Birmingham-based artist Karen McLean is originally from the Trinidad, a country that celebrated its independence from the UK a year after she was born. Through her artistic practice, she has consistently researched and referenced her Caribbean past in evocative sculptural installations concerned with issues of identity, ‘home’ and post-colonial cultures.
This exhibition reveals her ongoing interest in the history, folklore and material cultures of Caribbean colonial history and its close relationship with slavery. Her ongoing interest in the roles of women within these histories is evident as she draws on a long tradition of gendered activities such as weaving, stitching and the dying of fabrics. Her powerful and complex works explore the symbolic and historic weight of materials and interrogates their relationship to British colonial legacies.
The title of the exhibition references Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech which was delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio. Through her work, Karen platforms the role enslaved women of the Caribbean played in resistance, both in known rebellions but also through everyday acts of subversion. Taking centre stage is the figure of Queen Nanny, leader of the Windward Maroons who, in the 18th century, fought against British colonisers. Also present is the folkloric trickster spider Anansi that survived the passage of slavery.
Karen has chosen hessian sacking for this project, known for its strength and durability. The material alludes to shipping and commercial exchange and also acts as a metaphor for the womb and its commodification. She has applied a range of processes including branding, hand stitching with animal suture thread, screen-printing, dyeing them with tea and coffee and embellishing them with cowrie shells.
Ar’n’t I a Woman! has been created in the spirit of the women who used their strength and ingenuity to survive adversity and oppression. Drawing parallels with issues facing women today, Karen celebrates this ingenuity and vitality and (in the face of adversity) acknowledges the continued resistance of women for control of their bodies.