Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette turns art into community with ‘Just Long Celia’

Drums sound. Bodies sway to the rhythm. The typically quiet upstairs space of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands in George Town seems to come to life with color and sound.

Up front, Cayman Islands artist Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette reads “Just Long Celia,” her telling of a woman enslaved in the Cayman Islands who learned freedom had come but the news had been kept quiet.

A piece that Ms. Suckoo-Chollette has performed many times, she presents “Just Long Celia” as an opportunity for Caymanians to interact with their history and heritage.

Artist Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette reads her work ‘Just Long Celia’ at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, with her husband Randy Chollette on drums. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

As she steps back from other professional projects, she hopes to tap further into the community potential of art and to invite others to collaborate with her.

“It just feels tribal to me in that in Africa, all of the arts are not separated. They are one and it feels like community. We want to create more of that,” she said.

She met with the Cayman Compass team at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands to perform and discuss “Just Long Celia,” joined by her husband Randy Chollette on drums, and Brooklyn Dreamwolf dancers Jendog Lonewolf and YaliniDream.

Cayman Compass: Tell us about the performance of “Long Celia” that readers will be able to view online.

Nasaria Suckoo-Chollette: I worked at the National Museum before several other positions. One of the things we were doing was research for exhibitions. We were doing a short film. That is the first time I heard about Long Celia, was reading it in one of the history books.

It tells the story about an actual woman in our history who was enslaved and heard that freedom had come, asked questions about it because the slave masters were trying to keep that quite. They did not want to lose their free labor.

Because she asked, they accused her of things she had not done in court. Obviously, she lost and she was taken to the waterfront in George Town, stripped naked and lashed 50 times on her bare back. (I have) always been trying to bring forth this story that slavery did exist because if it did not, then my whole family could not be here. How did we get here then? It was important to make sure everybody knows about this story so we cannot deny that part of our history because it is important. It’s important to know where you are coming from so you can make moves to go forward.

CC: Why highlight this part of Cayman’s history?

NSC: First of all, it’s a link. The rest of the Caribbean has always documented, shared and talked about this history, has drawn on that history. We were always out of that loop. This gives us a way to understand that we are all one. It is an idea of being able to look at ourselves as a collective, but also to identify the things within our culture that are from that history. Why should it be denied? It’s not something to be ashamed of. You were not born a slave; you were made a slave.

Even the word ‘unna,’ we say it all the time.… It comes from an actual African word, which means “you people.” So it’s not just that we’re making up words and we can’t speak English properly. It is another language that is a part of our history.

CC: Would you say this is a part of Cayman’s history that has been overlooked?

NSC: I would say people did not want to know about it. When we were in school, we were actually taught that this history didn’t exist. So it’s necessary, as a bringer of truth. Everything exists. So I am African, Indian, Scottish, Irish. So I’m not going to deny any part of any of that. People cannot live in this sort of idea that things didn’t happen. It was there. Deal with it. Then we would have common ground to work together.

CC: Tell me about the decision to open this piece to collaboration.

NSC: Any collaboration is making yourself vulnerable because you are asking somebody else to come into your piece. A lot of times your work is like your baby.… It may not end up being what you had in your head before. But it’s also beautiful because it allows you to see your work 360 degrees, that you can see from other people’s perspectives.…

The one thing about artists, there is that language you speak that you get. The more people that are in on that conversation, it’s a more peaceful world you are building.

CC: Why incorporate drums and dance into the piece?

NSC: The piece has the drums in it intrinsically because it says, “unna lick them drums.” There is a drummer in our history, Aunt Julia, who actually, this was the drum she made, sort of established in this country.

In fact, the original line in the poem is “lick them drums, Julia. Lick them drums.” … It was an obvious choice to use her drum. This is the traditional Cayman drum.

When you have rhythm, you have to have movement. Then you add the element in. If I could have an artist painting a piece behind me while I’m doing this, I’m all for it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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