The healing effects of bush tea: A conversation with Barbadian visual artist Annalee Davis

Cerasee bush, just one of the many medicinal plants that can be used to make bush tea, drying. Photo by Sammy Davis, courtesy of Annalee Davis, used with permission.

Bush tea — infusions of indigenous plants and herbs deemed to have medicinal properties — is still fairly well-consumed in the Caribbean. Barbadian visual artist and cultural activist Annalee Davis is taking the concept to a new level through her work around the well-known drink.

In a region still grappling with the fallout from colonialism and slavery — trauma that is rooted to the land — Davis’ project, “Bush Tea Plots,” seeks to develop post-plantation regenerative strategies. The result is a progressive interweaving of agriculture, economics, art and history that has the potential to not only make Caribbean people reframe the past but build on that resilience to create a hopeful future, tackling challenges like climate mitigation and COVID-19 head-on.

The fact that Davis’ studio is located on a dairy farm that used to be a 17th-century sugar plantation makes her discoveries even more tangible, as her art and writing literally engage with the shards of that history.

A Flamboyant tree at Walkers Dairy, St. George, Barbados, site of the artist’s home and studio. Photo (2019) by Annalee Davis, used with permission.

Via a YouTube livestream on May 14, 2020, Davis spoke with Keisha Farnum, the managing director of Walkers Institute for Regeneration Research Education and Design (WIRRED), about some of these concepts, and engaged with me right afterward via email and WhatsApp, where we further examined some intriguing questions.

Barbadian visual artist Annalee Davis discusses her work. Photo by Tim Bowditch. Image courtesy Davis, used with permission.

Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF): Bush tea provides a non-threatening way to bridge the chasm between the shared history of our region and its collective future. Did you consciously choose an approach that turned the drink of our former colonisers on its head, or did it emerge organically?

Annalee Davis (AD): This particular landscape and the context of the plantation have formed the baseline of my work for decades. I tend to ruminate on an idea for quite some time, maybe years, until it coalesces into something more tangible. (Bush) Tea Services [a related project] evolved from the Wild Plant drawings on ledger pages and from the land in an organic way. Walking the fields, as Rebecca Solnit suggests, is a way to measure our bodies against the land and I am constantly measuring my body against this land during my roaming dawn ritual where ideas reveal themselves and later manifest in the studio.

JMF: As Caribbean people take control of our historical narrative, how important is it to talk about the trauma in order for collective healing to take place — and how critical is art to that cure?

AD: I have been concerned with how shared historical suffering reveals itself communally and how individuals and nations manage trauma and the desire for self-fulfilment in small places like Barbados, where social life and kinship are predominantly experienced in separate social spheres.

Art is pivotal in the curative space because it registers beyond the intellect at a sensorial level. However, before we heal, difficult conversations analysing the past, facilitating opportunities to broaden identities, and expressing solidarities to shape the future are essential.

A virtual slaughterhouse sits beneath our soil, sowing the seeds of contemporary issues with which we grapple today. These legacies emanate from the subterranean layers of this land as living ghosts from our collective past. There is so much work to do and artists are critical to the conversations as we have the power to envision alternative futures for us all.

JMF: I was recently explaining to someone outside of the region that Barbados, highly reliant on tourism, is perhaps the most manicured of all the Caribbean territories. Bush, on the other hand, is wild. How has this project helped you reconcile the two?

AD: I’m not sure I have. If anything, bush reminds me how fake the polished tourist environment is — from which I’m quite removed. Bush is wild and has taught me so much more about myself and the way in which I was (mis)educated. As a young child I learned that ‘weeds’ were not valued and were removed manually or eradicated chemically. Much later, I understood the importance of bush, and the significant role played by wild botanicals in regenerating the soil.

Exhibit of Annalee Davis’ “Wild Plant Series”, Art Gallery at Black Studies, UT, Austin, 2015. Latex on Plantation Ledger Pages, @ 22” x 13”. Photo by Mark Doroba. Image courtesy Davis, used with permission.

JMF: I know you’re concerned about the region’s soil degradation and biodiversity loss as a result of extractive industries like monocropping — whether it was sugar cane in the 17th century, or tourism now. Can you explain how your “Wild Plants” series has helped create a shift from degradation to phytoremediation — from bush as weeds to bush as a precious resource?

AD: I now see wild plants as active agents in the process of decolonising fields, performing quiet revolutions by asserting themselves against an imperial, monocrop landscape. A proliferation of wild plants and trees growing in abandoned sugar cane fields now contribute to greater biodiversity in Barbados since the late 17th century. Walking these fields at Walkers and directing my attention toward plants often ignored, reorients my understanding of this land and our history away from dominant narratives. Phytoremediation — the capacity of some plants to remove toxins from the soil through their roots — has become a conceptual springboard for this series of drawings and a powerful way to instrumentalise the bush.

Annalee Davis’ “Wild Plant Series” (Detail): Leucaena leucocephela/Myamosee, River Tamarind. Photo by Mark King. Image courtesy Davis, used with permission.

JMF: When you were working on the series, drawing the images on actual plantation ledger pages — an accounting methodology used by the British Empire — two things struck you: the Victorian rose colour of the pages, which led you to think about gender, and the orderliness with which all sorts of information was fastidiously recorded, disguising the underlying chaos and trauma of the plantation system. How does your art offer an alternative story?

AD: My inscription of other images, like delicate shards, the Queen Anne’s Lace pattern, botanicals or the woman’s body, encourages us to think differently about this loaded context. I decolonise the ledger by repopulating and complicating these fiscal substrates as a kind of civic negotiation, exposing gaps in Barbados’ plantation history buried in the soil, in the public imagination and inadequately documented in the archives. This complicates the single story written through the voice of the white male planter about the economics of the sugar industry. Black, white, and biracial women also lived and worked on the plantation, lands previously inhabited by the indigenous. What was their relationship to wild plants, I wonder?

Annalee Davis’ “Bush Tea Plots – A Decolonial Patch”, 2019. Photo by Dondré Trotman. Image courtesy Davis, used with permission.

JMF: Your work “Bush Tea Plots – A Decolonial Patch,” incorporates art, landscape architecture and spiritual healing. Can you explain how this is a living testimony to regional resilience?

AD: Commissioned by the World Bank Group for their Risk and Resilience conference at a conference at [The University of the West Indies] Cave Hill campus, I collaborated with Kevin Talma and Ras Ils, linking art practice, landscape architecture, and botany for this permanent installation at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination.

Thinking about forming new relationships with the land, I envisaged this work as a living restorative plot or apothecary of resistance confronting the historical imposition of Barbados’ monocrop, sugarcane, recognising nature as a radical agent of resistance against the model of the plantation. Observing how the natural world is threatened and degraded, the work looks to nature as a regenerative biosphere with tools for healing at the agricultural, botanical and psychological and spiritual levels.

Comprising a glass planter showing the soil profile and a specially curated selection of 12 medicinal plants with healing properties, it increases knowledge of medicinal plants through a dedicated website while teaching resilience by using what’s readily available in our environment rather than only relying on imported pharmaceuticals.

Look out for the second installment, in which Annalee discusses another bush tea concept, “Bush Tea Services,” and explains how her theories are relevant to pressing global issues like the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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