From time to time, the word machete features in news reports in Britain. Many people across the globe, and perhaps particularly within the Americas, might regard the machete, or its multiple geographic equivalents, as a farm implement or useful tool for the householder, undertaking a variety of tasks in the land or gardens around their homes. But within the mainstream British media, the word machete has, or so it seems, taken on particularly troubling racial connotations. Now unable to refer to an alleged assailant as West Indian, coloured, Afro Caribbean, or Black (all terms that have been routinely used by the British media over the course of the past half century or so), a Black man wielding a knife with alleged criminal intent and consequence, when reported in the news, is said to have been brandishing a machete. The length or type of the actual knife itself matters little, but by designating the alleged weapon as having been a machete, the news media is conclusively able to signify said apparent culprit as being Black. The machete has, over the course of years, decades, and likely even centuries, become primarily framed in certain quarters as a weapon with pronounced cultural and racial signification.
Within this text I wish to focus on an extraordinary body of work by one Caribbean artist, the Jamaican-born and -based T’waunii Sinclair, who takes the machete’s pronounced cultural and racial signification into singular, quite remarkable artistic realms. Such are the multiple cultural signifiers of the machete—across continental Africa and throughout the African diaspora—that it is worth appending to considerations of Sinclair’s work references to one or two other uses of the machete in different iterations of Black visual culture. If the legendary artist Charles White had been born in the Caribbean (rather than Chicago), it is likely that Harvest Talk (1953), his majestic representation of two agrarian workers, might well have featured not a scythe but a machete. Harvest Talk depicts two men, somewhat relaxed as they take a break (on account of the task of sharpening the scythe held by one man), and amply demonstrates White’s distinct and profound embrace of social realism aesthetics.
… Equally as powerful and abiding are the machete’s associations with rebellion, insurrection, revolution, and change. Enter the work of T’waunii Sinclair. Born in 1992 in Manchester, Jamaica, he studied painting at the renowned Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, graduating in 2015. Sinclair recently wrote that his work is driven by the discourse surrounding race, politics, race-politics, and power. “The long and expansive history of the subjugation of black people, the cruelty enacted upon them and how these experiences shape black identity is the focus of my practice and scholarship,” Sinclair says. “Currently, I am investigating the ‘machete’ as not only an aesthetic object, but also a relic of cultural significance to black people. The cumulative history of the machete’s role as a tool of labor, violence and revolution will be my main source for image making.”
Sinclair takes the familiar object of the machete—freely available locally in Jamaica at relatively modest sums—and though, as mentioned, the implement is replete with associations of Pan-Caribbean enslavement, rebellion, insurrection, revolution, and change, he paints particular pictures and images on the blade, thereby multiplying said associations. Sinclair’s use of machetes made their dramatic gallery debut in a 2019 exhibition titled The Dialectics of Truth that took place at New Local Space gallery in Kingston, Jamaica:
Sinclair takes his own encounter with the history of the Haitian Revolution as a point of departure to configure a process of personal truth-telling which he employs to build a visual vocabulary for ideas of black liberation. Through installation Sinclair attempts to confront and engage the viewer’s perceptions of the machete, positioning it as a cultural relic of political and historical significance of the African diaspora. In this body of work Sinclair uses paint and corrosive gestures to mark machetes with slivers of narratives taken from the Haitian Revolution, in which one can visualise the ties between race, gender, violence and nationhood in histories of subjugation and black liberation.
The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers' “T’waunii Sinclair and the Ongoing Cultural Life of the Machete", Nka (2022) 2022 (51): 112–127