Samantha Box, Transplant Family Portrait, 2020
To make the Jamaican national dish of ackee and codfish, first you have to find ackees, a fruit that’s poisonous before it’s fully ripe but delicious when cooked with garlic, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. One of the purveyors of canned ackee, originally native to West Africa, is the company Caribbean Dreams. “Which struck me as being hilarious,” says the photographer Samantha Box. “Because it’s like, who’s dreaming of what? What are these dreams? What does it mean for this thing to be called Caribbean Dreams when it’s a symbol of Jamaican culture?”
Box set these questions in motion with her still life The Jamaican National Dish (2019), part of an ongoing series she began in 2018 called Caribbean Dreams: Constructions. She was fascinated by the botanical and social history embedded in fruits and vegetables, particularly the names, which trace the triangular trade routes between Africa, North America, and Europe beginning in the seventeenth century. The word ackee, for example, derives from a word in the Akan language group, spoken by people in present-day Ghana, but the scientific designation, Blighia sapida, refers to British naval captain William Bligh, who brought the fruit from Jamaica to England. Ackees and yams were transported by enslaved Africans, and took root in the new world, a symbol of both horror and survival.
Food markets in the Bronx, where Box lives and works, have become the prop warehouse for the series, with barcodes and receipts providing evidence of the commodification of diasporic cuisine. “Everything gets flattened into a price,” she says, “including the person who’s ringing things up, the people who own the place, the people who are buying the things.” Box lit her photographs like Dutch still lifes, what she calls a “record of empire,” and set several against a backdrop created from details of a painting by the nineteenth-century Trinidadian artist Michel-Jean Cazabon, who idealized the British colony’s lush landscapes. The reproduction is rough and seams in the backdrop are visible. “I wanted the background to be something that everybody knew was fake,” she says. Yet in this scene-setting that plays with art and commerce, a hybrid kind of truth emerges.
Box was born in Jamaica to a Black Jamaican father and an Indian Trinidadian mother. “I’m descended from the enslaved and the indentured, and other people who were brought together in this crucible that is the Caribbean,” she says. Her parents met at the University of the West Indies. They had a “deep, abiding love and passion” for organic chemistry. In the early 1980s, her father was offered a job at an American pharmaceutical company and the family moved to Edison, New Jersey. It was the kind of immigrant community where people from a variety of backgrounds were writing a new chapter of their lives, often with great sacrifice. “That trope that people had in the ’80s of the cab driver who has a PhD, that’s who I grew up around,” Box says. “I think quite literally the guy who delivered our newspapers was an engineer.”
As a child, Box read National Geographic and Natural History, the magazine published by the American Museum of Natural History. She studied biology at Cornell, but decided to try a semester at City College of New York, where she took up photography and studied with Shawn Walker, an early member of the Kamoinge Workshop, the collective of photographers that included artists such as Anthony Barboza, Louis Draper, and Ming Smith. Box sent a cold cover letter (“the best in my life”) to Contact Press Images to inquire about an internship. She ended up working there as an technician for nearly ten years, during which time she made piercing long-form photo essays about queer youth and the Kiki scene in Manhattan, influenced in part by the Buffalo photographer Milton Rogovin.
Caribbean Dreams: Constructions is the fruition, you might say, of Box’s lifelong preoccupations with what it means to create diaspora in the United States—and to be created by diaspora. In One Kind of Story (2020), she draws upon images of her grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-aunt, while centering herself in a pixelated self-portrait modeled after a photograph by Felix Morin, a studio photographer who worked in Trinidad in the late nineteenth century. An inset photograph in Navel (2022) depicts a strike in the 1930s by sugarcane cutters in St. Kitts, an act, she says, of “self-emancipation” undertaken by the descendants of enslaved Africans.
All of these layers in Box’s work offer a riposte to the questions immigrants are frequently asked about their origins. Where are you originally from? And where were you from before that? These questions assume the essentialism of homelands, but elide the hybrid narratives that emerge from the crucible of places like Jamaica or Trinidad, homelands embedded in the history of forced labor and capitalist enterprise. Sometimes, as in Box’s dizzyingly recursive “constructions,” family lineage can be expressed in snapshots or passport stamps, barcodes or botanicals. Memory has a way of returning through the senses. The writer Bryan Washington has published his own recipe for ackee and saltfish, a dish his mother used to make, and one he only came to appreciate as an adult. “Our meals are associated with memories, but that’s not to say that we can’t carve out new ones,” he says. “The things that we run away from can be the same things that call us back home.”
Samantha Box is a runner-up for the 2023 Aperture Portfolio Prize, an annual international competition to discover, exhibit, and publish new talents in photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition.