News / Halifax

'It’s almost like coming home': New art project at Halifax museum shows Maroon history, one man's journey

Jamaican artist Tyshan Wright and his wife, former Halifax poet laureate Shauntay Grant, collaborated on a project as part of a new exhibit at Pier 21.

Shauntay Grant and Tyshan Wright sit down for a portrait at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 on Thursday.

Patrick Fulgencio/For Metro Halifax

Shauntay Grant and Tyshan Wright sit down for a portrait at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 on Thursday.

Tyshan Wright will never forget his first day in Canada.

The artist from Jamaica arrived this past December to join his wife, Halifax’s former poet laureate Shauntay Grant.

The couple have since collaborated on a project that’s part of a new exhibit at The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 called ‘Canada: Day 1.’

Combining Wright’s sculptural work and Grant’s poetry, it allowed the couple to explore their shared history as Jamaican Maroon descendants and recall the emotion behind Wright’s first day in Canada.

“The Maroons are one of the first free black freedom fighters in the western hemisphere,” Wright explained.

“They won their freedom from the British in 1738 and established an independent community on the island of Jamaica.”

Several hundred Maroons came to Nova Scotia in 1796. Although their time here was short-lived their descendants, including Grant, continue to call it home.

Wright’s first day in his new country was spent visiting sites connected to Nova Scotia’s Maroon story.

“Being here on that first day, it’s hard to find words to explain it but by visiting these historical sites, ancestral burial grounds, making that connection with the earth, I felt that energy,” he said.

“It’s almost like coming home. It’s home away from home. It was a beautiful, spiritual experience of standing somewhere in which you really felt that energy of your ancestors.”

When it came time to join forces to create a work that would capture the experience, the couple opted for Grant’s poetry evoking that first day in Canada. Written on birch bark, her words rest alongside Wright’s contemporary take on the Maroons’ most sacred cultural symbol, the abeng.

Used for ritual purposes and for bringing people together for announcements and events, Wright said when the abeng sounds, something important is happening.

“It was incredible just to think of our ancestors who came here in 1796, and we were able to bring something here that was denied from them, one of the most sacred symbols within the Maroon culture,” he said.

For her part of the project, Grant chose words that evoked the emotion of her husband’s arrival day and connected this land with that of their ancestors.

“The trees they loosened and the sky painted itself ember & rose. The cold lifted from our bones or rather went the way of the sun while you froze time for libation. Wet the beach with memory. Soak the tide with rum,” reads one birch bark parchment.

The couple said they’re honoured to be part of an art exhibit sharing arrival stories. ‘Canada: Day 1’ and the couple’s contribution, ‘Abeng,’ is on display at Pier 21 until November.

“A lot of time we go into the school system and the history of the Maroons have never been taught. I think about those who came here (to Nova Scotia) in 1796, and not a lot of young people here understand there was a set of Maroons who came here,” Wright said.

“For me I would love people to realize that these set of people exist and they have made history, and we need to realize that this is the foundation and we must never forget those who pave the way for us to be here.”

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