Island Life

Holly Bynoe, Charles Campbell, Amanda Coulson, John Cox, Annalee Davis and Caryl Ivrisse-Crochemar on the role of contemporary art in the Caribbean

Comprising 700 islands, 13 states and 17 dependent territories, and hosting a range of languages including Creole, Dutch, English, French and Spanish, the Caribbean represents a rich and complex set of cultures and histories. Dan Fox asks six artists, curators and writers to reflect on how questions of identity, infrastructure and education shape art in the region today. 

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Ronald Cyrille, Talk Shit, 2013,  mixed treatments on Ilford paper, wood  and glass, 42 × 32 cm. Courtesy: the artist and espace d’art contemporain 14°N 61°W, Martinique; photograph: JB Barret

Ronald Cyrille, Talk Shit, 2013, mixed treatments on Ilford paper, wood and glass, 42 × 32 cm. Courtesy: the artist and espace d’art contemporain 14°N 61°W, Martinique; photograph: JB Barret

AMANDA COULSON

I’ve always kept my family ties to The Bahamas close, but for many years I lived abroad due to the lack of opportunities for a young art historian, curator and art critic. In 2003, the opening of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) signaled that the country was progressing in terms of a contemporary art presence and, in 2006, I was able to curate an exhibition called ‘Funky Nassau’, instigated by the Nassauischer Kunstverein in Wiesbaden, which was also shown at the NAGB. The quality of work and diversity of artists back then was already very promising and has since exploded, so I was energized and enthused to be invited home to become the current director of this institution in 2011.

What exists here is a very high level of creativity in all the arts – music, literature, performing and visual – which intriguingly blends African heritage with European and South American influences. Yet the country also suffers from a dramatic deficit in terms of infrastructure, as well as practical and theoretical education. There are only a few people actually trained as art historians, art handlers, restorers (crucial in this tropical climate!) or art critics and, generally, it’s the artists who have to piece things together in a long process of ‘learning by doing’. Frequently, the ambitious – artists such as Janine Antoni, Blue Curry, Lavar Munroe and Tavares Strachan, for instance – leave the country to study in the us, Canada or the uk, and quite often they remain there due to the lack of opportunities here. Because there is no local market to speak of, it’s extremely difficult for artists to pursue a professional career. Yet, despite facing all these obstacles, the grass roots organizations are wonderful hubs of activity, which become fodder for the shows I produce, and it’s extremely rewarding when visitors to the museum come up to me and comment on the quality of the art work, with the astounded words: ‘Who knew? I had no idea!’

The Bahamas – like many countries in the Caribbean – carries the image of sun, sand and relaxation rather than that of a barely 40-year-old nation struggling for identity, confidence and equality. The idea that anything intellectual happens here is anathema to the brand we have projected to the outside world. Many of our millions of visitors have no real notion of our history and culture or what is bubbling up behind our pristine ‘Potemkin Village’ façade of palm trees, cruise ships and resorts. The social issues we face are many: racism (in all directions), colourism, poverty, post-colonial structures, immigration, unemployment and, as a result, a high crime rate. As always, artists are at the vanguard of addressing these problems but, in pointing them out, are often unrewarded by the powers that be. While the pressure is rising in our Bahamian melting pot – which consists of African as well as Chinese, Greek, Anglo and Irish descendants – the art produced in this environment becomes more multilayered, controversial, complex and polyglot.

In 2013, The Bahamas had their first ever representation at the Venice Biennale with a critically acclaimed work by Strachan. My mantra in Venice was: ‘There’s more where that came from.’ Simultaneously, we were staging the Sixth National Exhibition (NE6) here in Nassau that, in terms of the quality of the work, could have competed easily on an international stage. We are now planning the NE7, on the topics of race and identity, as well as another series of exhibitions, entitled ‘Double Dutch’, in which we are pairing a Bahamian artist with an artist from elsewhere in the Caribbean to foster dialogue between our neighbouring countries. As a national institution, the museum has a difficult task: to be a link between the widespread idea of art as the reflection and imitation of our – very often idealized – daily life, and to pose and look at problems in an artistically as well as socially relevant way. 

Amanda Coulson is Director, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, Nassau.

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Blue Curry, Untitled, 2011, slide projector carousel, ashtray, decorative planter, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist

Blue Curry, Untitled, 2011, slide projector carousel, ashtray, decorative planter, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist

HOLLY BYNOE

ARC is one of the only print and online publications raising the profile of contemporary visual arts in the ‘Global Caribbean’, increasing local, regional and international visibility while allowing audiences – whether new or existing – to experience a more complex and holistic view of Caribbean art production.

Within the region, the contemporary visual arts are battling a legacy of being underdeveloped and underappreciated. There is not an economy of understanding concerning the development of contemporary art, and its evolution has not been supported in practical ways by local governments and federations. In addition, most countries lack the means to support higher education and research facilities, museums and national galleries; resources which provide a context for grasping histories and unraveling complex discourses.

Recently, however, there has been a shift among informal, independent, artist- and activist-led networks towards facilitating exchanges, expanding creative culture and addressing the lack of arts education and criticism region­ally. In this context, ARC’s mission to provide a space for dialogue becomes pivotal. The magazine seeks to reflect on dynamic ideas of cultural and social identities by developing collaborations with partner institutions across different countries, such as programming artists’ talks. These accompany the release of each volume of our biannual publication.

ARC also curates the annual new media exhibition in partnership with the trinidad+tobago film festival, which is currently the only platform within the region solely dedicated to supporting the screening and development of scholarship around experimental art forms – including but not limited to video, sound and interactive art. We also participate regularly in various formal discussions addressing the current moment of cultural production for contemporary Caribbean art and new models of sustainability for the visual arts industry. Through partnerships, we have succeeded in creating one of the more dynamic and robust residency programmes in the region, Caribbean Linked, which supports emerging artists between the ages of 21 and 35. arc is run independently through private funding, subsidized through advertising, grants, programme development and philanthropic outreach.

ARC identifies diverse ways to speak about art and proposes discourses free from classic diatribes on ‘the exotic’ or ‘the liminal’: prescriptions that lead to a singular narrative. We do this through the pairing of writers, scholars and artists; selected writers are supported throughout arc’s print, online and social platforms, and twice a year we present an open call for works and papers to the wider creative community.

Holly Bynoe is an artist, curator and writer from St. Vincent and the Grenadines currently living and working across the Caribbean. She is Director and Editor-in-Chief of ARC magazine.

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Ebony G. Patterson Untitled IV, from the series ‘Black Roses’, 2013, mixed media on paper, 76 × 55 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Monique Meloche, Chicago.

Ebony G. Patterson Untitled IV, from the series ‘Black Roses’, 2013, mixed media on paper, 76 × 55 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Monique Meloche, Chicago.

ANNALEE DAVIS

Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc. is located on a dairy farm in St George, on the island of Barbados in the Southern Caribbean. We are one of several artist-led initiatives emerging across the archipelago that support contemporary art production and the shaping of critical communities in the region. The specific local context these movements respond to is the lack of formal institutions to meet our needs, such as a national art gallery or a museum with a mandate to support contemporary art.

Artists in the region are functioning in an arena with a relatively small audience, very limited primary art markets and, in many cases, non-existent secondary markets for contemporary practice. One challenge this poses is that much of the work is appreciated and valued outside of the region, creating a gap between the makers and their homegrown audiences. Informal networks have been working to bridge this gap, responding to these circumstances by creating opportunities for artists to participate in larger and more diverse conversations. However, this common obstacle also acts as a unifier, giving rise to geographical connections among artists across the Caribbean sharing these frustrations. Fresh Milk’s partnerships with other artist-led initiatives have given rise to the annual Caribbean Linked programme, the latest incarnation of which saw young artists from across all the region’s linguistic divisions (Creole, Dutch, English and French) taking part in a residency in Aruba. The residents discovered solidarity, a distinct bond forged through shared Caribbean experience despite their perceived differences.

Fresh Milk’s mapping project refutes the fact that we are a divided space as determined by former colonizers who used their different languages to separate us, as well as speaking against the notion that there is a central and singular art world to which we are peripheral. Consolidating regional art spaces into one readily accessible online map also acts as a crucial educational tool for locating historical and current data about Caribbean art, broadening both local and international knowledge, awareness and collaboration.

As our partners expand beyond the insular Caribbean, our programming broadens to reflect the shifting dynamics of our engagements. Nurturing our core foundation in the Caribbean equips us to build robust, meaningful connections internationally, not seeking validation but mutually enriching cultural exchanges. Fresh Milk fosters critical conversations with entities throughout the Caribbean, in South America and Europe, traversing the global North/South axis to realize a healthy cultural ecosystem.

Annalee Davis is an artist and Founding Director of the Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., St George, Barbados (freshmilkbarbados.com).

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Fresh Milk Studio, St George, Barbados, 2013. Courtesy: Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., Barbados.

Fresh Milk Studio, St George, Barbados, 2013. Courtesy: Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., Barbados.

JOHN COX

In 1996, after completing my studies at the Rhode Island School of Design in the us, I returned to The Bahamas and began working as an artist. Up to this point, many definitions of Bahamian post-independence were tied up in old negotiations of ideas of landscape and identity with very little commentary. The shared instinct of ambitious young artists was to revisit past ideas and begin breaking the moulds of tradition. This came with the price of being labeled too avant-garde, not Bahamian enough or, by extension, too ‘foreign’. It reignited an ongoing process of defining what Bahamian is in a changing world. This question of identity often presents itself to Caribbean art. Artists either seem to address it directly or are determined to avoid it – both of which accentuate the enormity of the issue.

Outside of my personal practice, I began teaching art at the College of The Bahamas (COB) and used this idea of the importance of understanding where you come from, as well as broader regional and global contexts, as a teaching philosophy. COB became a kind of think-tank that helped shape the direction of Bahamian art; my classroom put me in contact with many students that went on to re-contextualize art in the country as well as find a place for themselves within an international framework.

It was also during this time that I started Popopstudios Center for the Visual Arts – an art co-op that focused on the then-alternative practices in the country. Since then, Popop has become a non-profit entity that operates around local communities, artist residencies, galleries and education. Some argue that Popop, and the community of artists who keep it in perpetual motion, can be credited with the shifting face, and surrounding dialogue, of art in the country.

The mood that pervades my career, and that of many other practitioners in The Bahamas, is one of adopting a kind of outsider–administrator stance, and aggressively implementing programmes and platforms that most benefit the artists themselves. From my time at COB right up to joining the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) as curator, the institutional presence has been undoubtedly formed and framed by practicing artists in the country.

Now we are seeing the interest of the broader community capitalizing on the potential of the Bahamian creative community. Presently Baha Mar Ltd., a multi-billion-dollar resort, has invested in creating an entire in-house visual art department; something unprecedented in many ways. My new position as Creative Art Director is, I believe, a direct correlation of the effectiveness of the artist-run institutions we find not only in The Bahamas but in the region. The 17 years of what I call ‘platform building’ has become an integral part of my personal practice. No artist can completely side-step the system that he works within and, most of the time, is limited by the structure in which he works and how he is perceived.

John Cox is an artist, curator and teacher based in Nassau, The Bahamas. He is Creative Art Director of Baha Mar Ltd., and founder of Popopstudios International Center for the Visual Arts.

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Leasho Johnson, Pum-Pum Tun-Up, Dive, 2012, earthenware, 18 × 11 × 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist.

Leasho Johnson, Pum-Pum Tun-Up, Dive, 2012, earthenware, 18 × 11 × 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist.

CHARLES CAMPBELL

It’s both a blessing and a curse. As the English-speaking Caribbean’s largest and oldest public art gallery, the National Gallery of Jamaica has been a dominant force in the art scene here for most of its 40 years of existence. Consequently, we have perhaps the most collected, documented and best articulated national art narrative in the region. But it is also the most contested. As the biggest kid on the playground, the gallery has largely been able to say who gets picked for the team, and what games are played.

Nevertheless, there is no telling how creative minds will negotiate both the pluses and minuses of a mature, but contentious art scene. The spectacular tapestries and mixed-media installations of rising international star Ebony G. Patterson can be seen both in terms of challenge and continuity, upending representations of class and gender on the island while drawing a direct line to some of Jamaica’s artistic forerunners. The same can be said of Leasho Johnson who’s domestic-scale ceramic figurines threaten to bring the lewdness of Jamaican dancehall into the tastefully decorated homes of Upper St. Andrew.

Increasingly, the institution is questioning its own carefully crafted narratives and welcoming challenges to its dominance. Permanent exhibitions that have changed little since they were first mounted in 1984 are being rehung, giving us the opportunity to revisit the more than 2,000 art works in the National Collection and allowing new stories to emerge. Recent temporary exhibitions have highlighted some of the most challenging artists working in Jamaica and, this year, the National Biennial will invite projects from major artists from the region and Caribbean Diaspora for the first time.

However, the push to break new ground is coming as much from outside as inside the institution. Locally, independent spaces such as New Local Space in Kingston, as well as artists’ collectives such as New Jamaica and Dirty Crayons have been taking art beyond the gallery walls, to the street and online. However, it is perhaps the regional collaborations that are best helping to break the zero-sum game that has often plagued the art scene here. Spaces such as Alice Yard in Trinidad, Popopstudios in the Bahamas and Fresh Milk in Barbados, as well as the pages of ARC magazine, have become important incubators for the Jamaican artists now asserting their presence in a global network.

This all adds up to a time of expansion and change in the Jamaican art world. It is getting increasingly difficult to draw a border around what is Jamaican art – as is also the case in the rest of the Caribbean. Do we include the work produced in Kentucky or New York by Jamaican artists, and what about that produced by non-Jamaicans on our soil? On closer examination, the firm line between the confident contemporary players and more traditional artists also begins to blur. We’re learning that it is, indeed, a much bigger playground and even the big kids have more fun when they share their toys.

Charles Campbell is an artist, writer and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica.

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espace d’art contemporain 14°N 61°W, Fort de France, Martinique, 2013. Courtesy: espace d’art contemporain 14°N 61°W, Martinique.

espace d’art contemporain 14°N 61°W, Fort de France, Martinique, 2013. Courtesy: espace d’art contemporain 14°N 61°W, Martinique.

CARYL IVRISSE-CROCHEMAR

After living in Europe for over two decades, most recently in Berlin, with its highly competitive international art scene, I moved back to the island of my origins, Martinique, in 2012.

Despite the fact that the island houses an art school – L’Institut régional d’art visuel de Martinique, which has been in existence for 30 years – a handful of art institutions, and interesting artists whose work deals with the history and context of the French Caribbean islands, artists from Martinique have a hard time accessing not only the French national, but also the regional and international, art scenes.

Even with all the major advantages Martinique’s art scene possesses compared to its sister islands (structures and institutions that support art locally and internationally), it is difficult to characterize artistic production from the island. Often, art-making is not the main occupation of the local artists; many only do so on a occasional basis, which makes it difficult for critics and curators from outside to locate them.

Nonetheless, artists such as Ernest Breleur, Henry Guédon, Serge Hélénon and Louis Laouchez managed to make a name for themselves in the region and beyond in the 1980s and ’90s. At that time, most of their production focused on African and Caribbean heritage, and mainly voiced their postcolonial identity. Since then, a new breed of artists has emerged. Their interactions with artists or entities in the region have been scarce, mainly due to the language barrier and the lack of a substantial network.

Actions and initiatives from various local organizations (such as DAC Martinique, the highly active Fondation Clément or, more recently, the biennale BIAC Martinique) have helped to promote and support contemporary art but it still needs to fit within the regional and international scene. Besides this, there are very few independent platforms, galleries or project rooms. The few that do exist are run by artists, with no specific curatorial or commercial strategy.

I launched espace d’art contemporain 14°n 61°w as a platform show casing works by a selection of Martinican artists, in order to generate interest and momentum for them in the region and internationally. Since its opening last year, a regular exhibition programme has been running featuring established and emerging Caribbean artists such as Robert Charlotte, Ronald Cyrille, Jean-Marc Hunt, Raymond Médélice and Ricardo Ozier-Lafontaine. Interactions with the international art scene have come via exhibitions such as ‘Résidences informelles’ or ‘Instruction Manuals And Accessories’, a project in which artists including assume vivid astro focus, Jean-Ulrick Désert, Karl Holmqvist, Roman Liska, Antje Majewski, Philip Wiegard and many others send a kit containing materials and instructions on how to realize an art work locally.

I consider espace d’art contemporain 14°n 61°w an opportunity to develop a unique new platform for contemporary art, contributing to an overall sense of the intensity and diversity of art-making in the Caribbean and how it impacts regionally and worldwide.

Caryl Ivrisse-Crochemar is founder of espace d’art contemporain 14°n 61°w, Martinique, French West Indies.

Dan Fox is co-editor of frieze and is based in New York. His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, and Coffee House Press in the US.

Issue 162

First published in Issue 162

April 2014

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