Kelly Sinnapah Mary: The Fables of Sanbras

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Kelly Sinnapah Mary lives and works in the island of Guadeloupe, an overseas territory of France. Through her work, she engages natural, historical, folkloric, and ancestral materialities of this archipelago in the Caribbean. Her paintings, tapestries, sculpture, and artistic interventions draw from her personal background, her direct environment, and the springs and waters of history. Sinnapah Mary is a descendant of indentured workers, who, originally based in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, were relocated with force, deceit, and/or some degree of choice to Guadeloupe following the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century. Storytelling and archetype inform her inquiry into her island, exploring its abundant ecologies of mangroves, ravines, volcanoes, pastures, and promontories, as much as its contested histories and revolutions.

For the artist, it has been relevant to ground her work through the lens of philosopher, poet, and writer Aime Césaire, especially his notion of ‘the return’. For Césarie, one of the founders of the Négritude movement in Francophone literature, this meant advocating for human dignity and cultural equality while resisting colonial values and celebrating African culture. Also influential to her is the work of poet Khal Torabully, the novelist Maryse Condé, and other Caribbean intellectuals who wrestle with experiences and the impact of colonialism and diaspora. Sinnapah Mary has a keen interest in interweaving human and non-human expressions of kinship. The artist says this interest is partly inspired by her grandmother, Violette. In different ways, Sinnapah Mary’s work acknowledges the care this elder mentor gave to her garden and the orphaned animals she nurtured.

Showcasing existing and newly commissioned artworks, this exhibition is Sinnapah Mary’s first in The Netherlands. In creating these works, the artist considers daily rituals—such as feeding hens and watering plants every morning—and the flora and fauna surrounding her home and art studio. She works with a repository of memories, existing mythologies, and common superstitions, which together wrestle with certain ideological constructs that have been imposed by the West. Her paintings reference rituals, as well as encounters between native and invasive creatures from land and sea.

The main character featured throughout the artist’s work is called ‘Sanbras’. Part child, part woman, the Black body of Sanbras is regularly pictured intertwined with flora and fauna. Her long braid is at times a nest for blue-speckled duck eggs. Her musings through the forest involve medicine findings as much as mischievous play. Also often featured in Sinnapah Mary’s visual fables is a mongoose. She pictures this small carnivorous mammal transforming from a dangerous pest to an adored pet. These kinds of entanglements picture the dawning of a new era, where a human and more-than-human world find alliance and kinship. A caring relation to the environment here is also to contest empires and colonialist projects that have sought to determine and control the role of the natural world.

Kelly Sinnapah Mary: The Fables of Sanbras is curated by Sour Grass as part of Gatherings and Passages, a multi-year initiative at Kunstinstituut Melly focused on the Caribbean contemporary art and culture. Sour Grass is the Barbados-based curatorial agency of Annalee Davis and Holly Bynoe. Begun in 2021, Gathering and Passages programming has touched upon histories of enslavement and Diaspora, post-colonial experience, and ecological crisis.





Supported By

AmmodoInstitut français NL, Mondriaan Fund has contributed to these exhibition through the Artists' Fee Compensation Scheme.

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