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Black artist’s work set ablaze in Portland

by | Aug 10, 2021 | Anti-racism, Featured, News

At the beginning of August, an art installation in Congress Square in Portland called New Rhythms was set on fire. The artist, Jordan Carey, got the call as he was about to board a plane leaving Portland. Writer Sampson Spadafore sat down with the artist to talk about the piece, what happened, and how he’s feeling.

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Bermudian designer and artist Jordan Carey is a graduate of the Maine College of Art and Design and co-creator of the Loquat brand. His art focuses on a mix of cultural aesthetics from the changing landscapes of the African diaspora and island life.  Carey’s piece, New Rhythms, was inspired by his home of Bermuda and the Gombey form of dance, which draws from Bermuda’s mix of Portuguise and English, and West African peoples and Pequot Native Americans (from Connecticut, predominantly) enslaved by the colonialists. Carey said The Gombey masquerading emerged from a combination of the cultures across the African Diaspora and Native American pow wows. You can see the similarities in their dances, song, and intention.

Jordan Carey, creator of New Rhythms in Portland, Maine. Photo courtesy of loquatshop.com

The word has ties to the Bantu word “Gombay” which means “rhythm,” as well as the Bahamian “Goombey” which refers to an African drum. “I grew up around the Gombeys,” Carey said, “and my mother has a strong affinity for them.” Carey explained how the Gombeys, in the simplest form, use rhythm and dance to bring in good energy and dispel bad energy. “But in order to survive, the practices had to be hidden and they had to be secularized, or face destruction. And that’s the story of indigenous folks all over the world.”

Carey described how the complacency of the Gombey’s secularization he witnessed growing up in Bermuda disturbed him, “I’m always trying to think about ways in which to reignite and maintain this dimension of them. Portland is my home now, and the Gombey being this thing that is indigenous to New England, it is their home as well.”

Carey asked his mother, Denise, to send “boat trash” from the boat yards he used to enjoy spending time in as a kid. With the help of his mother and friends, he dismantled and rebuilt what was shipped from Bermuda into the two colorful and energetic figures, standing proudly and purposefully at the corner of Congress and High Street. “I put them in this crossroads location with intention.”

Carey posted an image of the work after it had been vandalized on the Loquat social media pages. The caption read, “I called my mother after finding out that the New Rhythms piece in Congress Square Park had just been set on fire. The first thing she said was, ‘This is the conversation, this is why you chose to do this piece, and this is why Gombey hid for so long and masqueraded in private. This is why you choose to do work surrounding marginalized people.’”

“I felt really affirmed. I think this is the story of a lot of young artists,” explained Carey. “When you start to have a vision of what art should be for you and you try to make it something that takes over your life, because it becomes your job, your identity, and all of these things, a lot of the times the people you’re closest to don’t really understand what you’re doing. That can be very isolating for creatives.”

Carey said he wasn’t mad about what happened, but he was confused. He said he wanted to proceed in a way that would do right by himself as the artist, his community back home, and oddly enough, the person who committed the crime. He especially wanted to take care moving forward because he knew his community members in Bermuda were also hurting. At the same time, he felt the weight of his Black and Indigenous community members here in Portland.

“There were a lot of things for me to unpack. So for [my mother] to come clean with me and just say, ‘No, just keep walking straight,’ whatever staight is in a situation like this, was a very powerful sentiment.”

The conversation around New Rhythms has brought a lot of attention to Loquat, the brand created by Jordan Carey. Loquat dedicates energy for their artistic fashion designs to marginalized people, causes, and aesthetics. 

“People have been reaching out,” Carey added. “I think more people have been sharing their stories about conversation with Loquat, which has been great to see, around all the pieces that I think people weren’t really giving a crap about. Part of the function in choosing fashion for this work as a conceptual art piece is that it really has to inject itself in everyday life. But in doing that the conceptual aspect can be skipped over without really noticing.”

Carey shared a specific story of how one person initially reacted to the brand’s watermelon t-shirt with discomfort, but upon further reflection, or after watching a video they created with food historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris, they came around to it. The conversations continue as more people follow their work and take notice of the rich culture and history embedded in the fabrics of their clothing.

“I was just having a conversation in the park with someone about how to be genuine outloud and how that’s a really difficult thing to do, especially with so much noise in our world today. I’ve been trying to grapple with that. That has certainly been a conversation within myself moving forward because there’s a lot of ways you can deal with sorrow and abuse and use it just as something to capitalize on.”

New Rhythms by Jordan Carey, after being vandalized

He also said the ways in which people have shown up physically and emotionally has been touching. A recent post showed that old and new flowers had adorned the ash covered face of the Gombey silhouette, but Carey wasn’t the one who put them there. He noticed the flowers last Friday when he visited the Gombeys to spend a minute with them alone.

“Whenever people get riled up about something social justice oriented and people make proclamations, ‘Oh this is going to be this way from now on,’ my first instinct is to assume that it’s likely performative. And that’s just the reality that we’re in because it is often just performative. It was nice to see that people were still adding flowers and that they were still standing. It’s a pretty gruesome looking blemish but the integrity of their bodies is okay. The integrity of their intention has only grown. This is only one of many ways in which the community has engaged with them. Despite it being very scary for everybody involved with the project, even passively involved by cultural association, I am very heartwarmed by how all of these things have ended.”

In a social media post after the fire, Carey wrote about the duality of the police reaction to the vandalism and the harm the police themselves have caused, “I was so struck by my feelings when sharing this upsetting and intimate moment with an officer. I could not see his face and even though this man was coming to me and I registered him as clearly upset and concerned for my well being, I was unable to shake my thoughts of: is this the officer that checked me for this, is the officer that stopped me for that, is the officer that did nothing when I asked for help? This is the Conversation.”

Carey expanded on those feelings, speaking to his personal experiences during the time he has lived in Portland, noting that he feels uncomfortable when he sees police officers around town. Like so many others in the United States, he has been on the receiving end of unjust treatment from police. Within his first year of moving to Portland, he was checked for warrants ten times. Carey also remembered being harassed outside his old apartment building in Portland, but being “basically laughed off” by the police when he turned to the police for help.

These memories come back to Carey when officers offer sympathy for what happened to New Rhythms. “I just… I’m just tired,” Carey remarked with an obvious heaviness. “And I have to be careful. And I just don’t feel like I can trust them. Ya know, talk about making proclamations and then feeling like it’s performative. I was definitely feeling that way when they called me.”

Carey recalled property destruction that happened in Portland during the first nights of the 2020 protests for Black Lives Matter. He had arrived at the protest early, early enough to hear a higher ranking official from the Portland Police Department speaking on the steps of the police building. He explained how the officer implied, “Hh, this couldn’t be us,” as he spoke to the crowd in the whitest state in the country. His speech diminished the real issues that Portlanders of color face, claiming that we are different from other Northeastern cities like Boston or New York City.

“That’s the story of my life with police,” said Carey. “Police in this town, three blocks away from the Gombey, had guns pulled out, not pointed at me but pulled out, because they stopped me and my friend. They thought we were doing a drug deal. And [yet, they] looked me in my face, with guns to my back, and told me, ‘We don’t discriminate in Portland, Maine.’”

When asked if he would do anything differently had the police not been involved, he reflected on his own privileges in this situation. “I can say that [I’m] coming from the perspective of this pretty privileged artist considering my circumstances. I can leave the country because I have another country to go home to. And it’s a Black country. And I was raised in a Black country with a Black government, so I can visualize the alternative to a white state with all white police officers.” 

New Rhythms by Jordan Carey

When asked what gives him joy, Carey replied, “My friends that I’m waving at right now, actually. My friends have all become my work peers because all my friends are artists or creatives or creative thinkers. I really just love what I’m doing because of that reason. There’s an emphasis in Loquat that our relationships as a brand need to be whole relationships. So everybody that we work with, whether they be just doing manufacturing, or just doing one project, or doing projects that are going to span over years, all of these people right now are people that we have real relationships with.”

He finished by quoting Budha, “I’m just trying to be really present in my relationships because I really need the teacher, the path, and then the community.” Carey’s enjoying cultivating that sense of community right now. It’s clear that his art work through both New Rhythms and Loquat is bringing the community together.

Sam Spadafore (He/him they/them) is a white, queer, gay, nonbinary trans man currently living on settled Wabanaki tribal land known as Portland, Maine. Sam writes poetry and articles focusing on mental health, Queer and Trans issues, sex and sexuality. They are also a consent educator, actor, activist, and steering committee member at MaineTransNet. Check out what Sam’s been up to at samspadaforeofficial.com.

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