 28, 2022 and running until March 2023.