Few gallery talks start with a sprinkling of rum on the gallery floor. For Tyshan Wright this is a way to honour his Maroon ancestors who inform his life and work. Tyshan Wright: Maroon Town, at the MSVU Art Gallery, Halifax, to Dec. 9, is a beautifully clear and crafted, a powerful and heartfelt exhibit of contemporary art at the intersection of Maroon ceremonial instruments and domestic items including bottles of rum.

The installation, curated by Julie Hollenbach, associate professor of Craft History and Material Culture,  at NSCAD University, is about honouring ancestors, knowing who you are, not judging others, and leading your children forward by teaching them their past. It’s also an insight into the fascinating, fraught history of the Maroons, a history straddling Africa, Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone as Wright works to keep the Maroons’ culture alive and present.

In making art, Wright said during his crowded gallery talk, “you’re affecting the past and changing the present moment.” This exhibit, in which two times— and two narratives —are equally present, includes real-time durational performances as Wright builds and decorates a Maroon home—, titled Wakkle after the Maroon weaving technique—, in the centre of the gallery. The Nova Scotia pine sticks and boughs from Preston, N.S., give the gallery the scent of pine; inside the house is a table with cups crafted out of tin cans – like the cups that Wright would have used as a child growing up in the historic Maroon town of Accompong in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.

Tyshan Wright Building Wakkle (2023). Photo: Steve Farmer. (courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

The house includes a wooden fishing rod propped by the door, coconut bowls filled with “spirit beads,” necklaces Wright made that speak to the intertwining of life, sage that was burnt “at home” and a photograph of Wright’s wife, poet/playwright Shauntay Grant. “Something about building this home right here takes me back to a place I’ve never been,” Wright said. “For the first time I realized how comfortable our ancestors were. You can feel something that brings tears to your eyes, and you realize how happy life was – so simple. We make it so complicated.”

The Maroons are descended from Africans— – originally from the Akan region of Ghana— – who resisted enslavement in Spanish-owned plantations when the British took Jamaica from Spain in 1655. They fled to the mountains and established five independent communities across the island as free men and women. After the first Maroon War of 1738 the Maroons entered into a peace treaty with the British government and maintained their autonomy; however, in 1795 a new governor provoked the Second Maroon War with Maroons from Trelawny Town.

After five months of fighting, a truce was called, and the Trelawny Town Maroons agreed to cease fighting on the promise that they would be granted lands and not be sent off the island. But they were tricked, and in 1796 more than 500 of them— – men, women and children— – were detained and sent to Nova Scotia aboard three ships. They would eventually settle in Preston. Maroon men built defenses at the Halifax Citadel, cleared roads and helped erect Government House; women and children sold vegetables they grew at the Halifax market. However, after four years, the harsh climate, poor land quality and attempts to convert them to Christianity drove most of them out of Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone.

It seems like ancient history – though ancient history often ricochets down long corridors into the present – and Wright brings this history alive. His rough-hewn clothesline of handmade clothes in honour of Maroon ancestors is an intimate and emotionally charged work. Sarah, after Sarah Colley, is a skirt made of crocus bag (like burlap and common in Jamaica) with red beads representing the lifeblood of the Maroon people and grey beads called teardrops that represent grieving as Wright imagines her pain at watching her community members leave Nova Scotia.

Nana (2023), crocus bag, recycled fabric/garment, Belinda Grant, Shauntay Grant, Tyshan Wright and children; Sarah (2023), crocus bag, Maroon beads, rope, Tyshan Wright; Leonard (2023), crocus bag, Maroon beads, rope, Tyshan Wright. Foreground, rear: Bass II, wood (rum barrel), deer skin, goat skin, rope, crocus bag, pine cone; closest, Hye Won Hye (2022), wood, goat skin, rope, cloth. Tyshan Wright. Photo: Steve Farmer. (courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

Sarah Colley is Shauntay Grant’s ancestor and Grant met Wright while she was researching her ancestry in Jamaica. “I’m sure our ancestors brought us together,” Wright said. He also makes pants for Leonard Parkinson, a captain of the Maroons who settled in Nova Scotia and, working with his wife, children and mother-in-law, a quilt to honour Grant’s grandmother—a quilter and Maroon descendant from Preston—using her materials. The circle in the centre of the quilt is “showing how ancestors are still here,” Wright said. “They are in the wind and the trees and the stones and the sky. They are here.”

This exhibit abounds in various versions of drums and the abeng, a sacred, carved cow horn; both are ceremonial instruments the Maroons use to commune with their ancestors, and both were outlawed. Wright, who was shortlisted for the 2022 Sobey Art Award for the Atlantic region, constructs a drum out of a rum barrel as he imagines what Maroons exiled in Halifax may have used to create their ceremonial instruments.

Bench drums – small seats of goat and deer skin concealing from colonial masters the fact they can be played as drums – sit in front of a home video of Wright outdoors drumming for his children who laugh and play. He invites viewers to sit on and play the drums, which is hard because they are so beautiful and, of course, ceremonial.

The abeng becomes a contemporary, conceptual art object – without losing its sacred power – as Wright talks about the diaspora and oppression of the Maroons. He attaches a wooden chain in the work, Falla Mi, to a perfectly carved and adorned horn; the chain leads to a small locked door, a sweet, miniature child’s toy of door, except it signifies imprisonment and loss of culture and identity.

Falla Mi, Tyshan Wright, 2023, cow horn, wood, Maroon beads, metal, pine cone. Photo: Steve Farmer. (courtesy of MSVU Art Gallery)

Wright uses “erasure poetry,” a meditative, text-altering form of wordsmithing, in three versions of Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth’s letter about the Maroons. It’s a fascinating document that sends the viewer back into the past imagining a people used to heat enduring hard labour and a Nova Scotia winter.

Wentworth writes in a script where f often equals s. “Thefe People exprefs great Delight in the Country, and the profpect of being fettled in it. They are perfectly quiet, orderly, and peaceable, and I have not a Doubt but that they will be more happy than ever they were in Jamaica; they declare to me daily, that they are fure all their Sorrows and Misfortunes are at an End.” Wright circles words so it the text reads “Thefe People exprefs great Doubt; they declare they are all Sorrows and Misfortunes.”

The survival of Maroon culture triumphs in Hye Won Hye, a stone fire pit with two burned and perforated drums and one scarred but intact gumbe drum. The title means “that which cannot be burned.” Wright ensures that traditional Maroon culture lives on in the present day and in a land that was once so inhospitable to his people.