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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
February 2017

Many South Florida plants arrived with the slave trade

MArtFeature_1iami is a unique mélange created not just of people from diverse lands, but what has traveled with them. Consider, for example, the wide array of plants that flourish in this climate. Many of them originated in Africa, which should give you a clue about how they relate to our history.

That journey from Africa to the Americas is the ethnobotanical basis for “Liquid Knowledges,” an art exhibition and exploration project, part of the “Borderless Caribbean Series” at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. The show features galleries with gorgeous images and detailed descriptions of plants and fruits, including narratives of their complex transport from Africa. It also includes a group show of artists associated with the Caribbean and a special solo show from Onajide Shabaka, with artworks focused on botany.

In all, it’s a history tour filled with trauma, violence, and some surprisingly positive outcomes.

Much of the scholarship comes from Brown University, examples of which form the introduction in the main gallery, in the section “Plants in the Gardens of the Enslaved.” When Europeans arrived in the New World, they made landfall on the island of Hispaniola. Their advent resulted in the decimation of indigenous populations and ecologies, and Africans were kidnapped or sold into slave labor and sent to the colonized islands.

The slave trade proceeded along a triangulated route known as the Middle Passage. European ships offloaded goods in Africa, filled the same ships with slaves bound for the Caribbean and the Americas, then returned to Europe filled again with goods.

This is where “Liquid Knowledges” begins. It was expedient to pick up local foodstuffs for the ocean crossings. “Many ship captains purchased large quantities of African-grown provisions all along the West African coast to feed the captives,” read the introductory notes. “In this way, plantation owners found out which young saplings, root tubers, or cuttings could be brought over live aboard ships and grown on the plantation.”

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The people imprisoned on those slave ships also hid seeds and kernels -- not just for food, but for medicinal or ritual purposes, or even as beauty accessories. When planted on this side of the Atlantic by both owners and slaves -- in the latter case, in small plots on doorsteps or remote hillsides -- they became integral parts of the fabric of life. Although not well documented until recently, the cuisines, rituals, and medicines made from African plants formed the basis of Caribbean cultural traditions that can be found in Florida as well.

For the most part, the imported fruits and vegetables were rich in nutrients, and were sometimes the sole source of nutrition on a plantation; yet they had numerous other uses too.

Take, for instance, pigeon peas. By the 1600s, this protein-heavy legume, likely of Congolese origin, could be found across the Caribbean (and later, in the southern United States) as the main ingredient in soups and stews. But it was also a good crop-rotation plant as a counter to soil-depleting crops, such as maize. And it could be made into eye drops.

Okra was cultivated in Nigeria and became a staple in dishes across the Americas (the Bantu word for okra is debated as one of two etymological bases for the Louisianan gumbo). Okra is also prepared as an offering to orishas and other spirit gods.

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Or how about ackee, a fruit ubiquitous in West Africa? Rich in vitamin C, it has become part of the national dish of Jamaica when combined with salt fish, and is popular in Florida. And in both places, it is used as an ornamental tree in gardens.

Thus the exhibit’s name: knowledge of the benefits of these plants migrated from one culture and continent to another via a liquid voyage. But their adaptations were also fluid. And they became the sustaining elements to an oppressed people on the same passage.

The section called “The Magic Garden” features works from local artists. Haitian-born Edouard Duval Carrié, artistic director of the program that produces the “Borderless Caribbean Series,” offers a large portrait of a supernatural figure made of bright tropical flora. The painting by Havana-born Sinuhé Vega combines ritualistic traditions with bishops in red robes surrounding a chalice filled with red island fruit. Cuban-born José Bedia has a large painting depicting in rust tones a pirate raid on another ship on a treacherous watery journey. Like the other works on view, they reflect the often conflicted origins of the region’s identity.

In the neighboring building that houses several studios and is part of the complex, artist Onajide Shabaka is exhibiting a quiet garden, Antillean Lacunae: a litany of the botanical. Shabaka’s practice has always emanated from what he describes as his “walks,” where he observes the minutia of the landscape and later re-creates it in drawings, watercolors, and sculptural pieces made from native materials. All of the works here are related to the African-origin plants of Florida. Some are drawn from photographs snapped while walking, created from a mix of paint and dirt; one is crafted from cotton. Shabaka says he found that white fluffy stuff, so tightly woven into the story of slavery in the Deep South, alongside a nearby gas station.

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How did it get there? Maybe, suggests Shabaka, the way rice came to America and became a major plantation engine -- at least according to legend. To illustrate, he’s included a series of black silhouettes, one a woman with braided hair. The story goes that an African woman had rice in her hair when she was captured, and it came ashore with her. Who knows, muses Shabaka, a cotton seed could have been in the hair of someone…or on the back of a truck in Little Haiti?

Shabaka’s own distant relatives were forced to toil the fields of the Carolinas, before leaving on their own journeys, some migrating to Chicago, others to the area around Port St. Lucie. Several works here are made on old envelopes, with the postmarks still clear, documenting those movements. He’s planning a trip to Suriname, in South America, to witness traditional rice rituals with clear lineage from West Africa, where it has been cultivated for 3000 years.

There’s so much to soak up in these exhibits -- and you will look at your neighborhood blooms differently, knowing some of their histories and the reasons why they planted here.

 

“Liquid Knowledges” runs through February, Little Haiti Cultural Complex, 212-260 NE 59th Terr., Miami; 305-960-2969; www.littlehaiticulturalcenter.com.

 

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