Valencia James & Landship Valiant Star

15 Aug, 2023

Valencia James & Landship Valiant Star

We're thrilled to support our students in their summer research. Read about Valencia James and Landship Valiant Star; a multimodal research project in which I am exploring the living history of the Barbados Landship below!

Landship Valiant Star is a multimodal research project in which I am exploring the living history of the Barbados Landship. The Landship is a socio-cultural movement in Barbados, established by the Black working class for collective survival in the harsh racial and economic climate before and after the abolition of slavery. Members participated in a community-saving system called “meeting turn” or “susu”. Appropriating the organizational structure of the British Navy, members paraded in naval uniform, performing “manoeuvres” displaying African retentions in dances and rituals that embodied the movement of a ship and its crew.

By asking the question, “How can Landship be reimagined for today’s reality?”, I am seeking new ways of reviving and preserving this tradition that has been on the brink of extinction for decades. The first phase of the research resulted in an art installation and dance performance at UC Berkeley’s Worth Ryder Art Gallery, that explored the creation of a historical fiction that brings Landship into a new relationship with the artist and the viewer. After contemplating this facet of my culture outside of my country, I felt the need to speak to people within the geographic reality of this practice. With the help of BCNM’s Summer Research grant, I was able to travel to Barbados to interview members of the Barbados Landship Association, cultural scholars, and community organizers, conduct archival research, and to record Landship performances during the annual Crop Over Festival.

My goals for this phase of research were to gain a deeper understanding about the history, as well as the oral and movement-based tradition of the Barbados Landship; to understand the needs of the local community for the preservation of the tradition; to understand how ancestral and emerging technologies are already being engaged and what benefits and risks may be involved in utilizing new technologies for the preservation of the Landship; and ultimately, to create new artworks based on the research findings that benefit the Barbadian community and spreads awareness around the Barbados Landship.

During my preparation, I consulted cultural scholar and choreographer, Dr. John Hunte who is a patron of the Barbados Landship Association. I learned that he is leading an exciting new revival of the movement through community and school educational programs in partnership with the National Cultural Foundation and the University of the West Indies. The programs teach community members as well as primary and secondary school students about the history and organization of the Landship, its dances or maneuvers, as well as how to establish and manage their own Landships. This conversation led me to think about what it means to pass on a tradition, and how this might be thought of as a technology in its own right. Thus, I decided to create a video project portraying the transmission of oral history and embodied practice.

The video features Dr. Hunte as culture-bearer and myself as the apprentice, in a session where I interview him and receive instruction in the intricacies of Landship dance. Through Dr.Hunte’s help, I was able to meet and interview senior lifelong members of the Barbados Landship Association, including the movement’s new leader, Admiral Elton Greaves. These recording sessions occurred in the Landship’s headquarters, known as The Dock. Here, I was able to view exhibition materials on the history of the Landship as well as important artifacts from the late Lord High Admiral’s ceremonial regalia, official flags, the Maypole, archival photographs and paintings. I worked with local videographer Anton Nixon, to record the video footage, including the Landship’s live performance at the opening ceremony of the Crop Over Festival.

In addition to the video work, I was able to meet and interview Dr. Editha “Nancy” Fergusson-Jacobs, an art historian who published the only official book about the Barbados Landship and whose research has traced the movement’s links back to West Africa. I also visited the National Archives, where I found old newspaper clippings that gave new insights into the movement’s organizational structure, the ways it was adapted to stay ‘afloat’ and its impact on social welfare in its heyday. From my interviews with senior members of the Landship, I found out that the passing down of tradition was largely facilitated by family members or close community relations. Admiral Greaves stressed the importance of including children (many ships that floundered did not) and how this includes attention to their basic needs like ensuring they have something to eat and drink. The recently launched educational programs indicate a step in the direction of teaching youth to value their culture, with embodied practice taking the lead as methodology. I see this community-centered, social participatory embodied transmission as ancestral technology and I continue to think about if and how emerging technologies can actually serve its goals.

I am currently in the process of editing the video material from my trip and I plan to present this along with objects from my first iteration of the art installation at SomaArts Gallery in San Francisco, as a part of the Murphy Cadogan exhibition, which opens on September 14th.