In the past, a fugitive was often referred to as a “maroon,” and the process of fleeing slavery, whether it was temporary or permanent, was known as “maroonage.” After multiple conflicts between the colonial government of Jamaica and the Trelawny Maroons, discussions about the destination of their exile began. Finally, it was decided that they would be exiled to Nova Scotia, a choice that had more to do with the convenience of being the nearest British port the ship would pass than a mindful decision. Preston had some of the abandoned farms and lands left over from the exodus of many Black Loyalists in 1792, which meant that the 550 maroons were settled there. The settlement project was not a successful endeavour, as they found the winter cold and long. Some wanted to leave Nova Scotia to return to Jamaica but that idea was quickly shut down by the authorities. At that point, they were willing to go anywhere warmer. 

At the same time, others made the decision to make the best of being exiled in Nova Scotia. They requested to be separated from the main group—they were relocated to Boydville, which today is known as Maroon Hill—and asked for support from the local colonial government. The group of Maroons petitioning for relocation from Nova Scotia succeeded and British authorities arranged their departure to Freetown, Sierra Leone in West Africa. Jamaican Maroons’ time in Nova Scotia was brief. In 1796 they came, and in 1800 most went. History maintains that not all of them left and undoubtedly their legacy has shaped the identity of African Nova Scotians.

This heritage is so significant that Tyshan Wright’s art reflects it and amplifies it. Wright arrived in Canada almost six years ago from the Maroon Town of Accompong in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. He is a long-time creator of musical instruments and other cultural artifacts for the Jamaican Maroon people, and his work examines the boundaries between traditional and contemporary craft. His work has been purchased by the Nova Scotia Art Bank, and it has been displayed in shows at Canadian art galleries and institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. He is one of five artists nominated for the 2022 Sobey Art Award and an Artist-In-Residence Fellow for the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University in 2021–2022.

Tyshan Wright and Shauntay Grant, Abeng, 2017, Cow horn, Maroon beads, kente cloth; 66 x 10 x 30 cm. Photo: Steve Farmer

Wright affirms that the abeng, a carved cow horn, is one of the most precious items to the Maroons, along with a number of traditional drums. These instruments have long been an important part of Maroon culture and spirituality, and they are typically employed in celebrations and ceremonies. However, the Jamaican Maroons were denied their ceremonial objects when they were sent to Nova Scotia in 1796. In order to relate this significant aspect of Maroon culture, to the histories of the Canadian and African diasporas, he wishes to bring these sacred artefacts back. Wright is able to illustrate how the sacred power of these objects connects bloodlines across nations. In his exhibition, Myal at the Craig Gallery in 2021, Wright introduces a series of instruments that were and are still utilized during sacred ceremonies. This body of work wishes to weave tightly the very present notion between the search for sovereignty and the perseverance of old-century rituals.  

Wright shares that although he already knew about the history of Jamaican Maroons in Nova Scotia before migrating, he has now learnt a lot more, as his creative process is motivated by his desire to know more about his ancestors by maintaining a connection to his heritage. There is a clear link between Wright’s work and his capacity to emphasize the significance of the narratives that came to this region from Jamaica. He demonstrates how the cultural objects he fabricates are intrinsically connected to ways of gathering and serve to bond the severance that comes from being forcefully displaced. There is a discernable wish to both foster celebration and expose the role of colonizers in the suppression of cultural practices that did not fit into the European imaginary. 

Tyshan Wright, Gumbe II, 2017, Wood, goat skin, Maroon beads, kente cloth; 53 x 35 x 35 cm.

I reached out to Tyshan Wright to learn more about his art process, his work during his time in Nova Scotia, and his interest in collaboration and community. Below you’ll find the email exchange with Tyshan. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity:

Cinthia Arias Auz: What does the Sobey Award nomination mean to you professionally?

Tyshan Wright: It means that more people will become aware of the work. I appreciate the opportunity to share the work more broadly, and to talk about the history that inspires it.

Arias Auz: Can you tell me about your experience while being a fellow at the NSCAD University’s Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery? How did it influence your art practice?

Wright: The focus of my research was on the behaviours and cultural practices of Jamaica Maroons in colonial Nova Scotia, and the effects of colonialism and transatlantic slavery on the Maroons’ sovereignty. I was interested to know more about how the Maroons navigated the space between sovereignty and slavery during their time here in Halifax as a group. Coming from Jamaica and growing up in the Maroon culture, I have relied mostly on my lived and felt experiences to inform the creation of my work and oral history passed down to me from my mother and other elders in my community. But with this project, I did research at the archives and read a lot of books and articles as well, so the process was a bit different.

Arias Auz: Do you think you have found community while living here? Has it informed your work?

Wright: Yes, I have found community here. On my first day in Halifax my wife, who is a Maroon descendant, took me around to Maroon heritage sites and shared some of the local histories and introduced me to other Maroon descendants. We ended up turning that experience into a collaborative art piece.

Arias Auz: Can you tell me about the first collaboration between you and Shauntay Grant? What does collaboration add to your art practice?

Wright: I mentioned that on my first day here we visited Maroon Heritage sites. While there, Shauntay was observing me and recorded her observations in poetry. We created a mixed media work called Abeng for the national group exhibition Canada: Day 1, a project of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The work features a Maroon ceremonial object and Shauntay’s poems written on birchbark scrolls. It was my first time collaborating with another artist, and it just gave me a window into another artistic practice and opened up the possibility of learning about another art form and incorporating it into the artwork.

Arias Auz: Do you have any other collaborations lined up?

Wright: Shauntay and I are collaborating on a new project called Blackout. It will be presented this year at Nocturne in Halifax and at the Atlantic Arts Symposium in St. John. Both events are in October.

Arias Auz: Can you tell me about the cultural objects and instruments you create? Are they meant to be used? Or are they more sculptural?

Wright: They are sculptural, but I have also played some of them for ceremonial purposes. Traditionally the instruments are used among the Maroons in ceremonies. We play them to connect with our ancestors.

Arias Auz: Are the designs in the instruments and cultural objects that you make your own?

Wright: For the most part yes. There are some exceptions, for example with the Bench Drum I incorporated an ‘adinkra’ symbol from Ghana to highlight the Maroons’ historical connection to the region.

Arias Auz: Do you have any upcoming projects in the near future?

Wright: Right now, I’m creating new work for the upcoming Sobey Art Award exhibit which opens at the end of October. I’m also in dialogue with curators on a few upcoming projects.

Arias Auz: How has your work shifted – if at all – since moving to Nova Scotia?

Wright: In Jamaica, I was mostly making Maroon jewelry and selling them at cultural events and various places. But since moving to Nova Scotia my focus has been on creating the Maroon ceremonial instruments like the drums, and exhibited at galleries and museums. I’ve also expanded my creative practice to include the literary arts.

Tyshan Wright, Photo by Steve Farmer