On Duppies and the Archive:
Three Weeks in Barbados

by Nicole Smythe-Johnson


Shortly after I arrived in Barbados, artist and manager of Fresh Milk Barbados, Katherine Kennedy told me a story about an old cotton tree that was to be cut down to make room for a parking lot. The plans never materialised. People came out to demonstrate against the felling of the tree. Not for ecological reasons, but because if the tree was cut down, the ghosts it held would be set free. Free to roam, and haunt, and remind. Neither I, nor Katherine has been able to find a document verifying this story. This is the Caribbean though; documentation has little bearing on veracity. What is important is that it felt true. 

For me, Barbados is a place full of ghosts. Duppies really. Duppy is the word used for ghost throughout much of the English-speaking Caribbean. Multiple etymological genealogies for the word have been proposed, but travel writer Harry Pariser provides my favourite variation. He argues that “duppy” derives from the Twi [1] term dupon, which means “the roots of a large tree”. [2] I have not been able to verify this either, but it feels true.

Often called Little England, Barbados is a place of propriety and order. The national motto is “Pride and Industry”; public transportation is good, streets are clean. Barbadians enjoy a reputation for restraint in manner, and unlike many of their neighbours, their state is known for good governance. In 2010, it was the only Caribbean or Latin American nation to be designated “developed” by the UN’s Human Development Index. 

Since then things have changed however. The rise to superstar status of daughter of the soil Rihanna, has raised questions about that “restraint” business, and the rise of largely youth movements like Ronelle King’s “Life in Leggings” has brought less savoury elements of Bajan (and broader Caribbean) life to international attention. The global economic crisis of 2008 also hit the nation’s tourism, financial services and construction industries hard. Seen through my Jamaican eyes, it all seemed to be going very well, but Barbados' public debt-to-GDP ratio rose from 56% in 2008 to 101% in 2015. 

The art community was decisively hit, with the closure of several galleries, most notably The Queen’s Park Gallery (QPG). The QPG, along with the Daphne Joseph Hackett Theatre (formerly the Queen’s Park Theatre), are housed in Queen’s Park House, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Opened in 1909, Queen’s Park is Bridgetown’s first national park; it’s also the site of one of Barbados’ oldest and largest trees, a massive Baobab. Originally the residence of the Commanding Officer of the British Troops in the West Indies, the park quickly became a centre of cultural activity in Barbados, hosting the Annual Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition and from the 1950s, the Barbados Arts Council. The house was one of the CARIFESTA exhibition venues in 1981, and from 1984 onward was run by the National Cultural Foundation (NCF). Under the NCF, the QPG hosted exhibitions by contemporary artists, offering space and the support of the gallery’s curator to the community. The closure of the traditional Queen’s Park venue in 2011, due to deterioration of the building, and the relocation of the QPG to a tiny store front in an out of the way tourist shopping village was met with considerable bitterness. And, by most accounts, substantially reduced exhibition opportunities and support for artists. 


The Queens Park Gallery before its re-opening in December 2017. 


Images from Oneka Small’s April 2017 pop-up exhibition at the Massy Superstore supermarket in Warrens, Barbados. Image courtesy of Sheena Rose.

Nonetheless, there is a lot happening in Barbados. Artist-run initiatives like Annalee Davis’ Fresh Milk, Ewan Atkinson and Allison Thompson’s Punch Creative Arena, and Sheena Rose’s Projects and Space have provided space (though not always a dedicated gallery) and opportunities for development through residencies and international exchanges. The Barbados Community College Visual Arts Programme is vibrant, with recent graduates exhibiting at the Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Basel 2017. Bajan artist Sheena Rose was profiled in the New York Times, and has been gleaning international attention with regular performances at institutions like the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts (MoCADA) in New York and the Royal Academy of Art in London. Artists like Mark King are less exhibition-focused, experimenting with the borders between technology and art, and fashion and fine art. 

One of Punch Creative Arena’s primary activities is fundraising for final year BCC students to take a trip to a major art event overseas. The 2017 trip was to the Venice Biennale.

Artist and curator Oneka Small has also launched a series of pop-up exhibitions. While I was there, I attended one in an empty upstairs segment of a posh supermarket. Her first popup, in 2016, was a response to the lack of any visual arts activities during Barbados’ celebration of 50 years of Independence. It took place in an office building, loaned by a local businessman. From all reports, including the curator’s, the show had no real organising principle or cohesive theme. All artists were invited and all submissions were accepted. There were well-founded critiques of that approach from some, but there was unanimous appreciation of her exhibition of the diversity and vibrancy of the Bajan art scene in the yearlong show of national pride. 

This rich contemporary scene does not emerge from a vacuum either. For a nation with no National Art Gallery, Barbados does have several substantial national collections documenting its rich history in the arts. It’s a curious situation, because not all are actually publicly owned, but the process of gathering the various collections gives some good insight into the long struggle for a National Gallery. 

Visiting BCC 3rd year student Anna Gibson’s studio.

The Barbados Museum and Historical Society. Image courtesy of the BHMS website.

The Barbados Museum and Historical Society (BMHS) has been collecting art since its colonial inception in 1933. As the name suggests, the institution’s collecting focus has always been historical, so initially the collection was comprised mostly of maps, portraits of important people, and landscapes of their important holdings.  In 1949 the appointment of Neville Connell as Director and Curator of the Museum brought change. As Barbadian art historian and current Director of the BHMS Alissandra Cummins has pointed out, Connell became a “fulcrum point between historical and contemporary, old and new, local and foreign.” [3] Over the 25 years of his tenure, Connell shifted the focus from historical art exclusively, to include the collection of modern and contemporary art, arguing that if it was left to the “oil painters of the 20th century to depict the Caribbean scene as we see it today. Its colours and forms are enshrined in the Martinican landscapes of Paul Gaugin [sic] (1848-1903) and the sable Jamaican beauties of Augustus John (1878-1961).” [4] 


Tilting the axis of BHMS’ collection [5], Connell began collecting Barbadian artists active during the period, like Golde White, Harold Connell, Nesta Bowen Horne and Aileen Hamilton, and the work of promising contemporary artists from the broader region. Trinidadians Sybil Atteck (1911-1975) and Geoffrey Holder (1930 – 2014), Dominican Percy Agar (1897-1954), and Antiguan Arnold Prince (1925 – 2014) all made it into the collection. Connell also developed the BHMS’s art programming, introducing monthly art exhibitions almost immediately, and the annual Exhibition of Contemporary painting, which began in 1952 and continued until his death in 1973. His tenure brought several important holdings to the Museum through the donation of patron’s collections, most notably the Cunard Bequest, which included Isaac Mendes Belissario’s Sketches of Character (1837-38) and 28 prints by itinerant Italian artist Agostino Brunias

By the time Carifesta IV came to Barbados in 1981, a National Art Gallery seemed to be on the horizon. As far back as 1962, Connell had advocated for a “representative collection of Barbados art”. [6] With Kamau Brathwaite’s 1979 government commissioned report surveying the cultural sector in Barbados and recommending the organisation of a Museum Development Commission for a more strategic approach to the evolution of the BHMS, Barbados seemed set to develop along the same lines as Jamaica, with the National Gallery of Jamaica emerging from the BHMS’s equivalent, the Institute of Jamaica. The establishment of the public NCF in 1983 and the private Art Collection Foundation (ACF) a few years later in 1985 however, seemed to signal that the BHMS’ focus would remain historical, with contemporary art finding it’s home elsewhere. The NCF included visual art under the umbrella of its mandate to “fuel the development of culture through training, research and the creation of opportunities in cultural industries,” and appointed a National Gallery Committee. The ACF took a more proactive approach; raising funds, hosting the annual National Art Collection Exhibition and Acquisition Competition, and eventually acquiring a space on loan. 

Nonetheless, in 1998 there was still no National Gallery. Another National Gallery Committee was appointed, this time with an execution budget. Led by Cummins, the commitee included representatives from the NCF and the ACF, as well as business leaders, and legal and marketing specialists. They set about documenting the major representative collections— the ACF’s collection of over 800 works and the BMHS collection— and conserving and cataloguing all artwork already owned by the Barbados government, primarily pieces acquired by schools, ministries and libraries. The committee also began arranging for the cleaning and conservation of national monuments, and partnered with organisations and artists to support exhibitions, panels and artist talks. By 2010, a legislative framework for a National Gallery had been approved, and a building earmarked and designated.

Yet, at present there is still no National Gallery. The National Gallery committee has been reconstituted with new members as a board, and an article from the Barbados Today dated December 12 2017 declares “National Art Gallery coming”, [7] but is this more than dejavu? The Queens Park Gallery was finally re-opened for Carifesta 2017, so dreams do come true, but the history raises questions. I met with Dr Cummins for over an hour, during which time she gave me a history of the National Gallery movement from start up until the end of her involvement in 2011. She recited events from memory, giving the kind of detailed analysis one expects from an accomplished art historian and museum drector. Yet, when I asked her why the seven-year delay, when everything seemed settled in 2010, she replied “because government ministries work in mysterious ways.” [8]

This is what I’m trying to get at about Barbados, the mysterious ways. There is this official narrative of order and steady progress, but no one actually believes it. Once everyone’s had a few drinks, the real story comes out.

This is what I’m trying to get at about Barbados, the mysterious ways. There is this official narrative of order and steady progress, but no one actually believes it. Once everyone’s had a few drinks, the real story comes out. Officially Barbados is safe, but many Barbadians believe that crime is underreported. A Friday eating fish al fresco at Oistins suggests jovial social harmony, but the observable distinction between the colour of sunbathers at the Yacht Club and those at Browne’s Beach right next door suggests divisions that aren’t changing any time soon. Like the national collections, these stories of Bajan-ness, scratches on the surface of the “Little England” stereotype, haunt the place. They are everywhere but nowhere, ghosts whose trees have been cut down. 

Sheena Rose’s practice seems to exist squarely in this underbelly of duppies and monsters. Her recent performances in particular- This Strange Land [9] and Island and the Monster [10] are good examples- consistently use supernatural motifs to reflect on life in Barbados. In Welcome to my F******* World (2016) the dogs that follow a naked Sheena reference the widely held belief that duppies can occur as a barking dog. Rose’s social media persona, which seems to me an extension of her practice, also draws on elements of Barbadian culture that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Her infamous Facebook Live rants put cultural criticism in a form that is usually deployed for digital mud-slinging. Rose has said of her work: “I am the person who is always pointing out the elephant in the room. I am the one always saying what other people are thinking.” [11] The elephant in the room is sometimes a duppy, sometimes it’s an outmoded social norm.

 Sheena Rose during her Island and Monster performance at the Royal Academy in London on February 27th, 2017.

Sheena Rose during her Island and Monster performance at the Royal Academy in London on February 27th, 2017.

 Sheena Rose’s Welcome to My F******* World (2016). Image courtesy of the artist.

Sheena Rose’s Welcome to My F******* World (2016). Image
courtesy of the artist.


Touring cyber Barbados with Sheena Rose.

I spent three days at Rose’s home, forty five minutes southwest of Bridgetown, doing a mini version of her Projects and Space residency. Over the years Rose has hosted multiple Barbadian artists including Simone Asia and Versia Harris, Trinidadian artist Rodell Warner and filmmaker Maya Cozier, as well as Miami-based Director of the Prizm Art Fair Mikhaile Solomon, at her home and studio for free-form residencies. On my 72-hour residency Sheena took me on walks through Bridgetown and its environs, and on drives through the countryside, but we also toured cyber Barbados; a place of sassy diatribes, Bashment girls, ratboxies [12] and celebrity prostitutes. 

 Sheena Rose on one of our walks in Bridgetown.

Sheena Rose on one of our walks in Bridgetown.


Ewan Atkinson’s Interruption (2013). Image courtesy of the artist.

Ewan Atkinson’s work also scratches the thin veneer of propriety that defines traditional Barbados via fantastical avenues. Since 2007, Atkinson has been developing “the Neighbourhood”; a community somewehere between Bajan society and Sesame Street, with a full range of characters, animals, locations, tourism posters and even a reader. Using a combination of photography, animation, text, watercolor and digital collage, Atkinson has generated an archive of this unnamed neighbourhood in a clearly mapped but unlocated community. In discussing Atkinson’s The Nelsons’ New Neighbourhood Reader, [13] a series of works presented as pages from an updated version of the Nelson’s West Indian Reader, Barbadian art historian Allison Thompson writes: “The thinly veiled moral tone of the original reader is upended as Atkinson introduces themes of homosexuality, cross-dressing, and online sex, testing the entrenched — and hypocritical — conservative veneer of traditional Barbadian society.” The Neighbourhood project queers Barbadian society [14], not merely by introducing queer themes but by re-deploying Bajan tropes and symbols— the Emperor Theatre, Lord Nelson Statue, Mudda Sally— from a non-normative perspective. That perspective is not necessarily that of a queer person either; it is often the curious, irreverent, imaginative gaze of childhood (indexed through the animation, elementary school readers and so on), or the self-conscious gaze of the voyeuristic, alien narrator, most notably in Interruption (2013). 


Versia Harris’ recent suite of video works, Machine Bodies (2017) also provides a different take on proud, industrious Barbados. The nationalist pride is still there, but has shifted from good economic policy to Cropover and Rihanna. The industry is there too, but the machine is not the technological mastery of futurism, but rather the gyrating, unabashed bodies of revellers. These human bodies are not pitted against, rooting for, or driving the machine, they are the machine. Their repetitive movements— captured in rippling detail, drained of their colour and slowed to a crawl— and their carefully framed, headless bodies seem propelled, possessed by spirit, or steam, or electricity, rather than human volition. The works hint at that more-than-meets-the-eye quality that I consistently encountered in sifting through my experiences in #thatstrangeland, as Sheena Rose has dubbed her home country.


Versia Harris’ Machine Bodies 7 (2017)


Thinking about my time at the National Gallery of Jamaica, much of the institution’s work over the past five to ten years has been rethinking the canon, the official narrative of how Jamaican art developed; exhibiting a debate on what the canon is or should be, and what it says (or can say) about Jamaican-ness. The Explorations series of exhibitions reshuffles the NGJ’s collection, abandoning the chronological order of traditional presentation in the permanent galleries, in favour of a thematic approach. Masculinity, sprirituality and Natural History have been some of the themes. Through that frame, rarely seen work is brought to public attention, and more canonical works from the permanent display benefit from new readings, illuminated by a new context. The same approach informed my work on John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night at the Perez Art Musuem in Miami. That exhibition sought to balance between Dunkley’s established place within the Jamaican canon, and new interpretive possibilities opened up by viewing the work within a larger global context.

The Barbados art scene seems to be in a similar moment, where there is both a substantial archive of activity, work and writing that needs to be catalogued and made accessible, as well as a contemporary challenge to existing narratives of Barbadian identity. The bridging of the two is precisely the function a good public art instituion might carry out, providing a field for the negotiation of Barbadian culture, its canons, its narratives. It is much easier to intelligently challenge the canon (ie the existing narrative) when its well-documented and legitimised by general knowledge. That process of initial articulation is particularly important when the canon is not merely absent, but a foreign one has been imposed as part of a colonial process.

 A Mudda Sally statue at the Animal Cave attraction.

A Mudda Sally statue at the Animal Cave attraction.

 A Mudda Sally statue at Sky Mall in Bridgetown, Barbados.

A Mudda Sally statue at Sky Mall in Bridgetown, Barbados.


As it stands, Barbados seems haunted by its narratives. They are everywhere, like the Mudda Sally statues at Sky Mall and Animal Flower Cave, or the history of the settlement of North Carolina and the black figure in Western art swirling through Colleton House. On the one hand, one is hesitant to promulgate the museum as the onlly means for establishing a cultural archive, especially given the history of the museum as imperial mechanism. On the other, a controversy during my stay seemed to me to indicate the genuine need for a space dedicated to the exhibition and research of Barbadian visual culture.

On my first weekend in Barbados, Fresh Milk arranged for me to tour the island. We went to several famous sites, including Bathsheba beach. It’s not great for swimming, but the beach is popular with surfers, and the small house perched on a large rock there has been an icon of the Barbadian landscape for centuries. Though it appears in a tourist book from the 19th century, the rock at Bathsheba was also the set of the Bold and the Beautiful when the soap opera shot a few episodes in Barbados in 1996. When I saw the building, it had “Live a life worth dreaming of” painted on one side. I didn’t think much of it. I took a few photos for Instagram and continued to the next site. 

An image of Bathsheba rock in a historical book from Dr Jefferson Clarke’s collection.

A few days later, a Barbadian named Delano Hinds posted a video of himself spray washing the mural off on Instagram, comments flooded in decrying the mural and the artist as disrespectful. Some were angry that the artist had left her supplies at the site, others wondered if she’d gotten permission to paint on a landmark. Others had no issue with the mural, arguing that the Bathsheba rock had no historical significance and the mural’s message was positive. People everywhere were debating the issue, Sheena Rose even posted one of her infamous videos. It all boiled down to whether the site was of cultural significance or not, and if it was significant, who was entitled to make use of the space? How? People couldn’t seem to agree.

The debate seemed to beg for a public space dedicated to the research, documentation and exhibition of visual culture. Part of what museums (and other archives) do is provide a field for the negotiation of the issues raised by the Bathsheba Rock incident.

At TA3 in April 2017, Professor Eddie Chambers gave a talk about his work on the African and Asian Art Visual Archive at the University of East London. During that talk he pointed out that archives are especially important for marginilsed cultures because they help cultural workers to avoid “re-inventing the wheel” in curatorial, artistic and political activity. I found this particularly resonant, because as a young curator working in the region, it can be very challenging to get a good picture of intiatives, debates, or movements that precede my experience of contemporary cultural activity. Working at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and on projects with the Institute of Jamaica and National Library of Jamaica, has given me access to histories that I am unlikely to have stumbled across as an ordinary citizen. And much of my work has been about activating these archives, even while bemoaning how incomplete they are and how precarious their conditions are. My experience in Barbados, however, made me grateful for Jamaica’s archives. Even with all their problems, at least they’re there. There’s a place I can go and see a story of Jamaican art, if only to go digging for the other stories over-written by it.

Issues of RA.

My discovery of an art newletter in circulation in Barbados in the early 90s called Representing Artists (RA) in Fresh Milk’s Colleen Lewis Reading Room, again with some direction from Katherine Kennedy, seemed an excellent opportunity to gesture toward Professor Chambers’ point about re-inventing the wheel. Though I wouldn’t attend Chambers’ talk until a few months later, I was already making similar observations. RA was a quarterly Barbadian and Caribbean arts newsletter, spearheaded by a group of Barbados-based artists who wanted to “create a forum for more critical writing around contemporary arts in the region”. Contributors included Barbadians Annalee Davis, Ras Akyem, Ras Ishi and Allison Thompson , as well as Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, Jamaican artist Petrona Morrison, and Martiniquan critic and curator Dominique Brebion. 

Letter to the CARIFESTA IV (1981) committee, framed and hanging in the Fresh Milk Reading Room.

What caught my eye about the publication was not only the quality of the contributions— looking at artistic activity from the pragmatic (“Concern about Art Safety: Is it Really Necessary”) to the critical and theoretical (as in Cozier’s discussion of abstract painting in Trinidad in “Outside the Boundaries of  ‘Relevance’: Bowen’s Wizards of the Forest”)— but also its resonance with contemporary issues in the Caribbean art scene. In Issue 2 from April 1993, is a map of Barbadian galleries and art spaces that seems to prefigure the Caribbean Art Map that has been one of Fresh Milk’s major projects. Ras Ishi and Ras Akyem’s “Copyright” in Issue 3 also gives another perspective on the ACF, arguing that the organisation’s requirement that artists share their copyright to work submitted to the ACF Annual Exhibition and Acquisition Competition, was exploitative. A framed letter hanging in the reading room similarly hints at contention over CARIFESTA representation (this time CARIFESTA 1992 in Trinidad and Tobago), sternly critiquing the organizers’ approach to organising the juried visual arts exhibition.

During my time at Fresh Milk, Katherine Kennedy and I digitized RA’s seven issues and they have been made available on the Fresh Milk website here. I also photographed the letter and shared it on social media, reflecting on plans for CARIFESTA 2017, then a few months away. In both cases, I wanted  to gesture toward the need for these histories to be archived and made available for cultural workers, like myself, working across islands and continents to highlight and advocate for Caribbean creative communities. These small interventions are only symbolic, but they serve to highlight the need for a space in which the history, diversity and contradictions of Barbadian (visual) culture can be performed and activated. That does not need to be a National Art Gallery, but it could be. Such an institution could be precisely where the ghosts can finally roam unencumbered, or the duppies can root; free to cause mischief, but no longer homeless and overlooked. 


1.  Twi is a dialect of the Akan language spoken in Ghana.

2.  Pariser, Harry. Explore Barbados. San Francisco: Manatee Press, 2000.

3. Cummins, Alissandra. “What Kind of Mirror Image? The Growth and Development of the Fine Art Collection”, The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, Vol LIV, December 2008, p 91

4. Neville Connell as quoted in Cummins, “What Kind of Mirror Image? The Growth and Development of the Fine Art Collection”. 

5.  Tilting the Axis is a reference to the aim of the Tilting Axis convenings, which aim to shift the focus of Caribbean art discourse from addressing the concerns and interests of institutions in North America and Europe, toward building a sustainable ecology for visual art in the region. 

6.  Cummins, p 92

7.  “National Art Gallery Coming”, Barbados Today, 12 December 2017. Online. 

8.  In person interview with Alissandra Cummins, 1 April 2017.

9.   This Strange Land…, Sumter County Gallery of Art, South Carolina, USA, Nov 2016.

10.  Island and Monster, ICF, Royal Academy of Arts, London, Feb 2017.

11.  Bishop, Jacqueline. “Artist Sheena Rose Seeks To Challenge People (And Boundaries) With Her Work”, HuffPost blog, 21 October 2016. Online.

12.  A Bajan colloquial term that refers to women in romantic relationships with married or coupled men, who decide to reveal their illicit relationships to their lover’s partner, often out of spite.

13.  A reading textbook historically used in Anglophone Caribbean Schools.

14.  Thompson, Allison. “Ewan Atkinson: boy next door”, Caribbean Beat, Issue 136 (November/December 2015). Online.