A FEW weeks ago I got a pleasant surprise in my email inbox. It’s not often that I get an email drafted especially for me as opposed to a forwarded message or some sort of spam that made its way past my junk mail filter. Michael Lam, graphic artist/designer and photographer reached out to me about an event I wanted to attend, but missed because I was scheduled to fly to Trinidad earlier the same day for the recently concluded MOU residency. The event was a public lecture by Trinidadian artist, educator, researcher and academic, Kenwyn Critchlow, for this year’s iteration of the Guyana Visual Arts Competition and Exhibition.
Now before I continue I’d just like to underscore how important I think it is that these conversations between creative individuals happen, regardless of their specialised area(s). In other words, conversations among artists shouldn’t just stay among the artists. Likewise, conversations among photographers shouldn’t just stay among photographers. There should always be open and inclusive dialogues happening among artists, photographers, writers, musicians, film-makers etc. We should feel comfortable enough to step beyond the rigid lines of distinction (that are often borderline hierarchical) to have the kind of healthy exchanges necessary for growth in our creative industries.
But back to Lam’s email. I was incredibly moved that he felt so strongly about the lecture that he wanted to share his notes with me. After a brief exchange, we both agreed it would be of even greater value if the conversation shifted from my inbox into the public domain, so that more persons could add their voices to this very necessary conversation (or at least, contemplate some of the ideas shared). So what exactly is this conversation I’m referring to? It was fixed squarely on the title of the Critchlow lecture, “Caribbean Art is dead; long live Caribbean art!” Although it was obvious his title was an adaptation of the saying “The King is dead; long live the King” and to an extent we both understood the historical implications of using the said title, I couldn’t help but cringe a little bit. I have my own issues with the term “Caribbean Art,” but perhaps for the purpose of the lecture I could understand why it was used. It does roll off the tongue a lot easier than “Art from the Caribbean is dead; long live art from the Caribbean!”
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who was not keen on the term “Caribbean Art.” Stanley Greaves has always opined that there is no such thing as Caribbean Art and used that platform to reiterate this belief. In fact, the publication he penned alongside Anne Walmsley titled “Art in the Caribbean, An Introduction,”presents an alternative way of considering art from the Region and its diaspora. Implicit in its title is a challenge, a subtle attempt to undermine the belief that there is a particular aesthetic that marks art as “Caribbean” and that the weight of that aesthetic should be the major determining factor in how we position an artist’s work.
Anyone who has been following the work coming out of my studio would’ve observed in my early years, a deliberate attempt to steer clear of that aesthetic. I recognised early on just how problematic any such classification could be (at least for my own career). Now I’ve become more interested in using that aesthetic as a weapon against itself, to subvert traditional ideals about the subjects I choose to engage with. So while the work is, in fact, made in the Caribbean, I would never refer to it as “Caribbean Art.” Then, of course, we could venture even further down the rabbit hole to address the fact that geographically we (Guyanese) aren’t technically “Caribbean,” so anything we produce wouldn’t be considered as such. Yet we’ve seemingly shelved our South American badge in favour of the one typically associated with, among other things, white sandy beaches and “pretty” coloured water. However, by those standards, there is no room for a “Guyanese aesthetic,” since the two simply don’t match. So maybe in one sense it is a bit ridiculous for Guyanese to be engaged in a conversation about “Caribbean art.”
I could go on to list the many ways Guyana does not fit into most of the clichés associated with the Caribbean, but I’m certain anyone who has ever lived in or visited Guyana could think of many. Something else for us to consider is the fact that there is hardly ever mention of Guyana in any discourse on “South American Art.” It’s almost as if we’re detached from the continent or we don’t exist at all. So as Guyanese artists we find ourselves stuck in this strange, transitory space where our aesthetic, varied as it may be, doesn’t quite fit anywhere. We are neither here nor there.
Lam went on to explain Critchlow’s proposed dual nature of the Caribbean aesthetic:
“In speaking of the duality of the Caribbean vision, he used the phrases ‘paradise’ and ‘plantation’ as the differentiating types of art, quite accurate I think. When you think about it, the paradise vision (the pretty pictures of sand and sea, waterfalls and palm trees, fun and sun) is often what outsiders see, and what some want outsiders to see, while the plantation vision (the people, the events, the struggles, the life) is what is mostly produced by artists.”
The problem with this kind of classification, in my opinion, is that it sets up a kind of binary oppositional way of thinking that excludes work that fits neither one category nor the other. There are stories so complex and multi-layered and that sometimes borrow from both “paradise” and “plantation” or neither, that simply proposing an “either or” method of classification becomes a problematic way of viewing art from the Region. For example, there are artists whose thematic concerns are far removed from both pandering to the whims of tourists and/or highlighting the lived experiences (good or bad) of locals. Instead, their main preoccupation is the formal elements of art, whether line, colour, light, shadow, shape, form etc. Where would they be positioned? This is where things get tricky and this is also where I wish I could’ve attended Critchlow’s lecture to pick his brain myself.
While I do admit the paradise/plantation is an attractive and easy binary to work with, it is also restrictive and exclusionary (as all binaries are). Since my time in Barbados, I’ve been using binaries to frame my subjects, but I’ve been using them with the understanding that they are, in fact, restrictive and exclusionary. So they can be used, just with the understanding of how they work and the many implications that result from working with them (otherwise you risk reinforcing centuries-old stereotypes). Lam also recognised the problematic nature of using this method of classification and opened his own line of questions to consider.
“Is art as simple as that? Are pretty pictures relegated to tourism-type images and only ‘serious’ images considered art? Certainly not, but the perception cannot be overlooked,” he explained.
“While the art produced in the Caribbean in the past had echoes of our colonial days and our struggles, themes that were common in the Region and which helped bind us a people, what of the new art? Is there still a common identity possible?”
In my opinion, the presence of any binary type of classification tends to pit one medium against the other in a struggle for dominance/control and threatens the “new art” Lam enquires about. And while I don’t necessarily think there is or will ever be a common “Caribbean identity,” I do believe there are common threads that are still visible even decades later as we continue to wrestle with these ideas of placement and belonging. I think the Region’s history of movement is one such thread. It calls to mind the recent curatorial work by Grace Aneiza Ali (last year’s Un|Fixed Homeland exhibition at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey and the current Liminal Space exhibition at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in New York, both of which Lam has participated in). Ali identified and isolated one of those common threads (migration) and gave it the platform necessary to be examined from multiple perspectives, free from any rigid definitions.
In my opinion, we need to recognise the impossibility of attempting to shape a single or comprehensive narrative regarding art coming out of the Region. I would say “Caribbean art” is indeed dead. It has been a dead concept for quite some time now and it should stay that way. Art coming out of the Caribbean, on the other hand, is not. It has merely been (and continues to be) transformed. Art is never stagnant. It is ever evolving and shifting to reflect the times. We need to let go of how we think it should look and simply let it be.