Reporting from Interpretations: Gardening in the Tropics

By Holly Bynoe Tuesday, May 29th, 2012 Categories: ARC, Features, Reports, Updates

On May the 25th at Medulla Art Gallery in Woodbrook, POS, Trinidad, ARC Magazine brought together a group of scholars, writers and artists to celebrate the launch of Issue 5 and also to develop much needed dialogue around the work of Jasmine Thomas Girvan. The event titled Interpretations: Gardening in the Tropics, brought together Gabrielle Hezekiah, Melanie Archer, Sharon Millar, Marsha Pearce, Annalee Davis and presented new works by Michelle Isava and Jaime Lee Loy.

All images by Kibwe Brathwaite

Below is an excerpt from the introduction and abstracts in order to facilitate the archival of this conversation.

I want to open with a collection of culled quotations that were assembled by writer Jonathan Lethem in the Ecstasy of Influence.  Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others, but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that understanding.

These pieces strike a particular chord when they begin to formalize the basis of how artists have used various experiential moments along with intensive studies as fodder for work. JTG was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1961. In 1980 she attended Parsons School of Design, where she won the prestigious Tiffany Honour Award for excellence; and graduated in 1984 with a BFA in Jewelry and Textile design. In 2000, she moved with her family to Trinidad and Tobago. Jasmine credits this shift in geography with assimilating a more extensive awareness and participation in the wider Caribbean.

Gardening in the Tropics isn’t for the tenuous and timid, it is rooted in the vexed landscape of the West Indies. Fuelled by the potency, reverence and mystery of the land while borrowing from and reminiscing upon its embedded literature, politics and mythology.

Jasmine Thomas Girvan's - Ancestral Echoes, Advice and Devices

Tonight, I view this as a critical and much needed reflection and celebration of the works of one of the leading female contemporary artists in the Caribbean. This event has been churning subliminally in the minds and spirits of many who encountered the collection physically and those who are still coming to understand its relevance and scope through Issue 5. In many ways in this early prototypical stage of advancing the nature of visual literacy and community, it is vital that we are able to come together and acknowledge, question and interrogate works of this nature and draw on this well spring as a fertile platforms of inquiry.

I invite you to open your minds, as we inhabit a world of hybrids, mischief, imagined beauty and danger- forms which may threaten to strangle and exhaust you, may also within split seconds enrapture and seduce you. Just like the green of our fecund spaces and its ability to devour if ignored.

Introduction by Holly Bynoe.

Presenters Abstracts:

Melanie Archer’s presentation provided a personal point of access via which the audience started to grasp the complexities present in Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s body of work, Gardening in the Tropics. Although the work can be examined through philosophical and aesthetic points of view, her focus is instead the artist’s own thoughts and patterns that go into the development of a piece and, eventually, a body of work.

Gabrielle Hezekiah reflected on questions of body, idea, trace and event, which is important to her own experience of this work, while Sharon Millar’s presentation was centered on the concept of the liminal state and its relevance in Caribbean societies who share a common tragic history. Through the framework of Thomas-Girvan’s work she discussed the accountability of the artist’s perspective along its relationship to the audience. Marsha Pearce’s presentation looks at the relationship between some of the sculptural pieces from the artist’s 2011 exhibition and Olive Senior’s book of poetry published in 1994 – both entitled Gardening in the Tropics. It sets the relationship within a framework of what Cuban novelist and essayist Antonio Benítez-Rojo calls “reciprocal seductions.”

And lastly Annalee Davis’ presentation sought to develop an understanding of how Thomas-Girvan’s sculptures may be read within the genre of magical realism through the combination of varied materials, together with the integration of the logical and the supernatural, the amalgamation of interior and exterior human realities and the linking of the literary with visual art forms – altogether creating a seemingly alternate reality where the viewer crosses a threshold, enters this world of multiple planes of existence, and beliefs.

Two new video and installation pieces by artists Michelle Isava and Jaime Lee Loy, were also presented. They were given the challenge of reading Senior’s poetry specifically “Knot Garden” and ‘Meditation on Red“ respectively and coming up with extended narratives that interrogate their political, societal and personal positions.  Isava’s focus was mainly grounded in a durational performance that had an extended element of a video installation. In It featured footage of local bush, its verdant hills, valleys and water sources. The figure in a white dress is only a spectre, appearing and disappearing for only a few moments, barely visible in the distance, cautiously tentatively maneuvering its space. The artist’s back was  presented to the audience in prayerful penance, or doubly as an act of shame. As a durational piece without beginning or end, the concealed body is doubled, being the subject of the video and of the present.  The double vagueness represents the weight of identity and presence of being in and of the Tropics.

Photograph from In It. As an in situ performance. Image by Kibwe Brathwaite

Jaime Lee Loy’s ‘Say it with flowers’ contextualized the performative element in reference to behaviors that are perpetuated in Trinidadian culture. The artist states “ In Trinidad we use the term ‘Eat Nice’ to describe someone who can ‘hold their tongue’ or who can remain pleasant when they ought to protest or voice an unpleasant concern.  I am contemplating the idea of forced composure, as an artist, a national citizen, and as a woman who has internalized and hidden abuse occurring in both childhood and adulthood.

screenshot from Say it with flowers by Jaime Lee Loy

Flowers are a common trope for beauty and are associated with femininity. They are used to beautify and can be used to mask an unsettling situation. They decorate coffins, they are used as persuasive apologies in domestic conflicts, and they are painted, printed, and branded in excess – to represent an island fraught with economic inequity, social crises, and political corruption. I also refer to the agency that is afforded by artistic process, when fiction and experimentation can give new voice.  ‘Say it with flowers’ is a video operating on a purely emotive and visual level to express the feeling associated with forcing oneself to ‘eat nice.’”

Podcast, excerpts and complete papers will be presented and archived in the coming weeks on ARC. To view more photographs visit ARC’s facebook page.

Holly Bynoe
Holly Bynoe

Holly Bynoe is a curator, visual artist and writer based in the Caribbean. She is the Executive Director of ARC Magazine, and a graduate of Bard College International Center of Photography (2010) where she earned her M.F.A. in Advanced Photographic Studies. She currently holds the position of Chief Curator at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, and is co-director of the annual arts conference Tilting Axis and Caribbean Linked Residency Program.