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Calabash/Kalbas/Kwi: a personal journey of diasporic returns

Gina Athena Ulysse
p. 71-78

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Collection of calabash bags purchased in Jamaica throughout fieldwork in the 90s, August 2022

Collection of calabash bags purchased in Jamaica throughout fieldwork in the 90s, August 2022

Source: Photo by the author

Rewind: the calabash was in the background

1As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I conducted my doctoral field research in Kingston, Jamaica, among ICIs (informal commercial importers) during 1991-1996. ICIs were primarily female independent international traders who travelled throughout the region and internationally to buy foreign goods wholesale that they retailed in arcades throughout the country upon return. This emphasis on trade routes and markets eventually led to my recognizing the various ways that the women who did this work spent the capital they accumulated. My research was conducted at the headquarters of the UVA (United Vendors Association) on Mark Lane in close proximity to two main shopping arcades in downtown Kingston. At the time, UVA management was headed by two elder Rastafari brethren (old Garveyites) who were dedicated to cultural and economic independence of Black people in the diaspora. The actual office was in the back of a storefront that sold mostly Rasta arts and crafts.

2One of my most treasured mementos from the fieldwork years is a color photograph of the UVA storefront. The picture is of two people behind a counter. They are framed by the grey concrete ceiling that meets a bright sea green backwall that highlights the expression on their faces. Their elbows rest on the wooden counter. In their busy hands were small Rastafari arts and craft jewellery (beaded necklaces, rings and cuff bracelets) they were unwrapping to put in the glass cases below which is invisible from the shot. Above their heads slightly off center to the right is a handmade sign of large silver block letters on a black velvet background. WELCOME to the UVA UNITED VENDORS ASSOCIATION. Beneath the sign is an uneven row of nails that form a line on which hung numerous items. In between these are two small pictures that are difficult to identify. A couple large black leather bags. On the left between the bags, there is a handmade vest of burlap with silver piping on a crooked wire hanger. On the far right, there is a white t-shirt with a photo of his Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie encircled in red, gold and green. These colors of the Ethiopian flag are also representative of Jah RasTafari. Strewn in-between are several calabashes of different sizes. A few were carved, the others were plain. The largest one was nestled in the corner of the wall beneath the t-shirt.

3The calabashes always stand out to me.

4Upon receiving and reading the invitation for this special issue, I automatically thought of the calabash. There was no question that I would focus on it as I could think of no other material object related to training as an anthropologist that is still in very present in my daily life. Over 30 years later, I still possess several I bought during those years traveling back and forth to Jamaica (main picture). They are part of an installation in homage to black diaspora in my home. My relationship to this object and its variations is complex because that was not always the case. In fact, its role in my life now reflects more about my career trajectory or more specifically how my work as a feminist ethnographer whose main medium was written text evolved over time to encompass material objects and the sonic as a multimedia artist.

5During the 1990’s, calabashes were tangential to my work. They were everywhere and also nowhere. The fact is this item was sold in the UVA office and I encountered it frequently among sellers of Rastafari crafts on the street, at markets and festivals. I randomly asked questions about them to satisfy my own curiosity. They remained peripheral to my thinking and fieldnotes in so far as their materiality was not crucial to my research focus. On the contrary, in many ways these gourds were the antithesis of the items and objects of my research focus, that is mainly imported and fabricated foreign goods. Still, the broader significance of the calabash to my research experience remains something I had yet to articulate until now.

6The calabash, which is actually known as the “Rasta bowl,” holds special meaning for the Rastas who used it for multiple purposes including as a container from which to eat and drink as well as to hold medicine and so forth. A truism throughout the Caribbean region is that where there are Rastas you will find calabashes. The utilitarian uses of the shell of this natural fruit may exceed its more esoteric and spiritual dimensions, with more secret uses (among other communities, for example the maroons and obeah practitioners) that are not shared with outsiders. Indeed, throughout the African diaspora, among different religious and spiritual groups, the calabash is a sacred object that often serves divine purposes. It holds special place because Rastafari philosophy, practice and aesthetics eschews the synthetic in all forms toward the most organic alignment with nature. This proclivity and respect for the natural world is an anti-imperial and decolonial stance groundings in Rasta consciousness before ecologically driven “green” consumption became fashionable as a result of increasing awareness of climate issues. Another example of the elevated status of this object as symbolic of “kulcha” (Jamaican patois) and or “roots” in the mainstream is the well-known Calabash Festival, a literary gathering that began in 2001 in Treasure Beach, in St. Elizabeth parish, in the south coast of the island.

7During fieldwork, the bags I purchased and sometimes carried, along with a wardrobe that favoured long flowing clothing – were visible representation that signalled my affinity for Rastafari aesthetic and consciousness. This only complicated articulations and performances of race, class and color politics. While I critically reflected more deeply on these socio-cultural dynamics as forms of antiblackness. This item went undocumented in my dissertation and the subsequently published book, Downtown Ladies. The calabash wasn’t even a footnote.

8Three decades later, surprisingly, this object would re-emerge in my professional path as my approach to the ethnographic took on a more visual turn. That said, the calabash has evolved from occupying an obscured space in the background to becoming central in my burgeoning art practice.

Play: a Caribbean rasanblaj

9The turn to a multimedia and visual art ethnographic practice gained momentum in 2019 when Brook Andrew, the Wadjuri artistic director the 54th Biennale of Sydney (BOS) invited me to be a participant artist. I aimed to create a site-specific performance-installation and chose the kalbas as my primary material in direct response to the selected exhibition site; the Military Guard House on Cockatoo island. The island was a notorious prison established in 1839 until 1869 before being used for different industrial productions. An incredibly beautiful and intimidating location that is totally open to the elements, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage building protected by a Harbour Trust.

10The calabash showed up in a dream – where I get my inspirations from – as a kwi, and the rest followed as I embarked on making the work for the Biennale.

11Kalbas is the Haitian Kreyol word for the calabash tree and kwi is the term for the usable object. I was born and lived in Haiti before migrating to the United States. In Haiti, the Kwi is known as the beggar’s bowl. It is used to pour libations, feed the spirits and so forth. Its multifunctional uses and significations exemplify old and new iterations of Afro-diasporic knowledge and practices in the so-called New World. My knowledge of and interest in the calabash and understanding of the kwi began to intersect.

12Because gourds are found all over the world including Australia, and committed to a diasporic gathering, I sought to both open conversations and give a respectful nod to aboriginal artistic practices including the long history of boab nut carving in many communities. In addition to shipments from Haiti, I also procured calabashes from Barbados, Benin, Cuba, Ghana, Suriname, and Togo along with other materials and found objects on the site on Cockatoo island.

13Central to my evolving art practice is the concept of rasanblaj, that is the gathering of ideas, things people and spirits. In the work that I created for the BOS, I recognized the Kwi as the simple, sacred and profane holder of rasanblaj. Evidence of the impact of the transatlantic slave trade. The Kwi would honour the ancestral imperative in Afro-diasporic traditions that have morphed and yet remain vibrant. “An equitable human assertion” is a line from the late great revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka’s poem “Leadbelly Signs an Autograph.” The final installation performance (figures 2 and 3) emphasized an assertion of shared attachment to the land and comparability in experiences of self-determination in the persistent shadow of colonialism, empire, displacement and fracture. In his book, The Shattered Gourd (2003), art historian Moyo Okediji uses Yoruba cosmology to expose the link between mythology and history that is evident in stories about the divine calabash.

Figure 2 – 21 from “An Equitable Human Assertion”, March 2020

Figure 2 – 21 from “An Equitable Human Assertion”, March 2020

Source: Photo by the author

Figure 3 – Case from “An Equitable Human Assertion”, March 2020

Figure 3 – Case from “An Equitable Human Assertion”, March 2020

Source: Photo by the author

Fast forward

14The calabashes in the Biennale work include both Crescienta cujete and Lagenaria siceraria along with other varieties. I began a new phase of fieldwork, rereading the literature from my Jamaican fieldwork. For example, I returned to Sally Price’s Co-Wives and Calabashes (1984) a study of Afro-Surinamese maroon women social life and art making. This time my interest was on the Saramaka women as artists. The scientific literature is as extensive as the copious children’s books, songs and art practices and festivals based on the gourd. They are the focus of my work now as I continue to use the calabash/kwi in my art practice. it’s clear how much I still need to learn. I listen to the stories they have to tell and try to express what I hear to others.

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Título Collection of calabash bags purchased in Jamaica throughout fieldwork in the 90s, August 2022
Créditos Source: Photo by the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12690/img-1.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 314k
Título Figure 2 – 21 from “An Equitable Human Assertion”, March 2020
Créditos Source: Photo by the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12690/img-2.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 157k
Título Figure 3 – Case from “An Equitable Human Assertion”, March 2020
Créditos Source: Photo by the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/docannexe/image/12690/img-3.jpg
Ficheiro image/jpeg, 233k
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Referência do documento impresso

Gina Athena Ulysse, «Calabash/Kalbas/Kwi: a personal journey of diasporic returns»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 71-78.

Referência eletrónica

Gina Athena Ulysse, «Calabash/Kalbas/Kwi: a personal journey of diasporic returns»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 28 janeiro 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/etnografica/12690; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/etnografica.12690

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Autor

Gina Athena Ulysse

University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

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Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional - CC BY-NC 4.0

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