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Dark Exposure: Roberta Stoddart’s The Bertha Room

White Cockroach 2006 4 x 3 inches Oil on linen on hardboard


Under the bright sunlight, Jamaica’s mountains are blue, ganja is green, and the waters are aquamarine. Our dawns are pale yellows and soft blues, while our sunsets are a dancing flame of oranges, reds, and purples. In sunny Jamaica, we are taught to never expose our darkness. But Roberta Stoddart, Kingston-born and now a Port of Spain resident, uses her art to confront what was once concealed. Her work encourages viewers to shine light on the hidden uncomfortable truths, as this may be the only way for us to heal.

With a novella that is set in the immediate post-emancipation time of the late 1830s Jamaica as her palette, Stoddart paints the story of Antoinette “Bertha” Cosway, the white-presenting creole protagonist in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Notably, author Rhys (1890-1979) was a white Dominican author who saw herself reflected in Charlotte Brontë’s Caribbean “madwoman in the attic,” a foil of a character in the English classic Jane Eyre (1847). For this reason, Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, her Jane Eyre prequel, with a sympathetic pen. Like the fictional Antoinette/ Bertha, Rhys understood the double, if not triple rejection of what it felt like to be unwanted by her family and by the black majority in the British colony of her birth, and later also felt unwanted by the English whites when she emigrated to England at the age of sixteen. For Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys leaned into her own difficult life in order to write empathetically of Antoinette’s.

Rochester 2009 12 x 6 inches Oil on linen
Bertha 2009 12 x 6 inches Oil on linen

In an early scene in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette is shown attempting to explain to her soon-to-be husband what it was like growing up in the immediate aftermath of emancipation, a time that left her without any sense of belonging at all. The ex-slaves “hated us” and “[t]hey called us [poor whites] white cockroaches,” she says to the cold Englishman.[1] “One day a little [black] girl followed me singing, ‘Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.’ I walked fast, but she walked faster.  ‘White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away.”[2] This heart-wrenching scene emphasizing her traumatic childhood of color and class ridicule highlights the deep feelings of unbelonging that go on to darken all relationships for Antoinette/ Bertha. For Bertha, having been abandoned by her father, rejected by her mother, despised by her age-mates, and later exploited by her husband, she felt perpetually ostracized and alone.

Wide Sargasso Sea is an important contribution to the study of both Caribbean and English literature because of how the novella humanizes the cruelly depicted “madwoman in the attic” of Brontë’s novel. Similarly, Roberta Stoddart’s The Bertha Room is a new and necessary intervention on Jane Eyre’s darkest character. Stoddart paints Bertha as a sympathetic figure whose development was stunted under patriarchy’s gender rules, and viewers can see this in the infantilized facial qualities of her subjects. Thinking of composition, how and where Stoddart arranges Bertha seems representative of Bertha’s dis/connection to herself and others. And the frigid social environment of colonial Jamaica, is reflected in the cold color schemes and stark unwelcoming backgrounds of the pieces. Stoddart paints scenes that critically imagine the complexity of post-emancipation’s colonial relationships. With Bertha as the recurring subject, Stoddart’s paintings interrogate what happens when people are used, traumatized, discarded, and hidden away like “a memory to be avoided, locked away.”[3]

Madwoman In The Back Room 2008 15 x 15 inches Oil on linen


Back Room Bertha 2008 10 x 10 inches Oil on linen

Standing before the piece titled “Madwoman in the Backroom,” an overt nod to Brontë and Rhys, a viewer is immediately transfixed by the nearly crossed eyes, closed mouth, and open vagina that is Roberta Stoddart’s portrayal of the infamous Bertha character. Stoddart’s Bertha is spread wide and intimately exposed over fifteen square inches of linen. With her dress’s multiple layers gathered in hand, Stoddart’s Bertha squats squarely at the center of a black canvas. Bertha’s sour milk colored face, décolletage, and thighs contrast with the dark color of her skirt, boots, and pubic hair. This “Madwoman’s” sallow skin and pink vulva call our attention, but it is the painting’s blackness that shines brightest. Textured and sculpted by Stoddart’s paintbrush, Bertha’s raven-hued locks reflect what feels like impossible light in this scene of darkest exposure. Standing before the Bertha of “Madwoman in the Backroom,” viewers are forced to reflect. We must reflect upon all the discomfort that we, like Bertha, are conditioned to and supposed to keep hidden under layers of un-confrontable shame, trauma, grief, loss, and guilt.

White Cockroach 2006 4 x 3 inches Oil on linen on hardboard

Rhys’s re-characterized Bertha becomes the vehicle through which Stoddart can investigate the dark space of loneliness and the dark emotional state that surfaces when an identity is broken by colonialism. Laid bare across a total of fourteen distinct paintings, each depicting a sullen-expressioned Bertha in a different anti-tropical setting, Stoddart upends and makes visible the Caribbean’s colonial underside. In this way, The Bertha Room casts a flood of bright moonlight on what was once in the shadows. Stoddart’s work exposes the inky dark of night that we were meant to forget and hide away. These are paintings meant to be seen, displayed, and discussed in the open and in the light. They reveal the hurt that Rhys’s Bertha – and all of us of the Caribbean — dam behind wide eyes and broken smiles. The Bertha Room pieces reveal the hurt that Brontë’s Rochester – like all exploiters and users of the Caribbean — tries to conceal behind selfish lies and behind figurative and literal attic doors.

White Donkey 2022 10 x 10 inches Oil on hardboard

“Everything is too much,” is how Rhys’s Rochester described Jamaica in Wide Sargasso Sea. “Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red.”[4] That kind of rainbow-bright, paradisaic Caribbean colorscape is wholly absent from Stoddart’s portrayal of postcolonial reality and sentimentality. A far cry from the swaying symbols of Caribbean tranquility, in “White Donkey” and “White Cockroaches” the region’s signature palm trees are painted as menacing shadows and as the exposed dry bones of a parasol, respectively. And with titles plucked from the pages of Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, “All of Our Children,” “Back Room Bertha,” “Bertha,” “Doudou Doll,” “Rochester,” “Sand Doll,” “Sleepwalkers,” and “White Cockroach” are painted with skin-colored palettes of not-quite-whites and brownish-blacks that seem to whisper with questions about racial purity and race mixing in the Caribbean. While the crimson red intensity of “Immortel” and “Bertha and the Jancro” slip beneath the skin, perhaps colorfully leading us to consider how we, like Bertha and Rochester, play dress-up with our perceived and projected bloodlines.

Immortel 2022 8 x 5 inches Oil on hardboard

Soucouyant 2023 6 x 3 3/8 inches Oil on hardboard

Doudou Doll 2009 7 x 7 inches Oil on linen

Roberta Stoddart’s richly complex oil paintings showcased in The Bertha Room, prove that it is dark under the metaphoric flotsam of Wide Sargasso Sea, darker still under the shade of the palm tree’s symbolism, and perhaps darkest of all where racial, familial, patriarchal, and post-colonial trauma festers muted and unseen. No longer can we hide from exposure. The time has come to shine light on the dark secrets of the Caribbean.

[1] Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, p 13.

[2] Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, p 13.

[3] Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, p 103.

[4] Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, p 41.

ISIS SEMAJ-HALL is a decolonial feminist, cultural analyst, and bad gyal Ph.D. Her curiosity is piqued at the intersection of art and politics.Shaped by her Jamaican childhood and New York adolescence, she has been known to write on sound studies and remix theory, Rihanna, Protoje, Edwidge Danticat, Marlon James, dub, and dancehall. Semaj-Hall is the author of the “write pon di riddim” blog and she lectures in Caribbean writing, reggae poetry, and popular culture at the University of the West Indies, Mona. See her on Instagram @riddim.writer or chat with her on Twitter @isissemajhall.

Images courtesy Abigail Hadeed

This essay was first published on the platform Suzie Wong Presents.

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