Just a thought
Have you ever had those moments of self-reflection, wondering if you only had discovered your interests earlier things would turn out better? I do. Not a lot but I do have those moments.
I have always wondered why my teachers would never get our heads out of archaic history books or plan a few field trips to make history come alive. Anything would have been better than listening to how Columbus discovered the new world. History was always literally black and white. Each chapter divided for an individual culture or agenda where nothing overlapped. History is not a subject taught anymore in Trinidad and Tobago as it has merged under the subject of Social Studies. Maybe for the best as I never gained any interest in it as there was none given to it.
Now you cannot get me out of a museum or an antique shop as for that matter. My time during my residency in London as one would say was making up for lost time. Still recovering from my resentment from my early schooling, I have adopted alternative and less formal ways of learning. This resentment has made me enjoy going into new spaces, gaining the courage to talk to people and listening to their stories. Things I thought I would not have been able to do. This process has taught me a lot about myself. A tool I can use to navigate any place I visit and to embrace the many unknowns that come along the way.
One activity I have been eager to do was mudlarking, a Victorian term to describe scavengers who would scour the foreshore of the Thames river during low tide. They would collect scrap iron, coal, rope, copper rivets and anything they could have found to sell to meet their daily needs.
Mudlarkers of the 21st century can still be called scavengers but are more history enthusiasts. It is a movement that is mostly interested in finding artefacts/objects to be used as a jumping point to uncover the past. This shows a shift on what items are valued and how they gain importance. The definition of value in itself is an open-ended. Is it monetary value? Sentimental value? Historical value?
The journey one makes from taking the bus to then walking down moss covered steps to the foreshore of the Thames river. For me, the journey to explore new spaces is what I value the most. It is those experiences that get my adrenaline pumping. There is an added rush when the path to the stairs is blocked by the rising tide and are forced to climb metal stairs. It has only happened once to me so far.
History literally washes onto the shore of the Thames with each changing tide.
The other thing about mudlarking is knowing what to look for and still expecting to find items of interest that will surprise you. The work I have done looking for fragments of history at various sites around Trinidad and Tobago has trained me for mudlarking. I have been uncovering similar fragments on the foreshore of the Thames as I would find in Trinidad and Tobago. As Trinidad and Tobago was a British colony until 1962. The year we gained our independence from the crown. These fragments would include glass bottles ranging from soda to medicine bottles. Endless pieces of ceramic shards, clay pipes and salt-glazed ceramic jars.
However, that is where the similarity stops as England is on another scale when compared to Trinidad and Tobago. One would be the quantity and quality of the various artefacts. These would extend from the Roman era to the present day because of the continuous occupation of England from various invaders/settlers.
Personally, I prefer finding fragments than having the entire object. The fragments are like the missing page between two chapters in a book. That process of trying to find that page and discovering something new. It makes it even more memorable for me. One example is the ceramic shards, where you only have the patterns to work with or with some luck maybe a part of the maker’s mark on the back.
During my second week at Delfina Foundation, I was able to meet with Rachel McRae at a brunch get together with the Florence Trust. She is one of the resident artists at the trust and is close to finishing her one-year residency. Since then our friendship has been like Elliot and E.T where I am like E.T learning the ways of the mudlarks and taking our flying bike to our favourite spot on the Thames. Rachel has been a great mudlarking companion as she has been able to describe every little object that I have never found before. She is also an amazing clay pipe finder!
The artists from Delfina Foundation had brunch at the Florence Trust and visited the artist studios. Located in a beautiful Grade-1 listed, neo-gothic Anglican church that still functions as a church but is mostly used to accommodate the studios. The church was restored by the English Heritage in 1988 and was built in 1865–66 by the eccentric architect William White (1825–1900). The church stands as a living testament to his work as the Florence Trust has continued to strive for artistic expression since 1990.
On May 21st six curators from the Curating Contemporary Art MA programme at the Royal College of Art had their Open House show at Delfina Foundation. I was able to collaborate with Nicholas Osborne who is one of the curators from the programme. My collection of shards was neatly displayed on a table in the patio area of the gallery. This made for an informal setting to engage directly with each participant to share their stories triggered by the shards. Nicholas was a great moderator who kept the conversation going and even admitted at one point of owning a red mug that no one else is allowed to use not even his partner.
This memory was written by Natasha who was one of the participants:
I use to visit an elderly lady every Sunday and we would spend the afternoon chatting and then eat a roast dinner together. I would always use the same patterned plate that she would put out for me and she would use a basic blue rimmed one.
One day, Queenie had put her fancy plates similar to your shards, in the top oven to heat up and I accidently turned on the wrong oven and cracked the precious plates. She kept them in her cupboard and I never used them again!
Chatting with Natasha I was told that Queenie had died a few days ago and never got the chance to retrieve the patterned plate, that was charged with her memories about Queenie.
In the evening Jenny White the head of the Visual Arts Programme at the British Council came to view my collection of shards. From our conversations, I became aware that she was also a collector of shards like myself. It is comforting to know that Jenny understood my joy in the act of finding and collecting these pieces of stories. She suggested that I should take a look at the work of Lisa Milroy who teaches at Slade and to visit the National Military Museum. Both of which I do plan on doing.
Work in Progress
Now after all these events and talks and also realising how much I enjoy doing mudlarking. I am in the process of cataloguing all my interesting finds from my river walks and having the images and info shared via Instagram. Why Instagram? The times are changing as not everyone has the opportunity of visiting their local museum/archives. Social media has the benefit of having the info accessible to anyone. They can get their daily dose of information with each post. It also acts as a visual archive for researchers.
For me, I also plan to expose a different side of the fragments to shift their perspective of being regarded as only shards. I would like to include interesting narratives that are hidden in each fragment or at least try. You can see what I have catalogued thus far. I am still working on gathering and writing the text for each post.
Joshua Lue Chee Kong
Alice Yard, Port of Spain, Trinidad
Saturday 14th of May 2017
About the programme:
I was was selected as part of the Transatlantic Artists’ Residency Exchange(TAARE) programme initiated by the British Council Caribbean working in collaboration with Delfina Foundation, Gasworks, Autograph ABP and Hospitalfield Arts; and Caribbean partners: NLS Kingston in Jamaica and Alice Yard in Trinidad. The aim of TAARE is to focus on artistic exchanges between UK, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. The residency is for visual artists, art critics and curators who want to make new transatlantic links, build on existing connections or to explore the further developments of their practice.