Shrub teas – infusions of indigenous plants and herbs believed to have medicinal properties – are still widely consumed in the Caribbean. Annalee Davis, a Barbadian visual artist and cultural activist, is taking the concept to another level with her work on this popular drink.
In a region that is still struggling with the consequences of colonialism and slavery – trauma rooted in the earth – Davis' Bush Tea Plots ”project tries to develop regenerative post-plantation strategies. The result is a progressive intertwining of agriculture, the economy, art and history that has the potential to make Caribbean people rethink the past and take advantage of that resistance to create a hopeful future, tackling challenges such as climate mitigation head-on. and COVID-19.
The fact that David's studio is located on a dairy farm, which was a 17th-century sugar plantation, makes his discoveries even more tangible, as his art and writing are literally related to the fragments of that story.
On May 14, 2020, via a live broadcast on Yotube, Davis spoke to Keisha Farnum, director of the Walkers Institute for Regeneration Research, Education and Design (WIRRED) about some of these concepts, and pledged with me right afterwards via email and WhatsApp, and we further examine some questions.
Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): The bush provides a non-threatening way to bridge the gap between the common history of our region and its collective future. Did you purposely choose an approach that turned the drink of our ancient colonizers upside down, or did it emerge organically?
Annalee Davis (AD): This particular landscape and the context of the plantation have formed the baseline of my work for decades. I tend to ruminate on an idea for quite some time, maybe years, until it coalesces into something more tangible. (Bush) Tea Services (a related project) evolved from the Wild Plant drawings on ledger pages and from the land in an organic way. Walking the fields, as Rebecca Solnit suggests, is a way to measure our bodies against the land and I am constantly measuring my body against this land during my roaming dawn ritual where ideas reveal themselves and later manifested in the studio.
Annalee David (AD): This particular landscape and plantation context have formed the basis of my work for decades. I tend to turn an idea around for quite some time, maybe years, until it merges into something more tangible. (The related project) (Bush) Tea Service evolved from drawings of wild plants on ledger sheets and the earth organically. Walking through the fields as Rebecca Solnit suggests, is a way to measure our bodies against the ground and I am constantly doing it during my sunrise walk ritual where ideas are revealed and then manifested in the studio.
JMF: As the people of the Caribbean take control of our historical narrative, how important is it to talk about trauma for collective healing to occur, and how critical is art to that healing?
AD: I have been concerned with how shared historical suffering reveals itself communally and how individuals and nations manage trauma and the desire for self-fulfilment in small places like Barbados, where social life and kinship are predominantly experienced in separate social spheres.
Art is pivotal in the curative space because it registers beyond the intellect at a sensory level. However, before we heal, difficult conversations analyzing the past, facilitating opportunities to broaden identities, and expressing solidarity to shape the future are essential.
A virtual slaughterhouse sits beneath our soil, sowing the seeds of contemporary issues with which we grapple today. These legacies emanate from the subterranean layers of this land as living ghosts from our collective past. There is so much work to do and artists are critical to the conversations as we have the power to envision alternative futures for us all.
AD: I have been concerned with how shared historical suffering is commonly revealed and how people and nations handle trauma and the desire for self-realization in small places like Barbados, where social life and kinship are predominantly experienced in separate social spheres.
Art is essential in the healing space because it registers beyond the intellect at the sensory level. However, before we heal, difficult conversations that analyze the past, facilitate opportunities to expand identities, and express solidarity to shape the future are essential.
A virtual slaughterhouse is under our land, sowing the seeds for the contemporary problems we are dealing with today. These legacies spread from the underground levels of this land as living ghosts of our collective past. There is so much work to do and the artists are critical in the conversations as we have the power to imagine alternative futures for everyone.
JMF: I recently explained to someone from outside the region that Barbados, which depends heavily on tourism, is perhaps the most caring of all the Caribbean territories. The bush, on the other hand, is wild. How has this project helped you reconcile them?
AD: I'm not sure I have. If anything, bush reminds me how fake the polished tourist environment is – from which I'm removed. Bush is wild and has taught me so much more about myself and the way in which I was (mis) educated. As a young child I learned that ‘weeds’ were not valued and were removed manually or eradicated chemically. Much later, I understood the importance of bush, and the significant role played by wild botanicals in regenerating the soil.
AD: I'm not sure I did. If anything, the bush reminds me of how false the refined tourist setting is – from which I am quite remote. The bush is wild and has taught me much more about myself and how I was (ill) educated. As a child I learned that “weeds” were not valued and removed manually or chemically eradicated. Much later I understood the importance of the bush and the significant role that wild botany plays in soil regeneration.
JMF: I know that you are concerned about land degradation in the region and the loss of biodiversity as a result of extractive industries, such as monoculture, whether it be sugar cane in the 17th century or tourism today. Can you explain how your “Wild Plants” series has helped create a shift from degradation to phytoremediation of shrubs as weeds to precious resources?
AD: I now see wild plants as active agents in the process of decolonising fields, performing quiet revolutions by asserting themselves against an imperial, monocrop landscape. A proliferation of wild plants and trees growing in abandoned sugar cane fields now contribute to greater biodiversity in Barbados since the late 17th century. Walking these fields at Walkers and directing my attention toward plants often ignored, reorients my understanding of this land and our history away from dominant narratives. Phytoremediation – the capacity of some plants to remove toxins from the soil through their roots – has become a conceptual springboard for this series of drawings and a powerful way to instrumentalize the bush.
AD: I now see wild plants as active agents in the decolonization process of the soil, making silent revolutions by asserting themselves against an imperial monoculture landscape. The proliferation of wild plants and trees growing in abandoned sugarcane fields now contributes to increased biodiversity in Barbados since the late 17th century. Walking through those fields and directing my attention to the often ignored plants I redirect my understanding of this land and our history away from the dominant narratives. Phytoremediation – the ability of some plants to remove toxins from the soil through their roots – has become a conceptual springboard for this series of drawings and a powerful way to instrument the bush.
JMF: When I was working on the series, drawing the images on the plantation's actual accounting sheets – the accounting method used by the British Empire – two things stand out: the Victorian pink color of the pages, which led to thinking about gender, and the order in which all information was meticulously recorded, disguising the chaos and underlying trauma of the plantation system. How does your art offer an alternative story?
AD: My inscription of other images, like delicate shards, the Queen Anne’s Lace pattern, botanicals or the woman’s body, encourages us to think differently about this loaded context. I decolonise the ledger by repopulating and complicating these fiscal substrates as a kind of civic negotiation, exposing gaps in Barbados ’plantation history buried in the soil, in the public imagination and inadequately documented in the archives. This complicates the single story written through the voice of the white male planter about the economics of the sugar industry. Black, white, and biracial women also lived and worked on the plantation, lands previously inhabited by the indigenous. What was their relationship to wild plants, I wonder?
AD: My inscription of other images, such as delicate fragments, Queen Anne's lace pattern, botanicals, or the female body, encourages us to think differently about this charged context. I decolonize the leaves by repopulating and entangling these fiscal substrates as a kind of civic negotiation, exposing the shortcomings of the history of the Barbadian plantations buried in the ground, in the public imagination and poorly documented in the archives. This complicates the only story written through the plantation white man's voice about the economics of the sugar industry. Black, white and biracial women also lived and worked on the plantation, land previously inhabited by indigenous people. I wonder what was your relationship with wild plants?
JMF: Your work “Bush Tea Plots – A Decolonial Patch” incorporates art, landscape architecture and spiritual healing. Can you explain how this is a living testimony to regional resistance?
AD: Commissioned by the World Bank Group for their Risk and Resilience conference at a conference at (The University of the West Indies) Cave Hill campus, I collaborated with Kevin Talma and Ras Ils, linking art practice, landscape architecture, and botany for this permanent installation at the Errol Barrow Center for Creative Imagination.
Thinking about forming new relationships with the land, I envisaged this work as a living restorative plot or apothecary of resistance confronting the historical imposition of Barbados ’monocrop, sugarcane, recognizing nature as a radical agent of resistance against the model of the plantation. Observing how the natural world is threatened and degraded, the work looks to nature as a regenerative biosphere with tools for healing at the agricultural, botanical and psychological and spiritual levels.
Comprising a glass planter showing the soil profile and a specially curated selection of 12 medicinal plants with healing properties, it increases knowledge of medicinal plants through a dedicated website while teaching resilience by using what’s readily available in our environment rather than only relying on imported pharmaceuticals.
AD: Commissioned by the World Bank for their conference on Risk and Resistance to the Cave Hill Campus (of the University of the Antilles), I have collaborated with Kevin Talma and Ras Ils, linking the practice of art, landscape architecture and botany for this permanent installation to the Errol Barrow Center for Creative Imagination.
Thinking of forming new relationships with the land, I conceived this work as a living restorative plot or a resistance apothecary that faces the historical imposition of the monoculture of sugar cane in Barbados, recognizing nature as a radical agent of resistance against the model of the plantation. Observing how the natural world is threatened and degraded, the work looks at nature as a regenerative biosphere with tools for healing at the agricultural, botanical and psychological and spiritual levels.
Composed of a glass planter that shows the profile of the soil and a particularly careful selection of 12 medicinal plants with healing properties, it increases the knowledge of medicinal plants while teaching resistance using what is available in our environment instead of relying solely on of imported pharmaceuticals.
In the second installment, Annalee discusses another bush tea concept, “Bush Tea Services,” and explains how her theories are relevant to pressing global issues like the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.