Tina Dunkley photo: Jerry Siegel
Tina Maria Dunkley
with Opal Moore
Tina Maria Dunkley, Lunar Eclipse of 1815: For Sergeant Ezekiel Loney, #44 Fourth Company, Colonial Marines Royal British Navy, 2019, cyanotype, silkscreen, 36 x 22 inches, Collection of Georgia Museum of Art
The creative mind and works of artist and curator Tina Maria Dunkley situate between two concepts: diaspora and the transnational. The former refers to movement, dispersal; the latter reckons with a way of claiming more than one nation, place or culture. In her diversely voiced productions, Tina Maria Dunkley is about the business of laying claim to places, stories, bodies, names and family lost to memory but traceable in the archives of text and feeling. Dunkley’s works often find their power in the labor of recovering and “reading” a lineage (both personal and shared) that links sites of colonization (specifically Trinidad and the U.S.) as embodied histories of enslavement, freedom, alienation and love. These works occupy spaces ripe for imagination, in the way that novelist Toni Morrison insisted that we make stories that leave space for the reader (or in this instance, the viewer) to enter and become.
Dunkley’s body of work asserts the importance of memory—not as nostalgia but active remembering. In conversation with the artist I realized that her art-making, especially works assembled in her exhibition, “Sanctuary For the Internal Enemy: An Ancestral Odyssey”, is active memory work. If it is true that the universal is located in the specific—an observation attributed to James Joyce—then one humble family artifact can speak to broader histories of migration and liberation. This is what, as a viewer, I find fascinating in her series work, “Memory Jug”. Dunkley shared with me the uses of the simple clay water jug once typical in Trinidadian homes, including her own, prior to the availability of refrigeration. However, in the artwork, the artist surrounds the jug with handwritten text, voices retrieved from journals or military records. We read: “Great pains were taken along the shores of the Chesapeake to prevent the escape of the Negroes…In spite, however, of all this….”
Tina Maria Dunkley, Memory Jug Series #8, 2017, cyanotype and lithography, 22 x 30 inches
Dunkley gives us a simple water jug transformed by documentation, records, archive. For this viewer, such a work makes me rejoice. I own one of the small clay jugs that Dunkley’s work references. It was given to me as a gift when I visited Senegal. The vendor, a woman, looked at me and selected a jug from her shelf. She did not allow me to pay. She said, “this one has a flaw. It will not hold water”. In her work, Dunkley repeatedly takes us to a liminal or in-between space, a place both real and abstract, where we might find a useful contemplation of how and why we have lost what should be stored in memory, if memory were a perfect jug.
“Sanctuary For the Internal Enemy: An Ancestral Odyssey” is an exhibition of works inspired by the discovery of a family history linked to the War of 1812. The “external enemy” was the British; the “internal enemy” was, of course, the slaveholder’s legal human property—their Black chattel. The exhibition incorporates the “Memory Jug” series but goes further to “remember” the uncelebrated history of the thousands of Black men and women who joined the British Royal Navy in a contract negotiation for their freedom. These Black fighters called themselves the “Merikins”.
Dunkley is a painter, printmaker, textile, and mixed-media artist. She is well known throughout Atlanta and the art world for her vital work in preserving and developing the art collection at Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University. Having concluded her monumental service to the rescue and advancement of Black art and artists, she now turns full time to the work of the imagination, work that is now receiving greater recognition and study.
Tina Maria Dunkley, Odyssey of a Merikin, 2017, aquatint and watercolor
Opal Moore: Tina, you were born and raised in New York, but your body of work does not reflect what I might call a New York “palette.”
No cityscapes. No grit and grime or visions of nightlife. Was this a decision that you made, or perhaps a natural process of family influences and early home environment?
Tina Maria Dunkley: Four days after receiving a BFA in Painting and Sculpture from the School of Visual Arts, (SVA) in NYC, I arrived in Atlanta with a Northern conceit believing that Southerners knew little, if anything, about art. Yep! Sadly, that was me….unconscious of the influence a Western art education bestowed upon my perception of a world that didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the art of African American artists. SVA characterized the New York art scene in all its grandeur of Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual art. Hailing from this haze of an education, my paintings explored theoretical interactions of color absent of human figures, though I treasured the anatomy and life-drawing classes. Turns out that my favorite class was Materials and Techniques, taught by Caldecott Award illustrators Diane and Leo Dillon, an invigorating class that left an indelible imprint on my creative process. The “grit and grime” was in the materials rather than in the subject matter portrayed. So yes, most of my undergraduate work was abstract, though I recall fearing of a final review because of the array of media in my presentation. Unlike my classmates, whose portfolios were oriented toward one or two mediums, mine featured crocheted tapestry, wood assemblages, paintings, and limestone sculptures carved with pneumatic tools. However, I think the comfort I experienced in working with assorted media would later translate into figurative subjects when I encountered the rich alchemy of Southern folkways, people with alluring tales to tell, and the traditions that embodied their heritage.
Tina Maria Dunkley, Revelation at the Ebute Metta House, 2018, lithograph on double-layered cotton, watercolor, acrylic,11×17 inches
O.M. How would you describe the formation of your creative impulses, visions, inspirations, creative sensibility?
T.M.D. I would attribute my “creative impulses” to both environment and plausibly DNA, as observed in the professions of young family members. My father, who wanted to study electrical engineering in the military, was discouraged and settled into the cruise industry of the 1930s as a waiter and sous-chef. But he had a creative problem-solving process for everything and loved art. Upon retiring in the late 60s, he became a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mother owned two beauty salons, sewed entire wardrobes for herself and her children, and seasonally re-upholstered our living room furniture. Her brothers and sister, who were equally adept, painted and sculpted. The question stirs fond memories of weekends shopping for fabric with my mom and her sister, who sewed for Christian Dior. Additionally, my brothers pioneered in the fields of holography, photography, and filmmaking in Nigeria. Indeed, my family was inherently nurturing. In 2019, 71 years after his death, the New York Times featured an extraordinary review of my Jamaican grandfather’s solo exhibition, John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night. As an intuitive artist in the advent of post-colonialism, he instilled Jamaican culture with a distinct visual aesthetic identity with African heredities. Dunkley’s son, my father, who was an immigrant of the storied Caribbean “Barrel Children,” met his father only twice in his life. Yet, much of creativity appears to have come through his person. As if from another dimension, my deceased parents appear to have revealed their ancestral findings.
Tina Maria Dunkley, Mining the Archives, 2018, Cyanotype, watercolor, silkscreen, 30 x 22"
Collection of the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American History and Culture
O.M. Most may know you for the epic story of your work with the art collection at Atlanta University and your directorship and curatorial work at Clark Atlanta University. For TAS readers, do you mind talking a bit about those 35 years, including how a creative career fits (or doesn’t) with the work of the arts administrator and curator of other artists?
T.M.D. It’s a difficult question to answer, as I continue to ruminate over the choices I made. After working in Atlanta and around Georgia in artist-in-residency programs, I sensed a need to return to school for a graduate degree. An increased awareness of the dynamic differences among Southern, Northern, and Caribbean cultures inspired a curiosity to learn more. Atlanta University’s African American Studies program under the direction of Dr. Richard A. Long satisfied that quest. A term paper on African American Folk Medicine led to a thesis proposal, until I stumbled upon the art collection in the basement of Trevor Arnett Library. Given the experience of listening to undergraduate professors negate the existence of Black artists, it seemed compulsory to switch thesis topics to the history of the Atlanta University Art Annuals, 1942-1970, which documented 900 artists clamoring for exhibition space in apartheid America.
So down the rabbit hole I went in 1979, which carried me through to 2008, when I serendipitously discovered my family’s role in the War of 1812. Naturally, there were detours that I would take, (i.e., Smithsonian Faculty Fellowship, GSU School of Art and Design Art Gallery, Kellogg Fellowship in International Development in Brazil, and the 1996 Cultural Olympiad), but they inevitably brought me back to “ground CAU.” All of this to say, it was very challenging to maintain focus in my studio against the backdrop of arts administration, which became a livelihood. I feared that relying solely on my artwork to prosper would eventually compromise the aesthetic quality of the work in an effort to meet market demands.
Parallel to Alice Walker, who was unaware of Black female writers when she was reveling in Flannery O’Connor’s work, discovering my SVA professors were wrong about the contributions of African American artists to the canon of American art was a revelation. It inspired arapture for establishing an illustrative home for that Collection in honor of Hale Woodruff’s vision and mission to expose the Atlanta community to the work of African American artists. It appears that I traded the development of my own art for the conservation of the Collection. Intriguingly, Woodruff contemplated similar issues in interviews with regard to being known more for teaching than his career as a painter, though I think his murals are categorical and continue to garner recognition in the global canon. Curating the work of other artists was a pleasure and an honor to [devote] space, time, and offer audiences the experience of interacting with art.
Tina Maria Dunkley, Who was Uncle Boocoosoo?, 2014-2018, wax resist, acrylic, mixed-materials on canvas,
72 x 56 inches
Tina Maria Dunkley, Arktype Sustenance, 2005, inches, wax resist, 20 x 38 inches collection High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia
O.M. There is a kind of call to reverence in much of your work. But I want to probe what I see as a blade sharp humor, a humor more apparent in the contrasts available when your works are viewed in larger exhibitions such as the recent showing at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art, April 15 – May 22, 2021). I think, especially, of your slave ship watermelons in the Arktype series. The titles themselves could support a serious critical study as well as the materials. The watermelon—long used to satirize Black life; the black watermelon seeds to suggest the African body in what art historian Cheryl Finley refers to as the Slave Ship Icon—the materials seem to flirt with humor despite the referent to sorrow and irrevocable loss. Have you considered the tension between humor and anguish in this or other works?
T.M.D. It concerned me upon completing the [Arktype] piece. But then I recalled the impetus for the piece, which you haven't seen.
On my mother's 90th birthday, she was at her favorite place...on the beach, and eating a crescent-shaped slice of watermelon. The power of her gaze and serenity prompted me to take a picture. With the camera raised, I paused for a moment wondering if the image would further the pernicious stereotype. It then dawned on me that the melon had nothing to do with the stigmatized reference, but rather the reverence of this black woman surviving the world that she was cast in, thereby signaling the trials and tribulations she/we endured and triumphed. The image surfaced one morning in a dream-state. Upon discovering the Kalahari Desert was the cradle of the watermelon, I moved to the idea of sustenance provided in a desert...Africans as sustenance in the form of free labor for the foundation of capitalism, and sanctioned by Christianity. Ergo three evolving titles for the image that began in 2005: Arktype Sustenance; Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb, Capitalism; and, Blessed is the Fruit of Free Labor. I concluded that if anyone has the right to consume this melon without a derisive response, it's black folk. I thought the titles would quell any inference toward humor.
Tina Maria Dunkley, Ancestors' Response, 2018, cyanotype, dry point, 22 x 30 inches
O.M. Artist Charles Gaines once remarked on the unfortunate binary that has been created between abstraction and representation. Do you concern yourself with that art world constructed binary? Your exhibition, “Sanctuary For the Internal Enemy: An Ancestral Odyssey” (first presented at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery in NY) blends narrative, image, historical text, abstract shapes. Included is a strip quilt “Homage To the ‘Merikins”…(2015-18) reminds us that some of the first abstract artists were African American quilt makers. Where did the exhibition title come from? Who is the internal enemy? What is sanctuary in this recovered story of the ‘Merikins?
T.M.D. Maybe early on in my career I might have focused on the binary. But I had inner visions that didn’t require established norms. Thanks to the contributions of artists from across the Black Diaspora, that binary barely exists, if at all. The experiences of artists situated in post-colonial nations that experience similar degradation, marginalization, and economic oppression redirected their perspectives outside of the Western binary construct…one of which—abstraction—was indigenous in the first place.
The blending that you refer to was challenging in approaching this obscure historical event. Obscure, only because mainstream historians were not interested in addressing the role of African Americans in the War of 1812, until the advent of the bicentennial. After making this unexpected discovery about my family during a trip to Trinidad, it was daunting to determine how to represent a fully documented historical event in the fine art aesthetic. The risk of being too literal was great, but the primary sources were so abundant that they required exposure. It still haunts me, as I continue to revisit other ways to present the material. Viewing and touching the muster ledgers with thousands of runaway names, handwritten by naval officers was transformational. One could hear each person say his or her name to an officer, without likely knowing how to spell it. The experience provided a sense of time travel with the forlorn spirits, seeking freedom from enslavement. You could definitely feel their energy.
Tina Maria Dunkley, Aunt Jemima Laments Leaving the Plantation, 2018, toned cyanotype, watercolor polyester plate lithograph, 30 x 40 inches
You're on point about African American quilters leading in the practice of "abstraction,"...yet another example of Western art world's inability to acknowledge the creativity and ingenuity of Africans in the Americas. Abstraction is in our DNA, visually and musically. In fact, it was my intention to create the entire exhibition in strip-quilts, paying homage to African American quilters, but found the process laboriously tedious and consuming in a way that impeded my ability to bring closure in a timely fashion.
The official documentary entitled, The Merikins can be screened on YouTube. It so happened that an application I submitted to Trinidad for research in the extant community of “The Company Villages,” (named for the six companies of the Colonial Marines), got the attention of the U.S. Ambassador, who was unaware of this chronicle. Upon making the discovery, she enlisted my assistance and the support of the High Commissioners of Canada and Britain to produce the documentary. Presently, the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago is producing another documentary.
Plantation owners referred to their enslaved property as the "internal enemy," upon realizing the British were their external foe. It is the title of the Pulitzer-Prize book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by Alan Taylor. Southern Trinidad became the sanctuary for the decommissioned officers and their families in The Company Villages in 1815-1816. It is now a vibrant community of descendants paused to welcome and entertain cultural tourists.
O.M. Tina, thank you for this opportunity to learn more about your art making.
Tina Maria Dunkley (b. in New York, NY) has been part of the art world from a young age; she graduated from the New York High School of Music & Art, and subsequently earned her B.F.A. from the New York School of Visual Arts and her M.A. in African American Studies from Atlanta University. www.tinadunkley.com
Photo: Jerry Siegel
Opal Moore, a native Chicagoan, is a veteran teacher of creative writing and African American women’s literature. She is the author of Lot’s Daughters, a poetry collection that one reviewer described as “passionate slices of African American womanhood.” Her fiction and poetry have appeared in anthologies and journals, including the Boston Review; Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, the Notre Dame Review, Connecticut Review, Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, and Homeplaces: Stories of the South by Women Writers.