What is a Contemporary Caribbean Woman?

By Natalie McGuire Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012 Categories: ArtStew, Features, Updates

“These Women are not playing History’s game, and they refuse to be trapped in a dream” – Annie Paul (1998)

Market vendor women, dancing women, women carrying baskets of fruit on their head, women wearing aprons. These are the dominating images of the female in ‘Caribbean Art’ that adorns our gallery walls, hotel rooms, and gift shop souvenirs. Depictions of women as subservient, poor, not particularly attractive, and all from the same ethnic background. If someone never had contact with the Caribbean other than these images, they would possibly be somewhat disappointed when visiting to find a scarcity of women, as such, in any island.

Why this has been the iconography of choice, has been analyzed by the handful of art historians in the region since the beginning of Caribbean art criticism. What is perhaps important for our contemporary art thinking though, is to move past the ‘why’. The ‘why’ is repetitive: ties with the colonial representation that have survived centuries of change to still produce a stereotypical model of what a Caribbean Woman looks like – a quaint reflection of homely subservience which tourists lap up like rum punch. If they wanted a painting of a woman in power, or wearing heels and makeup, they would look to Western and Cosmopolitan image banks and galleries. And the Caribbean Woman is of course always of African descent, despite the region being very ethnically diverse in heritage.

The Head Tie by Boscoe Holder

Artists such as Boscoe Holder (1921 – 2007) attempted to shift this perception and made the Caribbean Woman appealing in a sensual way. For example, the much reproduced work The Head Tie, presenting a half naked woman lounging on a sea grass sofa in a tropical setting. But this was not likely a modern representation of the Caribbean women Holder would have encountered in his lifetime. It could be argued that it is painted from the view of the colonial man…admiring his West Indian possessions. Although the woman is not directly engaging with the viewer, she is not unattainable, and her lack of clothing has sexual undertones. So perhaps more visually appealing than a plump market vendor, but still a depiction of subservience.

In contemporary art in the Caribbean, these previous stereotypical images have been deconstructed directly by female artists, challenging their identities as women living in this region. Examples of this depiction may be seen most prominently in the 1998 exhibition Lips Sticks and Marks. This “re-presentation” (the chosen phrasing by Christopher Cozier)[1] by seven contemporary artists in the Caribbean of their identity as women was a bold response to stereotypes. Joscelyn Gardner’s (b.1961) In the Chamber of My Birth (a repeating voyage to myself) (1998) contest these multiple failures and delivered a powerful creation that contemplated to state of the female in the Caribbean; her creation, becoming and survival. Here, “the artist as a mother becomes at once the island and all her peoples. Cocooned in a ‘womb pod’…she is transported in her sea-faring vessel through the waters of our creation to a utopian ‘nothingness’ where the multiple fragments of Self unite in perfect harmony.”[2] The majestic yet confronting installation expressed the correlation between the contemporary Caribbean woman’s complex and the region’s painfully disturbing post-colonial complex.

Brianna McCarthy's Jump Out Yourself

However, in more recent times, the possibility arrises that there could be a new image of the Caribbean Woman brewing and coming through in full force through our emerging artists, who are finding new waves to overlay the foundation for a new iconography in a less aggressive manner. By seemingly omitting interaction with earlier stereotypes, they are envisioning a clean slate of representation. Take for example the 2011 piece by Brianna McCarthy (b.1984) entitled Jump Out Yourself. There is no angst of frustration at her predicament of being a female artist in the region. The collage piece could be seen as an exploration of her identity as a woman and the roles associated with it, and the complexities of sieving through those roles to find her personal purpose.

Mark King- From the Plastic Series

Those are not ideas confined to a Caribbean setting. Mark King (b.1983), depicts the contemporary Caribbean woman as the sophisticated, internationally relevant, fashion icon that some young Caribbeans are, in his Plastic series of photographs. Gone are the slavish representations of ladies working in cane fields, and not as a counter to those images, just as an interpretation of the women he encounters on a daily basis. Ebony G. Patterson (b. 1981) depicts the modern working class Jamaican woman with accurate social realism in Entourage (2011). Michelle Isava uses her own body to convey her uneasiness at being a young Caribbean woman through her striking performance pieces. For example the haunting Why did you go so far? (2011). Attempting to escape from a prison made up of her wire bed frame and a window sill, Isava in a white child’s dress explores the contorting limitations of her body whilst chanting “Emergency”. The piece ends with setting herself free but being unable to cope with her new freedom, physically struggling to utilize her motor skills. Eventually she surrenders to the seeming comfort of a white sheet, covering herself entirely in it. Again though, this piece is done without reference to a Caribbean setting, rather just to an interior placement.

It may seem  a bit ambitious and naive to claim that these new works are in no way a reaction to the mainstream images of Caribbean women in art. But let’s put a hypothesis forward: an image becomes so mundane, so repeated, that it no longer challenges people’s perceptions but merely fades into decoration; this opens opportunity for a new perception of the image to be independently created. Take for instance, the explosion of Modern Art. Perhaps the style of Renaissance idealism, which carried through centuries, faded into the background and allowed a clean slate for Modernists to explore the notion of what ‘art’ is. It’s not a response to the generic, simply disinterest in its existence.

This merely scratches the surface of representations of women in the Caribbean. However there seems to be a refreshed liberation in contemporary works focusing on women, where the woes of colonial complex are drowning in the potential of a fresh Caribbean identity.


[1] ‘From The Inside Out’ Lips, Sticks and Marks (1998)

[2] www.joscelyngardner.com

Natalie McGuire
Natalie McGuire

Natalie McGuire is a Barbadian Art Writer whose MA at The University of Auckland is a thesis deconstructing Caribbean diasporic representation in museums. She is on the board of the Fresh Milk Arts Platform Inc. in Barbados, is on the committee of the West Indian Society in Auckland, and has regularly contributed to publications such as ARC Magazine and AICA Southern Caribbean. She co-curated the Caribbean Community Day at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and currently is on the project team for Transoceanic Visual Exchange.