Sobey Art Award 2022: Tyshan Wright
Primarily self-taught, Tyshan Wright recreates the ceremonial Jamaican Maroon instruments used to achieve myal, a sacred ritual communing with ancestors. In his collection of that name, Wright introduces these objects: the abeng (cow horn carved into wind instrument, the Maroon’s most sacred symbol), the gumbe, rackla and bench drums, among others. Traditionally these instruments are healing – used to bring joy and peace. Through their creation, Wright facilitates the connection between earthly and spiritual dimensions and suggests a possible future otherwise little imagined: If Jamaican Maroons, who had been exiled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1796, had been entitled to keep their ceremonial instruments and stayed, perhaps we would see the abeng and the drums and the jewellery locally sourced, created, activated, cherished and put to use in the expression of his culture today.
So that is Wright’s charge. Where once he used primarily Jamaican materials such as cedar, blue mahoe and goat skin, he now recreates these objects using materials that his ancestors would have had access to right here in Mi' kma' ki. As such, his practice is so much about place that it cannot be separated from the history – real or perceived – of the Atlantic region under settler colonialism; it is entwined with the legacy of the Maroon people and in the visual lexicon of the African diaspora.
I had seen Tyshan Wright’s name before; maybe seen his headshot on a promotional poster. I had scanned the digital scene enough to find that his crafted objects were quietly hitting the radar of Canadian curators and institutions looking to show up Blackness in their projects. I recall even questioning whether he “counted” among artists practising in Halifax when I read that his work had been shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was new to the city in 2018, in a position to take time to get to know the artistic terrain but Googling African Nova Scotian artists instead. Here, my whiteness illuminates one of the many reasons marginalized practices go overlooked. Wright wasn’t obviously involved in the popular contemporary art conversations. He wasn’t backed by a degree or even vetted by an artist-run-centre. I was oblivious.
It was not until seeing Wright’s Sobey nomination that I paid attention. His slick set of images and media supports – bolstered by a letter from Julie Hollenbach, curator and Associate Professor of Craft History and Material Culture – stood out as the most “professional” among a pool of ostensibly “emerging” Atlantic applicants. His handcrafted amalgamations of organic materials in traditional horns, drums and jewellery barely required the accompanying descriptions detailing the symbolism of their colours and shapes. His CV boasted national exhibitions and significant residencies, including a recent one at NSCAD University’s Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery. I was grateful for that introduction to his work and, more importantly, his practice: a distinction I make as he has since told me: “I shy away a little bit from saying ‘my work’.” These manifestations of cultural sovereignty are not merely his to possess.
After meeting virtually to discuss his nomination and upcoming projects, I invited myself to Wright’s home studio. In an ad-hoc but gallery-like garage display, he showed me Abeng, 2017, an instrument made from a cow’s horn mounted on a wooden base of kente cloth from Ghana and teardrop beads. The pedestal contains poetry by his wife, Shauntay Grant, written on birchbark scrolls. He showed me Bench Drum (2021) the shape of which was traditionally intended to conceal its intended use as a spiritual instrument. And he showed me a set of three tall, cylindrical “printing” drums in progressing states of completion, culminating in Between Slavery and Sovereignty (2022). “May I touch it?” I asked of one of the in-progress drums, and he grinned a wide, knowing smile. When I asked about sanding to get at the smoothness, he said no, and told me about the machete. I was shocked, brought back into reality only by checking myself with the reminder that he is a master at his craft.
Wright was born and raised in Accompong, St. Elizabeth, a small sovereign Maroon village in Jamaica inhabited by around 1000 people and seven churches. There, with no access to running water or conversations about aesthetics, Wright started selling his handcrafted jewellery and using his woodworking skills to make traditional Maroon ceremonial instruments. His ancestors, brought to Jamaica from Ghana by Spanish and British colonizers in the 16th and 17th centuries, resisted slavery and lived freely off the land, in harmony with nature and spiritually connected. They were thus powerful enough to evade defeat by the British in the First Maroon War. Growing up in one of five resulting Freetown settlements, Wright was close to his heritage.
Living in Halifax since 2016 (and as a Canadian since 2021), Wright remains almost closer still to a particular sliver of his ancestral past. Following the Second Maroon War of 1795, 549 Maroons were exiled from Trelawny Town, Jamaica, to Halifax by British colonizers. After four years of resisting assimilation, protesting working conditions and avoiding conversion to Christianity, almost all of the Maroons left Halifax to resettle in Sierra Leone. That is a story better told by the artist: “While there have been several books and scholarly articles written about the Jamaican Maroons, I have never read or seen a book about the Maroons written by a Maroon,” he tells me. “Part of what motivates me to research and create work from my culture is wanting to encourage other emerging artists working from underrepresented, marginalized communities – including Indigenous and Maroon communities – to tell their own stories.” Better yet, Wright can whittle the picture of an alternative future where the Maroons had not been stripped of their ceremonial objects at all.
“I am working from a cultural tradition that has never before been explored in contemporary craft … from a culture that has been under threat for centuries – our [Kromanti] language has all but disappeared; many of our people have been exiled from their traditional lands (including those exiled to Halifax in 1796), and we continue to struggle to preserve what remains of our cultural heritage and ancestral lands. Part of my hope as an artist is that my work will contribute to keeping my culture alive.”
Wright takes working from a good state seriously. His approach to making is slow, mindful and accepting. He allows each creation to come into its own being. Bringing something into existence is no small undertaking, so, for Wright, making these objects is life. Once handled, the wood of the drum, for instance, comes alive through vibrations. Even emptiness, through sound, transforms into connection, balance and harmony. He prepares for this important work by coming into right thoughts – in part by meditation, but also by the simple act of not rushing. As a result, there are not many examples of his instruments and fewer still of his composite works such as A Calling (2021) an interactive multimedia work that combines an abeng, Grant’s poetry (by way of an app-guided audio recording), traditional African Nova Scotian weaving and local driftwood. But the examples that are finished are perfect.
Meeting him in person, I sense that Wright himself is an instrument. The results of his material practice come through him like vibrations and energies. The works speak so loudly that I immediately want to know both their story and my own. What is this? Where is it from? What is it for and why have I never seen one? I believe this is his true mastery: amid discourse on the capacity of contemporary visual art practice to reconcile history with true past, Wright uses his own story and hopeful imagination to conjure beauty, curiosity, understanding and ultimately, love.
The 2022 Sobey Art Award Exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada, from October 28, 2022 until March 12, 2023, with the winner announced at a gala ceremony on November 16, 2022. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 20232 published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2022. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.