It’s no surprise that visual artist Racquel Rowe feels a deep connection to the sea. The 26-year-old Waterloo, Ontario resident grew up in the small island nation of Barbados, where her grandfather still goes swimming every day.
“I knew I’d always wanted to work with water and I have such an affinity for the ocean,” Rowe tells Pancouver over Zoom.
Moreover, she demonstrates this in her new exhibition of video works. Gallery Gachet (9 West Hastings Street) will present Saltwater Cures All from February 11 to March 11. Curated by Omoroti Soji-George, the show explores the personal, familial, and larger Black community’s relationship and connections to water.
“My practice kind of grew into this idea of researching the Black Atlantic,” says Rowe, who has an MFA from the University of Waterloo, where she’s a sessional instructor.
This term, the Black Atlantic, gained attention in 1993 with publication of historian Paul Gilroy’s book of the same name. In it, he described a modern Black Atlantic culture that developed in many countries as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.
According to Gilroy, this culture cannot be defined on the basis of nationality or ethnicity.
Rowe, however, delved into the writings of several other intellectuals in exploring this concept. They include Saint Lucian poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott and American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, as well as University of Toronto Black studies professor Rinaldo Walcott.
In addition, Canadian poet, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Dionne Brand influenced Rowe’s thinking.
“In A Map to a Door of No Return, Dionne Brand literally talks about the water as this bridge—as this birth of the Black Atlantic,” Rowe says.
Rowe videotaped in water
Barbados, a former British colony, is just outside the chain of Caribbean islands known as the Lesser Antilles. In fact, Rowe points out, her homeland actually sits in the Atlantic Ocean.
For Saltwater Cures All, Rowe’s mother drove around the island with her for days as the artist gathered footage.
In the main work, Bodies of Water, her cousin Malik Mings videotaped Rowe in the water on her back beside a male friend, Kesean Abrams.
“The sea is a lot calmer in the morning than it is in the afternoon,” Rowe reveals. “We ended up shooting in the afternoon.”
She was in the ocean for an hour as large waves washed over her.
“It was amazing that I was even able to get that bit of footage of me floating because the next minute, it was like me under the water, balled up,” she recalls. “You wouldn’t be able to tell from the footage that the sea was rough.”
Meanwhile, Rowe discloses that Bodies of Water was inspired, in part, by Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.
“There’s a scene in the movie where enslaved people walk back into the water,” Rowe says. “That imagery of people just walking back into the water and refusing to be enslaved—refusing to be part of anything in this foreign place—was so powerful.”
Birthplace of British slave society
Barbados is the size of Surrey, Burnaby, and New Westminster put together. Yet because of its location and its abundant sugar cane, it emerged as the birthplace of British slave society, according to Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles.
“The genealogy goes back to the decision taken by English investors on the island in the late 1630s to rebuild their economic enterprises upon the foundation of racial debasement and mass enslavement of imported Africans,” Beckles wrote in 2017. “This had immediate and far-reaching consequences.
“It economically transformed the colony and redefined its social environment and that of other Caribbean colonies,” he continued. “Critically, it accelerated the pace of mass enslavement of Africans as the basis of Europe’s colonial projects in the Atlantic world.”
Around the age of 10, Rowe began learning in school about the slave trade. She credits robust history education in Barbados for expanding her understanding.
“You knew places and you knew names,” she says. “And you knew where people were taken from one coast and brought to another coast. At such an early age, you were able to learn and explore all of these things. And it just kind of stuck with me as I went through all of my schooling.”
Furthermore, this passion for history led Rowe to earn a bachelor’s degree in this subject.
She hopes that her Gallery Gachet exhibition persuades others to think about their own relationship to the land and surrounding bodies of water.
As for the title, Rowe points out that “saltwater cures all” is a common Caribbean phrase. She came up with this title after her sister blurted it out while they were floating on the water.
“It’s a fable,” Rowe says. “If you have an ailment, you go to the sea.”