The 20 ‘sheets of skin’ suspended around the walls are made from dried, blackened banana skins from 20 boxes of Windward Island bananas. Each box of bananas has a ‘grower identification number’ stamped on it. Having used this number to trace the grower, 19 of the sheets of skin are linked to statements from the growers of the numbered boxes. In contrast to these identified sheets of skin thousands of unnumbered skins fill the central, forum space. This installation, EXCHANGE VALUES: Images of Invisible Lives is one phase of a social sculpture action that has involved numerous processes, stages and a great many people across several countries. It has also had a rather long gestation period.
I began drying banana skins around 1970, not for any specific purpose, but because I found it hard to throw them away. I would stand with a skin in my hand, wondering where it had come from, who had grown it, what the life of this person was like. Each skin still had so much life in it; it seemed a pity to throw it away. So I stretched strings across the wall of my room, where the skins could hang to dry. As they dried, blackening, twisting, stiffening, they began to speak through their silent forms.
When in 1973 I was due to leave for Germany, I had hundreds of dried, blackened banana skins, filling a small wooden trunk. A friend advised me to empty the trunk and make compost. But these skins held much more than their physical properties. These relics seemed to reflect the invisible producers of everything we need and use: producers who, though all working to satisfy the needs of another, are also locked into forms of trade and work that extract profits for a minority, exploit the world’s resources with little care for each other and the earth itself, and distort the relationship between producers and consumers in a way that ultimately benefits neither, except those ‘playing the market’.
So I took the trunk of dried banana skins with me and, not surprisingly, had enormous difficulties explaining myself at customs. This experience gave me a sense, though, of the kind of discussion the skins could provoke. It dawned on me that if I sat with my ‘banana trunk’ and ‘read’ these skins for others Ð not in quite the same way as my grandmother read the tea leaves in a cup, as this ‘story’ needed no clairvoyance – I could engage people in reflection and discussion about our world economy and the society in which we live.
On several occasions in different cities, I sat on a cloth, with the banana skins spread out, reading the picture of the world economy for passers-by. Although this led to many interesting discussions, this action of ‘reading the banana skins’ was overtaken by new actions and explorations, including my Free International University work in Germany and South Africa. Nevertheless, whenever I ate a banana I would still hang up the skin, although I had no particular reason for doing so.
When I came to the UK in 1990 I again brought the banana skins with me. Discussions about GATT ‘free trade’ agreements and the effect this would have on banana growers in regions like the Windward Islands were regularly in the news. After 20 years of keeping dried banana skins, but not intending to do anything more with them, I found myself possessed by an image of sheets of blackened banana skin, strung up around the walls of a gallery, like dark, uniform rectangles of minimalist art. On closer contact one might realize that these apparently seamless and silent forms -that echo the ways we have collected and pinned out not only butterflies, but also lives and cultures- were skins; the skins of people’s lives, and of an economic process, in which the interconnections between consumers and producers are manipulated and concealed.
With some idea of using the skins, collected over years, to stitch into sheets of skin, I began to experiment with ways of curing and preparing the skins for stitching. Then, in the supermarket one day, I noticed a ‘grower identification number’ on a box of Windward Island bananas. I wondered whom this number referred to. Could the grower of a specific box of bananas be traced? Would there be a way to get the skins back from consumers? And, if so, how would one know which box of bananas the skins had come from?
My questions led me, in early 1993, to contact Geest, the company that then still had control of Windward bananas; Mr. Cornibert, London representative of the Windward Island Banana Growers Association (which became the grower owned Windward Islands Banana Development & Exporting Company – WIBDECO); the Latin America Bureau; and a journalist, Polly Pattullo, who had done work on the Windward Islands. I was told it should be possible to trace the growers from the numbers stamped on the boxes and advised to focus on St. Lucia, this being the island with the most intensive banana production.