Across the Black Water

Andrew Voogel’s exhibition ‘The Middle Passage’ recalls the journey made by jahajees – Indian indentured labourers — in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: December 2, 2015 5:30 am
The Middle Passage, Andrew Voogel, art, art exhibition, Project 88 colaba,  jahajees, indian labourers, talk, indian express Andrew Voogel’s works from the exhibition; (left) the artist

When Sita was approached by the foreman of the doll factory where she was employed, and asked to report to another factory nearby for some extra work, she saw no reason to refuse. The additional money was welcome and even though her husband was away for work, she could always entrust her daughter to the neighbour’s care for two days. However, it wasn’t just two days; it was for a lifetime. When Sita turned up at the factory the next day, along with others like her, she was herded onto boats that would take them across the ocean — the dreaded kalapani — to the other end of the world and put to work on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Sita never returned to the family she left behind. Moved by her journey, her great-grandson, Andrew Ananda Voogel, has made a series of works, currently on display at Project 88 in Colaba. The show, titled “The Middle Passage”, is Los Angeles-based Voogel’s first solo exhibition in India and attempts at depicting the extreme trauma experienced by Sita and millions of others who, like her, were uprooted from their communities and cast off to fend for themselves in an
alien land.

This journey to the Caribbean is part of a history that is often overlooked during discussions on slavery and colonialism. Following the labour shortage in the Caribbean that had set in after the emancipation of African slaves in 1838, the British looked at India as a source for cheap labour. The colonial administrators developed the ‘Indentured Labour Contract’, which was in reality little more than slavery. Once the labourers had been transported to the Caribbean, they were encouraged to marry each other and start new families. This is how Sita ended up meeting and marrying Bhoja, Voogel’s great-grandfather, in Guyana.
The exhibition’s title is a deliberate choice. It is a reference to the longest stage of the triangular slave trade, in which Africans were shipped across the Atlantic ocean to the New World. The Middle Passage has been addressed in literature by writers such as Derek Walcott, Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin and is even captured in all its horror in books like Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family. However, Voogel couldn’t find works that similarly addressed the passage of Indian indentured labourers, or jahajees, as they came to be called.

“My first instinct was to write the story,” he says, “But then I realised that would be hard, because the emotions involved were so strong. How do you describe what it’s like to be a woman who is ripped from her daughter and put on a ship to a foreign land?” He felt the best way he could approach the subject was by making abstract works. So the drawings, whether depicting an unending vista of the ocean or sugarcane stalks in a field, are made like the scratchings of a person just beginning to find her bearings in a foreign land.

It’s the video Kalapani, a dark wall projection, that comes closest to imagining the experience of the jahajees in the new world. The room in which it is projected is plunged into darkness, so that one’s eyes must slowly adjust to the moving images. First the white-capped waves begin to come into focus and gradually, the vast ocean emerges. It is an unsettling experience, and one that captures some of the disorientation that the jahajees must have felt on arriving in the land of their exile.

Voogel says, “The historical rupture was enormous. Not only were these people torn away from their families, they were also stripped off their identities. Crossing the ocean – kalapani – was a huge taboo that could deprive one of one’s caste.” Before the jahajees were shipped out, their basic information — height, weight, eye colour, strength, scars, next of kin and caste — was recorded in a document called Colonial Form No. 44. Based on this information, they were deemed fit for labour. “This is what their identity was reduced to,” says the artist, adding, “When people are in control of their history, they are able to build community, wealth and stability. At the very least, they have control over their identity. But when that sense of your own culture and history is lost, it takes generations to control and solidify that identity again.”

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  1. A
    AIyer
    Dec 2, 2015 at 5:29 pm
    British colonial era was so cruel. So blessed to be born in free Indua!
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    1. A
      AIyer
      Dec 2, 2015 at 5:32 pm
      Read above as India.
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      1. R
        Rakesh
        Dec 2, 2015 at 11:24 pm
        Moral of the story is that we Indians need to be united and strong enough to defend ourselves. Mere chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Rama is not going to keep our enemies away.
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