Ivan Forde

My practice explores black subjectivity and epic poetry. I utilize the immediacy of photography, the intimacy of drawing, the social reach of printmaking and sound installation to question notions of origin, identity, and place. I read and respond to themes found in epic literature and historical narratives to visualize aspects of my own cultural and personal history. I use my immigrant experience of relocating from Guyana to New York City when I was ten as a frame to inhabit characters and scenes in performing marginalized narratives. I situate the Epic of Gilgamesh and the political history of my grandmother’s village as sites to explore notions of origin as it relates to power and peripheral communities, and what necessitates a need for an ultimate or accurate origin story as a fundamental part of social identity.

Over the last four years I’ve experimented with cyanotype – an early photographic process that reacts to ultraviolet light – to create body prints by laying on light-sensitive paper and fabric outside under the sun. I use my body as the matrix for image making, similar to how Cuban artist Belkis Ayón used her body as a measure for the figures in her visual narratives. Initially I began creating silkscreen and cyanotype prints of lens-based performances responding to The Epic of Gilgamesh where my body is duplicated and subtly altered to encounter itself, contextualized by the dynamic friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh. I’m drawn to these characters because they are both immigrants, born in the mountains, who move to the city of Uruk and are physically described as almost exact doubles.

While I was reading and conducting research around the text, a significant fragment of the story was uncovered in December 2015 by archeologists in Iraq. It reveals exciting new lines that brought the story back to life for me and altered my view of what motivates literature’s earliest heroes. “Illumination” is a series of blueprints that visualize my response to the rediscovered lines. I found striking relevance to contemporary notions of power, slavery, conquest, colonialism, and deforestation in the oldest written story on earth. I improvised movement captured on light sensitive surfaces and created vast landscapes through sprayed, poured, and gestural applications of cyanotype on paper and fabric. Philosopher and poet Fred Moten says, “Primordial black is blue” in his recent book titled Black and Blur. I use blue for its spiritual resonance, emotional depth, its allusions to the ocean and the Atlantic slave trade, distance, music, and the sky.

The epic culminates in Gilgamesh’s recovery of the story of the great flood from the only survivors. His final action highlights the importance of story telling and mirrors the recent rediscovery of the new tablet in 2015. This prompted me to investigate, retrieve, and visualize stories within my personal, family, and cultural history. So I began listening critically to the oral narratives of the origins of Buxton, the village of my grandmother and great-grandmothers.

I visited the community and recorded interviews with villagers, activists, teachers, and my 93-year-old great aunt about how the village was founded and its history as a political center in Guyana. “Invocation” marks the first body of works from my research trips that respond to the political history of Buxton through soft ground etchings, small drawings enlarged by silkscreen, and cyanotype body prints. I created songs from excerpts of conversations that are embedded in the immersive fabric sculpture made up of hand dyed strips. I also made an edition of silkscreen posters containing a transcribed interview and a short poem written in the style of an epic invocation for visitors to take away. The stories are told differently depending on the subjective voice telling it and so a new set of challenges were presented. The most important one being that this project is not responding to a book or ancient poem, but an actual place inhabited by living breathing people who still hold the narrative within their bodies. How do I respond now to black life, text as place, nature, and memory to intervene in the historical present?

At this stage, my project follows the structure of an invocation that proposes to call on the aid of the village ancestors to center this peripheral narrative within the framework of an epic poem. However, where in the classic tradition there is the single and uniquely endowed hero with special “gifts,” in this narrative I recast the hero as the Village. 128 freed Africans founded Buxton in 1840 – the same year the term “Photography” was coined by Sir John Herschel, a British astronomer who in 1842 invented Cyanotype. After emancipation they collectively bought an abandoned cotton plantation by circumventing a British crown law that stated no single person could buy less than 100 acres of land at 6 pounds sterling per acre. This decree meant that a formerly enslaved individual had little chance of owning land in their lifetime.

However, to the surprise of the British governors the former slaves, led by women, pooled their savings earned during overtime labor to purchase over 800 acres of land in cooperative ownership renaming it Buxton after a British abolitionist. Buxtonian writer and historian Ovid Abrams states, “They strategically performed a silent and non-violent revolution,” going door-to-door gathering coins into wheelbarrows to deliver to the governor’s estate. These actions ignited the larger Village Movement (1838-48) in Guyana with successive communities founded through strategic collective land purchases by formerly enslaved Africans. The Buxton pioneers established a village council to parcel out land to shareholders, built a church, designed a system of drainage trenches, and set up a democratic voting system that included women and men to make decisions on governance. The village existed as a self-governed free black society for more than 50 years in the 19th century. My installation aims to invoke stories over the course of the village’s history to ruminate on these and other specific instances of communal resistance contextualized by colonialism, epic poetry, and visual art. My work is about the retelling and revival of marginalized narratives.