The first impending signs of Saint-Pierre’s May 1902 cataclysmic event became visible weeks prior, in the latter half of April. Months earlier, however, there were faint intermittent rumbling sounds and steam coming from the direction of Mount Pelée. The steam persisted, travelling outward to the town adjacent to it, St. Pierre. The residue of the spewing gas left a foetid odour in the air and this kept on for weeks before worsening. This was followed by an increasingly loud banging like that of a thunderstruck or cannon fire, but negligent authorities continued to overlook the power of one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in history that was to come.
Prior to May 1902, St. Pierre was a small idyllic town northwest of the then French colonial island of Martinique. About 64 by 20 kilometres in size, the island is the result of millions of years of successive volcanic activity. Sprawling throughout the island are countless volcanic peaks and in 1902, Mt. Pelée was one of the youngest, constantly on the brink of erupting. Often shrouded in mist around its peak, it rises about 1500 metres above the ground. Roughly seven kilometres southward from the mountain, past valleys, a swamp, and stretches of open land, is where the town of St. Pierre was situated—right at the foot of Mt. Pelée, with its face towards the Caribbean Sea.
In the final days of April, when the gas from the mountain intensified with an ashy fume that altered the colour of the sky, a few of the town’s concerned citizens took caution and climbed up Mt. Pelée to find answers. Beyond the turbulent smoke and roaring chaos they witnessed as they climbed higher, they saw a vertical growth from the summit's crater. Years later, it came to be studied as a lava spine—a geological protrusion from within the earth, through the process of a volcanic event. It was another manifestation of the violent activities pulsating beneath the ground. The town’s people returned to report their findings to the local newspaper, only to have the editor omit them from publication. During this time, there was a legislative election that took precedence over everything else. Election campaign coverage dominated the news; when it came to the day of elections at the end of April, the two parties involved drew a close election, causing a second round of voting in the weeks to come. This kept party affiliates engrossed in the eagerness of the possible outcome of a re-vote, further keeping them preoccupied from the severity of the volcano mountain.
The tussling mountain continued to make itself known, coughing out more cloudy ash, which blanketed parts of the surrounding city, killing trees. Government officials assured its people that Mt. Pelée wasn’t a threat to the city and an evacuation wasn’t warranted. Due to the town’s rich agricultural assets and economic status on the island, this meant the logic of capital would prevail and the possibility of halting any kind of production was highly undesirable. The governor at the time, Louis Guillaume Moutte, saw a call for an evacuation as a cause for needless panic and disruption to the voting. It is known that a plague of insects and other wildlife from the remote outskirts of St. Pierre made its way from the direction of the mountain and towards the city, which in turn affected livestock and local farms.
The first few days of May 1902 continued to highlight more glaring warnings. There was a torrent of boiled mud and water-flows from the mountain. Since trees around it were destroyed from ash, the mudslides descended down the valleys and into St. Pierre—the force of which collapsed a sugar mill, killing several of its workers before ending up in the ocean and leaving dead sea creatures at the shore. Around this time, neighbouring island, St. Vincent and Grenadines had an explosive eruption that killed over a thousand people. Unfortunately, none of these signs prompted any action on the part of the civil authorities of St. Pierre.
The cascade of warnings came to a head in the early morning of Thursday, the 8th of May, 1902. The agitated mountain finally gave out, busting in an explosion, not unlike a modern-day atomic bomb. It created a loud detonation, and because sound travels fastest and farthest through water, its shock waves could be sensed as far away as the shores of Venezuela, 600 km away from Martinique. In a matter of minutes, the town’s 28,000-plus population, the majority of which were descendants of African slaves, were consumed by the pyroclastic eruption, which created something of a firestorm across Mt. Pelée. In an instant, an entire generation ended. Citizens going about their day, perhaps having breakfast, sleeping in, going to the market, talking to neighbours, or reading the local newspaper on that Thursday morning were claimed in a flash by the 400 degrees Celius gas and fire that rushed through the city, turning it into an inferno. There was nowhere secure enough to take shelter. A modern-day history museum on the island dedicated to this event includes some of the artefacts recovered from the wreckage in the form of melted and conjoined glassware—a small trace of the ferocity of that grave day.
I’m recounting this event almost 120 years from the month it occurred. Burrowing into the accounts of the events, I can’t help but wonder about the lives that could’ve been saved. What were the states of mind of individual citizens during these successive warnings? Did they feel assured by their colonial government’s word, hence their decision to stay in place? Or were they in doubt, but without the agency to evacuate? What would I have done during this time? What would my family have done? In a time and place as such, could we have afforded the possibility of leaving on our own?
I can’t help but think about how this event, in many ways, typifies and is tied to colonial self-interested predatory desires, greed, and extractive hunger therein. The inevitable human cost and suffering often linked to these kinds of ruthless greed, is on my mind as I consider the impossibility faced by the island’s residents.
My curiosity around the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée, my subsequent commitment to inquire further in detail, then re-narrate it and by extension, re-emphasize its significance and innocent lives lost, was prompted by an art exhibition. Toronto-based artist Timothy Yanick Hunter’s recently presented, Volcanic Spin at Cooper Cole Gallery. Showing from November 27, 2021 to January 8, 2022, the exhibition departs from found archival fragments on this very event, which the artist came across during a research residency. In an invitation to learn and contemplate the tragic event, Hunter assembles vestigial images that trickled out of Mt. Pelée in 1902. Included in the mix of the exhibition, Hunter reaches beyond the particularities of the event to include stray archival snippets that suggest the social and cultural sentience of the generation that came after this marked moment in Martinique’s history. Moreover, Hunter goes a step further, juxtaposing video and sound elements that broadly huddle together the Caribbean diaspora and by extension, affirms the broader Black diaspora in something of a warm and intimate solidarity. The result of this assemblage that encompasses the exhibition is a sparse, unassuming, and unembellished installation in an evenly lit room. Nevertheless, it is carefully sedimented by the immensity of histories it engages with.
Although the event at St. Pierre was over a century ago, Hunter doesn’t allow it to fade into the distant and expanding past. Instead he diverts our attention right at it and localizes it in the present. Volcanic Spin continues Hunter’s ongoing dedication to uncovering publicly under-acknowledged historical moments within the Black diaspora and through this process, enlivening and honouring the humanity, occasions, and places they point to. This ongoing work can also be understood as a process of claiming agency over how the myopic Western imagination of history, and how its attendant narrativization, is determined, interpreted, and naturalized. In several instances, these events are deemed as “unthinkable,” as Haitian scholar and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot suggests—making them unworthy of being accounted for and subsequently written off and suppressed.
Trouillot elaborated on these “unthinkable” omissions of history in his seminal book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Trouillot takes this up by using the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) as a case study. The Haitian Revolution, which was a prominent insurrection that let to the first country to be established by former slaves, came to symbolize the fragility of slavery as an institution. It also ended the French’s incursions and conquest in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian Revolution became an aspirational symbol of freedom for Black Americans and an influence on anti-slavery movements and campaigns in Europe and the rest of the Americas. This extraordinary event, and its subsequent reverberations, was seen as a non-event by the French, as Trouillot illustrates. It was as if it never happened. The French saw their slaves as obedient, tranquil, and without a desire for freedom. Because of the prevailing view that the Black race was inferior and genetically speaking, was without an intellect of their own, it was completely inconceivable that slaves could band together, revolt, overturn their masters, and take back their lives.
To extend Trouillot’s point here through Aimé Cesaire’s Discourse of Colonialism, being colonized is to be “thingified.” Thingification is the act of considering one’s humanity as less than and drained of meaning. In this way, one’s personhood was a thing to be preyed upon, or in the false benevolence of colonizers, a way to spread their surplus enlightenment, rationality, and civilization to natives who needed it. In this way, freedom, and its aspiration thereof, wasn’t for the Black population—an intrinsic quality to their being—as it was for those from the Western civilization. For this, as Trouillot helps us to understand, the vision for a revolt from the perspective of the enslaved was deemed impossible. As such, this “unthinkablity” supports the silencing of facts in the production of public records and the history that endures as truth.
It seems rather apt, that a predator will distance themselves from defeat, or deny the whole instance of predation altogether, especially when their prey rises above subordination to upend said predator. History is prescribed by those wielding power, but many Black artists/thinkers like Hunter, in their own modest means through their creativity, continue to find their freedom in the crevices within the powers that are exercised upon them. They critically sidestep and circumvent gatekeepers and in doing so, affirm and bolster the richness of Black aesthetics and imagination.
Timothy Yanick Hunter, who is of Jamaican descent, was born in North York, one of Toronto’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan administrative subdivisions. His family later relocated east of the city near Neilson and Ellesmere intersection in Scarborough, another district of Greater Toronto comprising a significant migrant demographic most of whom arrived within the last five decades. This is where Hunter spent the rest of his formative years. He holds degrees in English and Art History from the University of Toronto. He grew up a skater and a devoted music listener. At a young age, he enjoyed painting, creating collages, and always liked the possibility of working large scale. In a conversation with Hunter, he recalls his early years as a painter where the urban environment became the surface for constructing characters, figures, and gestures out of paint. His good friend Philip Saunders, also a skater as well as an artist, was his introduction to creating murals and graffiti. “Back then, we were 19, 20 and it was all just for fun. We would convince some businesses to let us use their back alley wall to experiment and we took it from there. It's a world of a difference these days,” his face lit up as he reflected.
Hunter and Saunders kept at it for years and eventually got a studio with other artists. Years later, in 2016, they organised themselves along with other emerging Black artists to create the collective, Black Artists Union. With the limited and unaffordable real estate available to many artists in Toronto, a good half of the collective thought it would be in their best interest to come together and split rent for larger shared studio spaces. Some of these artists included Aaron Jone, Curtia Wright, and Oreka James (a piece of James’ work hung in the background when I spoke to Hunter over our video chat). With a self-reliant drive to thrive beyond the confines they had to navigate as emerging Black artists in Toronto, they took it upon themselves to look for spaces to rent and present their own shows professionally and that of their peers.
Around this time, Hunter was also reaching his limit as to what he could meaningful do with painting. “I started engaging with video because I felt I hit a plateau with painting. I found it conceptually insufficient for me. There was something I was searching for in what I do—I don’t know exactly what but video seemed to have it, along with sound,” he said. Collecting and overlapping a patchwork of images had always been part of Hunter’s work. With video and sound, it became an extension of that—an extension that felt more open to possibilities. Before he fully committed to this new way of working, he explored what he could create with textiles. For Scarbourgh’s first Nuit Blanche in 2017, he presented some large-scale versions of fabric assemblages that stemmed from earlier studies of leftover scraps. They were portrait-like figurative forms and indiscernible all the same. “I was thinking of it as self-portraits,” he said. “I was interested in this idea of breaking something apart and assembling it back together. It is very much deconstructing and reconstructing; building something brand new from there.” This gathering of parts and binding them in a single compositional plane continued from his earlier collage works with printed matter.
Although Hunter has since evolved into video, sound, and text as mediums for experimentation, there is still a braiding of disparate fragments merging and interlacing unforeseen connections and resonances. “I haven’t thought about all these past works in a while,'' he expressed wistfully. “Now that we are talking about all this out loud, it seems I have all these markers of my work.” These transitions and markers in Hunter’s trajectory thus far are indicative of the exploratory free-flowing mind of an emerging artist. He tinkered with the fabric configurations for some time long before finding a creative limit with them.
In all his previous attempts, there was something missing, something insufficient with how he went about making work. Hunter later realised that he wanted to incubate a space to hold pieces of literature he read, images he kept returning to, and sounds that held his attention long after hearing them. His intricately layered online scrapbook, True and Functional became a manifestation of this. It's a living repository designed in sections that brings together wide-ranging archival ephemera from across time, place, and events—often seemingly mundane occurrences free from spectacle.
The site includes a mix of anti-imperialist rally posters from Ethiopia, a geographical map of Jamaican soils, a postcard of Kwame Nkrumah, flyers from a Frelimo party, a beat track with an image of Samual Fosso as an album image, another soundtrack with Patrice Émery Lumumba’s image as cover, a close-cropped image of Octavia Butler’s knowing gaze, an excerpted article on Nina Simone, a transcription of an interview with Steve Biko, raw data showing import patterns of various Caribbean islands in the 70s, a low-grade footage of 800m world record holder David Rudisha, a sculpture of Afi Ekong by Ben Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, and more, as it continues to meander onwards as an unfolding elastic tapestry.
A multimedia collection of wide-ranging digital content, True and Functional is a tapestry without a finite message or a resolved coalescence but is every bit as complex and irreducible as Blackness. Working my way through these amalgamated pieces, I’m driven to look up the names, titles, and occasions being referred to by the snippets of interwoven media Hunter has gathered. The artist arranges these fragments in a way that leaves off an ellipses to be continued by the viewer. He prompts us to search further, dwell, and to continue on the trail he’s started.
Hunter’s manner of working follows a long tradition of sampling and remixing practices that is often attributed to hip-pop music, a genre which in its inception, was a descendant of the sinuous poetry by the likes of Amiri Baraka, jazz pioneers, and funk. It’s a genre that borrowed from its forefathers to bear its own mould. It's also a genre always made up of deeply attentive and wide-ranging music listeners, absorbing endlessly and reinscribing what they hear in their creations. The emergence of sampling practices came about in large part out of necessity. For many, who access to traditional instruments was largely unattainable, turning towards what was already available, i.e. pre-existing records, became a way to produce new music. Sampling is what happens when working within restrictions. It is the result of a lack of resources. As such, the very act of sampling, which is inherently referential, suggests the larger economic and social conditions by which its early makers navigated through.
While in conversation with Hunter, I asked him how he came to sourcing archival material for his work. “I always wanted to make something that was a compilation of things,” he said. “I always had an internalised feeling to make work in this way. I wanted to make videos but one thing I was limited by was having a camera, being able to film something, and knowing what to shoot. That was always a barrier of entry for me…” Although there wasn’t a definitive point when Hunter pivoted into working with video, he had been editing pre-existing clips here and there, on the side. He later sourced footage of the sentencing hearing of the rapper Kevin Gates, chopped up the clip and overlaid it with other images. Having never formally shown video work in an exhibition, he worked up the courage to present the result of this experiment through a show the cohort at Black Artist Union organized. It was welcomed with validation and constructive feedback by peers, and this encouraged him to explore the medium further from there on.
In Hunter’s exhibition, Volcanic Spine, like the ones that came before, he takes his predilection for drawing our attention to archival encounters and further immortalizes them through spatially arranged corporeal gestures. After sourcing anthropological images captured days after the eruption, he re-presents them through translucent fabric prints, and swathes them sculpturally for the installation. This is mingled with another strip of translucent fabric work (Untitled Loop 1, 2021) that cascades down from the ceiling of the gallery, folding onto itself on the ground. It depicts what looks like looping film footage of a man whose face is never fully revealed in any of the film frames. In between these fabric photographs is an upright rectangular prism made of concrete cement board, with a TV monitor embedded atop (Pelée’s Tower, 2021). The eminence of poet Kamau Brathwaite’s solemn words reverberates over a muffled beat that plays ambiently alongside the video montages from the monitor.
On the opposite side of the gallery, another sculptural monitor is perched. It's a twin-screen displaying the same footage, but with different colouration. It shows what looks like an official press conference with a lieutenant general announcing a change of Ghana's switch from driving in the left lane to the right. This is likely the most seemingly innocuous and disjunctive of the pieces gathered in the exhibition. With little information on the piece itself in the installation, and being of Ghanian parentage myself, I became especially curious and so, I sought out more. The video is from 1974; my mother would have been barely 10 years old in Accra, so she had no recollection of what the video recalls. My grandmother, however, did recall when this change was happening; the public service messaging on the radio and on the news was cautioning drivers and motorists. There were even catchy jingles in ads as earworms for drivers. Beyond the improvement of road safety and smoother trade with its neighbouring countries, for Ghana, this moment was a small but significant shift away from the ways of the British, whose colonial rule in the country officially ended less than 20 years prior.
At his most successful, this meeting of seemingly divergent paths is what Hunter’s unrelenting curiosity and border-agnostic groupings allow for. It beckons viewers to look beyond our own received knowledge of history and wonder what else we could be missing. It allows for a way of perceiving cross-diaspora dialogues without the barriers that unnecessarily separate us, while in the same vein, embracing the specificities and intricacies shaping that irreducible diasporic tapestry.
A significant aspect of Volcanic Spine, True and Function, and other recent works is the continued reliance on photography (printed matter, video, etc.) as well as sound (beats, speech, text, etc). In addition to being reproducible, these mediums provide a means of preserving what they record. Hunter harnesses these qualities of the medium to point to forgotten occasions and the cultural and social memory embedded therein. Moreover, by bringing them into the present, he makes them resound, emphasising their enduring importance, even if the popular imagination can’t recall it or even know it. By resizing, recolouring, and reprinting snippets of history, Hunter transcends their contextual meaning and adds dimension to these dusty, hermetically sealed archives, often locked away, often outside the possession of the communities they index. Through these mindful reinterpretations, the artist awakens glimpses of history and along the way continues to implore: What about this moment here? How come we don’t know about it? Why does it only exist as an absence? How can it be brought along into the future?