Staging Reality, Documenting Fiction

Featured Article

Icons Brought Forward: Renee Cox’s Queen Nanny of the Maroons

WRITTEN BY: Kimberli Gant


Continuing in the fashion of Renee Cox’s early photographic series, the artist embodies the iconic 17th century Jamaican figure of Queen Nanny for her Queen Nanny of the Maroons series (2004). Her staged portraits act as “a tangible and accessible…representation of the sensual, confidant, independent, empowered, sexually sophisticated and intelligent Black woman representing the Caribbean…”i Cox’s Nanny combines a multitude of complex identities in various tableaus over a series of 14 black and white, and color photographs. Beyond breathing life into a long deceased symbol, Cox’s images present much deeper conversations about the ambiguous notions of masculinity and femininity, varying societal representations of black Caribbean female bodies, the artist’s strong knowledge of art history and art practices, tourism, and black women’s labor.

Queen Nanny’s history is embedded within the history of Jamaica and the community of Maroons. Cox, born in Jamaica, considers the nation strongly in her self-identification, though she is not of Maroon descent. Cox’s appropriation of Nanny makes the figure an emblem of the multiple cultures that make up Jamaican society. The Maroons were communities of African-and Jamaica-born enslaved populations who escaped from the European owned plantations on the island and fled into the mountains and forests.ii The term “Maroons” is believed to be coined by the British in the 1730s, but to have originally derived from the Spanish word “cimarrón,” meaning “wild and fugitive.”iii The descendants still live in communities throughout Jamaica and their ongoing cultural/spiritual beliefs in Queen Nanny keep her legacy thriving.

Nanny was born in the 1680s (approximately) in present-day Ghana, and was possibly of royal blood.iv She was transported to Jamaica during her middle years, though as a free person, and with her own servants. She was married to a man named Adou, had no children, and became the military, spiritual, and culture leader of the Windward Jamaicans, a Maroon community, during the revolution against the British (1725 to 1740). Shortly after a peace treaty was signed with the British, a land grant was given to Nanny and the Windward Maroons in 1740, which continues today. Nanny then became primarily a cultural and spiritual leader until her death around 1750.v Her burial site is considered the most sacred of spaces.

Despite her death over 260 years ago, her significance remains. Her spirit is believed to keep outsiders away, and her presence in Jamaican history and popular culture serves as a way to “define, delineate and separate Maroon culture from the rest of Jamaican culture.”vi This separation is reflected in myths of Granny/Grandy Nanny, and her spiritual sister Grandy Sekesu. In the story both sisters were brought to the New World on a slave ship, but Nanny escaped while Sekesu did not. Sekesu’s metaphorical descendants are considered the non-Maroon Jamaicans who were still enslaved until emancipation in the 19th century, while Nanny’s descendants rebelled and lived separately for over a century.vii Despite the allegorical separation Nanny was inducted as a Jamaican national hero in 1976. Her induction thus blurs the lines of what a national Jamaican culture is and who is a part of it.

Cox’s Queen Nanny series depicts the figurein several black and white, and color, portraits in various tableaus, using written and oral histories as inspiration. With Cox as Nanny, the images blur the self-representation of the artist with that same artist’s imagined conception of Nanny. Though we see Cox, we are supposed to “see” Nanny, bringing to life a historical fantasy. The clothing and naturalistic setting in the scenes are temporally ambiguous, giving a sense of timeless. Redcoat is the most widely exhibited image from the series. (2004). Cox, as Nanny, wears the uniform of an 18th century British officer holding a machete. The red color of the uniform was distinctive of the British military, thus nicknaming the soldiers “redcoats.” The formal pose and background references 18th-and-19th century British military portraits, which acted as visual symbols of the wealth, status, and heroism of the figure.viii

Nanny as the soldier co-opts the painting’s original symbolic meaning, elevating herself to that of British aristocracy. Her skin color is the antonym to that of a British soldier, and her machete, becomes a symbol of enslaved plantation workers with its use in the cutting of sugar cane. By wearing the coat Nanny, and Cox, also insult British military power as her ownership signifies the death of the original owner, and the power and strength of the Maroons. That the photograph is in color emphasizes the artist’s symbolic gesture as it is generally rare to see historic images of black bodies in European garb.

Redcoat offers other readings about gender, power, labor, and race. Nanny’s coat alludes to her role as a military strategist, demonstrating women’s positions within warfare past and present. The machete is also a symbol of women’s labor. “From the earliest days of the slave trade Europeans regarded women as eminently suited to fieldwork because of their perceived ‘drudge’ status in polygnous marriages. A large part of the labour on sugar estates consisted of digging holes for canes, hoeing and weeding – tasks generally accepted in slaving circles as ‘women’s work’ in Africa.”ix Moreover, “labour regime ensure[d] that women shared the same backbreaking work, miseries and punishments as men.”x

In Nanny Warrior (Fig. 2) and Ambush (Fig 3) Cox’s imagined conception of Nanny is more apparent. There was no proof Nanny actually participated in battles because of her age, but here she is activated. In the former Nanny is posed as if she is about to strike her foes. In the latter, Nanny demonstrates guerrilla warfare techniques, for which the Maroons became famous. Oral history recounts they would cover themselves in branches and leaves and would stand still for hours “that a British soldier would come to a clearing and hang his coat on what he presumed to be a tree, until that tree suddenly came to life and chopped his head off.”xi

In Wash (Fig. 4) Cox takes extreme poetic license by presenting Nanny as a sensual woman. It is continuous repeated that Nanny was older when she led the Maroon rebellions. Yet here Nanny is a mature, sensual woman. The scene is almost serendipitous as the figure’s face angles upward toward the camera and, though partially in shadow, projects a sense of passiveness or vulnerability. Her toned upper body and décolletage are exposed and the thin white cloth wrapped around her is soaked through. The clothing both covers, yet reveals her breasts and beneath the yellow/green water Cox’s legs are visible.

The image is a solitary, private moment to which any woman can relate. For Cox, Nanny is more than just an icon hero, or historic figure, but a human being with physical needs and desires. The photographer has made the simple act of washing something beautiful and sensual to behold. By inserting a new identity on Nanny, Cox revises the privileged heroic tales, and tries to reveal the person, the woman, behind the myth. Wash, along with the rest of the images from the series not discussed here, position Nanny as a warrior, a woman, a mother, laborer, churchgoer, teacher; essentially a human being. Cox has created a body of work mixing reality with fiction to ask viewers to not categorize Nanny within a limited lens, but to consider numerous and often contradictory facets.

i Carey, A’Keitha. “CaribFunk Technique: Afro-Caribbean Feminism, Caribbean Dance & Popular Culture.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 6 (2011): 129.

ii Gottlieb, Karla. The Mother Of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny. New York: Africa World Press (2000): xi.

iii Ibid: xi.

iv Ibid: xv-xvi.

v Ibid: pg. xvi.

vi Mother of us all, pg. 80

vii Gottlieb, Karla: 62.

viii Brown, Carter, J. The Martial Face: The Military Portrait in Britain, 1760-1900. Providence: Brown University (1991): 15.

ix Bush, Slimani, Barbara. “Hard Labour: Women, Childbirth and Resistance in British Caribbean Slave Societies. History Workshop, no. 36 (1993): 85.

x Gottlieb, Karla: 85.

xi Ibid: 43.