Traditionally associated with the Golden Age of Piracy between the 1650s and the 1730s, “No prey, no pay” is a maxim which delineates the strict relationship between plundering and pay that ruled on pirate ships and also functioned as a moral code. Peter Friedl’s complex installation consists of a cast of distinctive fringe characters whose fascinating biographies are situated somewhere between reality, fiction, and legend. To each of these characters, Friedl dedicates a colorful plinth or pedestal like those used in circuses, beneath an apocryphal Jolly Roger (entitled King Death), with pirate costumes lying around. The pedestals are both sculptures and tiny stages, reminiscent of Speakers’ Corners, waiting to be activated.
No prey, no pay is a sort of mise-en-scène, populated with stories, memories and projections that await the arrival of the characters. For example, Benjamin Lay (1682–1759), a Quaker, a dwarf and a merchant on the island of Barbados, who went on to become a pilgrim, polemicist, vegetarian, and fierce opponent of slavery. Or Rafael Padilla (stage name “Chocolat”), an Afro-Cuban by birth who became one of the first successful black entertainers in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. Or, another character, Joice Heth (ca.1756–1836), the elderly African-American slave, passed off by P.T. Barnum as George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse whose dead body was later subjected to a public autopsy. We also find more legendary figures such as The Dragon Lady, a stereotype of the oriental femme fatale, immortalized by Milton Caniff in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates (1934) as well as in many Hollywood films, including Daughter of the Dragon starring Anna May Wong. Friedl also references the opera Polly by John Gay (1685–1732), a sequel to the infamous The Beggar’s Opera set in the West Indies; and Black Caesar, a mysterious and subversive pirate, active in the Florida Keys at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
No prey, no pay was first created for the 14th Sharjah Biennial, and opened, on that occasion, with a performance by Johnathan Lee Iverson, the last ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus (closed down in 2017).