(Re)Claiming, Re(photographing) the Caribbean Figure

Roshini Kempadoo, Creole in the Archive: Imagery, Presence, and the Location of the Caribbean Figure (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016); 270 pages; ISBN 978-1783482207 (hardcover)

• October 2018

The perspective that archives are static repositories of bygone information is richly contested in Roshini Kempadoo’s Creole in the Archive: Imagery, Presence, and the Location of the Caribbean Figure, which maps the visual representation of the Trinidadian colonial worker, between 1850 and 1960, as she or he is projected through the discursive conduits of portraiture, print ephemera, contemporary art, and other media. Kempadoo’s study presents the colonial worker as a discursively protean figure of graphic representation, appearing both prominently and peripherally in a range of colonial visual content. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s archival theory, Kempadoo frames the creole archive as a variable and fluid space in which static conceptions of identity are destabilized by an expansive Caribbean artistic perspective. Creolization, Kempadoo explains, “is a perpetual, contemporaneous cultural process, and creole practices are attitudes, creations, outlooks, behaviors, mannerisms and ways of being that are created, adopted and embodied” (28; italics in original). Examining the visual projection of the Caribbean subject through colonial photography, Kempadoo examines how the graphic art of creole archives (re)imagines the body of the Caribbean figure.

Derrida views archival projects as deeply enmeshed in the Freudian death drive: “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.”1 Organizing archival projects to thwart forgetfulness is a reaction to our ephemerality, and we seek to smother the threat of impermanence by creating archives. The possibility of the archive, however, is ineluctably haunted by the “trace,” an ever-present sense of absence behind the desire for perpetuity. If archives bear the specters of absence, then postcolonial collections are doubly haunted by those who, as Audre Lorde reminds us, “were never meant to survive,” those colonial workers and indentured laborers who were, in a sense, already living phantoms, subject to the brutalities of racism and indigence and deprived of individual identity.2

Synthesizing the critical theory of Michel Foucault, Homi K. Bhabha, and others, Kempadoo traces the development of photographic genres spanning Trinidadian history. She first maps how colonial photography racialized and fetishized the body of the colonial worker. In this genre of depiction, often reproduced and globally circulated as print ephemera (postcards), women are typically sexualized as exotic subjects while men are captured as biddable laborers, which comprised a graphic discourse that served to gratify European curiosity for the colonial worker as an exotic commodity. Another genre of colonial imaging, documentary photography, used portraiture to portray plantation life as tranquil and highly ordered economic enterprise. The colonial figure is depicted as fully embedded in the quotidian hum of plantation life, which forcefully “contributes to a truth ideology that endorses colonialism as an economic enterprise” and evinces that the colonies formed the commercial spine of the Mother country (113; italics in original).

Kempadoo traces colonial photography as it evolved to subvert anticolonial obloquy. To spur homeland morale for colonial projects, Western photographers used the peripatetic means of commercial postcards to normalize and familiarize the Caribbean figure, tropical landscape, and plantation activities as an exotic extension of “home,” the Mother country. As the camera became increasingly affordable through mass production, however, colonial worker communities sought individual and family portraits at Trinidad studios. This change in access to commercial portraiture coincided with an era of Caribbean visual history that reclaimed the image of the black body from the degrading grip of racialized depictions—a change so significant, says Kempadoo, that it served to heighten the visibility of marginalized colonial workers as active citizens of empire. It also began to dismantle what W. E. B. Du Bois termed the “color-line” problem, which he defined as being rooted in discourses that propagated physiognomic myths about the black body, specifically medical stereotypes that emphasized racial differences and white superiority. As first-time consumers of commercial studio photography, Trinidadian colonial workers exercised a new degree of control over how they were represented graphically. In this way, their bodies were no longer depicted exclusively as the well-known mechanical props of the Caribbean plantation tableau, the stolid and subservient chattel of enterprise—instead, Kempadoo writes, portraiture had become an important means through which Trinidadian workers could inscribe social identity outside the degrading lens of the colonial photographic gaze (147).

The monograph also focuses on depictions of the Caribbean figure between the mid-1930s and 1960s, during the fervent wake of independence movements. Drawing a parallel between photography and citizenship, Kempadoo focuses on periodical images that captured colonial subjects participating in protests, street demonstrations, marches, and parades to understand how “citizenry as an active and visible practice may be interpreted from photography” (177). Urban space was no longer central to daily commerce but dissent, and the photographer within that space was uniquely tasked with “negotiat[ing] the manner in which she and the photographed [were] ruled” (Ariella Azoulay, qtd. on 180). Photography galvanized anticolonial fervor and graphically ennobled the Caribbean subject as a figure engaged in the struggle for national sovereignty.

Kempadoo moves beyond tracing the historical impacts of photography to provide striking examples of how contemporary postcolonial Caribbean artists reappropriate the colonial figure to recast its significance at the intersection of race, memory, culture, and identity. Particularly memorable are the creations of Trinidadian artist Adrian Camp-Campin, who compiles old photographs of plantation life to create greeting cards. The images depict halcyon plantation days: picnics, cricket matches, and island elite in Sunday best, comprising wistful collages that lend a nostalgic pulse to his work that seems oddly frictional with the objectives of contemporary postcolonial art. As Kempadoo highlights, Camps-Campins’s cards assume a different complexity when viewers are provided context that he is a descendant of a European-Trinidadian plantation-owning family. By virtue of this lineage, Camp-Campins’s cards “transform paralyzing guilt in a more productive shame . . . no longer phobic about . . . exposure to either strangers or otherness” (Paul Gilroy, qtd. on 125). Viewers might reasonably expect all postcolonial art to subvert dominant graphic renderings of the colonial figure, but Camps-Campins’s work lingers nostalgically on a vanished way of life, adding a peculiar perspective to the creole archive.

Kempadoo presents the full breadth of the creole archive as encompassing electronic media, such as video content and digital photography. She aptly cites the portfolio of Trinidadian artist Rodell Warner, whose 2009 project, Closer, depicts transient face-to-face interactions between strangers on the streets of Port-of-Spain. In a relational moment, Warner’s subjects (men and women) smile and teeter awkwardly, capturing “a willingness to be imaged as an individual citizen and visually demonstrate a willingness to socially encounter the strangeness of others” (198). The success of these images lies in their simultaneous evocation and resolution of ontological tension in which hostility to the other dissolves. Far from racialized depictions of the colonial worker, Warner’s images recast the Caribbean figure as an independent member of the globalized world, engaged in a social act of friendly relation amidst the bustle of urban space.

A critical success of Kempadoo’s absorbing study is its fresh articulation of the archive not as a simple repository of historical documents but as a rapidly evolving nexus of artistic perspective, rippling out from a shared history, manifesting itself in creative works that locate diasporic identity within a globalized world. Importantly, the fundamental objectives of the creole archive are not wholly unique to the Caribbean—they resonate globally with any place engaged in building national memory following occupation, violence, displacement, and decolonization.3 The archive, creole or otherwise, emphasizes collective remembering as an indispensable function of nation building.


Sebastian C. Galbo holds a BA in English from Niagara University and an MA in liberal/cultural studies from Dartmouth College. He serves on the editorial board for the NYU School of Medicine’s Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database (LitMed). Published and forthcoming reviews/articles appear in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Callaloo, and Transnational Literature.


1 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 19.

2 Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems (New York: Norton, 1995), 31.

3 One apposite example, Cambodia, is explored by the visual culture historian Michelle Caswell, whose recent work examines similar efforts to build a national archive following French colonial occupation and the Khmer Rouge genocide. The Cambodian archive houses the inmate mugshot photographs created by Khmer Rouge officials to document and process victims who were ultimately murdered. Using digital resources, the collection connects people with archival information about the victims of genocide, sometimes bringing “closure” for families concerning loved ones formally considered missing persons. Certainly, the creole and Cambodian archives respond to different historical circumstances, but both, being engaged in the act of witnessing and truth-telling, aim to effect historical accuracy and, ultimately, social change.