Employing his trademark “picking” technique, the Jamaican-born, New-York-based photographer’s latest works reflect on family, death, life, and home
“In the fall of last year, I would dream about Jamaica every night. I would dream about swimming around in the waterfalls, talking to spirits, just little things would come back to me, because I was thinking about it so much,” says Paul Anthony Smith. The Brooklyn-based photographer’s spiritual connection to Jamaica, the country he was raised in, is clear. “I left [Jamaica] when I was nine and moved to America. It was at school when I realised how much I missed home. I started going back to Jamaica more frequently, and creating work about it.”
Smith’s latest and second solo show, TradeWinds, is currently on show at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. The exhibition includes his most recent project, Dead Yard, in which the photographer reflects on family, death, life, and home. “[In 2019] I was in London for Notting Hill Carnival, as well as visiting my mum. She opened the door, and told me my uncle had passed away. My cousin passed two weeks before that. I was there for this big festival, but all I could think about was going back to Jamaica for two funerals.”
For many with family living across the world, funerals can become a call back home. “We never go home just to be a tourist in our own world,” Smith remarks. Flights to the Caribbean are expensive, and chances to see family can be rare. For many Carribean nations, funerals and wakes become week-long events, known as Nine Nights, or Dead Yard. Loved ones meet in the deceased’s home, conjuring memories of a life well lived. It is in this conjuring, this celebration of life and of death, that Smith’s latest exhibition lies. This is not just directed at the death of loved ones, but a larger experience of Black mourning. With Black people more likely to die of Covid-19, as well as the death of George Floyd and countless others, 2020 has been marred with the loss of Black life. Responding to this shared mourning, Smith creates a dreamlike stasis, blending geography and history with memory and love.
One’s existence forms part of a complex network of memory, family, places, language, and stories. This network is alluded to in Smith’s work, through his trademark ‘picking’ technique; scratching the surface of an image. “I pick over the photographs, in a way to hide and disguise the people I’m thinking about. It’s all rituals and folklore. There’s always stories that are passed on that shape shift,” he says.
“A few years ago, I went back to Jamaica on my US passport,” Smith explains. “I remember I wrote on a customs form that I’m Jamaican, and the immigration officer scratched it out and put ‘USA’ over it. I know I’m Jamaican. I was born there. I pick over images to signify time, and the change it brings.”
“The work explores transience, junctions, and movement,” he continues. “If it wasn’t for trade winds pushing the boats, Africans would have never come to this side of the world. The flights home make me think about the movement of these people, the movement of me as an immigrant coming from Jamaica, living in America, and creating something of my own. I’m thinking a lot about just prosperity, and I feel like winds are prosperous in a way – they never really end, they just transform into something else.”
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.