Altars of Poverty

Altars of Poverty, my thesis show, grew out of my interest in a particular detail that I uncovered while researching the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago. The movement seemed to have been transformed in scale and importance at the specific moment when the then small group of protesters – consisting mainly of university students and public transportation workers – entered a Roman Catholic cathedral in the heart of the nation’s capital. This famous cathedral was devoted to the Virgin Mary in her incarnation as the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.

Draping the white statues of saints and gods in the black cloth repurposed from their flags of protest, the protesters, struck directly at the core of one of the more damaging myths of colonialism, the whiteness of divinity. The whiteness of God and everything godly was in stark contrast to “othered”, non-white subjects. In doing the unthinkable – directly defying this construct and thereby undermining the definition of good and evil that was used to justify their former colonization and enslavement, the protestors challenged the ultimate seat of power and wealth. This earned them an immediate and overwhelming response from the citizens of the nation, who, on becoming aware of this intervention, were jolted into action. They flooded the streets by the thousands, taking Black Power to a national level.

The name of the cathedral itself triggered memories of my own experience of being educated in an all girls’ catholic school, where we honored the ‘mother of God’ each year. Close to two decades after my nation’s independence, and over a decade since the 1970 Uprising, I partook in an annual procession around the courtyard of my primary school. Every year in May, we students would don our crisply ironed, be-frilled and beribboned white frocks and march dutifully around the oblong yard, honoring the Virgin Mary, as hymns blared through the intercom system.

Mary, dear mother, we’ll sing our hymn to thee
Thou art the queen of heaven
And too our queen shall be
Oh rule us and guide us
Unto eternity

(excerpt from Catholic hymn, “The Month of Mary”)

She looked benevolently heavenward, from the comfort of her shaded grotto, her holy gaze oblivious to us loyal subjects. Her long brown hair, her pale skin flawless from a fresh repainting, the impossibly thin nose, and tiny speck of pink for lips, were so unlike any of our own. We were still unwittingly, very much, colonized subjects.

The idea of that defiant erasure of the white deity and the reclamation of divinity as a reflection of (a Black) self led me to search for the material that could transform from white flesh to the blackness of the protesters. I sought an entity that would embody the grotesque distortion of a partially realized gesture, a turning point incarnate.

The Transmogrification of The Virgin of The Immaculate Consumption (detail), 2014

The Catholic Church is filled with devotional candles and as they melt and drip and change shape, they mark time passed and desires that have been granted or remain unfulfilled. They are a sacrifice of self-consumption. So I began to envision Mary, coincidentally my namesake in the English language, as a towering white figure, who would slowly melt into black. A statuesque candle would erupt and transform into the desire, partially granted, partially unfulfilled, of a people for self-governance at the most fundamental level. I could give materiality to The Transmogrification of the Virgin of the Immaculate Consumption, the mock trial-by-fire of the heavenly queen who reigned calmly over our own rape and enslavement, and the rape of the resources of the lands we had come to call home.

I began working with salt and sugar – materials that mimicked the white of many catholic altars, and black wax – the ambiguous corporeal, sacrificial element of devotion and oppression, heated to its fluid state that would result in grotesque and unpredictable auto-transformation. The salt and sugar crystals were barely visually distinguishable from each other, but carried vastly different historic and symbolic weight. The salt, the remnant of the surrounding ocean – the crucible of the middle passage – was also the proof of sweat, tears and blood, the high human cost of capitalist greed. The sugar that I worked into sweet currency bricks was once a highly profitable commodity that wreaked havoc on the ecosystem of the region, the lives of its original inhabitants, and those who would eventually be brought to cultivate the sugar cane.

Thesis Exhibition: Altars of Poverty

“abortive constructions,” Altars of Poverty, #2 (detail), salt, 2014

Progressing through several manifestations of The Transmogrification, I returned to the pressing topic of this region (I was in upstate New York at the time) and these times, the power that grants some people such complete and absolute authority over the lives of others, that they can determine even the time and the means by which they will die. Altars of Poverty, the title of my thesis show, bares witness to the souls kept in cages, and those knowingly subjected to state-sanctioned, premeditated murder within the system of mass incarceration, solitary confinement and death row. They are the nation’s uneasy, flesh and blood sacrifices in the name of capitalist progress, endorsed for the sake of an illusion of security, offered up in their defenseless state at altars of their impoverishment.

I tell you and I tell no secret –
now is long past time for worship
long past time for kneeling
with clasped hands at altars of poverty

Martin Carter, “Not I with this Torn Shirt”

The installation Altars of Poverty was comprised of four parts. Altar #1 was a tacky array of unappetizing prison commissary snacks displayed beneath a spotlight on a crude cardboard shelf. What decades of effective marketing had convinced us should have been “Doritos” was instead “Chicarritos,” and so forth, as with the other garishly packaged and bizarrely branded snacks. Sweet corn was neon pink and corn chips were a desaturated brown. None of the offerings looked natural or wholesome. There was no promise of health or life or even the small nicety of a pleasant meal. Undoubtedly, the sodium content of each of these products was as excessive as the nutritional content was deficient. Poor nutrition, a consequence of poverty, was carried over into the deprivation of prison life. The cardboard shelf was a nod to the men who were buried in cardboard caskets up until the late nineties in the notorious Angola penitentiary. Officially named “Louisianna State Penitentiary,” and called “Big ‘Gola” by those familiar with it, it is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. The majority of people who enter Angola will die in Angola. Roughly 77% of inmates in Angola are African American men. It is a former slave plantation that has been transformed into a prison since the time of Emancipation (Stack and Garbus).
The central element in Altars of Poverty was the 6-foot x 9-foot bed of salt (#2), laid flat on the ground, in a similar fashion to the salt altar in Ricardo Rodríguez Brey’s 1985 La estructura de los mitos. Salt crystals of varying sizes and degrees of translucency were scattered upon a one-inch base of fine, almost powdered grains of salt. Jagged boulders of salt were also heaped into piles on this bed of grainy white. The precariously balanced structures never rose above approximately one foot without partial collapse and so remained close to the ground. These abortive constructions suggested the meaninglessness of daily routine in institutions designed for sensory deprivation and the demolition of individual identity and will. They were the futile offerings to gods of nothingness. These white piles also resembled basic burial sites, multiple memorials to the ‘small deaths’, as I refer to the different stages of understanding that an incarcerated individual must traverse in coming to grips with a life that will end behind bars. The spread that at first glance resembled a soothing rock garden eerily made of white sand and stone, was in fact a map of the tortured consciousness of a person sentenced to death, or life in prison. The stark whiteness was salt rather than sand, and it stood as the concentrated residue of a harsh existence.

Another altar (#4) was made of the salt in its unbroken state, compressed into dense blocks that were then used to build smooth rectangular pillars topped with stacks of identical documents. “In my father’s house there are many mansions” read the headline of the newspaper, bringing information to the public. Or was it an obituary meant to memorialize lost life? “If it were not so, I would have told you” a sub-header continued, finishing the biblical quote (John 14:2) that reassures us of bounty for all. These neatly folded and stacked documents offered viewers an opportunity to make physical contact with the work, to stoop or bend (as if paying obeisance at this altar), to lift a page of propaganda from its foundation of hard-times salt, and to read the empty ‘text’ that was interrupted sporadically by obscured photographs of low-quality, correctional industry products including food and furniture. In a viewer’s hands, he or she held the story of the life, the body, traded in for cheap goods. This was the altar upon which we collectively sacrifice our own awareness. This was the site of our complicity and the marker of the death of our critical thought. It is where we offer up blind acceptance, and concoct the moral distance, nourish the cognitive dissonance, required to sit idly by while the act of incarcerating human beings is refined to a science of psychological torture and corporate profit. The revenue is used to reinvigorate the lives of those segments of the population deemed worthy of salvation and material upliftment. Others silently forfeit their lives and their right to humanity in the ominously expanding clutches of the US carceral system.

Obliquely opposite #4, in a darkened cove, beneath a high, arching ceiling was the execution cot. It was made from a found object, which had been transformed into another ghostly white altar, #3. It was the site of the physical offering, the ultimate sacrifice of human life. The black wax was melted into the form of the restraints that are needed to keep a person as still as possible while the lethal injection is administered and onlookers observe this calculated termination of life. The cot is designed to minimize evidence of the body’s struggle to hold on to life. This concealment is part of the process of the sanitization of murder that is justified by secular law and Old Testament “eye for an eye” self-righteousness. The unwilling body is more often than not a black one. The black wax that wept hauntingly towards the floor fixed itself in the grotesque gesture of a state of falling. A viewer who approached closely enough could perceive the faint fragrance of frankincense and myrrh that it emitted.

Conjuring presence with absence, as in the well-known Silueta Works (1973-1980) by Ana Mendieta, the body was referenced both in the scale of this altar, and the delicately arranged, translucent white shroud that trailed from the cot to the floor. Extensions jutted out at 45-degree angles on either side of the cot, to accommodate human arms, in this sort of modern day, horizontal crucifixion. One could almost see the veiled corpse of Christ beneath the folds of the white shroud, as he appeared in Guiseppe Sanmartino’s 1753 Cristo Velato. The linkage between the ‘host and chalice’ emblem (used in the promotional materials for the show) and the altars of poverty was most emphatic in #3.

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