Traversing temporalities and carrying the past: a conversation with Cynthia Farnell

I met Cynthia Farnell at her solo exhibition Ancestors and Milk and Wine, which is up until June 30 at Gallery 72, for a tour. The two-part exhibition – one room containing the installation Ancestors and the other Milk and Wine – traverses temporalities and locations. Here is the documentation of that conversation which took us through the exhibition.

Cynthia Farnell
Cynthia Farnell

Cynthia Farnell: [Referring to “Agwé veve,” 2015] Agwé is the loa, the spirit in voodoo, who will take you to the ancestors. I don’t know if my relatives practiced voodoo, but since everything is surrounded by water in the Caribbean and the Cayman Islands and there are practitioners in the area, I felt that that was a significant kind of image to include in the show. It’s at the entrance to the gallery and we’re talking about the past. Agwé is an interlocutor between the earth and spirit world.

ArtsATL: And your family’s history is located in the Caribbean and the places in Alabama are coastal?

Farnell: Yes, Cayman Brac in the Cayman Islands, and the other places in the exhibition, the ones in Alabama, were arrived at by boat by those living in the Cayman Islands.

Pine Apple, Alabama, is a little bit inland – it’s a farming community, Wilcox County. And then there’s Butler, Alabama. My grandfather used to say you have to pipe in light through a hollow log — it’s totally true. It’s a very isolated place. Sandy soil. Pine trees. Lumber and paper economies. It’s poor. And Mobile is urban — a place where a lot of people went during and after WWII. It’s a very cosmopolitan Southern city that’s connected to the Cayman Islands because banana boats and Baker coconut company went all through the Caribbean and Mobile is a major port — that’s one reason why my father’s side of the family ended up in Mobile. His father is from Pine Apple and my mother’s mother is from Butler.

These details are important but they’re not necessarily what I want people to take away with them. I want them to fill in their own narratives.

ArtsATL: When I look at this [referring to “Burial,” 2015], I easily see “earth” and farming and the rural, which made me wonder about Agwé, so I like learning about these people and the relationship to the Cayman Islands.

Farnell: The Cayman Islands have a different relationship with earth. On the Cayman Islands you have to either take a boat or fly between the three. Everywhere that they go, they have to pass over water, and since the islands aren’t that big, they go between them.

ArtsATL: Can you talk about the sky, space, celestial imagery here?

Farnell: I was thinking about it in terms of celestial navigation. On a ship, that would be your way to find another place. That’s the whole cosmic idea.

ArtsATL: I read that you can also use the conch shell to summon Agwé. I was thinking about the stars, celestial/heavenly bodies, and also more specifically of the moon . . .

Farnell: The conch shell — you see this on graves a lot in the South — it resonates for me as an object that refers to the past and as a cultural object. And the moon, that’s definitely a female reference, Diana.

ArtsATL: And these are the totems [referring to Totem (May), Totem (Mary Foster), Totem (Vivian), Totem (Letitia), Totem (Mary), Totem (Erzulie) – all 2015].

Farnell: These are my female ancestors, and I wanted to place imagery I associate with them with their own image. A star chart is with my father’s mother. On the right is my great-grandmother. She was a healer, not necessarily a spiritual healer though she may have taken on that role, but I do know she went to Jamaica a lot to seek the advice of a doctor because there weren’t that many that lived on Cayman Brac; there wasn’t a doctor in residence there. So the image corresponding with her is a snake. I was thinking of it in a benevolent way: the caduceus, the medical type of symbol. The other one is my grandmother on my mother’s side, second from the right who has the moon with her. She was the oldest in her family, and when her father died when she was pretty young she became sort of like the second mother. When she went to Mobile she sort of paved the way for the rest of them. She was the leader. She helped everyone take care of themselves. They were all working people and the women were the primary breadwinners in their families.

These are totems, they express the archetypal position that I feel these women hold for me.

ArtsATL: And you would like for viewers to produce their own sort of narratives based on this?

Farnell: A lot of my relatives, and a lot of people, are interested in genealogy, and often this is controlled by the men of the family. They produce heroic narratives, so I wanted to point it in a different direction, not that I don’t think the heroic isn’t valuable, but it’s also tied in with the whole colonial narrative as well. I think it’s helpful to bring in other sub-narratives or neglected narratives, or at least the possibility of them.

My relatives were boat builders — schooners. Just about every man in the islands at some point went to sea in one way or the other, and a lot of them ended up owning shipping companies. That obviously, with the history of the Caribbean and the history of slavery and banana republics, it’s very near Honduras, so all of that is worked into this. The British colonized the Cayman Islands, so you have that as an undeniable fact from the past. It’s a conflicted one. I don’t have specific stories or narratives about that, but it’s something you can’t overlook. You can’t ignore it. It factored into everything — everybody’s personal life, their relationships. Though, the Cayman Islands have at least, from what I know about them, race relations that are more harmonious. There was a lot more intermarriage than there was in Alabama at the same time.

ArtsATLWhat are the ways we try to overcome this distance, physical or temporal? I think for a lot of people objects, holding onto objects, is the way that people do that.

Farnell: I wanted to make the exhibition because I wonder how the past relates to my life now. I’m a person who’s moved around a lot, and these people, with the exception of the huge move from the small towns to Mobile, generally stayed where they were. So I started thinking about the cliché about the South, being connected to the land, and what that means. How are these people connected to me? How am I connected to them through land? Is that something that affects me? Since these places are not owned by the family, they’re not lived on by the family anymore in most cases, what is it that links me to them?

I wanted these objects to have this sort of theatrical lighting and a black background that suggested a sort of timelessness, an outside of time, to emphasize their metaphorical potential.

This is my grandmother’s Bible [referring to “Grandmother’s Bible,” 2015]. There were traveling salesmen that would sell you these embossed Bibles on the occasion of being married, and I think that’s what this is. John is my grandfather and Vivian was her name. This is the one I ended up with somehow when she died, so that’s an object that speaks to my family’s religious history — a centerpiece of their life was going to church.

This one over here functions more as the veve does [referring to “Palm (Dark Mirror),” 2015]. French landscape painters used black mirrors, a polished black stone, and if you looked into it, it would cut down on the tones, and you could see better to make a better sketch; but at some point, they were outlawed by the church because they were considered heretical. They thought people were using them for divination and that you could see into the past or the future. If you didn’t have a black mirror handy, then you could pour ink into your hand. Here’s another entrance into the past.

This [referring to “Clay,” 2015] is a constellation, but it’s Alabama red clay — this one contains Georgia [referring to “Burial] — it doesn’t have as much iron oxide so isn’t as red, I wanted to use something from where I’m living now. The image reflects the celestial imagery.

ArtsATL: At one point you see it turn in the video.

Farnell: Right. It doesn’t stay for too long.

This mirror was my grandmother’s mirror [referring to “Mirror,” 2015]. All of these objects are fairly quotidian objects but to me, they’re all objects that I feel have a greater potential than the quotidian use that they normally have. It’s not nostalgic. At least, I didn’t intend for it to be nostalgic.

ArtsATL: They could go the sort of scientific classification route, but they resist that in an interesting way. It’s cataloging, classifying maybe, but with a difference.

Farnell: Part of that might be because I made them slightly bigger than life-size. I like the idea of examining these objects, but they also resist total interpretation, a total analysis. There’s more to the story for each of them, and I think that has to do with what the viewer brings to the work.

I inherited all of my grandmother’s frying pans [referring to “Skillet,” 2015] and I use them every day. As a person in the South, an iron skillet is pretty significant. It’s also meant to echo the mirror shape — another black mirror.

ArtsATL: How did you make these object choices?

Farnell: It was an emotional selection. It’s things that I feel most connected to, to the person that had the object. There were a lot of other objects, but these were the ones that spoke to that sense of history forming. I’ve moved around a lot, so part of it has to do with the things I could carry from place to place.

These are all things that I have. They’re in my house. I don’t necessarily keep them displayed like that, but they’re just around. The Bible’s too fragile to touch, though.

The conch shell — you see this on graves a lot in the South. It resonates for me as an object that refers to the past and as a cultural object.

My former neighbor in Atlanta happens to be a practitioner of Haitian voodoo, and she put it in my yard because it’s supposed to protect you. I also used this for another piece which got the form of this work going. That piece was a commission for the New Bedford Art Museum’s exhibition New Bedford Harbor in a New Light. New Bedford was the biggest whaling port and still has the largest commercial fishing fleet on the East Coast. There’s a verse/passage in the Bible: “They that go down to the sea in ships.” It’s all about New Bedford being permeated by loss and longing. These people would go out to sea for months at a time. That kind of migrated over to this project.

ArtsATL: What about the temporality of these objects? We can clearly see that a lot of these things are very old, and so I wasn’t expecting that conch shell to be a recent acquisition from your neighbor.

Farnell: It’s more about the temporality associated with the object, what I associate with the object, and not just its age. The iron skillet probably came from Birmingham, Alabama; iron was a huge industry there, and that stuff, the earth it was made from, has been around for a lot longer. Earth is the oldest of stuff. It runs through the work.

Cynthia Farnell in collaboration with Dan Powell. "Ancestors" (2016). Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 72.
Cynthia Farnell in collaboration with Dan Powell. “Ancestors” (2016). Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 72.

ArtsATL: Let’s go into the other room now [Milk and Wine].

Farnell: My father spent much of his life looking through the barrel of a microscope at slides. And, he always took very careful notes and looked at things analytically, but he also looked at things aesthetically. He loved to be outside, and his hobby became these flowers which are called crinum lilies, they’re related to amaryllis, and in the Cayman Islands, they were all over the place. His father was into amaryllis, and I think he picked gardening up from him.

These particular flowers, they don’t look good on the shelf in Home Depot, you either get them through a pass along plant or they’re a specialty kind of plant you would get at a nursery. You used to see them everywhere in the South because they’re hardy. They can take extreme heat, and most can take extreme cold, and they grow in clumps and multiply. They’re called cemetery lilies because you’d often see them in cemeteries, older cemeteries. They thrive when neglected. He got into them later on in life, at around the time of the particular story here [referring to “Record,” 2016].

Like my mother, he was the first generation to move out of the working-class kind of life. He came from a place that was very close-knit. He took that with him through these flowers. He moved them everywhere he went. I remember transporting the plants was always an issue when we moved. They go dormant if you stop watering them, so he would move a lot of them just as bulbs and replant them.

This fig tree [“Fig diptych,” 2016] was on the property where he grew up and he took a cutting. I didn’t realize this, but the fig I have is from that place where he got it in the ’40s/’50s. This  speaks to how plants connect with what you remember, your past. That’s how he connected to his past and memories of his father. He may not have ever articulated that, but he was very interested in family and place, and I think he felt very separated from that. He moved away, and when you leave, you’re the one that moved away, you go back and see them, they don’t go to see you.

This basin here echoes the burial structure. My dad had something similar to this in his garage [referring to “Grow Light and Bench,” 2016]. He kept this light on all the time, 24 hours a day for probably 20 years, and that’s where he would put plants he was working on or cultivating or whatever.

My husband and I were actually the ones to turn that light off. This ended something but started a new beginning. The light, the generator of chlorophyl.

ArtsATL: These plants are yours?

Farnell: Yes, and this one that’s blooming is named “Cynthia Farnell.” My father made hybrids and named each of us. There were things that he was looking for in other plants: the strength of the stalk, the scent, more noticeable at night, the type of leaves, how it looked in the yard. It was all very much hobby-oriented. I think he had an idea for a while that he would be a breeder of these on a full-time basis, but it never happened that that became a vocation.

ArtsATL: Can you talk a bit about this story [referring to “Record”]?

Farnell: This is the story that I felt spoke to the reason I was interested in this subject at all. My father was born in the ’30s and grew up in a segregated situation, and this story shows how he connected with this person that was African-American through gardening. They might not have run into each other otherwise, so it’s really meaningful to me. I think it gave him an excuse to connect with other people and a place, Mobile.  I think I called this an “existential transaction.” To me, that’s what all of this was about for him. How I interpret it.

ArtsATL: What about the video “Milk and Wine” (2016, made in collaboration with Dan Powell)?

Farnell: This is kind of elegiac. You associate flowers with memorials in a way. It’s not really an elegy of my dad, but more about time, a connection with time. All of these pictures of these plants are all of flowers that have been cultivated by my father or my husband. It takes a long time for these to bloom, to get from a seed or a side bulb. This represents years of investment, and some of them are ones that he made, hybridized. A lot of hybrids are sterile; they don’t have seeds. The flowers in the video eventually pile up at the bottom.

As far as cultivation is concerned, it doesn’t always turn out the way you thought it was going to and there’s a very visceral connection with all of it. A lot of withering. When I had these in New York City, the browning is normal, people would say these plants are sick, but that’s actually how they’re supposed to be. They’re messy. They don’t last as a cut flower that well. The blooms don’t last that long on the plant either. Flowers have that association of ephemerality, regeneration.

ArtsATL: What is the metaphorical significance of this plant for this project? What about the connection between the two rooms, what they’re doing together?

Farnell: At first I was talking about the land, what is my connection with that, how does that affect me as someone living in an urban environment, so these represent for me that connection to that place. But, it’s not a specific place. It’s a place you carry around in your head, a place you feel connected to that may not be a physical place.

I love Mona Hatoum’s work. Her Corps Étranger (Foreign Body) where she had the doctor go in with an endoscopic camera. She’s talking about personal identity and national identity: where is it located. In a contemporary urban situation, that resonates with me and with this work. For me, these plants are representative of this identity or this location. Maybe not a particular place, but I guess a sylvan place. That kind of idea. The connection with the past and also with some Edenic ideal.

ArtsATL:What then is the relationship between all of those objects over there in Ancestors, and what is installed over here in Milk and Wine?

Farnell: I think that Ancestors is more representative of the past and Milk and Wine is more representative of the future. The fact that the objects in Ancestors are photographed means in a way . . . with any photograph there’s a death object . . .

The pastness of the past . . . photographing those objects situates them in the past or in that timeless place and these plants are more about the present and looking into the future or going into the future with what you carry with you.

I’m thinking of it more from a Buddhist side of things. Time being circular. But, if it’s timeless, where is it?

It’s definitely a metaphysical question or conundrum . . . Maybe that’s more of the archetypal quality . . . a Joseph Campbell way of thinking about symbols and objects and totems. Not that everybody has a common point of reference because they obviously don’t, but I think that there are some symbols, some objects that a lot of people have connections with even though the associations may not be the same. They’re imprinted on our brain somehow.

ArtsATL: Do you think there’s something specific about certain objects that just call to us to make them significant?

Farnell: I think the conch shell is a good example of that. The female shape, that’s part of it. It used to house a living thing. It’s associated with the ocean. We have an idea of the ocean being a timeless place and the symbol of the unconscious.

We’ve built up layers of meaning that have accumulated on the object over time.

ArtsATL: Objects carry the traces of all those layers.

Farnell: It may not be something that most people would articulate in a specific way but they would have these associations with it.

ArtsATL: When we were talking earlier about your object choices, I thought of the word “intuitive.” Where does intuition exist? The body?

Farnell: The way that I make my work starts out intuitively. I’m really attracted to objects and things and stuff, and I’m interested in dealing with them in an analytical way after. Maybe that’s my methodology. Intuition plays a part in all of the process, but it plays a major part in the beginning stages of creating the work. An idea or a total vision will come to me when I’m in the shower or driving or doing something else. I’ll have those moments. It comes to me as a total thing and then I have to work it out analytically from there. There’s just something, sometimes it’ll be an engagement with an object, or an engagement with other art or film.

It’s difficult to find form for work that is autobiographical and it’s always a risk, but I would say that intuition has guided me with all of my work. I don’t know where that resides. I think that at some point it was made OK for me to follow intuition. I think it’s something everybody has . . . it’s an awareness of things that’s under the surface. You’re not necessarily thinking it through but you’re noticing it and processing it. Those connections at some point meet up. It’s like, “Oh there you are!” As far as art making is concerned, intuition plays a big role for me. I think that actually goes for most people, but maybe they’re told not to pay attention to it, or they’re given permission to use that sense, if that’s what you want to call it.

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