The Reimagining Nanny Project: An open call for artists to participate

Nanny is the only woman among Jamaica’s National Heroes, and in many ways the most mysterious. When I think of Nanny, Queen of the Maroons, I think of mountain mists and waterfalls and dark hiding places and ambushes in the rain.

Now there is an open call for artists to “reimagine” and interpret her spirit, her life, her energies.

This is such an exciting project that I don’t know why I have waited to tell you about it! But – better late than never. It incorporates so many interwoven strands of culture and tradition, sustainability, spirituality, feminism – a complex fabric.

The Reimagining Nanny Project (subtitled: “Chieftess of Blue Mountain’s Biodiversity, Forests and Waters”) is a project to commemorate Jamaica’s 60th Anniversary of Independence next year (2022). The theme is: “Her Sword – A Seed.”

The project is a partnership among the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (a division of the Institute of Jamaica); the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT), which maintains the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Blue and John Crow Mountains were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2015.

Now, the deadline for a small scale concept design is December 11, 2021. This can be as small as a letter-size design. The final work would be a gallery-type framed canvas art piece of approximate diameter 6.5 feet in height and width unframed. The announcement of selected artist(s) will be in the first week of January 2022 (or by January 12th at latest).

The unveiling of the finished work will be in August 2022 (Key dates in this month of the 60th Independence Anniversary Year of Jamaica will be August 1st, Emancipation Day, and August 9thInternational Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples).

However, all applicants must watch the informational webinar (if they did not already attend) which took place on October 30 and which provided detailed and important background information on the goals and concepts of the project with a panel of speakers, including a review of the rubric to grade submissions and a discussion of artist submission (Artist’s statement of explanation and artwork submission expectations). Applicants will find this very useful. The link, with an introduction by New York University Professor, ornithologist and environmental educator Dr. Leo Douglas and Dr. Susan Otuokon of JCDT, is here.

There were presentations by:

Leo R. Douglas – Vision, Project Timeline & Submission Expectations.

Vivian Crawford – Maroon and Executive Director of the Institute of Jamaica.

Thera Edwards PhD – Botanist and Blue & John Crow Mountains specialist.

Adedamola Osinulu PhD – Ghanaian Religion Professor of African Spirituality.

Beathur Mgoza Baker – Madlozi Art & Heritage Africa (Ltd), Cape Town, South Africa

After watching the webinar, artists who have any questions and need more guidance may email the organizers at LRD8@nyu.edu or Leo.douglas@nyu.edu at any time to discuss further.

There are Sites for Public Viewing:

  • Natural History Museum – Institute of Jamaica (IOJ), Kingston.
  • The Moore Town Maroon Cultural Center & Museum – Upper Rio Grande Valley, Portland.
  • National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston and Montego Bay.
A moss-covered tree in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. (My photo)

And now, here is more, just to give you some inspiration, from the conceptualizers of the project:

The Akan people of Ghana, particularly the Asante (a subgroup of the Akan) were fierce warriors. Their valor is well recorded in history, such as their three wars with the British in West Africa before being subdued after the invention of the Maxim Gun (a recoil-operated machine gun). Among the iconic leaders of the Asante were powerful warrior queens, such as Yaa Asantewa – Asante Queen Mother, who commanded a well-documented uprising against the British.

With this well-known history of African women as both military leaders and heads of state, it is not surprising that the most celebrated of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica was a woman, Ghanaian-born Nanny of the Maroons, and that our collective education about her life and legacy is overwhelmingly that of a skillful commando and venerated military strategist.

Nevertheless, based on discussions with the current chief of the Windward Maroons, the lived experiences and traditions of Nanny, and indeed all Jamaican Maroon leaders, was largely spent on activities outside of warfare. In contrast, the daily lives of Maroon leaders revolved around African spirituality, facilitating community wellness, and deepening their understanding of the interior mountains, forests and local biodiversity that provided them with medicine, shelter, food, faith, inspiration, camouflage and escape. Indeed, much less explored by the Jamaican public and scholars are our linkages to African traditions related to eco-spiritualism, herbalism and ceremonial relationships to nature. Historically a diversity of African civilizations were served by leaders whose role was a custodian of the Earth, the natural environment and advocates for the preservation of and respect of plant life and the respectful use of the natural world for healing and consumption.

Jamaican Maroon communities undoubtedly maintained much of their knowledge of the forest gods of West Africa and must have both gathered and benefited from the biocultural experiences of the Taino through their interactions and co-habitation with the indigenous Taino people, with whom they joined forces and established settlements during their early history. By extension, more than any other group, the Jamaican Maroons invested in, acquired and cultivated a broad literacy of the island’s indigenous flora and fauna, and the rich landscapes of Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains mobilizing these biocultural experiences for ceremonial purposes, wellness, sustainability and military advantage. Indeed, some historians argue that it was the Maroon’s mastery of the Jamaican forests that ultimately determined their success in times of conflict.

Within the current climate and biodiversity extinction crises, and concerns about the rapid loss of indigenous knowledge and indigenous ways-of-being globally, this project aims to mainstream the significance of Maroon traditional ecological knowledge, practices and beliefs with respect to their deep and existential relationships with the natural and the eco-spiritual worlds. This re-telling is also of greater importance today with the international recognition of the Blue and John Crow Mountains of Jamaica, home of the Windward Maroons, as a UNESCO World Heritage “Mixed Site”. The latter designation is rare acknowledgement (only one of 35 global sites) of both the exceptionally high proportion of plants and animals of the Blue and John Crow Mountains that are uniquely Jamaican as well as its associated indelible cultural heritage and histories of indigenous peoples. Within the boundaries of this UNESCO World Heritage Site over half the flowering plants are found only in Jamaica, and about one third are endemic just to this section of the island as a whole. Additionally, these lands (space/places) remain important archaeological and heritage sites – including Nanny Town, Woman Town, key treaty locations and spaces of definitive battles, in addition to trade-routes, waterfalls and water-courses that were central to the political life, security, freedom and sovereignty of Jamaican Maroons.

Drawing on African and Taino spiritual values in which the nature itself is sacred, and West African cultures where women are traditional leaders and the female-form is commonly deified (examples: the goddess of fresh water, the goddess of rain and storms, and the goddess of land and fertility), we seek a retelling of the story of Nanny in keeping with her other undoubtedly broad and significant real and symbolic roles as a shaman of the forest, healer, priestess and protector of the springs and watersheds, and commander of energies of the earth, creatures, mountains and valleys of the Blue and John Crow Mountains.  

Key questions for reflection under this project:

  1. Did Nanny re-imagine and re-create the forest gods of Africa from the sights, grit, and ecological elements of the forests of the Blue and John Crow Mountains?
  2. In what ways did Nanny incorporate the established Taino belief systems and symbolic representations of nature into Maroon culture and value systems?  
  3. How did Nanny mobilize her literacy of the natural history of the Blue and John Crow Mountains for healing, social sustainability and in war?
  4. Within what aspects of the unique flora and fauna of her territories did Nanny deploy in symbolic representations for either conflict or as symbols of maroon independence and identity? 
  5. What are the untold stories of African womanhood, local resource use, dignity, love, ingenuity, grief and/or triumph that are embedded in Maroon relationships to biodiversity, space and place?  
  6. How can present day Jamaican citizens reimagine the experiences of this 17th century Jamaican icon in ways that encourage discussion and provide persuasive arguments of our own relationship and stewardship of the land and Jamaica’s unique natural heritage?  

This is not just about public education. It is about storytelling, about elevating Jamaica’s heritage, about forests, about water, about mountains, about paths through the mountains, about ancestral relationships to Nature…and what all of that means to us modern beings, as we celebrate Jamaica’s Independence next year.

I do hope you will participate. Please share this information with anyone whom you think would be interested.

Hillside, Blue Mountains. (My photo)

5 thoughts on “The Reimagining Nanny Project: An open call for artists to participate

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