Deborah Jack’s Poetic Work Draws Parallels between Hurricanes and Caribbean History

Monica Uszerowicz
Nov 16, 2021 8:00PM

There’s a near-hidden poem affixed to a wall in “Deborah Jack: 20 Years,” Pen + Brush’s two-decade retrospective of the multidisciplinary artist’s sublime work, on view until January 29, 2022. When the angle or light is right, the stanzas materialize; it speaks of storms—their scent, movement, and aftermath.

Jack’s poems, photographs, paintings, and videos explore her own tender mythos of the Caribbean. “To me, the thing that was the most quintessentially Caribbean was hurricanes,” she said in a recent interview with Artsy. “They deeply impacted my life.” Jack recalls plotting hurricanes by hand while growing up in Sint Maarten—the southern half of the island that’s part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Today, Jack considers the way hurricanes memorialize her ancestors. “Hurricanes travel along similar routes, and use the same winds and natural currents that slave ships used to travel,” the artist said. “For me, the hurricane was nature’s way of dealing with loss, with trauma, with all these bodies being carted across the ocean and perishing at sea. The hurricane was this seasonal memorial.”


Water remembers. And at Pen + Brush, water is everywhere. The exhibited works evoke eroding shorelines and the winds of tropical depressions strong enough to deposit chunks from the Great Salt Pond in Dutch Sint Maarten to the French half of the island—debunking drawn borders and territories. Water becomes an abstracted wave along which to traverse the artist’s oeuvre, rife with other reappearing symbols. In Foremothers (2002), for example, a series of shadow boxes slowly reveal a portrait of Jack’s paternal grandmother behind thick hunks of salt. In Standing (2014), a young girl bathed in light is photographed holding sanguine flamboyant flowers, which are always in bloom in front of Jack’s lens. The diasporic flamboyant tree, also known as royal poinciana, is native to Madagascar and was transported to the Caribbean around the 1800s. “For me, [the flower] is another form of memorial; it blooms for a very limited amount of time,” Jack said. “How does nature make space for memory?” To see flamboyant trees flourishing is to recall the last time one watched them grow. Jack’s poetic lexicon refers to the cultural memory of Sint Maarten and the broader Caribbean—a history written in the land.

Reflecting on the hidden poem’s line about shifting cities and rains, Jack asked, “Why isn’t [the hurricane] a form of remembrance? Water is being displaced in a hurricane, too, twirled around, moving through the ocean. Isn’t that energy? Isn’t that a memory, also?”

Monica Uszerowicz

A project supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019