Art pieces and movie reimagine Queen Nanny
Reimagining Nanny was originally a project that, in the words of Minister Olivia Grange, is “aimed at recognising Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons of Jamaica as far greater than a female warrior and Jamaica’s only national heroine.”
As conceptualised by Jamaican New York University Professor Leo R. Douglas, it was initially an art-centred competition. It now has an added motion picture dimension.
The top five art pieces in the competition are currently on display at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ), East Street, Kingston. The movie, an 18-minute documentary showing Nanny as “chieftess of Blue Mountain’s biodiversity, forests and waters”, will be launched in Kingston in March 2023 on International Women’s Day. It is still being shot, but edited segments from it were shown to an audience in the IOJ’s lecture theatre last Sunday.
Grange’s words were delivered at the Reimagining Nanny awards ceremony and exhibit opening in the lecture theatre by Denzil Thorpe, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. He was speaking on behalf of Grange who was unavoidably absent.
Thorpe further said: “The Reimagining Project allowed us to look beyond the regular script and see Granny Nanny as a protector of the natural environment and its treasures; one who honoured the forest and its wealth of biodiversity; one who valued the plants as the storehouse of medicines and cures.”
He pointed out that the activity was an official Jamaica 60 event, one of the yearlong celebrations with the theme, ‘Jamaica 60 – Reigniting A Nation For Greatness’, and he commented on the appropriateness of the theme for the project.
Dr Susan Otukon, executive director, Jamaica Conservation & Development Trust (JCDT), said that when Dr Douglas, a former director of the JCDT, shared his concept for this Reimagining Nanny project she agreed that the JCDT, as manager of the Blue and John Crow Mountains (BJCM) National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would partner with him.
She told the audience that Nanny Town, the military and spiritual capital of the Windward Maroons, is located at the centre of the Blue Mountains and the site, along with the Nanny Town Trail and others used by Nanny and the ancestral Windward Maroon communities and still used today by modern-day Windward Maroons, is an important aspect of the inscription of the BJCM as a UNESCO heritage site.
Quoting a United Nations website, she said: “Women play a key role in environmental protection and socio-economic development. They are often the primary managers of mountain resources, guardians of biodiversity, keepers of traditional knowledge, custodians of local culture and experts in traditional medicine.”
Professor Douglas said that while working in the Rio Grande Valley of the Blue and John Crow Mountains, he met Colonel Wallace Sterling. “He opened my eyes to much more of the lived experience of Nanny. She was much more than a warrior. She studied plants, had a integral knowledge of the birds, the biodiversity, and the forest, the trees.
She would have given African names to native plants, among other things. She brought Afro-Caribbean spirituality to this space.”
Dr Douglas mentioned some of his early studies and work that led him to the project. They included his bachelor’s and master’s studies at The University of the West Indies in the life sciences unit, his work on watershed management in the Blue and John Crow mountains, his PhD studies at Columbia University in Human-Environment relationships, and even the duppy stories his mother told him as a child.
The idea for the movie began after he had chosen the top five artists entering the Reimagining Nanny art competition he had initiated. “The narrative was so rich, so important, we wanted to include other voices – like those of Colonel Sterling, other Maroon leaders, people at the IOJ’s Natural History museum who know the plants, who can speak to their medicinal uses, can speak to the fact that some came from Africa, that some were only from here (Jamaica), and how the process of naming plants happened. We recognised that through art alone we could not tell what we wanted to share with the Jamaican people and the world,” he said.
Asked exactly what Nanny was being reimagined as, Douglas said: “We’re reimagining Nanny as a naturalist, a botanist, a herbalist, a biologist – because those professions we have traditionally prescribed to white foreigners.”
He recalled that in interviews with 500 Jamaican children over four years, he was constantly told: “Dem tings is not what Jamaicans do, sir. Is foreigners do them things. We nuh do them things.”
”My purpose – and it has become a mission,” he declared, “is to show that we have been doing those things all along – before we came to Jamaica. It’s who we are. There’s no need to separate ourselves from those professions and give them to others, when it’s not really theirs. We need to own it, protect it and value it.”
Douglas’ sister, Professor Marcia Douglas, a creative writing lecturer at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a poet, novelist and actress, plays Nanny in the movie.
“Prior to beginning the filming,” she revealed, “I spoke to Mama G, a Maroon leader, activist and healer in Charles Town. She said that to be filled with Nanny is similar to being filled with the Holy Spirit. I understood, so I feel to play Nanny is to attempt to be filled with her. It’s a humbling experience, and a great privilege.
“Being in the project involves being in the hills, in touch with nature as Nanny was. It’s not glamorous at all, but it’s very beautiful. It’s given me to opportunity to be in awe of nature, just as I imagine Nanny was. There is something of the nature that fill you up and enables me to see something of the world through Nanny’s eyes and interact with nature.”