Woven Fibers and Broken Threads: Katherine Agyemaa Agard’s of colour
Near the start of Katherine Agyemaa Agard’s of colour, she invites her reader to navigate through the book-long essay however they choose. Front to back, frenetically, or by starting wherever feels right, because “it all circles back.” This sense of interconnection and circularity is the slow, constant pulse of the text. of colour is a mixed-genre, mixed-media collection of prose poems, memoir, collage, paintings, and photography that tarries through questions of Blackness, sexuality, slavery, colonization, and family. Part memoir, part meta-history, the essay both is and is not about Agyemaa Agard’s childhood in Trinidad, her time studying and working in the United States, and the ways slavery and hundreds of years of racial capitalism, extractive commodity markets, and family migrations back and forth across the Atlantic have shaped the contours of her life. What I mean is that these stories are not the book’s central focus—there is no central focus, and in fact the suggestion that “it all circles back” serves as a clue to Agyemaa Agard’s approach to storytelling and art-making, as well as to the interconnected histories and lives that she narrates.
of colour is divided into four sections: “Interior,” “Surface,” “Medium,” and “Marks.” Each section has its own slightly distinct style, not just in the prose but also in the visual components that share the page. The general narrative arc of the book follows the trauma of Agyemaa Agard’s move to Massachusetts for college and the toll it takes on her, physically and emotionally. She narrates her shame at being deeply unhappy despite being one of the “lucky ones” able to attend university in the United States. Food, especially ice cream, becomes a way for her to deal with the sense of isolation that others imagine could only be possible as a result of sexual abuse or profound bodily trauma. As we learn throughout of colour, the real trauma is the accumulation of a lifetime of smaller moments of violence, racism, sexism, and homophobia that become untenable for her in a new country.
But if college is a time of painful living for Agyemaa Agard, she finds comfort on the cooperative farm she works at after she graduates: in the nourishing sexual and emotional relationships with the women she works with, and the embodied nature of farm work. Through her artwork and relationships (both amorous and platonic), she builds queer spaces of healing and intimacy that explicitly stand in opposition to an anti-Black, patriarchal world. This linear life story is interwoven with memories from her childhood, family stories, and conversations with her mother that move both forward and backward in time. Again, though, the narrative is only one element in of colour, and to focus too much attention on plot synopsis would be to miss the piece’s larger message about the limitations of telling a simple, clean story.
“Surface,” as perhaps the subtitle indicates, is the section that most linearly follows the life experiences of the speaker. “Interior,” the most poetic of the four sections, includes a meditation on color, especially the color blue, and is accompanied by some of Agyemaa Agard’s milk paintings (abstract pieces comprised of color swaths washed over in white), as well as collages assembled from illustrations, photographs from the internet, and other found images. The section titled “Medium” in the table of contents is actually titled “meaning” in the book itself. This slippage reinforces the ways the book slides between form and expression, the ways medium (writing, painting, etc.) is integral to her work’s meaning. Throughout the section, Agyemaa Agard reinforces the ways meaning and medium coalesce, particularly when she discusses the Lapeyrouse cemetery wall in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The wall, she explains, is best known and most visible on the internet via a painting by Peter Doig—a work of art produced by a white Scottish settler to Trinidad that has become the dominant, most accessible image of the cemetery online. By standing in for the actual wall, this painting—with its digital, global presence—lays bare art’s complicity in the abstraction of material life and the ways Trinidad’s broader history has been exoticized by outsiders. Further, Agyemaa Agard charges, Doig fails to capture the wall’s beauty in his rendering. The many layers of paint covering the actual wall, visible through chips and cracks, invoke the layered histories of colonization and slavery that have marked the island. Instead of fully erasing the previous layer, the paint forms a palimpsestic story of place, conveying a beauty difficult to artistically reproduce.
“Marks” includes a series of images that only appear in that section, but whose hues evoke questions about blackness, whiteness, and blueness taken up in other sections of the book. Unlike black (or blue) type on a white page, in these images color creeps into white space from the edges. They appear more analog and geometric than fluid and smooth, evoking shapes like chipped layers of paint. The accompanying text in “Marks” occasionally defies the page in a poetic form that visually echoes the accompanying painting, with no loyalty to margins or consistency. Instead of becoming more coherent and whole as we near the end of the book, the essay becomes more abstract and fractured, refusing oversimplification or mastery. This inability to capture the essence of what it means to live as a Black, queer, diasporic person in the twenty-first century perhaps more directly gets at Agyemaa Agard’s intention than the narrative-driven sections of the book. To be imbricated in hundreds of years of colonial violence is to be entangled in colorist logics and stories of loss and belonging that are rarely linear or singular.
Colorblindness becomes an important thread that runs throughout, as Agyemaa Agard pokes at the many ways perception of color is subjective, but in the case of race is only relative up to a point. Through the milky washes of her paintings and the recounting of her time in the very white, snowy landscape of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Agyemaa Agard interrogates the relentlessness of whiteness—its pervasive desire to cover everything, a desire that (as evidenced by the book’s cover) is never entirely successful; whiteness dilutes, but it doesn’t erase. And while race attempts to simplify and cohere color at a most essential level (white, black, red, brown, yellow), we know that across the human and other-than-human world color is far more kaleidoscopic and relative, shaped not only by biology but also by place, culture, context. In the descriptions of her father’s colorblindness and the images of painted exteriors in Trinidad, color archives history and memory.
The concept of “duttiness,” for example, gestures towards the ways racism and colonialism shape access and opportunity in Trinidad and elsewhere. Agyemaa Agard defines duttiness most explicitly in “Surface,” as she tries to determine why she is having such a difficult time adjusting to her life in the US. It is a vernacular Caribbean word (dutty, not dirty) that gestures towards social shaming of sexuality, of queerness, of poverty, of non-normativity. But duttiness can also be an act of dissent. To embrace duttiness means to acknowledge and bear witness to the dirty business of British colonization and postcolonial life in Trinidad. She writes that “duttiness lived with brown and black skins that were trying to get the best out of a situation while continuing, as far as possible, to enjoy life.” It can invoke celebration of the continued living of life outside the expectations of status quo structures that affirm whiteness, straightness, and capitalism. Duttiness, then, colloquially shorthands Black and Brown refusals to let go of joy and pleasure, in spite of the relentlessness of colonial and neocolonial extraction, inequity, and control.
I am a quilter, and when piecing together fabric, I consider texture, color, and pattern in relation to each other. A small square of floral calico can harmonize with a mixed blend plaid in ways that depend on scale, color, shape, and effect. They sing together, create a different optic and sense of materiality than they do presented on their own. Paradoxically, they also obscure the global networks of labor and textile production deeply imbricated in legacies of slavery, colonization, and extraction, and make those networks hypervisible. A quilt pulls together swatches of fabric to form a singular pattern or an image, but each of those scraps of fabric are produced through a global network of labor exploitation built on centuries of slavery and the cultivation of cotton. Of color, Agyemaa Agard writes: “If I learn anything at all it is that the colors exist amongst themselves. I see patterns and think they mean something. It is fruitless to translate, I learn to appreciate the contrasts and nuances for themselves.” Language functions similarly, and while we use words to denote meaning, they are always inadequate at acknowledging the fullness of a thing and its relation to other things. As Agyemaa Agard notes of her own obsession with words, “I want the feeling in my mouth of a whole word, an unbroken one.” Throughout of colour the speaker reminds us that words and colors are slippery things for her that are relational rather than fixed—never holding one shape for too long.
Blue, Agyemaa Agard explains, is the color she feels closest to. It is also the color of the text throughout the “Interior” section. It sits between good and bad, in proximity to the femme, the Black, healing, and the harmful. Indigo dye is woven through west African histories, but was also a staple crop of plantations in the Americas and the larger British empire, produced primarily by enslaved people for centuries. Its vibrant hues, renowned for their beauty, filled the coffers of European colonizers. Dyeing with indigo is also an extremely dangerous and taxing process that stains and scars the body. Its toxicity can cause death, impact pregnancy and reproduction. At various points in the essay, Agyemaa Agard dwells on the oversaturation of what indigo represents—its colorful and spiritually rich aesthetics, but also its power and ability to harm the human body. On the island of Sumba, she observes, only post-menopausal women are allowed to do the dyeing because of the toll it can take, especially on femme bodies; it is a beauty that demands physical sacrifice. Indigo, though, is also a color Agyemaa Agard takes up in her own creative work (and is the color of her family home in Trinidad). Through her use of the hue, she is able to disrupt a legacy of indigo in the Americas that invokes Black death and empire and instead redeploy it for her own artistic creations in ways that open up the color—it never attaches to a singular meaning but instead gestures towards a more relational and enmeshed world.
Not-so-free association is the simplest way I can describe the spirit of Katherine Agyemaa Agard’s work—and the spirits it conjures forth in of colour. To read/view of colour is to become ensnared in a historical bricolage of found objects, woven fibers, and broken threads—or at the very least admit we’ve been there all the while. It is both a deeply intimate portrait series of one person’s life and a broader rumination on how to find duttiness in the hues of hundreds of years of world history.