Reclaiming Indo-Caribbean HerStories: Reflections on the Indo-Caribbean Women Past and Present Panel
Written by Rebecca Dass
Sunday July 2, 2023
Indo-Caribbean women have played a central role in narratives of survival throughout history. However, representations of Indo-Caribbean women’s resilience through time have been monotonous, and they have not often received the recognition they deserve.
On June 14th I had the pleasure of attending a panel session called Indo-Caribbean Women: Past and Present at the Gardiner Museum at the University of Toronto. Moderated by Alissa Trotz, the panel featured three speakers: Ramabai Espinet, Nalini Mohabir, and Joy Mahabir, who discussed Indo-Caribbean women’s lived experiences in the social, political, and cultural realms from the time of indentureship to present day.
Lined on the walls of the Gardiner Museum were also art installations by Heidi McKenzie, a ceramic artist of Indo-Caribbean and Irish heritage. McKenzie's artwork uses photography, digital media, and archival material to illuminate ancestry, race, migration, and decolonization.
RECLAIMED: Indo-Caribbean HerStories: Holding Ancestry, 2023 by Heidi McKenzie
Writer and poet Ramabai Espinet began the night by reciting a poem about who the "Coolie Belles" are, setting the tone for the rest of the evening. From the artwork to the panel discussion, a major focus of the event revolved around the topic of the "Coolie Belles."
For context, during British colonial rule, male photographers would produce postcards for tourists to collect as evidence of their travels to the Caribbean. These postcards featured Indo-Caribbean women (named the “Coolie Belles”) wearing traditional clothing and elaborate jewelry, which promoted an idealized view of indentureship and an exotic image of the Caribbean.
As part of the art installments, Heidi McKenzie juxtaposed images of the “Coolie Belles” with postcards, stamps, maps, and emigration pass documents. Nalini Mohabir suggested that beyond the photographs, these collages enable an assertion of presence, a recognition of their obscured history shaped by the empire, and an assertion of cultural agency.
RECLAIMED: Indo-Caribbean HerStories: a collage of “Coolie Belles” on porcelain window panes, inspired by turn-of-the-century postcards and ephemera by Heidi McKenzie
The last speaker of the night, Joy Mahabir, focused on the jewelry worn by Indo-Caribbean women, which became a central aspect of their representation in the 20th century. The postcards from this period featured women posing with jewelry, with images of crops in the background. Mahabir notes that this was an attempt to make their labor invisible. Women would come to wear gold jewelry to distance themselves from plantation and estate labor. During estate strikes, Mahabir notes that images come to mind of women raising their hands, and exhibiting gold jewelry on their arms.
Today, jewelry is considered a symbolic gift among Indo-Caribbeans, often given to newborn children and highly valued across all ages. As someone who was gifted a gold bangle from birth and continues to wear it instinctively, it is interesting to hear both the literal and symbolic meanings of jewelry that I often take for granted.
As the panel came to a close, there was a discussion that included many questions from the younger generation seeking resources and knowledge. Someone in the audience made a remark that stood out to me, saying that sometimes elders can learn from the younger generation, too.
From seeing a range of ages of women attending this event, the passion we have for our history and heritage was evident, and I’m glad that art could bring us together in that way. The panel highlighted the importance of Indo-Caribbean women asserting their presence in history and reclaiming their own HerStories.
Indo-Caribbean Women Past and Present: A Panel Presentation and Moderated Discussion. Women and Gender Studies Institute. University of Toronto. https://wgsi.utoronto.ca/event/indo-caribbean-women-past-and-present-a-panel-presentation-and-moderated-discussion/
RECLAIMED: Indo-Caribbean HerStories. Heidi McKenzie. https://www.heidimckenzie.ca/newshttps/wwwheidimckenzieca/career-blog/heidi-mckenzie-mixed-clay-color/2023/4/13/reclaimed-indo-caribbean-herstories
About the Author
Rebecca is a Toronto-based writer and digital marketer, currently working in book publishing. With a BA in Sociology and a minor in Caribbean Studies, she joined the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association to continue her interest in researching and writing content about Indo-Caribbean history and culture.