Re-membering Art: NGC Bocas Lit Fest introduces Art in the CaribbeanThursday, May 3rd, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates
The 2012 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival, was recently held from April 26-29th. One of the many events on the festival’s programme was a dialogue organised around the book entitled Art in the Caribbean: An Introduction, published in 2010 by New Beacon Books, London. Art in the Caribbean is co-authored by British writer Anne Walmsley and Guyanese artist, art teacher and poet Stanley Greaves in collaboration with Trinidad-born contemporary artist Christopher Cozier.
The book is organised into two sections. The first is a gallery of forty artworks made in the Caribbean region by various artists from the 1940s to 2000s. Art in an array of configurations is featured, including painting, drawing, sculpture in wood, leather, steel and papier mâché, ceramics, festival art, installations, digital prints, video, art in private collections and public, community-based work. The gallery section is followed by a historical background narrative and timeline of the Caribbean in relation to art. This contextual information moves from the Pre-Columbian period 5000 BC – AD 1500, to the colonial and early independence phase 1500-1900 and the modern and contemporary era 1900-2010, with focus on such places as the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Dutch Caribbean, French Antilles, Guyana, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago.
How can one book capture the full spectrum of the Caribbean and its creative enunciations? A publication like Art in the Caribbean cannot be produced without silences being a loud presence within its pages. An ambitious book such as this one, therefore stirs a number of issues which ask us to confront the Caribbean and artistic practice with boldness and honesty. Several key matters emerge as topics for debate and for the very necessary analysis of ourselves. Concerns include those of selectivity, of inclusions and exclusions, of the archiving of art, of accessibility, visibility, knowledge and awareness, of the dynamics of a Caribbean understood as both physical and mental geography with artworks being made inside and outside of the region in a milieu of hyper-mobility, of the politics of printed versus online publishing and documentation, of notions of what constitutes art, of the pedagogies of art and the nexus of art and history for Caribbean people. These are the issues, which formed nodes of engagement for a conversation at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest among Anne Walmsley, Christopher Cozier, artist and teacher Andy Jacob and me. Our discussion was moderated by Nicholas Laughlin, writer, editor and one of the festival’s organisers. What follows now are some of my reflections on our talk.
“The book tries to give a shape to something,” says Laughlin. But what is that something? Does the book, which Laughlin calls “a kind of synthesis,” attempt to give shape to a category – one we might call Caribbean art? Laughlin poses the question: What does Art in the Caribbean do that previous accounts do not do? In response, Andy Jacob shares that for the Caribbean there are few previous accounts of art that attempt to weave different narrative threads into a single resource that can be widely seen. He adds that he has had to build an archive of his own using information from different exhibition catalogues over the years, suffering – as he puts it – in his attempts to access bodies of information. What Jacob articulates is a suffering under the condition of a splintered “public culture of memory” in the Caribbean – to use Jamaican scholar David Scott’s words here. With a dearth of regional repositories, information about artists, artworks and art exhibitions often remain localised, as fragments, mirroring the island fragments themselves. “We in the Caribbean…have been careless with memory,” writes Scott. Certainly, with respect to art, we have not paid enough attention to systems of re-membering. I am using the word re-membering deliberately here to mean the recovering and putting together of fragments of knowledge and the making public of such a “synthesis.” We have not given sufficient focus to modes of narrowing the distance between discrete sites of awareness where art making and art displaying more often than not enter the consciousness of small publics: the island, town or community where an artist practices or where art is shown. Christopher Cozier echoes this sentiment of a scarcity of central sources for re-membering art and considers the value of memory access that Art in the Caribbean offers for Caribbean students engaging with the visual arts syllabi for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) as well as the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE). Art in the Caribbean is a critical form of public memory, for it is in its re-membering – its putting together of bits and pieces – that a shape of something which we might call Caribbean art can emerge.
The work of re-membering does not however come without concerns of legitimacy. Does a printed publication have more authority than an online publication? Does art re-membered in print hold greater status? Does the physicality of a book make memory more tangible? Does a book make artists and artworks more significant, more memorable? “The book question remains unresolved,” says Cozier but he sees print and the Internet as what he calls “parallel realities” in documenting our art. For me, part of the work of cultivating art memory for us is not only re-membering fragments of information but also re-membering or putting together print and online modes of publishing so that they enhance and expand each other. Together, offline and online forms of archiving art made by Caribbean people can help us see the shape of something.
How we see also deserves consideration. Notions of seeing are critical because Art in the Caribbean is particularly concerned with creating an opportunity to see various works of art made by Caribbean people in different locations and contexts. The book sets up what I describe as a compound way of seeing the Caribbean in relation to artistic practice. A compound eye is that which is made up of many, separate visual receptors. Each receptor has its own lens and each lens catches its own image. A compound eye gives rise to a mosaic image. The more lenses the compound eye has, the higher the resolution or detail of the mosaic image. This compound way of seeing is critical for a space like the Caribbean, which we cannot hope to see and understand with one lens or in a stereoscopic way. Lenses are required in Curacao, St Vincent, Haiti; lenses must be focused in each of the various islands and anywhere else Caribbean people may find themselves: in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, in Brooklyn, in Melbourne. The mosaic image is a re-membering of the various lenses. A compound way of seeing can give us a higher resolution image of what a category, which we might call Caribbean art, looks like.
For Walmsley, re-membering and seeing art that is made in the region is key to our memory. In an excerpt from the book’s preface, Walmsley and co-author Greaves note:
…a significant distinction exists between work made by artists based outside and within the physical region. Art made from indigenous and locally available materials; made from within the climate and conditions of the Caribbean, reflecting its contemporary concerns and the imagery of its daily realities…this is our book’s concern…Art in the Caribbean…is dedicated to the region’s young
Re-membering what is here – artworks produced within the Caribbean region – is a political stance which I too feel must be taken, specifically in our region’s classrooms, in the teaching of subjects like art history, because so much of what we know and can call to mind about art is from outside. From my teaching experience, our students are more acutely aware of Van Gogh and Da Vinci than they are of Wilson Bigaud of Haiti or Wifredo Lam of Cuba. My support for re-membering what is here however is in no way a disregarding or invalidation of artworks being made outside of the region, for as Cozier correctly observes: “ideas coming from one location manifest in other locations.” We need to teach those kinds of connections. Indeed, we need to also re-member and teach what is happening artistically beyond our archipelago. Yet, it is important for Caribbean people to know that whatever is taking shape is not only happening outside “there” – that the shape’s contours and silhouette are also being sketched here.
Ultimately, what is critical is that we be more careful with our art memory; that we make sure to archive and document our artistic practices occurring here, there, north and south, left and right; that we remember to re-member our art, for in doing so, we lend a perceptible shape to something even if that shape is not final.
- Scott, David. “The Archaeology of Black Memory: An Interview with Robert A. Hill.” Small Axe 5 (1999): 80-150. Page 81.
- Walmsley, Anne and Stanley Greaves. Art in the Caribbean: An Introduction. London: New Beacon Books, 2010. Pages vii-viii.