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Articles in English, Theory and critique of art in the Caribbean

The Pleasure of Disorientation (Erica James)

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To read the Theory and critique of art in the Caribbean project presentation, click on this link

Keywords: Disorientation, creoleness, diversity, miscegenation

Abstract: the author proposes a new concept, disorientation, susceptible of defining Caribbean art in a better way than creoleness or miscegenation. She claims to renounce to analyze Caribbean artistic production through the prism of the most recent international theoretical trends, as well as to locate in those a unifying aesthetic.

In 2008 I visited the Hindu complex dedicated to monkey god Hanuman in Carapichalma, Trinidad. The pink form stood eighty-five feet high dominating the plains around it. The complex was erected to cement local Hindu belief that Trinidad was an island that had been transported from the River Ganges. As a Caribbean person, I have spent time in deep contemplation in what I believe are the oldest synagogue and Jewish graveyard in the western world, in Willemstad, Curacao, listened to circle singing and dancing in backyards believed to be houmforts in Nassau, driven two miles and in that time passed sixteen churches of various denominations, a Congo society hall and a fully functioning mosque. On that same drive I might purchase peanuts, guineps and natural juice from a Rastafarian, infused oils from a Muslim, roses from a Guyanese flower merchant, while listening to Kompa music on my car radio and wearing a shift purchased from an Indian merchant in Guyana and a necklace found in Havana. These experiences are not necessarily bound by class, sexuality, race or gender, but are part of the regularity of the Caribbean landscape and life.

So when concepts such as creole, polysemic, hybrid, syncretism, bricolage, métissage, soups of various kinds, are used to describe the Caribbean, 1understand their intent, but sense an insufficiency in them when it comes to what one may think of as Caribbean Art. It is not necessarily the tinge of romance that Belinda Edmondson has theorized is inherent in these terms, though that too is present, but something elsethat was concretized at the Hindu complex in Carapichaima. In that landscape, 1was profoundly and surprisingly disoriented. For an extended moment, I lost a sense of place and was unbound. Several weeks after Carapichaima, the artist Kishan Munroe expressed a similar sentiment as he described a day traveling from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives and back: He proclaimed, « 1feel as if 1 visited at least three planets! »

What is it about the Caribbean landscape that has the capacity to bind and to free us? How does this add to the internal/external discourse of regional identity since the basic tenets of Globalism have existed as a cultural reality in heightened, conflicted and compressed forms in the Caribbean for hundreds of years? For the last one hundred plus years, several sectors of the region have sold themselves so well as « paradise » that what is understood as « Caribbean » has been reduced to few elements. The heterogeneity of the region has been homogenized for the market (and not only the tourist market where our vision seems to begin and end, but banking, real estate and the concerted efforts of governments to encourage foreign investment in the region). The process is similar to the dynamics at play in Hall and Sealy’s analysis of « racialized forms of looking”, (where) « profound differences of history, culture and experience have often been reduced to a handful of stereotypical features, which are ‘read’ as if they represent a truth of nature, somehow indelibly inscribed on the body »(read Caribbean).

In the months following recent international exhibitions of « Caribbean Art;’ regional conversations have stalled again around the renovation and construction of this unstable monument. Artists, historians and critics in the region are debating inclusion and exclusion. Individuals are no longer on speaking terms because of curatorial decisions made in the context of institutions with their own agenda, or what a New York critic said. The region’s art historians, critics, curators and artists have spent far too much time engaged in a vain search for some elusive unifying aesthetic or compulsion and for what purpose? In this post-colonial/post-revolutionary moment are we seeking these definitions because they are a part of the ruins of colonial processes of definition, naming and mapping? Is this the only formal model in which we believe we can lay claim to ourselves?

Rather than spending time debating the nature of Caribbean Art, bemoaning New York’s neglect of or lack of engagement erecting barriers of inclusion and inclusion based on geography; why not focus on the art itself? It seems that in these discussions the aesthetic object has been lost. Why not work to de-center the discourse and not only demand, but also build new ones? Why not attempt authorship that is open and not closed or bordered, but reflective of the local and the global reality that is inherent in Caribbean formation and growth?

Perhaps art historians and critics working on the region’s art have spent too much time towing the lines of both the dated and the latest theoretical fads, without doing the groundwork necessary to secure these positions. One speaks of an avant-garde, post-nation, post-studio etc. when such ideas rarely describe or even anticipate what has been experienced, is being experienced and what will be experienced on the ground. In the process we have lost sight of the work and have failed to see the theory, indeed the philosophy of being in the Art itself.

While in Guyana attending Carifesta in the summer of 2008, a group of artists and curators experienced the wonderful work of Phillip Moore. Moore is an artist with the vision and temerity to say and (more importantly perhaps in these cynical times) mean, « when I hold a piece of wood in my hand to carve, 1feel as if 1am holding the whole world and can influence things outside of Guyana. » Yet not one book, not one catalogue, not one DVD interview on the life and work of Phillip Moore could be found. In ten Moore paintings and carvings is a discourse on Caribbean Art and self-hood, and who among us has taken the time to engage it, to document it, to look?

This exhibition contains the work of twenty-three artists flam the across the region, working throughout the world. It crosses the psychic boundaries of language, economic systems, government, conundrums of external/internal discourses, and chimeras of geographic authenticity in an attempt to return tile audience to an experience of the Art itself.

Arthur Simms brings multiple elements together to create fantastic objects that re–imagine tile very concept of meaning. Works used to describe object hood in some ways become meaningless in works like Tricycle, 2006 and Caged Bottle, 2007-2008. Tricycle includes an element of a tricycle but is itself something transformed. Cage Bottle literally cages multiple bottles and other objects as well, but is not a « cage. » Simms´ objects contain their reference and their transformative elements, which become a new object that defies narrative explanation, while communicating process, disjuncture, tension, binding, production, commerce, economy, spirit and histories, in a way that is philosophically Caribbean.

Alex Burke’s sculptural installations embody an unwilling silence that disturbs while at the same time affecting a type of ambivalence that allows the forms to interface in multiple registers and meaning. In Untitled, 2006, three rows of figures are arranged as if they are part of a docile assembly line, but the density and details of each form make them all unique. They have an unexpected complexity present, but rarely recognized in Caribbean people and experience. They also recall universal creative traditions that are culturally Caribbean as welt, such as quilting, doll making (for both religious and commercial use) and the economy of slavery and its dehumanization of individuals through the acquisition of bodies as fetish or machine.

The visual vocabulary used in Chris Cozier’s Little Gestures, interconnect forms and language in a manner that appears deceptively simple. Cozier’s tendency to present the « gestures » in a grid-like form recalls principles of mapping and control that are tied to the colonial enterprise and empire building. However, the beauty of the mark, the pregnant nature of the images and their implications as super sign allows the regularity of the installation to pulse like a big truck speaker rather than lull the viewer to sleep. There is an epic quality in Cozier’s work and a sense contained therein that we are running out of time.

Infusing materials with no obvious history of relation and therefore no prescribed narrative or overdetermined meaning provides a refreshing moment of crisis or audiences seeking to engage Blue Curry’s Untitled installation. Yet even as Curry disorients Western fantasies of the Caribbean by utilizing obsolete materials such as cassette and video tape, he fuses these materials with iconic objects that have become mythic in relation to the Caribbean. In the process, Curry simultaneously disrupts and re-‘objectifies the object exposing and displacing the fixed mythic narratives associated with it. For the audience seeking an entrance, the work instead reveals its labyrinthine nature, a self-assurance bounded in its obscurity. What results is an art experience that engenders a physical, historical, and psychological encounter with a hyper—liminal monument that exists somewhere between artifact/souvenir and art object.

The self–assurance emanating from Curry’s installation is also present in the work of Alexandre Arrechea. For Arrechea video and film are fundamental to the aesthetic engagement and or content of the work itself. Arrechea´s Get Ready, 2003 embodies the interplay and simultaneous displacement of sound, vision and perception in a formally spare manner that is a wonder to behold.

The work of Arrechea and Curry hint at the full range of this exhibition while David Damoison’s photographs extend it. Defying easy explanations and at times, descriptive language, Damoison´s images reside in the unadvertised Caribbean, Dean MacCannell´s « back room » where young girls suck lollipops white waiting for clients and elderly women walk the streets in Halloween masks. They speak to the same psychological space as Raquel Paiewonsky, Apatridas (nd) and (ironically perhaps to some) the historic space and contemporary remains of the Caribbean
experience found in Joscelyn Gardner’s Quasheba series. The strength of Gardner´s earlier work partly lies in the artist’s distillation of complex ideas in a format manner, and the ability of the resulting images to engage the unspeakable across time. The intricacies of black hairstyles intertwined with implements of torture, gauge cultural
toss and the level of dehumanization of the African in the Caribbean as a result of violence. Power to enact violence is positioned as destroyer of creativity, humanity, body, gender, community and history, both then and now. These
sensibilities are not lost in Gardner’s more recent installations where the subtleties of violence are exploded in the archive and the construction of history itself.

Hew Locke’s monumental Kingdom of the Blind, 2009 resonates with some of these ideas, allowing process to embody content. In this work the construction of the object, of ideologies, histories, hatreds and violence undergird Locke’s aesthetic engagement of social and political power. These ideas are not specific to the Caribbean but have evinced a peculiar Babel character in the region that is all-consuming, seemingly inarticulate, even grotesque, but interconnected and very present. While mired in the concrete, Locke´s aesthetic conversation simultaneously exist on a psychic, metaphysical plane. Like Curry and Gardner, his work crashes history into the present resulting in heightened awareness of mechanisms of power and subjection, even as the past and present seem to eventually diverge into history and memory.

Raquel Paiewonsky’s work evinces a dark humor, even as she too engages and critiques the role of the past, though in relation to the formation of contemporary ideas of the feminine. In earlier pieces such as Ima Diptico and Levitando: A un solo pie, 2003 she utilizes nylons and knitting yarn, materials often associated with femininity, to
create monumental pieces that invite the audience to look, without warning of the disturbing long term effects. Nylons are often promoted and used to conceal flaws, affect sexiness in the context of a woman´s legs, or conceal identity in the context of robbery, or rape. Apatridas, n.d, builds upon these ideas. In this work Paiewonsky creates group of hands by drawing on the processes used to make handmade stuffed toys, recalling the work of Rosemari Trockel. The hands, which resemble decapitated chicken legs and limp prostheses, have an exaggerated useless quality that ironically is not too far from the real life experience of women who choose to apply extreme nail extensions.

In Bitch Balls, 2008 Paiewonsky has extended her processes to create fully disembodied breast-like forms. While Locke, Simms and Curry´s art deconstruct and reconstruct, Paiewonsky´s work distills features and objects considered feminine or womanly in today´s society (whether naturally occurring, or as a result of artifice) and
re-presents them with a frenetic, violent and sometimes grotesque edge, not for our viewing pleasure but serious contemplation.

It would be nice to say that the works comprising this exhibition make no specific statement, that they do not fall in line with a particularly fixed curatorial agenda, but they do. However, let´s push these notions aside and return once again to the work of these twenty-three artists. Let us give it a chance to challenge and disorient us to such a degree that we come back to ourselves with an understanding that Caribbean Art inhabits a boundless space, an infinite landscape, a global place, just like I did that afternoon in Carapichaima.


Erica M. James

Director and Chief Curator of The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas

¡ Stuart Hall and Mark Sealy, Different (London and New York: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2001)



Erica M. James

Erica M. James is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. She earned her Ph.D. in Art History from Duke University. Her research interests center on the Arts of the African Diaspora, particularly the Caribbean and the Americas.

Currently on an extended leave as Director and Chief Curator of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, Dr. James has held and received numerous fellowships and awards, including the prestigious Clark Fellowship from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The John Hope Franklin Fellowship at Duke University, and the International Association of University Women graduate fellowship.

Her most recent publications include “Communion,” an essay on the artist Rotimi Fani Kayode, which appeared in the British photography journal Next Level and “The Pleasure of Disorientation” a catalogue essay for The Global Caribbean Exhibition held at the Haitian Cultural Centre, Miami as a part of Art Basel 2009. She is currently working on a book based on her doctoral thesis entitled “Re-Worlding a World: Caribbean Art in the Global Imaginary.”


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