This exhibition is designed to provide an opportunity to explore the experience of the Set Girls.
It is set up in five chronological stations:
1.) To 1770: West and Central West Africa in Early Jamaica
2.) From 1770 to 1830
3.) 1830-1840: The Era of Emancipation
4.) 1840-1962: The Decline of the Set Girls
5.) 1962-present: The Revival of the Sets in decolonizing Jamaica
The history of Afro-Jamaican women, including the Set Girls, is not well known. The exhibition therefore asks you to approach the history of the Set Girls as a detective would sort through clues to solve a mystery.
• What are the Set Girls trying to tell their audiences about themselves and their place in the world?
• What influences inspired the Set Girls? How did European and West African practices shape their performances?
• When designing outfits that included fancy dresses, petticoats, and jewelry, Afro-Jamaican women competed with each other over which Set was the most splendid. Are the Sets imitating and adopting white European norms? Mocking whites?
You will also be looking at individual images and items. Think about the lithograph of the Set Girls on King Street you just saw.
• Who or what do you find appealing or attractive?
• What seems strange or puzzling?
• Would you want to join this party? Why or why not?
The Sets performed a message of community unity and individual self-worth at a time when white society made every effort to dehumanize Afro-Jamaican women by reducing them to property and conceptualizing them only as producers and reproducers. Their songs also provide an archive of a group of people who had limited access to literacy. Diligent historians can disagree over what happened in the past and what it meant. There are many “correct” answers to the questions historians ask, but we need to support our claims with evidence.
One person might argue that through their imaginative world-making, the Sett Girls engaged in a form of activism for themselves and their audiences. Like modern Dance Halls and road dances that create alternative spaces for self-expression, Set Girls performances modeled a reality beyond the oppression of everyday life.
In this view, the Sets flourished as a distinctively Jamaican, vibrant, creole women’s performance complex. They performed a collective identity that centered their creativity, wit, and magnificence in the face of white oppression. As the lyrics to one song proclaimed, “None so Fine” as the Set Girls.
Another observer might instead claim that the Sets were an example of the decline of West African cultural practices among Jamaicans and the incursion of European practices. Once we move beyond the most conventional sources, augmenting them with other kinds of material, we can reflect on how Afro-Jamaica women made sense of their lives and how they performed identities that confronted the oppressive stereotypes of the white elite.
Expanding the sources we study, the methods (tools) we use to analyze the past, and the people whose lives provide the focus for examination provide one way of expanding the historical narrative. We hope that after viewing this exhibition, you can then think about how other histories might be expanded by exploring sources that have been neglected or misunderstood. What stories do you think need to be told?
Ultimately, the goal is to think about the Jamaican past and women’s history in particular through the history of the Sets.