A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
We’ve been fortunate to have artist/documentarian Tamika Galanis in our orbit since her days as an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts student (’16). She was our exhibitions assistant in 2016–17 and was selected as the inaugural Post-MFA Fellow in the Documentary Arts for 2017–18. The fellowship is part of CDS’s Documentary Diversity Project, a three-year pilot that builds pathways for more people of color to become nonfiction artists and producers.
Tamika has described Hacking the Narrative, her ongoing project around the representation and history of her native Bahamas, as her life’s work. She began the project as an MFA student and continues that work at the Library of Congress, as the Jon B. Lovelace Fellow for the Study of the Alan Lomax Collection. Her new solo exhibition of photos, experimental videos, and collages incorporating archival images and natural materials is part of this larger project, and includes work that she created during her CDS fellowship. Tamika’s essay below describes the genesis of One Hurricane Season and includes selections from the exhibit, which will be on view at CDS from October 11, 2018, to February 17, 2019.
—Elizabeth Phillips, CDS Communications Director
We measure seasons a bit differently in the tropics than in other climes: there is no clear delineation between spring, summer, fall, and winter. Seasons are determined by what fruits are flowering and by fishing moratoriums; among my favorites are the mango and grouper seasons. The most dreaded measurement of time is hurricane season. Every year, Bahamians are on high alert from June 1–November 30. As global temperatures increase, warming oceans are fueling more intense storms, and Bahamian communities—most of them coastal—are beginning to experience unprecedented storm conditions to the point of being displaced. The summer and early fall of 2017 found me in the Bahamas with my paternal grandmother, whose seemingly sudden cognitive decline coincided with one of the most devastating hurricane seasons in the history of the Caribbean to date—while the earth shifted for hundreds of thousands throughout the region, so did my personal axes. My first full hurricane season in the Bahamas in over twenty years found me struggling to ensure we were storm ready while adjusting to our family’s new normal. One Hurricane Season is a personal attempt to synthesize the fallout of events on the macro level by examining the micro: while Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean, forcing residents to grapple with what it felt like to wake up to irreparable damage, dealt out overnight, my family and I were being forced to do the same—a sudden onset and progression of dementia left us with a shadow of the woman we know and love.
In May of 2017, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) published the study “A Blue Urban Agenda: Adapting to Climate Change in the Coastal Cities of Caribbean and Pacific Small Island Developing States,” in which the Bahama Islands are identified as the most extreme case of Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZs) in the Caribbean. Comparing the fate of the Atlantic Small Island Developing States (SIDs) to those in the Pacific, like the Solomons and the Marshalls, which have already begun to disappear, was frighteningly foreboding: by September of 2017 Hurricane Irma made landfall in Ragged Island Bahamas with enough force to render the island uninhabitable. Hurricanes Irma and Maria—two of the largest storms in the history of the Atlantic occurred two weeks apart—proved especially fateful for the islands of Dominica, Barbuda, Anguilla, Cuba, Saint Maarten, Saint Thomas, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The 2017 hurricane season underscored the ephemerality of the Caribbean experience. For islanders throughout the region, the sun set on satellite imagery characterized by lush multicolored hues; by sunrise all the greens had turned to brown. One year out from these cataclysmic events, we find ourselves in the middle of the 2018 hurricane season, and yet Ragged Island is no closer to being rebuilt, scores of people across the region are still without power and clean drinking water, Barbuda is uninhabited for the first time in three hundred years, and thousands have died due to the inaccessibility of health care in a time of disaster. Shortly after Hurricane Maria ravaged Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit addressed the United Nations General Assembly in a desperate plea for assistance for his “broken Eden” (a moniker for Dominica), but that speech echoed throughout the Caribbean as he articulated what we were all feeling: “To deny climate change is to procrastinate while the earth sinks—it is to deny a truth we have just lived.”
My Grammy Zoë was four years older than I am now when I was born thirty-nine years ago, our birthdays three days apart. We were both forced to navigate girlhood without our mothers—she lost her mother at thirteen, and I “lost” my mother to drug and alcohol abuse as a toddler and would again lose her later in life to that same addiction. By forty-three, the eldest of my grandmother’s nine children was in college, her baby was in high school, and without batting an eye, she raised me as her own. I learned, just this year, that my grandmother offered me a tenderness that she spared her children. Perhaps she knew, from experience, that a girl-child—in the absence of her mother—needed something extra special. Save for the memory of arriving in Nassau from Oklahoma City at my grandmother’s side, most of my early childhood memories are splintered. I have been sifting through our family photo archive since I was a small girl, unaware that I was looking for anything, but in this moment, I realize that I have, all along, been attempting to piece myself back together. My grandfather photographed his family relentlessly. The photo albums begin with small black-and-white photographs of my grandmother and their first three sons as toddlers and progress as the family grows. I have a theory that you can tell how much someone loves another by looking at the way they’ve been photographed. Documenting the magic in the quotidian as well as on special occasions, for which a professional photographer was tasked with capturing the subjects in their “Sunday best,” the albums communicate a certain miraculous tenderness that was not modeled for either of my grandparents. (As our family grew, my father did the same for my sister and me.) These images bear witness to a life fully-lived, versions of my grandmother’s life that are now evasive in the face of recollection.
When I arrived in New Providence at the beginning of June 2017 my grandmother seemed to have her faculties about her save for the slow shuffle that replaced her natural gait. At eighty-one she was still driving, she attended mass daily, she was still cooking. I cannot pinpoint exactly when things began to change. I slowly began to notice that she would leave the stove on, or that she was having difficulty with her daily routine, things so minor that at first I dismissed them, chalking it up to age. Perhaps we were just hopeful that somehow she would be spared—all of my grandmother’s sisters had battled with this disease. But when we got reports that she had been having bouts of confusion at church and that she was driving erratically, we agreed that it was probably time to take the car keys. By August, things had worsened significantly. My grandmother began spending less time in her garden and napped pretty consistently throughout the day, which was not her norm. Going to church and gardening kept her afloat after my grandfather passed in 2012, just before their fifty-ninth wedding anniversary. She navigated that circumstance with grace until the body would no longer allow it.
In the days leading up to Irma’s predicted landfall, my anxiety grew and the island descended into mayhem—Nassuvians were still traumatized from the effects of Hurricane Matthew the year before. As I hadn’t had to prepare for a hurricane at home for so long, by the time I got with the program, there was no more ice, no more sandbags, though there were insurance moratoriums. The videos and tweets streaming in from the rest of the Antilles were dire. Faced with food and water shortages, my family hunkered down prepared to ride out the full brunt of what was to come. Irma, in a last-minute shift, spared New Providence her full wrath, but hurricane to tropical storm conditions were still in effect. We closed all the shutters—turning day into night—and we waited. I spent the next two days dragging my grandmother out of the garden to the safety of the house; she would sneak out every chance she got.
We continued on like this for months, my grandmother and I, a battle of wills in which she would, more often than not, act out aggressively, completely out of character for her. The death of our choir’s lead singer proved to be a defining moment of reality. For three weeks she got up every day and got dressed for a funeral that was not happening; in a moment of frustration, I walked her to the calendar and tried to explain what day it was and show her the day that the service was scheduled. She looked at me with empty eyes and fifteen minutes later summoned me to paint her nails for the funeral. By Thanksgiving Day, I had to dress her from start to finish and comb her hair; the bread she had prepared as her customary holiday gift had failed for the second time. It was hard, but I had to admit to myself that my own “Eden” was broken.
A chance meeting with an aunt in New Providence gifted me with a firsthand account of another time, in the past, when our family was deeply impacted by a single hurricane season. The Memoirs of Pearl Cox, written by my grandmother’s Aunt Pearl, who took my grandmother in after the passing of Pearl’s eldest sister, my great-grandmother Louise. The first chapter of the three-part memoir is a detailed account of Family Island life with their parents, George and Eugenie Clarke. One of George’s responsibilities as the Exuma Island Commissioner was to ready the settlement for storms, riding out on horseback to raise the alarm. Pearl describes the details of the morning of September 17, 1926, two days after celebrating her twenty-first birthday (the first celebration since her mother, Eugenie, passed that March). Her father ran into their kitchen and thrust a barometer into her hands, “Pearly, look at this. It’s a barometer. I’ll show you how it’s read, then I want you to write down what it says . . . I think we are in for a hurricane.” Recalling a time when all they had to rely on were the barometer and the wind, Pearl writes that within the hour “the hurricane was raging all around us.” When George ventured out to secure a door that had separated from the house, he was thrown into a Poinciana tree; he died from his injuries a short time later. Aunt Pearl opened the chapter, “1926 . . . the year of the hurricanes . . . the year that would change my life forever.”
The devastation left in a hurricane’s wake is layered and heavily nuanced, often affecting us in ways that seem superficial at the onset. Before Hurricane Matthew, my Grammy Zoë had a mango tree that was usually so laden with fruit that we often had to give it away. The tree bore fruit again this year for the first time since that storm, yielding less than ten mangoes. And there are the trees for which our street is named, which until now bore no personal significance for me beyond my attraction to their fiery orange canopy over Poinciana Drive. Hurricane Matthew felled so many of the trees that our neighbors uprooted all of theirs, and ours were pruned and (unintentionally) uprooted during the 2017 storm preparations to prevent further infrastructural damage. I didn’t speak to my father for days after we pulled the last tree from the ground and I came home the following morning to find it chopped up and being loaded onto a truck headed for the dump. I pleaded with him frantically to save the wood for another use, but I couldn’t find a wood carver to take it. I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t “good” wood, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. I collected conch shells—they sat in the driveway for weeks, bringing the ungodly stench of decomposition to our front door—so I could reap their variations of pink and gold in memoriam of all the sea ecology impacted when Hurricane Irma’s low-pressure center, acting like a vacuum, temporarily reshaped the ocean and dried up the seabeds. This work is an amalgamation of things that have gone the same way of my grandmother’s memories, carried into the ether by the water and the wind.
As hurricane season neared its end, the early morning wake-up calls to do some misplaced task or another grew more frequent, and I, ill-equipped to deal with all of the changing circumstances, felt increasingly helpless and exasperated. I imagine that this is what it felt like for folks across the region to wake up to find their worlds in shambles. I think about the magnitude of that loss in a place where indemnification is so far out of reach for most, and the politics of immobility make leaving an impossibility. To whose general assembly must I plead for my Eden?
This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website.