Grande Salle, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue Gallery and Queens Park Gallery,
August 20th – 27th 2017
Every Caribbean nation has a cadre of accomplished and influential practitioners. Behind them, they have bodies of works, which not only are executed with skill, direction and purpose, but which repay scrutiny time and again. In singling out just a handful of these, the Carifesta Masters Exhibition does not seek to establish an exclusive professional hierarchy, but to use – and activate – the works of a few to highlight some of the themes and questions, that have engaged many of the region’s artists for the last few decades. It is acknowledged that many others are deserving – and hopefully future recipients – of similar celebration and engagement.
Like so many artists of their generation(s), the six participants in this exhibition can be regarded as dedicated respondents to the Caribbean’s history and particular concerns. While their starting points may be the individual experience, a general premise for these practices has thus been their focus on matters of collective importance. While this feature makes the artists especially compatible with the spirit of Carifesta, it also makes them stakeholders in an ongoing exchange about origins, history, cultural self-assertion, regional integration and global dynamics, and, trailing right behind those preoccupations, about the assumptions, biases and silences that have suffused Caribbean historiography and affected the region’s pursuit of a distinctive identity. This exhibition hopes to draw out the uniqueness of each practice, but also to loosely position it within a surrounding contemporary ‘field’ of complementary positions and approaches.
It would not be much of an overstatement to say, that – even if it is not always made explicit – an awareness of ‘history’ suffuses the entire domain of Caribbean art. While there is relative consensus about the nature of that history, there are, however, very divergent views about what lessons can be extracted from it. The aspiration in this exhibition has therefore been to create a pool of works, which indicate different nodes on the hypothetical plane that unfolds between perceptions of ‘history’ and ‘infinity’ (the latter can be understood as a general reference to the ‘irrational’ – ranging from the spiritual to the incomprehensible, endless or uncontainable) as the ultimate determinant for Caribbean existence. While both ‘poles’ have numerous subscribers, the bias in Caribbean cultural criticism over the last few decades has generally described a transition from one to the other, or from a ‘vertical’ (ancestral, territorial, dialectic) to a ‘horizontal’ (diasporic, deterritorialized, rhizomatic) orientation.
‘History’ and ‘infinity’ can thus be understood as a set of ‘magnetic fields’ into which Caribbean artists find themselves drawn, albeit in ways that may be subtle, complex or unique, and which may variously support or bedevil one another. The positions broadly staked out in the discussion below should therefore not be regarded as oppositional, but as composite and relational. It is not implied, that more fundamental positions are easily inferred on this basis, but some consideration of these factors are thought to be indispensable for the attempt to extract any sort of ‘world-view’ from the artwork. That a body of works invites such inferences does, however, qualify the notion of a master-artist.
At what will appear to be the ‘deeper’ historical end of the exhibition, the video-installation omi ebora (which is Yoruba for ‘spirit of the waters’) by the Barbadian/Canadian artist Joscelyn Gardner (b. 1961) recalls the Middle Passage and the lives lost during that dreaded voyage. The installation draws inspiration from NourbeSe Philip’s elegiac poem ‘Zong’, which mourns and commemorates the captives mercilessly thrown overboard the slaveship of that name in 1781, in order for the ship-owner to cash in an insurance premium for the loss of ‘goods’.
The installation thus projects an image of swirling, troubled waters onto the floor. Drifting around, continually surfacing and disappearing, are individual letters fleetingly assembling into words and sentences only to dissipate, float away and once again vanish into the depths. Accompanying the image is, moreover, a cacophony of voices, emanating from five different speakers (indeed, one of them is that of NourbeSe Philip herself). Alternating between almost inaudible whispers, sighs and mutterings and fully articulated words and statements, the sounds intermingle and fade away like the floating letters and words, like the people sacrificed by the captain of the Zong and like the millions, who also perished during these voyages.
0mi ebora is part of Gardner’s continued engagement with the conspicuous gaps and silences of Caribbean history, and with the ’unspeakable’ histories that either come to us with the delays and distortions of several centuries, or which have not, or cannot, be told. In her well-known series of ‘Creole Portraits’, Gardner thus – in a shocking gesture – shows the heads of enslaved women (or rather the backs of their heads) with instruments of torture and abortion-inducing plants affixed to their carefully braided hair. Though the women are static and – with their unknown faces – compellingly ‘muted’, the juxtaposition of such objects and poised, well-groomed bodies indicate the constant clash of violence and resistance that defined every enslaved existence. It is characteristic of Gardner’s work, that the subtext of this collision is gendered as well as racial.
Gardner’s choice of an indirect and implied, rather than a fully articulated ‘narrative’, and of a method, which leaves a lot of distance between herself and the portrayed (and never allows the viewer to fully identify with the women) may, at least in part, reflect her consciousness of the risks associated with tackling topics of this nature (trivialization, creative exploitation, re-objectification) – especially for white Creole artists like herself. Despite the painstaking detail and effort with which these women are rendered, they are therefore, in a certain sense, abstractions.
Similarly, the people represented in omi ebora are only indirectly present and without individual features or histories: Instead of floating bodies or faces, there are floating letters and haunting voices. For an event so gruesome, it may indeed surprise, that the sound suggests neither screams, nor struggles or panic. Moaning, muttering and grunting, they strive to be heard, while clamoring to escape the infinite void of eternal silence. Like the violence of the plantation alluded to in the ‘Creole Portraits’, the Middle Passage and everything it entailed, is understood as ‘beyond representation’ and becomes visible to us primarily as an absence, or as fragments reaching us like echoes from the depth of the ocean, and the depth of time.
Gardner’s emphasis is, by her own account, not so much on the workings of history per se, nor on the specific case of the Zong itself, as it is on the sheer incomprehensibility of it all. The installation’s particular inspiration by NourbeSe Philip’s poem is, in other words, not intended to limit its scope. Through the competing voices and swirling waters, Gardner intends to offer the viewer an immersive sensory experience, which has no absolute meaning or didactic purpose. It is, in a phenomenological sense, presented without judgment or over-determination as a site, where both life and meaning is erased. omi ebora is therefore less a meditation on the instrumental reason and cynicism of the slave trade, than a universal, and timeless, reflection on the collapse of meaning.
As Gardner’s case exemplifies, history has been a topic, which many Caribbean artists of European ancestry have felt cannot be adequately addressed, yet must be addressed. In a recent body of work, which occasionally echoes Gardner’s earlier production, but which above all distills and crystallizes his own previous preoccupations (and ultimately differs quite significantly from hers), the British-born Barbadian artist Nick Whittle (b. 1953) likewise confronts the Middle Passage.
Ostensibly taking their cue from Lonnie Bunch’s observation that “Perhaps the single greatest symbol of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is the ships that carried millions of captive Africans across the Atlantic never to return”, the new works are unified by their allusions to the slave trade through the ubiquitous presence of boats and vessels, and by sardine cans hinting at the stifling conditions onboard the ships. Indeed, as laid out here (at times on a base of Scottish tartan, at times indicating a cross, church-steeple or other shape), the sardine cans themselves resemble an armada of ships ready for launch. In the 3-D piece titled ‘In the Name of..’, they form a block topped with a large bowl (suggesting baptism), and in ‘Return, Returning, Returned’, the connotations of an armada are off-set by those of small indigenous vessels, and more circular diasporic movements.
Many European cities, of course, owe their prosperity to that trade, and one of the wealthiest ports in the United Kingdom was Glasgow, to which several titles, including the Merchant City pieces and St. Vincent Street, make specific reference. But while the church, the crosses and the tartan point towards the self-righteousness of empire, the mirrors inserted into the cans, which make up St. Andrew’s Church, Glasgow and Between Worlds reverse the viewer’s gaze and demand to know how we think we are positioned in relation to this trajectory and the current world-order.
By hinting, all at once, at the over-packed slave-ships, at penny-pinching and lean diets, and perhaps also – with their sanitized Waitrose labels – at the ironies of present-day trading arrangements, the sardine-cans thus establish a material basis for several of the works, including Cargo, where the cans are replaced with black barrels – indicating not only the ‘black commodity’ that was then traded, but also pointing towards persistent global inequities, and the ‘barrel economy’ by which many Caribbean households are now sustained.
To this mercantile Scottish/West-Indian or imperial/colonial dichotomy, however, Whittle adds a number of other dimensions, which are cultural, spiritual and personal in character. In Ancestors (which features a reed canoe containing little figures wrapped in so-called ‘African fabrics’, and mounted on a background of shiny coins), the monetary reference is thus accompanied by reminders of both African and pre-Columbian cultures. While summoning up the image of an Amerindian presence, and of journeying more generally, the canoe (also noted in Cargo, Ancestor and Merchant City II) moreover has dual connotations of wombs (or vaginas) and coffins, and suggests a perpetual exchange between life and death, or a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. In other works, like Merchant City II, a similar sense of inevitable repetition is evoked by paper-boats nested into one another in diminishing order (like matryoshka dolls) – though the inference here as well could be that of a seemingly inexhaustible ‘merchant’ fleet.
Though the gist of each piece may vary, the new works in their totality evoke a historical trajectory, which is complex and many-dimensional, but not ambiguous. They also represent an apparent turning point in a practice, which, over the last decade and a half, has become increasingly introspective and opaque, and which often has centered on Whittle’s personal sense of alienation from his adopted community. As if his urge to communicate with the viewer – and, in a certain sense, ‘own up’ – has become more pressing, the new works have occasioned a development and reinvention of his main themes and symbols.
Whereas Whittle’s previous engagement with colonization has asserted a destructive-creative world-view through a sexualized male/female symbolism in combination with more opaque references to a personal trajectory, the focus is now unmistakably historical and polemic. It is, notably, not that the new works are without personal references – on the contrary, they are directly articulated in its overarching theme: as a white English-born resident of Barbados, who was married to a black Barbadian and whose daughters self-identify as black, Whittle’s life has been deeply affected by post-colonial contestations. The elements, which can be regarded as strictly autobiographical are, however, very few. Leaving the viewer with a range of interpretive options as to these works’ spiritual dimension, these works emphatically implicate us all in their economic argument and show no patience for detours or distractions on that account.
It is no coincidence, that the ‘case’ presented by these works in itself resembles a giant ‘tartan-weave’. The coupling of colonial history, material culture, belief-systems, and a general vision of constants and change, death and rebirth, follows the principle of Brathwaite’s ‘tidalectics’ as a multi-dimensional process, that moves forwards and backwards in both time and space. On this basis, the tragedy of the region’s history does, however, also become a resource and, indeed, the foundation for Caribbean nationhood.
Notwithstanding the apparently retrospective and historicizing title, Whittle’s vision of rebirth is taken a step further in the Martiniquan artist Ernest Breleur’s Reconstitution of a Lost Tribe, which envisages a perpetual transformation rather than a perpetual return.
Breleur (b. 1945), who started his career as a painter, was a founding member of ‘Fwomajé’ (established in 1984) – an influential group of Martiniquan artists, who committed themselves to the development of an independent pan-Caribbean aesthetic on an Afro-oriented basis. By 1989, however, Breleur had come to see this endeavor as misguided and parted ways with the group. Since then, he has no longer concerned himself with the retrieval of the distant past, but with the continuous production of something new out of the multitudinous cultural and historical fragments, which converge in the Caribbean. The only ancestral history available to this region is, he maintains, a manufactured one.
From the early 1990s Breleur has worked with discarded x-ray images. In an exacting process, which itself is reminiscent of a form of surgery, he cuts up, twists, loops and assembles the film into three-dimensional shapes, which are further enhanced with staples, strips of color, pieces of tape and fragments of pictures or other materials. These now ‘sculptural’ objects are subsequently attached to strings in a vertical arrangement. The process is repeated numerous times, but with constant variations, so that the end-result is a plenitude of similar, but never identical ’dancing bodies’, which are hung from above and present themselves as a living mass.
In a certain sense, Breleur’s careful examination and re-combination of the x-rays (literally ‘body-parts’ of different origin) therefore recalls Derek Walcott’s vision of the Creole identity, that has been willed and crafted, rather than merely inherited: “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole”. Yet, works like Reconstitution of a Lost Tribe may be more productively linked to Glissant’s (and Deleuze’s) idea of the rhizome (the subterranean root that sends out new shoots in every direction) as the structuring principle in the formation of Caribbean identity. Glissant – and Breleur – thus open up the primarily black/white dialectic, that characterized earlier concepts of creolization to a more unpredictable and unbounded global dynamic, which unfolds laterally, and unpredictably, as well as vertically.
Though the title of this particular installation evokes the image of reassembling something ‘lost’ and ‘tribal’, it should therefore not be construed as an attempt to recall or revive an African past, or any other specific point-of-origin, but rather to suggest and encourage the formation of new identities (emphatically in the plural), which, through their cumulative absorption of elements and traces of discrepant traditions, practices, beliefs and knowledge, intersect with all of history and resonate in the entire world. Like the Caribbean person, whose ancestry is beyond retrieval, each member of the ‘reconstituted tribe’ has been assembled from numerous sources and cannot be traced back to a single point of origin. While his practice may be anchored in a Caribbean experience, Breleur therefore – like Gardner – refuses to let this starting point restrict the scope of his work or its aesthetic orientation. Caribbean citizens are citizens of the world, he contends, as much as slavery was a tragedy of the world, and this legitimizes a method, which – specifically as it unfolds in Breleur’s ‘operating theatre’ – can be understood as a form of artistic ‘cannibalism’ and a projection of possibility, rather than limitations.
With its moving bodies, Reconstitution of a Lost Tribe is a fluid, unstable and ductile entity, and one, which has a compelling sensory richness and presence with its shimmering, reflective surfaces and carnivalesque excess. Not only does it consist of ‘re-assembled bodies’, its impact on the viewer is indeed as corporeal as it is cerebral. The work is therefore neither didactic, nor polemical, but primarily seeks to overwhelm us with its haunting beauty, as it invites viewers to let their interpretation be guided by their own dispositions and histories.
As it describes a transition from a focus on ‘history’ to a projection of ‘infinity’, Breleur’s artistic development is, in a sense, paradigmatic in capturing the essence of the broader theoretical shift, which has taken place in the Caribbean over the last two or three decades, and which privileges expressions of hybridity, fluidity, intertextuality and ambivalence over binaries, origins and essence, and which often foregrounds the work’s ‘presence-in-the-world’, rather than its strategic or critical intent. Reflecting on Breleur’s work, the Martiniquan author Patrick Chamoiseau thus proclaims: “All minor work says: I can be interpreted a little. The important work says nothing, but it suggests this: I can be interpreted endlessly. He who interprets cuts himself off from infinity”.
Ras Ishi Butcher
In contrast to Breleur’s installation, and yet curiously reminiscent of its physical magnitude and its innumerable variations and reflections, the large and complex body of works titled Secret Diaries by the Barbadian artist Ras Ishi Butcher (b.1960) makes a comprehensive effort to come to terms with the conditions and essence of his own existence and cultural identity. It has, regrettably, only been possible to gather a small segment of that monumental statement for this exhibition, but, when contemplating the works on display, it should at all times be remembered, that they are part of a larger ‘organism’, in which every part and detail support the structure as a whole.
Almost reduced to a black and white palette, the Secret Diaries thus consist of several series, which are linked and cross-referenced in both obvious and almost imperceptible ways. Apart from the large female Gang Workers, which are featured in a few of the works, each painting can, in a sense, be regarded as an ‘atom’ with an internal structure of icons and symbols. These ‘atoms’ enter into series, or ‘molecules’, in which their individual structures are echoed, mirrored or inverted. The icons, which from afar look like postage stamps, are sometimes presented face-down (all of them, in the case of Alpha and Omega – the two works, which book-end the ‘number-series’), but when open, they contain a vast variety of images and references, ranging from personal memories, portraits, still-life drawings, sketches of plants, landscapes and chattel-houses to art historical movements and elements of Ras Ishi’s previous oeuvre.
When the works are contemplated as a whole, it becomes clear to the viewer, that their symmetries and inversions are suffused by a black/white dynamic, so that each takes turns to dominate the picture-plane. It also becomes clear, that the icons always transition in kaleidoscopic fashion into new arrangements and configurations. The ‘number-series’ (which is but one ‘molecule’ in the entire body of work) thus describes a gradual transformation from chaos to order: in the first five pieces, the icons are ‘scattered’, but from Diario Secreto Numero Seis and onwards, a clear symmetry emerges (Diario Secreto Numero Cinco and Diario Secreto Numero Seis, which precisely mark the transition from chaos to order, are included in the exhibition). Altogether, the compositions add up to a comprehensive existential reflection on the artist’s own (but extendable) position in relation to a particular historical and personal trajectory, and in relation to the large and changing totality of the ‘known’ and the ‘unknowable’ that determines our individual choices and movements.
While it is easy to be seduced by the intriguing symmetries of these works, the key to the entire body of work are the monumental portraits of the female cane-workers, which interrupt the rhythms and patterns of the other series. Known in multiple incarnations from Ras Ishi’s previous oeuvre, these heroic figures anchor his perspective, and situate the series emphatically in relation to Caribbean history, its plantation-economy, its material reality, and its past and present social arrangements. With these portraits in mind, the patterns and symmetries, which emerged out of ‘chaos’ are shown up as exactly that: nothing but a variation of patterns against a black and white background, a social evolution, which ostensibly has reached its end-point in a universe of finite possibilities.
The very point of these patterns is, in other words, not their alluring transformations, but the difficulty of escaping patterns altogether, of surmounting a particular historical dynamic. Even where ‘order’ has been achieved and the patterns ostensibly evolve, a black/white binary – which of course is particularly poignant in a Caribbean context – persists. Indeed, the all-black and all-white Alpha and Omega, with their downward facing icons, suggest mutual reservation as a de facto condition.
Despite the title’s coquettish allusion to privacy and secrecy (and its alternating citations in English and Spanish), this enormous body of work thus presents a world-view, which may be extremely elaborate, but which ultimately identifies a fundamental clash of material interests as an inescapable fact of Caribbean life. Unlike Breleur’s endless and unpredictable transformations and reconfigurations, which envisage ‘change’ as constant and inevitable, Ishi’s reconfigurations are therefore suggestive of a deceptively changing ‘same’.
If ‘history’ is an impediment for ‘infinity’ (as it translates into freedom and possibilities) in Ras Ishi’s Secret Diary-series, the relationship between the two is yet again reversed in the series known as There is a Meeting Here Tonight by the Guyanese artist Stanley Greaves (b. 1934). Consisting of 14 paintings executed between 1992 and 2001 (12 of which are shown in this exhibition), the series offers a somber meditation on the state of Caribbean politics.
Greaves thus presents us with a peculiarly theatrical world, which not only is shrouded in mystery and darkness and saturated with ominous acts and symbols, but also marked by a telling extinction of ‘normal life’. Throughout the series, which loosely portrays an electoral cycle, we encounter duplicitous politicians, inscrutable messengers and volatile crowds (the ubiquitous dogs stand in for both). There are nightly assemblies, precarious performance-acts and shallow promises of ‘feeding the multitude’ (fish and loaves) – but, while microphones appear everywhere for maximum effect, the public is curiously absent: the speakers merely conjure up the illusion of a receptive crowd. It is indeed through a negation of the supposedly democratic process – for example by treating ‘ballot boxes’ like trashcans – that ‘the people’ (sometimes merely referenced by cane-stalks or other emblems of working class lives) asserts itself. A similar notion of clandestine resistance is expressed in the obeah-rituals featured or alluded to in several of the pieces.
The unmistakable disillusionment with present-day politics, which permeates these works, is thus consistently accompanied by indications of the will, shrewdness and tenacity of people, and, in the final pieces, the darkness and ambivalence gradually disperse. As the statue of the ‘leader’ is removed and a judgment is read in the final pieces, a new dawn emerges on the horizon: Greaves’ final vision (though perhaps based on a Gramscian ‘optimism of the will’) is, therefore, one of justice being served – not by obeah alone, but through institutions being held to account.
Though certainly among Greaves’ most well known works, the Meeting-series, with its narrative structure and relatively unambiguous conclusion, does represent a deviation from the metaphysical surrealism that characterizes his oeuvre in general. It must furthermore be noted that, while Greaves never has been a landscape-painter in the strict sense of the word, many of his works – and the Meeting-series is no exception – register an constant awareness of the Guyanese landscape. As in the work of Wilson Harris (which Greaves admires), the landscape – with its vastness, depth, topographical and geological variation, ancestral presences and layers of time – is thus a metaphysical force in itself. Indeed, the events that take place in this series (save the last few works) generally unfold in a desolate landscape-like setting, against the backdrop of a towering and condensed darkness, where the horizon-line tends to resemble a boundary, if not the actual ‘edge’ of a great void. Notwithstanding Greaves’ personal attachment to the magnificent Guyanese hinterland, this ‘landscape’ seems to identify a civilizational point-of-no-return, which not so much gestures towards the wilderness, as towards an abject state of moral and institutional decay. While the ‘Meeting –series’ quite clearly rests on Greaves’ Caribbean experience, it therefore raises broader questions about history itself: How does progress come about? What gets in its way? How do we guard ourselves against ‘the void’?
If Ras Ishi’s vision, as noted above, was one of history casting a shadow over ‘infinity’, Greaves vision is one of ‘infinity’ as an abyss, which, on the contrary, threatens the progression of history. Nevertheless, in its assertion of hope and human agency, the Meeting-series should assuage any supposition of an altogether a-political or esoteric stance, that might have sprung from Greaves’ perpetual fascination with the visual paradox, the mystery of the cosmos and metaphysics in general.
In Selfie by the Jamaican artist Petrona Morrison (b. 1954), addresses the topical issue of identity-construction in social media. Three screens mounted side-by-side show a young woman (the theatre artist Rachael Allen) ‘composing herself’, as if in front of a mirror or camera. We watch her changing postures and facial expressions as she checks and grooms her face, as she assumes happy, sad, skeptical, assertive, flirty or ‘sincere’ expressions, or changes the angle for better effect. At one point, the camera shifts from her face to her body and reveals her arms to be tightly crossed, suggesting tension and insecurity. Effecting the impression that the woman is perpetually caught up in this activity, the three projections are looped and slightly staggered.
The piece thus at once recalls and throws into perspective Roland Barthes reflections on being photographed:
“Once I feel myself observed through the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’. I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image”,
“What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs (…) should always coincide with my (profound) ‘self’; but it is the contrary that must be said: “myself” never coincides with my image”.
As if speaking back to the second citation, Selfie indeed raises the question, whether there is a ‘profound self’ outside these performances? One of the unsettling aspects of the piece is the viewer’s inability to determine whether the woman at any moment is not performing, whether she ever ‘coincides with herself’ (except perhaps in the image of her tensely crossed arms)? There is always the sense, that she sees herself through the imagined gaze of others, that she continually composes herself in an ongoing negotiation between personal realities, desires, denials, learnt behavior and perceived expectations. As she faces the camera, she communicates to a transient, disembodied audience, that will never meet her gaze, and whose actuality cannot be ascertained. While the young woman’s self-projection may aim at ‘the world’, it therefore also has a disconcertingly solipsistic tinge.
Selfie must be seen in extension of Morrison’s previous use of electronic media to examine the construction of self and reality, as for example in the photographic installation ‘Reality: Representation’ (2004). In that piece, the artist, who is of less than average stature, presents herself in four vertically arranged photographs – each showing a segment of her body – which are so widely spaced apart, that her total height becomes monumental. The self-portrait is, however, intersected by a horizontal display of photographs and x-ray images, which relate to average standards of height and (presumably) to the condition, which has impeded her growth. It seems to be implied, that there is a perceptual and an objective aspect to ‘reality’, which may not always coincide, nor necessarily cancel one another out.
With its totemic character, however, ‘Reality: Representation’ can also be connected to Morrison’s much earlier sculptural works – including the ‘Altarpieces’ owned by the National Gallery of Jamaica – which were invested in a diasporic conception of Africa as an ancestral home. It pays off to consider Selfie in relation to this extended trajectory and Morrison’s ongoing engagement with history, myth, reality and identity. On this background, it will appear that the video-installation not only engages with the universal issue of youth and media-culture, but also asks how black or Caribbean ‘self-construction’ in social media relates to Stuart Hall’s notion of ‘putting the self in the frame’? Is the young woman creating an identity or merely filling it in? How does history – as it for example has been told, interpreted and dealt with in all the preceding works in this exhibition – affect a young Jamaican woman’s self-construction? Does the long shadow of the past fall over her access to the supposedly ‘infinite’ possibilities opened up by the Internet and global connectivity, as implied by Ras Ishi? Does she see herself as a ‘citizen of the world’ like Ernest Breleur? Wherein lies her agency and what are its constraints? Is the black body still, and in this fashion, as Hall put it, ‘the staging of a claim’?
Artists’ approach to history and infinity says something, that bears down on the ultimate question of our possibilities in this world: how much weight should history carry in our individual and collective dispositions, to what extent does it determine or impinge on our lives, how open is it to interpretation, does it describe a particular ‘course’, what does it take for us to change that course – and can we do so merely through the way we ‘think’ about it? Wherever the exhibition’s artists stand on this matter, their position tends to be supported or complicated by a (strong or weak) perception of ‘infinity’, which in this exhibition have ranged from Whittle’s vision of an eternal lifecycle as history’s ‘parallel track’, to Breleur’s poetic ‘re-incarnation’ of the deceased (or diseased) and his suggestion of ever multiplying identities and possibilities. They have also included Ras Ishi’s suggestion of infinite repetition as history’s ‘anti-thesis’ and Gardner’s and Greaves’ projection of an infinite void, which can interrupt the flow of history. In Gardner’s case, history itself thus appears to be ‘irrational’, while Greaves projects a conflict between history and the irrational. Morrison, in turn, implicitly interrogates the relationship between history and the promise of ‘infinite possibilities’ enabled by new technologies.
What has emerged is thus a spectrum of positions and negotiations between history and infinity – between the perception of a forward-moving chain of actions and causalities and various apprehensions of the unpredictable, incomprehensible, chaotic or multidimensional, which altogether posit a host of further questions about human agency, and how we can interpret and position ourselves the world.
Though the preceding discussion barely has scratched the surface of all that can be said about these artists and this subject-matter (and said almost nothing about their aesthetic strategies), it is hoped that the Carifesta XIII Masters Exhibition identifies a number of significant of positions at the more established end of the contemporary field. It is also hoped, that the exhibition – though it does in itself represent a historicizing ‘mapping’- endeavor – has done so in a manner, which is not so firmly rooted at one end of its conceptual arch as to exclude or ignore the other.
In any case, the six artists’ sincere investment in their discipline will be fully rewarded only by the viewer’s own scrutiny and discovery of other intersections between the exhibition’s many and varied works.
Therese Hadchity, PhD
Curator and Aica South Caribbean member
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