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>copy >cut >paste >undo paste: Locating Caribbean Women Artists in the Diaspora by Joscelyn Gardner

This essay by Joscelyn Gardner was written in response to the seminar Global Caribbean: Interrogating the Politics of Location in Literature & Culture, hosted by the Department of English, University of Miami & The Little Haiti Cultural Center, Miami, in March 4-6, 2010.

The conference was held in conjunction with the exhibition Global Caribbean curated by Edouard Duval-Carrie at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.

It has been published in Art Etc Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 1

Published by: Emami Chisel Art Pvt. Ltd., Kolkata, India, 2010, Editor: Amit Mukhopadhyay

Roshini Kampadoo Screen still for amendments 2007

Roshini Kampadoo
Screen still for amendments
2007

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Locating Caribbean Women Artists in the Diaspora

Joscelyn Gardner

 

This essay addresses my shifting understanding of female Creole identity as it relates to my own visual practice, as well as the impact of recent large-scale exhibitions focused on contemporary Caribbean art on my perception of my position as a Caribbean Woman Artist in the Diaspora. It likewise explores the work of other female artists with whom I am building allegiances based on our cultural link and sets out to show that as Caribbean artists, we are indeed united in a cultural reality that, like our infinite and repeating landscape (Caribbean “space”), is at once here, there, and everywhere.

 

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        As a Caribbean immigrant to Canada (2000), I have slipped into the (un)familiar category of “Caribbean diasporic artist”. A spate of recent group exhibitions in the US, starting with Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art (Brooklyn Museum, New York, 2007), has galvanized attention to the region’s art by thrusting together artists who have either been born and still live in the islands, have been born there and emigrated to other global locations, or are part of the wider diaspora (heterogeneous generations born outside of the region). What do these artists have in common, aside from their geographical relationship to a real / imagined / constructed place of origin? How can artists from a widely scattered string of tropical islands stretching between North and South America, with diverse racial groups, political systems, and languages imposed by historical circumstance, compose an homogenous group? How does “location” within the diaspora affect a Caribbean artist’s understanding of the Caribbean and their relationship to it? And specifically, how do female Caribbean artists articulate their “difference” within this culturally complex framework?

        In March 2010, I was invited along with two other Caribbean women artists to present our work at the Global Caribbean Symposium[1] in Miami. Hosted by the University of Miami in association with the group show Global Caribbean: Focus on the Contemporary Caribbean Visual Art Landscape, the conference was held at the Little Haiti Cultural Art Center, a new complex dedicated to the art of the Caribbean region. This exhibition, initiated by Culturesfrance, and curated by internationally renowned (Haitian-born) artist Edouard Duval-Carrié, had the distinction of being placed on the official Art Basel Miami Beach program when it opened in December 2009[2]. The exhibition brings together 22 artists (14 men, 8 women) whose work engages with the Caribbean. It was intended to promote Caribbean art on the international art market, and to allow Caribbean artists the opportunity to meet and share ideas about their work. The City of Miami was chosen as the exhibition venue because of its importance as a major contemporary art centre in addition to its position as “the cultural and linguistic cradle for those of ‘creole’ cultures” through its large Caribbean population.

        What distinguishes this show and those of the recent past from earlier exhibitions of “Caribbean Art”[3] is that Caribbean artists are no longer being presented as “representative” of particular nations within the region, but are being grouped according to alternative curatorial premises. Tumelo Mosaka, Curator of Infinite Island (New York), separated artworks into four thematic sections: history and memory; politics and identity; myth, ritual, and belief; and popular culture. Artists were listed alphabetically in the extensive catalogue. The exhibition’s emphasis was on displaying the region’s hybridity and individual artists’ overlapping concerns. Rockstone and Bootheel: Contemporary West Indian Art (Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT, 2009) pushed this curatorial initiative a step further by employing a “mash-up” concept whereby many different art forms / subjects were juxtaposed to suggest the volatile “mix” found in the Caribbean[4]. Similarly, Global Caribbean brought diverse artists together from various language-groups with emphasis on the artworks themselves rather than on each artist’s place of origin[5]. What was unique here, however, was the exhibition’s link to an established university conference, which highlighted visual artists as keynote speakers and facilitated discussion between like-minded artists and cultural theorists within an art gallery / theatre complex. This effort to provide intense interaction between artists, writers, and theorists, has fundamentally increased my awareness of my interconnectedness with fellow artists from a similar cultural background. By acknowledging a growing community of ideas across a globally dispersed cultural group of artists, the generally isolating experience of diaspora is fast emerging as a fertile breeding ground for mutual development.

        Such curatorial gestures towards Caribbean art and artists are also vital to the maturing of the region’s art within the region itself. Apart from Cuba (with its internationally renowned Havana Biennial), Puerto Rico (with its revamped San Juan Print Triennial), the Dominican Republic (with its regional painting Biennial), and Jamaica, many of the other islands lack large professional exhibition venues capable of hosting large-scale group shows or even small exhibitions with new contemporary media. Artists also face difficulties in traveling between the islands owing to logistical, economic, and political impediments. The recent initiative by AICA (Southern Caribbean) under the leadership of Dominique Brébion (Martinique) to curate group exhibitions of Caribbean Art within the region in conjunction with AICA’s annual conference, has also been an important step forward for artists of the region by bringing their art to the attention of regional and international art critics[6]. However, the large group shows outside of the region often provide the only occasions for Caribbean artists to meet and see each other’s work. Though this experience is incredibly valuable to the artists involved, there has, however, been concern that this ghettoizing of artists under a “Caribbean” classification may be harmful to the acceptance of their work in the main stream. The critical feedback from established New York art critics around Infinite Island, suggested that despite the validation provided by having an exhibition of Caribbean Art in a mainstream Museum (from the artists’ perspective), New York was not prepared to embrace art that could be perceived as dated and hackneyed relative to their contemporary art scene.[7]

 

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        Like many diasporic artists, my understanding of my Caribbean context has shifted over time relative to my personal geographical / theoretical location. Born in the former British slave colony of Barbados to a family with a history on the island dating back to the 17th century, my practice over nearly 20 years has explored Creole identity from a feminist perspective. Currently, my work probes colonial Caribbean archives in order to explore my (white) Creole identity and articulate the intertwined historical relationship between Caribbean women of all races. Using interventionist strategies, I rupture patriarchal or colonial versions of history by re-inserting the voices / images / traces of the women omitted from this history in an attempt to reconcile the past with the present and move toward a metaphorical healing of historical wounds. My work now aims to address the repression and dissociation that operate in relation to the subject of slavery and white culpability in the wider postcolonial world.

        Prior to emigrating, however, I did not consciously acknowledge racial tensions on the island or the privilege that came with having a white skin. In the 1990s, my visual practice proposed an idealistic understanding of Creole identity that manifested itself in projects that suggested creolization as a ‘blending’ of historical difference that could be achieved through the symbolic shedding of skin in a process of spiritual metamorphosis.

        Works such as In the Chamber of my Birth: A Repeating Voyage to my Self, conceptually based on Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s “The Repeating Island”[8], suggested the “rape” of the Caribbean by European conquistadors and the arrival in the islands of seaborne peoples from South America, Europe, and Africa, as an historical circumstance that needed to be overcome through acknowledging the benefits of creolization. Here, I proposed the Creole female body (my body) as a cocooned form shedding its skin in order to transcend the circumstances of difference brought to the islands by our fore-mothers in dug-out canoes (the Amerindian Goddess Atabeyra), caravals (the European Virgin Mary), and slave ships (the African Goddess Ezili).[9]

Joscelyn Gardner Virtual Omphalos multi media installation 1996

Joscelyn Gardner
Virtual Omphalos
multi media installation
1996

        In Virtual Omphalos (1996)[10], I used moving images and spoken word to address Caribbean identity in relation to our electronic age using an Amerindian Creation myth of the world as a giant cobweb as the symbolic springboard. This work, inspired in part by Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a shrinking, decentralized world and its effect upon mankind’s values and perceptions, and by the idea of art’s dematerialization at the end of the millennium, was composed from 400 slides projected by 8 slide projectors. A narrow entrance corridor opened into a large octagonal-shaped space in which projections of the ocean surrounded the viewer on every wall, images dissolving one into another. The sound of the sea with a submerged female voice echoing within it provided the thread of communication. Under the transparency of the moving water, wrapped (cocooned) plaster figurines (mother figures / funerary dolls) symbolizing the Caribbean’s Amerindian, European, and African heritage appeared and disappeared to suggest the washing away of the past. Virtual Omphalos proposed the Caribbean Sea as the womb of possibility between the Americas and the island as the navel of the earth / omphalos. In our interwoven global village, it seemed to me that though we lived on a tiny island, we could resist marginality by imagining ourselves as the earth’s center. My proposal suggested that the Caribbean’s racial / cultural unification could be a global model.

        Following my move to Canada in 2000, my work shifted radically. There, with distance, I recognized my past denial of racial stratification in the island. Though I had been inserting my (white) body into my work, in my somewhat naïve desire to focus on achieving racial integration, my examination of female Creole identity had refused to engage with the white Creole’s role in skin’s tragic and painful history in the Caribbean.

        The decision to emigrate had been stimulated by the need to both expand my artistic horizons and to escape the cultural marginalization with which I wrestled as an artist in Barbados. The move turned out to be a watershed experience. Once in Canada, the idea of “belonging” became a central notion in my thinking. The attempt to settle in a predominantly white country exposed me to a new understanding of my own identity. I was in the curious position of escaping the country of my birth where, though privileged, I was culturally marginalized; yet, in Canada, though I shared whiteness and Western education, my cultural background assumed a “weighty” form of “difference”. Recognizing that I needed to confront the harsh realities of the plantation slave system’s legacy, I set out to unravel the historical construction of Creole identity, and in particular, white Creole female identity, and to search for the (female) voices “silenced” by that history.

        My visual practice now involves probing colonial archives for representations of the Creole body. By “mining” both literary works and visual sources, I set out to expose “hidden” artifacts which will shed new light on the implications of a colonial and patriarchal history to the lives of (black and white) Creole women and which reveal their shared (though unequal) historical relationship. In particular, this research has examined portraiture and its signifying language, objects associated with slavery, and colonial literature and personal documents in order to subvert the master discourse by asserting a space for the multiple female subjectivities not recognized in the ‘official’ (male) historical canon.

Joscelyn Gardner  Creole portraits II 2007

Joscelyn Gardner
Creole portraits II
2007

        One of my signature works which embodies these ideas is the multimedia installation White Skin, Black Kin: A Creole Conversation Piece (2003). This work emerged following my discovery of a painting in the Barbados Museum Collection storage of a colonial Barbadian planter entitled Portrait of Seale-Yearwood Esq. (c. 1730) which proved critical to my study through its tangible evidence of the practice of miscegenation. The close resemblance between the two figures portrayed (the white master and his unnamed mulatto slave butler) makes it evident that this is really a “family” portrait. The slave is in fact the planter’s son – the fruit of his licentious relationship with one of his slave women. The slave mistress whose body has been exploited and the planter’s wife (plantation mistress) whose sexual role has been usurped are both absent from the painting and effectively silenced in the name of colonial and patriarchal domination.

        Another important discovery was the powerfully evocative eighteenth-century cross-racial topsy-turvy doll.  In Touching Liberty, Sanchez-Eppler suggests this doll as a visual trope for the binary relationship between black and white women and their shared status as property under the patriarchal bonds of marriage and slavery[11]. Usually made from scraps of cloth and stuffed with rags, it combined two dolls in one: a white doll on one side, and a black doll on the other. The long skirt that hid one (gendered) doll from the other also bound them together. In this work, I use the idea of “flipping” between the black and white dolls as a metaphor for the complex relationship between Creole women during the period of slavery. Playing on hiding and revealing, this doll articulates the interracial dynamics / cultural hybridity that results from the close proximity of racial difference by binding together the Self and Other in one gendered body.

 

         In White Skin, Black Kin: A Creole Conversation Piece, I reclaim the eighteenth-century “conversation piece” painting as a way of addressing the performance of Creole identity (and patriarchal / colonial power dynamics) on the plantation stage. In this re-created (fictitious) family portrait, the white Creole female appears as “actress-text” in a plantation Great House tableau that unfolds to explore Creole family relationships. Posed against a background of patrilinear ancestry (portraits on the wall), the female family members (mother and daughters) articulate the gulf between symbolic masculine power and silenced feminine domesticity. I subvert this unequivocal form of portraiture by “re-presenting” the family in its entirety. While the white family members visually articulate (frozen) social and familial propriety in their well-decorated drawing-room, the illusory black “family” members are shown to symbolically unravel the inconsistencies within the household through devices of visual and / or sound intervention. Through their constant “ghosted” movement within the picture plane and with their “behind the scenes” conversations, the black / interracial family insists on a presence that functions to rupture the artifice of the officially staged (historical) portrait. A violent history of sexual exploitation by the white master is sharply revealed to the attentive viewer through the personal narratives and dramatized dialogues that are overheard as the viewer walks around the exhibition space. The inclusion of the master’s armchair (on which sits a child’s topsy-turvy doll) placed near to the Portrait of Seale-Yearwood Esq. further helps to allude to these “family” secrets and to destabilize the master narrative.[12]

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        The two other Caribbean women artists invited to present at the Global Caribbean Symposium were Nicole Awai and Roshini Kempadoo. Based in New York and London, UK, respectively, each one brings a different point of reference to their visual practices based on their own spatial / political context and the complex relationality between these spaces and the Caribbean. With this transnational perspective, their work has similarly shifted over time to embrace sociopolitical concerns relative to their experience of ‘place’. Like many artists of the Caribbean Diaspora, a shared history of colonialism emerges as the common ground which informs each artist’s work whether they are drawing on present or past issues. As women who grew up in the Caribbean while it was emerging from a colonial culture, and who now live in First World metropolitan cities, their work recognizes the “double colonization” by both imperial and patriarchal ideologies that Gayatri Spivak discusses in Can the Subaltern Speak? (1985).

Nicole Awaï Local Ephemera Resistance with black ooze

Nicole Awaï
Local Ephemera
Resistance with black ooze

        Nicole Awai questions the marginalization of Caribbean populations within larger developed countries and explores how the experience of displacement influences how (black) diasporic people see themselves relative to stereotypes imposed on them by people in the host country. In her case, she speaks of black Caribbean artists being subsumed into the “African-American” context in the USA where racially derogatory objects and motifs of “blackness” from popular culture have been (historically) assigned to the Other. Playing on a collection of some of these obscure objects given to her by friends who think she should be interested in them (some of which are completely unfamiliar to her), she sets out to “expose” (rather than “hide”) their attributes in a “visual kaiso”  that subverts their intended meaning. In her mixed media works on paper from the Specimens from Local Ephemera series (2002-ongoing), she decodes and recodes these objects in an imaginative constructed world to “navigate a path around or beyond [Caribbean] identity”.[13] Visual narratives assembled from composite elements in a technical drawing format combine collaged images of these strange objects (for example, a topsy-turvy doll) with drawings of bolts and screws or joining devices, together with a legend composed from exotically named nail polish samples. Sometimes a black “ooze” appears, like puss from a wound (metaphor for injury and healing), to further allude to a state of flux, ever changing and evolving. Local Ephemera becomes “the world of in-between, that lies somewhere between perspective (point of view) and periphery (view beyond a point).” Here “Local” indicates “personal immediate space” and “Ephemera” indicates “an object of short-lived usefulness.” The artist maps out a transitory space/ ‘location’ which speaks to her ambiguous relationship to both the physical/mental and temporal space that she finds herself in.

Nicole Awaï Mix More Media

Nicole Awaï
Mix More Media

        Roshini Kempadoo also addresses the notion of the “in-between” in her work; in particular, the idea of the diasporic subject not fully being either “here or there” in spatial or temporal terms (Bhabha).  Drawing on history and memory, her photo-based / digital screen-based installations re-imagine and re-work historical legacies from factual and/or fictional viewpoints to create politically poignant statements which unseat stereotypical readings of (Caribbean) cultural identity. In the Virtual Exiles series, her subjects embark on a mythical journey of return to a “delusional sense of home”. Domino Effects, an ongoing collaborative project, comments on the social upheavals between the Caribbean, India, and Britain, following the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. This interactive installation, based upon the popular game of dominoes played in meeting places across the Caribbean, uncovers obscured positions and narratives, often those of women, in an attempt to challenge Britain’s ‘celebration’ of the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery (2007). By exposing contemporary parallels and consequences, it aims to “problematise the omnipresent conventional romantic narrative, in which the emancipated African ex-slave becomes a hero/ine and the liberated, independent space/nation provides the ‘happily ever after’ scenario”[14]. Rather than invoking the myth of homeland or a desire to return to lost origins, these works collectively reveal how the artist’s experience of displacement has influenced her perception of the black diasporic subject in her adopted home and has also given her a new perspective on the Caribbean diasporic subject in the place of origin.

Roshini Kampadoo Sreen Still for amendements  2007

Roshini Kampadoo
Sreen Still for amendements
2007

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        Caribbean women artists in the diaspora continue to weave a dissonant narrative, bringing their own multiple perspectives from various transient locations to bear on the interpretation of contemporary Caribbean identity. The search for a sense of identity and belonging together with the lingering effects of a shared colonial history ensure some discernable continuity in their vision as they seek to forge new narratives to secure the future. The growing interconnectedness of Caribbean artists across the diaspora and within the region itself through internet social networks and communities[15] and advanced global communication systems also extends the metaphor of the Caribbean as a complex and constantly changing permeable space. Within this infinite and ‘repeating’ landscape, women artists are building meaningful connections with other Caribbean visual artists, curators, and writers to ensure an elastic globally relevant dialogue[16]. As active producers of culture, they are helping to shape the discourse on Caribbean art.


[1] The Global Caribbean Symposium: Interrogating the Politics of Location in Caribbean Literature and Culture (March 4 – 6, 2010) hosted by the University of Miami and the Little Haiti Cultural Center (City of Miami). PUMA Creative Mobility Awards were instrumental in providing funding to bring the artists together. The three invited artists were Nicole Awai, Joscelyn Gardner, and Roshini Kempadoo.

[2] The exhibition is also being presented at Musee International des Arts Modestes in Sete, France, in 2010.

[3] Previous exhibitions have included: Karibische Kunst Heute (Documenta Halle and Halle K-18, Kassel, Germany, 1994); Caribe Insular (Casa de America and Museo Extremeno e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporaneo, Madrid, Spain, 1998); and Caribbean Visions (Miami, New Orleans, and Hartford, USA, 1995), among others.

[4] The female Curators, Kristina Newman-Scott and Yona Backer, are of Jamaican descent. The exhibition focused on artists from the Anglophone Caribbean. An extensive catalogue will be published with essays from writers inside and outside of the region.

[5] The Curator remarked:  “I feel that the national provenance of these artists is at times irrelevant even when they strive to create a discourse that could be coined as regional.”

[6] Atlantide Caraibe (16 artists) was held at the Fondacion Clėmente in Martinique in 2008.

[7] Holland review in the New York Times

[8] Antonio Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, US: Duke U P, 1992.

[9] This work was exhibited in Lips, Sticks, and Marks, an important group show by a collective of 7 Caribbean Women Artists that was shown at The Art Foundry in Barbados and at the Museum of Port-of-Spain in Trinidad in 1998.

[10] Presented at the XXIII Bienal Internacional de Sao Paulo where artists from the Caribbean were asked to explore the notion of Caribbean identity.

[11] Sanchez-Eppler, Touching Liberty

[12] The discussion of this work is taken from my essay Postcolonial Portraits: “Speaking the Unspeakable” in the White Skin, Black Kin: “Speaking the Unspeakable” catalogue (Barbados: Barbados Museum, 2004).

[13] Nicole Awai in Email from Here, Small Axe 27 (US: Duke U P, August 2007).

[14] Roshini Kempadoo’s website (www.roshinikempadoo.com).

[15] There is a growing network of Caribbean arts-related networks and blogs which offer opportunities for interaction between artists, such as the Caribbean Creative Network, Small Axe, AICA (Southern Caribbean), Alice Yard (Trinidad), and cross/sparks.

[16] For instance, each of these three artists has participated in either the International Residency Program or International Artists’ Workshops hosted by Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, which was instrumental in bringing Caribbean diasporic artists together in the region.

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