Under the Deep Blue of Moonlight

If, like me, you are interested in film, then you have probably already seen Moonlight. If you haven’t, then I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about it in the near future – and not only during awards season, but in years to come.

Moonlight chronicles the life of a young boy named Chiron (nicknamed “Little” and “Black” at different points in his life) as he grows up in a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in Miami. In three chapters – from childhood, adolescence, and finally, adulthood – we see Chiron tread the murky waters of identity and isolation, navigating his differences as he tries to find his place in the world.

Visually stunning and poignantly poetic, Moonlight already has a few things to be proud of, including: box office success, top ratings, and several awards.

Some say it is a film of many ‘firsts‘: The first Black filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (Barry Jenkins), the first Academy Award nomination of a Black woman for film editing (Joi McMillon), and some say, it could be the first ‘LGBTQ’ film to win Best Picture, not to mention a ‘Black LGBTQ’ film.

While these are all impressive achievements and certainly indicate a step in the right direction for (American) award ceremonies (re: the #OscarsSoWhite outrage just last year), I do not wish to dwell too much on these formal declarations of excellence, but rather on the cinematic artistry and social underpinnings that are really at the heart of Moonlight’s achievement.

Moonlight is more than a “queer love story” or a well-done “black movie,” as it has been labeled in headlines and award season chatter — though it is also very much a well-done black, queer love story …

“The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story” (McCraney quoted in Anderson, “L.A. Times”)

Moonlight was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

This title also works its way into the film’s dialogue, spoken by a drug dealer turned father figure to young Chiron, or “Little,” as he is called during this chapter of his life. It was a line that stuck with me long after I left the theatre.

In moonlight black boys look blue.

It’s probably under the moonlight that we see that black boys can be blue, can be sad and sullen and intimate … It’s under starlight that we see them differently, or that we get the chance to.

Because we rarely see ourselves in those hues or under that gauze. We see ourselves in the harsh police light or the amber of street lights, but what is it when the reflection of the sun in the moon is sitting on these bodies. What beauty can we see? (McCraney in “L.A. Times”)

Bodies under light. Bodies under watchful eyes.

The body is the place of captivity (Brand 35).

In thinking of bodies, I think again to Dionne Brand, who says, “the Black body is one of the most regulated bodies in the Diaspora” (37).

How then, does moonlight affect this bodily captivity? How does it reject regulation?

As McCraney argues, Black boys are used to seeing themselves under the flashing lights of cop cars, or under the urban artificiality of street lights. But what of the deep, natural, blue of moonlight? Can this help ‘denaturalize’ the overregulation of Black bodies?

Under moonlight, bodies change. Beings change.

In the film, some of Chiron’s most pivotal moments occur under moonlight. In a way, it is when Chiron is under that cloak of blue that he really starts to accept himself. He can begin to embrace his differences while defying other people’s definitions and expectations of who he should be.

Whether he is “Little,” “Black,” or “Chiron,” under the moonlight, he can just be.

This self which is unobservable is a mystery. It is imprisoned in the observed. It is constantly struggling to wrest itself from the warp of its public ownerships. Its own language is plain yet secret. Rather, obscured (Brand 51).

What I also noticed, however, was that where there was moonlight, there was often water. The beach, for one, becomes a particularly significant setting for Chiron’s personal growth.

The beach: where water meets land, and where man is caught somewhere in between. Between the rolling waves and the sinking sand, it is a transformative space – between beginnings and endings, there are becomings.

In a way, moonlight reflects most strongly alongside bodies of water. Blues become bluest between sky and water, away from the neon lights of urban life.

And blue, too, are bodies by water.

I’m thinking of one particular shot where we see “Little” standing alone, shirtless, staring out into the water. The blue of the moon reaches from the sky, tinting the waves as they roll forwards and backwards, and finally casting its cerulean colour across Chiron’s bare shoulders.

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“Little” (Alex Hibbert) in Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016

The sea would forever be larger than me. My eyes hit only its waist. I saw a wave’s belly looking backwards. I saw froth rolling toward my feet as the sea moved into my spot on the beach. It always came in a jagged circle, frothing and steaming. It reduced all life to unimportant random meaning. Only we were changing and struggling, living as if everything was urgent, feeling – the ocean was bigger than feeling (Brand 11-12).

Against the sea, one life might seem small, perhaps powerless, in comparison. But when you see “Little” standing along the shore, he is not diminished.

Although the sea is at once threatening, it is also transformative. It holds potential – both positive and negative. Caught between the sand and the waves, Chiron acknowledges the formidable nature of the sea.

Formidable, but not insurmountable.

Chiron’s place in the world might not be clear – caught between acceptance and isolation, between protection and persecution, between conformity and conflict. But one’s life is never truly little, even against a seemingly endless saltwater horizion. What is one’s life, if not for one’s becomings? There is no destination without a journey. And in Moonlight, the journey becomes the destination (Brand 203).

Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water (Brand 6).

Under the deep blue of moonlight, we see bodies differently.

We see beauty.

Or more importantly, under moonlight, we get the chance to.

 

Sources:

Anderson, Tre’vell. “Before the buzz began on ‘Moonlight,’ the coming-of-age story           started with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-moonlight-playwright-tarell-mccraney-20161017-snap-story.html.

Berman, Eliza. “Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First.” Time, http://time.com/4656493/moonlight-barry-jenkins-interview/.

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

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thinking with things

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Mai, part of the Baba and Mai statue honouring the British Indian indentured labourers who arrived in Suriname between 1873 and 1916. Photo: Sonja Boon

Thinking about intra-action, entanglement, actor networks, agency, and trans-corporeailty….trying to work through the relationships between bodies and landscapes and histories and memories.

A few quotes from two different readings:

From Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker’s “Weathering: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality”

 “Weathering, then, is a logic, a way of being/becoming, or a mode of affecting and differentiating that brings humans into relation with more-than-human weather. We can grasp the transcorporeality of weathering as a spatial overlap of human bodies and weathery nature. Rain might extend into our arthritic joints, sun might literally color our skin, and the chill of the wind might echo through the hidden hallways of our eardrums. But not coincidentally, the idea of weathering also invokes a certain perdurance—a getting on with, a getting by, a getting through.” (560)

From Jane Bennett’s 2010 book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

 “How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies? By ‘vitality’ I mea the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” (viii)

“If we do not know just how it is that human agency operates, how can we be so sure that the processes through which nonhumans make their mark are qualitatively different?” (14)

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The Fisher’s Wife statue, Vlissingen, The Netherlands. Photo: Sonja Boon

References:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker. “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia 29.3 (2014): 558-575.

 

(c) Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2016.

 

Bordering the Ocean

Bordering the Ocean

I have been thinking about borders. It is hard not to think about them when a presidential candidate is talking about walling off the United States from Mexico and Canada, and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

I have also been thinking about them because I have been reading Gloria Anzaldua‘s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. It is a semi-autobiographical book discussing the ideological borders between men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, and Latin American and non-Latin American, and the physical border between Mexico and the United States.

Anzaldua describes a border as “a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge” (Anzaldua, 1999: 25).

Borders give the impression of defining and dividing the edge of one thing and the beginning of another. They clarify difference, United States as different from Mexico and Canada, male as different from female, land as different from ocean. However, most of these borders are not visible, and there are people, places, and things that do not fall easily on one side over the other.

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Maben’s Beach, Bamfield B.C., Summer 2009, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Is the border between men and women the difference between a XY chromosome and a XX chromosome? Is the border between Mexico and the United States what defines Mexican and American? Is a coast line the border between land and water?

 

“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (Anzaldua, 1999; 25).

I like the visual image of a coastline as a metaphor for borders and borderlands. Can we define this border as the difference between solid and liquid? Wet and dry? Sand and salt water? One can see the border on a map as the black outline that edges countries and continents, but the line is not so fixed when standing on the actual coast. The tide comes in and goes out, soaking the sand, carrying driftwood, and creating tidal pools where life grows.

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St. Ives, Tide In, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

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St. Ives, Tide Out, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

At any given moment, the border between water and land shifts. In St. Ives, it can leave boats immobile, tilting on sand, but people expect it to happen because they know the tide will go out. They know that it is a vague terrain that alters with the time of the day, yet they still use it.

And when people go to a beach, they spend most of their time standing in that borderland, letting the waves wash over their feet. They stand both on land and in water.

People, places, and things that are not easily defined gather in the borderlands. It is a place where culture, ideas, characteristics, and people, ebb and flow. It is where things meet, and it is a place where new things are created.

“Living in a state of psychic unrest in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create” (Anzaldua, 1999: 95).

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016

finding theory in unexpected places

The residents of Calgary know a lot about the power of water. In 2013, a combination of forces led to disastrous flooding as the Bow River breached its banks. The river took everything along in its path, and left silt, tree branches, garbage, rocks and all sorts of debris behind as it receded.

Prince’s Island Park, Calgary’s urban nature park, a quiet oasis just minutes’ walk from the high rises in the downtown core, disappeared in the flooding and when all was said and done, the landscape itself was completely different. Broken trees littered the park’s walkways and branches lay tangled in the wooded areas. The silt had reshaped the river’s route.

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Prince’s Island Park

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Prince’s Island Park

Walking through the park in 2016, I wouldn’t necessarily know what had happened three years ago; I have no long term history with this place. I noticed fallen trees, but I could have attributed them to any winter or summer storm.

But there are small hints of this past – a sign that tells people that a section of the park is closed due to flooding, for example. More obvious are the signs the city has placed around the park. Calgary, these signs say, is a resilient city. The floods had a profound impact, but the city has reconstructed this island, reshaped the silt deposits, and re-routed the water so that a future flood event might not have such a devastating impact.

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The day I was there, I walked through poplar fluff dancing around me in the light breeze. On the ground, small snowstorms of fluff washing across the asphalt. By the river’s edge, two Canada geese with a row of tiny goslings. On a little concrete plaza, a gang of teenage geese eagerly awaiting treats.

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The smell of lilacs, long forgotten, perfumed my senses. I stopped, surprised. The scent was unexpected, overwhelming, and so very familiar. We had three lilac trees in our backyard when I was growing up. My mom would pick them and then arrange them in a white milk jug vase and place them in the centre of the kitchen table at the heart of our house.

The river’s colour reminded me of the mountains, a glacial blue, that colour you might get when you mix the Caribbean Sea with mint-flavoured toothpaste.

It wasn’t a place where I’d expect to find theory, and indeed, I didn’t go to the park looking for it. I was just looking for fresh air and some green space.

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But then I started seeing a series of cryptic signs.

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The signs – 100 in total – are the work of an artist-research collaboration calling itself the Broken City Lab. “Subtext: River Signs” was made possible through the city of Calgary’s Watershed+ public art program:

“WATERSHED+ is a way of working that aims to develop awareness and pleasure in the environment, not by changing water management practice, nor developing a uniform visual language, but rather by creating a climate of opportunity for water initiatives to build an emotional connection between people and the watershed.”

“Subtext: River Signs” operates like a game. Playfully offering seemingly random thoughts along the water’s edge, it invites viewers and readers to join the adventure, and to look for more and more signs.

Each sign asked me to pause, think, and reflect… hints of theory placed into the urban land and waterscape.

Is the river blind?

Is the river purposeful?

Is the river defiant?

 

Is the river longing?

Is the river empty?

Is the river lonely?

 

Is the river a dream?

In their own words about this project,  Broken City Lab writes:

“Subtext: River Signs aims to engage the public to consider a number of questions about the rivers that have come to define the City of Calgary. Playfully asking a series of questions, Subtext: River Signs encourages thousands of residents and visitors to think about the ways in which we collectively and individually experience the rivers and how these questions might cue new relations, memories, and stories of the Bow and Elbow.”

How well do we know the river, these signs seem to ask. And who are we in relation to it? How do we talk about the river? How do we understand it? Does the river have agency? What happens when we forget about the river, when we take it for granted, when we don’t pay attention?

In her article, “Land as Pedagogy, Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,”  writer and thinker Leanne Betasamosake Simpson shares the story of a girl (“Kwezens” means “little woman” in Anishnaabemowin) who learns about maple syrup from a tree and a squirrel and shares her knowledge wit her family. How different her learning is from Western ways of learning, Simpson writes:

“Kwezens learned a tremendous amount over a two-day period – self-led, driven by both her own curiosity and her own personal desire to learn. She learned to trust herself, her family and her community. She learned the sheer joy of discovery. She learned how to interact with the spirit of the maple. She learned both from the land and with the land. She learned what it felt like to be recognized, seen and appreciated by her community. She comes to know maple sugar with the support of her family and Elders. She comes to know maple sugar in the context of love.” (7)

Simpson describes a holistic understanding of knowledge production, one shaped through and with the natural world and informed not by “dominion over” but rather by deep respect for and engagement with the land and what it can teach us. This is particularly important to a politics of decolonization that seeks to support what Simpson terms “A resurgence of Indigenous political cultures, governances and nation-building” (1).  “To create a nation of Kwezens – to survive as Nishnaabeg – we shouldn’t be just striving for land-based pedagogies,” Simpson writes, “The land must once again become the pedagogy” (14).

What stories might a river tell and how might we be changed if we listen to them?

Does water have memory?
Does it leave bits and pieces of its DNA behind?
Can its silty shores tell stories of watery migrations?

 

References

Broken City Lab, “SubText: River Signs.” asktheriver.info

City of Calgary, “Watershed+” http://www.watershedplus.com

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 3.3 (2014): 1-25. Available here: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/22170

 

(c) Sonja Boon, 2016 (sboon @ mun.ca)

 

Collecting Words

Collecting Words

Thames Sunset, London England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

I have always loved words, the way certain writers can string together a phrase, or a paragraph to communicate an idea or an image. This love started with poetry, then prose; I found beauty in the words of theorists and philosophers as my reading levels developed enough to understand them.

I not only read eloquent words, I collect any that I have a profound connection to, any that relate to moments of my life. Lately, I have been collecting words that relate to my research. I have been reading for my comprehensive exams, and came across an interesting quotation while reviewing an article on anarchy and indigenous connections to place (Barker and Pickerill).

The quote was originally from Jake Swamp, a Mohawk chief and founder of the Tree of Peace Society. It was part of a speech he gave at the Re/Envisioning Relationships Conference that was then published in Alliances: Re/Envisioning Indigenous – Non-indigenous Relationships (edited by Lynne Davis).

“[W]e have been given the responsibility at the beginning of the world to be grateful for what we have, and for the earth. We have the understanding, and we have the attitude, but it’s hard to practise the way we live today. We cannot go to the river to drink from it anymore; therefore, our relationship with the river is now changed. Our relationship to everything in the world is now changed. And we have to teach our children to invent new ways of looking at life.” (Swamp, 2010: 20)

The article by Adam J. Barker and Jenny Pickerill argued that anarchist activists need to recognize, respect, and work with the indigenous connections of place, if they are going to work with indigenous activists. While I found the article interesting and relevant to my research, I could not shake this quote from my head. Our relationship to the earth (and the river) has changed, and we need to change the way we engage with it. This is not a new idea, but the way Jake Swamp communicates it has left an impact on me.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016

Barker, Adam J. & Jenny Pickerill. “Radicalizing Relationships to and Through Shared Geographies: Why Anarchists Need to Understand Indigenous Connections to Land and Place.” In Antipode 44, no. 5 (2012): 1705-1725.

Swamp, J. “Kanikonriio: Power of a Good Mind.” In Alliances: Re/Envisioning Indigenous – Non-indigenous Relationships. Edited by Lynne Davis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. 15-25.

and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

[caution: image-rich post ahead!]

Middelburg, the capital city of Zeeland located on the southwestern island of Walcheren, seduced me from the moment I stepped off the train in 2014. It didn’t matter that it was grey and rainy. It didn’t matter that my hotel room felt a bit like a cheap remake of a late nineteenth-century boudoir (the staff were lovely, it was clean, and the breakfast was lovely, I should add). What mattered was that Middleburg drew me in. It enticed me. It beckoned. It puts its arm around me and said, “Come with me and let me whisper some secrets into your ear.”

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I was there for only three days, to spend time with the archives of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie, a commodity-trading company turned slave-trading company active in the eighteenth century. And so I spent most of my days indoors at the Zeeuws Archief, handling the most traditional of archival materials: historical documents that outlined the inner workings of the slave trade. But before the archives opened, and after they closed, I explored the streets of this city of 48,000, eagerly following its seductive call….

When I think of archives, I think of paper documents; that is, I think of text and image and of the stories they transmit. But recently I’ve been considering archives of a very different sort. In early June 2016, I travelled back to Middelburg. This time I wasn’t there to focus on the paper documents (which are no longer accessible since the Zeeuws Archief digitized them all); I was there to hone in on the city and its stories.

Building on my visceral response to this place in 2014, I wanted my body to fully experience and understand this space. I wanted to consider the archives of space and place and how they interacted. What could town planning reveal? How might cobbled streets work to shape ways of knowing? What of the sound and feel of wooden shoes on cobblestones? What could I learn from the kinds of house-naming patterns? What could I glean from the distances between properties? Or the sizes of streets?

Further, what could I learn about the way that the slave trade and in relation to this, products from the Caribbean, shaped the not only the economic fortunes of the inhabitants of this place, but also its landscape: What of the offices? What of the homes with names that hearkened to Caribbean holdings? What of the vast storehouses into which products like sugar, coffee, and cocoa beans were loaded? What of the ever-increasing number of cocoa mills in town?

I needed to walk this place. I needed to feel it in my bones, my muscles, my tendons. I needed to feel the air, to smell it, to taste it. And to be honest, I needed to be seduced again.

And so I left my B&B in the morning and allowed my feet to take me where they felt like going. I turned right and then left and then wandered down an alleyway that caught my fancy….

And just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer.

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the Kuiperspoort in the morning fog. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

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Looking the other way down the Kuiperspoort. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

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Later in the day when the fog lifted. Just because I had to go back and be there again. Photo: Sonja Boon

This is the Kuiperspoort, a group of sixteenth-century buildings that used to house the Coopers’ guild. Today, part of this row of buildings houses an art school and the Zeeuws Muziekschool. As I listened to students practicing, my body relaxed into familiar territory. This, I thought, I know.

And then I walked some more. And some more. I walked for eight hours straight. I listened to the town. I smelled it. I felt it underfoot. I listened for the whispers of ghosts. I mapped it into my body.

The city told me about weather, and about the damp that seeps through Middelburg. The cobbled stones are mossy, green. So, too is stonework.

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Oosterkerk, back entrance. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

 

The fog didn’t lift until well into the morning, and while to a certain extent this felt familiar – June is, after all, fog season in St. John’s – it lasted longer, and instead of fog fingers moving in and out of the harbour, this was a damp but light fog that settled over the whole town, making it almost like a dreamspace – eerily quiet and never quite in focus.

Sound echoes in strange ways in the fog. The church bells ring on the quarter hour (pop-like songs, mostly, and played on a 50-year old carillon in a tower rebuilt after the war, so very different from what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Middelburgers would have heard, but the acoustics would have been very similar). I listened to echoes just out of sync but still remarkably resonant.

The city told me about the relationships between bodies and spaces. People were – and still are – close together. Many of the streets in the oldest parts of the town are narrow. This isn’t necessarily unusual for old European towns (and is certainly not unusual for The Netherlands), but Middelburg seems to have more than its fair share of streets that are really nothing more than glorified walking paths. There’s no way a car could even go through, let alone park. These are streets where your business was everyone’s business; privacy is a dream. The houses – and the people in them – are on top of each other.

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And, while today, the city presents itself as a gracious, genteel place with a busy weekend marketplace with lots of cafés, it would have felt quite different went it was a busy town organized around maritime trade (including privateering, piracy, and the slave trade). The Dutch East India Company (VOC) and West India Company (WIC) both had offices here, as did – later – the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC), and these companies employed many locals in a range of roles. So, too, would there have been local merchants, whose goods provisioned the ships, and seamen. Indeed, the MCC collection at the Zeeuws Archief gives insight into just how long the tentacles of these trading companies were. Middelburg would have been a bustling, busy, market-driven place.

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VOC logo on a harbour front building that was once….

Along the grachten – or canals – there are grand houses that speak to the immense wealth in this area (especially during the seventeenth century). The houses rise, stately, three and even four storeys high.

And they are not shallow houses, but deep. Indeed, my own bed and breakfast, near the Dam, is a spacious place with stairs that go up and up and up and up past the family’s living quarters until you reach the top two B&B rooms, and even these are not fully in the attic area. These houses were built to make an impression, and an impression I’m sure they made.

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So, too, did I get a bit of insight into the imaginative engagement with space through house-naming practices. House-naming was common in the era before house numbers, but fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century as numbers took over. But dedicated volunteers and researchers – in a project entitled “Huisnamen en documentatie van huizen in Middelburg” – have done much to revive the original names, and now many houses carry both a number and a name. These names, part of the material history of this place, can give us a bit of insight into the way that people thought, what they valued, and how their imaginations shaped their understandings of place and space. Looking for house names quickly became a game, and I found myself taking photo after photo after photo after photo, and wondering how and why certain names were chosen and how they related to the individuals who lived there, and to the houses themselves.

It would take a whole research project to work all of this out at a detailed level, but a few patterns emerged during my short visit.

First, real or fictional animals were a common theme – the city abounds with lions, chickens, cats and roosters.

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The black cat.

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The white turtledove

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The turkey

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The white rooster

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On the left, The Playing Lion. On the right, The Skipper’s House

 

 

I even encountered a phoenix…

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and a rooster on a horse!

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So, too, did naming practices reference exotica: names recall Persia, Constantinople, pomegranate. And, of course, house names reference the slave trade and Zeeland’s economic interests overseas: “De Bogt Van Guinee” references the African Gold Coast. “Demerarij,” meanwhile, brings to mind Demerara and the cane sugar harvested there.

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Some names are humorous. Thus, Groote Clocke house is right across the street from Kleyne Clocke house.

Other names are descriptive: the “house on the Spui Bridge,” for example, is – unsurprisingly – next to what was formerly a bridge.

One name, meanwhile, returned me right back to the world of eighteenth-century music.

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While “Het Misverstand” – “The Misunderstanding” – could link me back to the seventeenth-century Carte de Tendre, my brain more immediately dropped into a musical frame of mind: gallant eighteenth-century French character pieces designed to flatter and tease the ear. I played many of these during my years as a professional early musician, and flatter my ears they definitely did.

Finally, the town’s buildings told me about the ubiquity of the slave trade in this part of Holland. The town’s core is littered with buildings directly linked to the various trading companies engaged in the transatlantic trade in commodities and humans: the WIC had offices here, as did the VOC. So, too, was the MCC – whose archives are listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register due to the thoroughness of their extant records – based here. Pakhuizen – storehouses – are still easy to locate.

 

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Embedded above the door of the big storehouse above.

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There is also physical evidence of the secondary industries that flourished as a result of these trading companies’ work. In the eighteenth century, Zeeland became known for its chocolate, and Middelburg proper had 12 cocoa mills processing Caribbean cocoa beans. While these mills have now disappeared, their stories remain in the landscape. It would be interesting to track down the addresses of other businesses whose fortunes were shaped by the slave trade: bakers, coopers, smiths, liquor merchants, textile merchants, and more.

By walking the town, I can get a sense of the distance between places. I can also think about smell and how it travelled in this town: what did a cocoa milling operation smell like, I wonder, and how did it operate? I can think about how sound travelled, and about the impossibility of a silent arrival on cobblestones. And I can think of a life shaped by the workings of the sea, on the one hand, and the regular tolling of the church bells on the other.

So, too, can I get a sense of the old harbour through which ships had to pass on their journeys out.

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“Gezicht vanaf de Punt op de haven van Middelburg,” Jan Luyken, Johannes Meertens, Abraham van Someren, 1696. Illustratie uit: Smallegange, Mattheus. Nieuwe cronyk van Zeeland, eerste deel. Amsterdam en Middelburg: Abraham van Someren en Johannes Meertens, 1696. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.144017

 

Water – the rivers, the sea – remains an important part of Middelburg’s identity. The Saturday after I arrived was Watersportdag and the old harbour area – right next to the original VOC office building – was busy with activity, with people of all ages enjoying themselves on the water. Dutch beer tent music (or at least that’s what I call it!) blared from speakers and smoked fish was on sale.

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Poems on building walls, with a large number of them in some way about the sea.

 

On the surface, Middelburg is a town that appears to exist outside of – or beyond – time. Consider, for example, this 1746 print of the Oosterkerk.

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“Gezicht op de Oostkerk te Middelburg,” Jan Caspar Philips, Isaak Tirion, Staten van Holland en West-Friesland, 1746. Prent ook gebruikt als illustratie in: Boddaert, Pieter, e.a., Tegenwoordige staat der Vereenigde Nederlanden; negende deel, behelzende eene beschryving van Zeeland. Amsterdam: Isaak Tirion, 1751. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.164126

 

Now consider my own rendition (taken at closer range).

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Apart from the people in eighteenth-century dress in the print and the cars and streetlamp in my photo, this view has not changed in over 250 years. Given that the church was built in the mid-seventeenth century (and that its construction had required the demolition of seventeen houses), this neighbourhood was already well established by the mid-eighteenth century. What was it like to live in a town that had looked (virtually) the same for a century? And what might it mean for Middelburgers today that their vistas are almost exactly the same vistas seen and experienced by all those who have walked these streets over the last 350 years?

Middelburg has over 1100 registered heritage structures (take note, City of St. John’s). But this seemingly timeless city also carries its secrets. Bombed extensively during the Second World War, Middelburg had to rebuild much of its historic centre. These photos  show the extent of the devastation. But Middelburg rebuilt itself, and it followed the original plans so closely that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference.

The magnificent abbey, home to the Zeeuws Museum as well as other regional offices, was substantially damaged; the restoration is indistinguishable from the original.

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Abdij van Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

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Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

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Abdij in the rain, at the entrance to the Zeeuws Museum. Photo: Sonja Boon.n

 

The St. Joris Doelen, just next to the Abbey, was also almost fully destroyed.

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St. Joris Doelen, Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it masquerades – at least to outsiders – as a gracious, late sixteenth-century structure, complete with its construction date. But as the immediate post-war photos reveal, its building history is much more complex.

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St. Joris Doelen in the sun, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon

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St. Joris Doelen in the rain, 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

Middelburg is not, therefore, the timeless, untouched place it seems to be. Its façade, although seductive, is deceptive. There are many, many stories behind the varnished beauty of the Vermeer painting of the city.

After two days of walking and thinking and writing, I know more about this city and its stories. I would have to stay much longer to find all of its nooks and crannies. But I can better situate my conventional archival materials; I know how these texts and images fit into the bigger picture. I can build connections between the various merchants commissioned to provision ships. I can imagine how people lived in relation to one another, and how they moved through this town – from the squares, to the churches, and down the narrow streets. I can begin to envision the shape of the slave trade in this place.

Middelburg continues to bewitch; it continues to seduce. And like an eager suitor, I welcome the seduction.

 

(c) Sonja Boon, 2016  sboon @ mun.ca

geographies

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“Gros Morne Lookout Trail’ (2016) by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.


“We have no maps without the maps that came before. Lift one map of the body
and find another. Navigating back. Mapping through.”

Barrie Jean Borich, Body Geographic, 71.

 “All maps tell stories: the story their maker intended and the story they tell
about their making – that is, how, why, what purpose they served and their impact.”

Judith A. Tyner,
Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, 6)

 Years ago, as a grade 6 student learning Canadian geography, I remember telling my teacher that I could easily remember Quebec because “it looks like a witch.” This was no negative statement towards Quebec, I’ll hasten to add. As a child, I loved witches and all things ghoulish, and I could find them in all sorts of places…including, apparently, a map of Canada. Years later, during the Quebec referendum of 1995, I wondered how that map might change should Quebec have received a mandate to separate. Would the whole witch disappear from the map of Canada? Or would there be a re-partitioning? What would this new map look like, and what story – and stories – might it tell?

Thanks to the questions of a probing graduate student (thanks, Laura!), I’ve been thinking a lot about space and how space operates on a ship. The Ship’s Logs at the Maritime History Archive mark space and time with precision, notating the exact date and time alongside specific geographic coordinates. While some locations can easily be fixed – Isle of St. Helena, for example, or River Hooghly, or Cape of Good Hope – others, in the middle of the Atlantic, cannot. Here, the Master resorts to measurements, notating the numbers that mark points on the invisible grid that organizes ocean spaces. In this sense, the coordinates can provide comfort; security in a space otherwise almost completely devoid of conventional place markers. If I wanted to, I could – like researchers working out of the Zeeuws Archief – plot a ship’s journey almost perfectly.

Such projects are fascinating, in that, much like the Flight Aware app that my teenage son obsesses over, they can reveal much about how ships moved through space. But such mapping projects can’t tell us about what happened in that space, not really, anyway.

Maps, as numerous scholars have observed, are representations that reveal much more about the beholder than they do about what they purport to represent. As Jeremy Black writes, “A map is a show, a representation. What is shown is real, but that does not imply completeness or entail any absence of choice in selection and representation” (11). Why is the global South comparatively small? Why is Europe at the centre? Why are Australia and New Zealand down at the bottom? Why, on an English-language map, is the Faroe Islands spelled in the Danish way, rather than the Faroese way? How did Quebec come to look like a witch? How come Alberta looks like a piece of sliced cheese with a corner crumbled off? And why didn’t Indigenous territories make the cut? All of these represent choices, and each of these choices can reveal something about the map’s creators, and further, about the map’s intended audience.

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“The Romantic Archipelago,” by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

The map on my older son’s wall, pilfered from a stash of wall maps abandoned in a hallway by a retiring professor, shows major shipping routes around the world. The ‘world’ itself looks geographically similar, at least on the surface, to the ‘world’ I see on contemporary maps. But over the last half century since the map was produced, borders and boundaries have shifted, countries have appeared and disappeared, names have changed and, in some cases, changed back again.

A map on a New Zealand friend’s wall told a very different story: here the map was, to my eyes, upside down. I don’t have access to that particular map anymore, but similar maps are easily searchable online. Centering New Zealand/Aotearoa where the map I’ve grown up with centers Europe, it has the South Pole on top and the North Pole at the bottom. Where the map I’ve grown up with centers the Atlantic Ocean, this one centers the Pacific. North America has taken on – in a curious way – the contours of South America, its tail stretching down towards the Arctic. I look once. I look twice. And I have to keep looking again and again and again, my coordinates undone by this process of unmapping and remapping.

The colonial maps of Suriname with rectangular strips along all the rivers, tell stories of land claims, plantations, and colonial power. They tell, too, of different waves of settlement: plantations with Dutch names clustered along one river; those as yet unclaimed, and which would later have English names proliferating along another.

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Alexander de Lavaux, Landkaart (van Suriname). twee aan elkaar geplakte bladen, ingekleurde gravure; de plantages aan de verschillende rivieren staan aangegeven. Links en rechts: kolom met de “Naamlijst der Eigenaars van de Plantagien”, totaal 519 nummers. L.b.: Kaart van de wijdere omgeving van het gebied. l.m.: cartouche met de schaal. r.b.: cartouche met de titel en het wapen van Suriname. Gesigneerd; rechts boven in cartouche. Amsterdam, 1737-1757. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.262962

 

But maps have not only told stories of physical and political geography. They’ve also revealed intimate geographies. The Carte de Tendre that accompanied Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s seventeenth-century novel, Clélie (and later reproduced by many other members of the French intelligentsia), for example, revealed the various waypoints along the journey from new friendship towards intimate friendship or love (tendre). Obedience. Constancy. Sincerity. Care. Generosity – all of these are marked on the map. But so too are the possible dangers: Perfidity. Inequality. Indifference. Negligence. Indiscretion. This maps lays out the complexities of social relationships, and the care that one must take in order to nurture them.

Mapping – as process – has also served pedagogical purposes. In a 2015 book, Judith A. Tyner examines the little known history of map samplers and needlepoint globes, considering these projects not as scientific tools to be used by voyagers, but rather, as pedagogical tools designed to teach geography. As a scientific tool, a map’s purpose lies in its completion; that is, the map as finished product. The map as a pedagogical tool, however, gains its purpose from the process; that is, it becomes meaningful only the making or doing of geography, in the mapping process itself. Here, Tyner makes an important distinction between using and creating maps, a point that she then develops as she considers the role of map-making to girls’ education in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

An artist friend of mine, Bettina Matzkuhn – whose work visually maps this whole blog post (thanks, Bettina!) – has spent many years working with maps: geographical maps, bike routes, body maps, and more. Each of her embroidered maps tells a story, but none of them maps mere geography. She’s mapped her bike route to work, complete with the various characters and scenery that she encounters along the way.

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“Commute,” by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

She’s mapped a suffering body, offering viewers a heat map that identifies points of pain. More recently, in a  tribute to a mother who is losing her memory, she’s developed a work that brings geography and memory together, telling the stories of their family boat travels in and out of the small harbours and coves along British Columbia’s west coast.

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“A childhood in Howe Sound,” by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photo by Bettina Matkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

But Bettina’s maps are not restricted to the terrestrial. A project undertaken with a weather specialist has seen her map weather, with embroidery, music, text and video. You can watch The Zoology of Weather here.

So, too, has Barrie Jean Borich taken up a more metaphorical engagement with the idea of geography. In her memoir, Body Geographic, Borich considers the body itself as geography, a “geography of memory” (5). As she writes:

Maps obscure more than they reveal because their flatness is contrary to the layered experience of living. Maps are representational, but life is lived in the body, is dimensional, has voice and history. So every map can’t help but contain other maps, areas of detail requiring special attention, even when the insets don’t show. The body, my body, is a stacked atlas of memory. If we think the idle of our lives are flat we mistake surface for substance. (7)

Space, geographer Doreen Massey has observed, can be understood as a “meeting up of histories” (qtd. in Goeman 5). It is “a product of interrelations,” a “[sphere] of possibilities,” “always under construction,” and “a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (qtd. in Goeman 5-6). Space, therefore, is a site of contestation, collaboration, struggle, dialogue, resistance…. Like the maps that result from these encounters, space is itself inherently political. As Mishuana Goeman observes, “Ultimately, we must question our mental and material maps” (204).

In a poignant episode near the end of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, the heroine, Aminata Diallo, finds herself in a map room at Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

From the portfolio marked Guinea, I removed the first map and spread it out on a table with two burning candles. It showed the typical painting of half-dressed African men and naked African women, usually with baboons and elephants nearby.

Reaching again into the Guinea portfolio, I pulled out a piece of paper with flower handwriting: “Copied from On Poetry: A Rhapsody, by Jonathan Swift, 1733.” And then I found the lines:

So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o’er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

Elephants for want of towns. I found it comforting to know that nearly sixty years earlier, before I was ever born, Swift had expressed the very thing I was feeling now. These weren’t maps of Africa. In the ornate cartouches of elephants and of women with huge breasts that rose in unlikely salute, every stroke of paint told me that the map-mapers had little to say about my land.

These maps do not tell Aminata Diallo’s story; they cannot capture how she organized and understood her world. These are the stories of European colonizers and slave traders, the same people who would put African women in travelling exhibitions (and later, after their deaths, thoroughly examine and then preserve their bodies) and set up human zoos in the centers of their cities.

Can we learn to see differently? Can we make different maps? Imagine new ways of organizing our worlds?

 

References

Black, Jeremy., Maps and Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Borich, Barrie Jean. Body Geographic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Electronic book, ca. 2010. Accessed via Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries

Tyner, Judith A. Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education. Farnham, UK and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2015.

 

With deepest thanks to Bettina Matzkuhn for sharing her artwork – and her thinking about maps!

Embroidered Images © Bettina Matzkuhn.
Text © Sonja Boon.