In preparing for her 2020 exhibit “What Carries Us: Newfoundland and Labrador in the Black Atlantic” at The Rooms in St. John’s, artist and curator Bushra Junaid learned that the cultural facility held the remains of a young Black man. Found in 1987 on the Labrador coast, the young man had been buried in uniform, and among his belongings was a knife bearing the initials WH. The news excited Junaid.
It was in the pages of Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail by historian W. Jeffrey Bolster that Junaid discovered the critical role African-descended sailors played in 19th-century seafaring. A picture of WH was beginning to form – he was 22 years old, short, missing a forearm, and had a good diet.
Then, one day, the opening refrain of The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor (Running the Goat Books and Broadsides, out now) came to mind:
I don’t know your rightful name,
And I don’t know from whence you came—
All I know is it’s a shame
That there’s no one to claim
“I started thinking about developing a piece around it, but I don’t know the sailor’s life, and these men have described their own lives better than I can,” Junaid says. “What I can do is I can speculate, I can ask questions about what [WH’s] life might have been like, so that’s what I started to do.”
Settler colonial history is well documented in Newfoundland and Labrador, but Junaid sees no monuments or even acknowledgements of its Black history. “WH kind of represents that [lack] for me,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, using modern technology, we could find out more about who he was? Maybe he has living relatives who’d like to know [about him]. Maybe he could be reburied near the place he was originally laid to rest. So, for me, I feel a kinship or a claim to this historical figure.”
Instead of showing traumatic images of slavery, Junaid drew inspiration for the art – a combination of traditional drawing methods, digital rendering, and archival images – in part from London-based John Akomfrah’s exhibition “Vertigo Sea.” The installation includes three large video screens: footage from National Geographic and the BBC of thriving marine life juxtaposed with people being transported on slave ships or fleeing their country on makeshift vessels. In this vein, a naval ship under fire, marine life, and a giant wave are among the illustrations Junaid brings to the page. “I want [my illustrations] to evoke a sense of intrigue/mystery or curiosity for who WH may have been,” she says.
Junaid knows the truths in her poetic narrative will be jarring for some. Learning that 19 slave ships built on the island of Newfoundland sailed to West Africa with rum and other goods to trade for African captives will alter the image young readers have of Canada. This is why it was essential to her to include a timeline, references and sources, and a teacher’s guide to aid readers in their discovery and understanding. “I tried to include questions that touch on different aspects they might [study] – geography, history, social studies, English,” she says. “I also wanted to have a question in there about commemorating WH’s life and how they might do that in contemporary ways.”
Representation is also top of mind for Junaid. “People don’t understand the importance for a racialized child to see somebody like them as an example,” she says. “I grew up in [St. John’s] where I never had a Black teacher in front of me. I didn’t have any role models. It’s very affecting, and I’m still grappling with all of that.” Junaid speculates this may be why she became an artist. “Art gives me that vehicle, that opportunity to express some of those things. Just love yourself, nurture yourself, and if those stories don’t exist, then create them.”
There are so many stories of Black history and “we’re just scratching the surface. [The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor] is my contribution toward that,” says Junaid. “I’d like to hear stories about everyday people, their contributions, their trials and tribulations. Learn about the fact that slavery happened in this country, that Black people have been here for hundreds of years in hundreds of different roles, and have contributed in so many ways to the cultural and political life of this country.”
Photograph by Liz Ikiriko.
Correction, November 10: This story has been updated to reflect the discovery Junaid made in Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail pertained to seafaring not maritime ship logs.