‘Hustle de Money – a Performance by Bertie aka Big Red aka General outta Glitter Zone’ –Sexuality in Caribbean SocietyWednesday, February 6th, 2013 Categories: Features, Updates
Sexuality in the Caribbean remains a point of contention when examining the region from a sociological standpoint. Religion has had a tremendous impact on virtue in West Indian society, dating back to the days when Christianity was introduced and made mandatory in many territories. However another perception of the Caribbean, which is used as a stereotype to draw crowds, is that of an exotic playground, somewhere fun and free without inhibitions or consequences.
The moral code of conduct stipulated by religion is at the opposite end of the spectrum to this notion of wild abandon, and this contradictory and sometimes hypocritical struggle manifests in images which surround us in everyday life, and have become so commonplace that the irony no longer strikes us as odd.
For example, on many walls and telephone poles around Barbados, especially in the capital Bridgetown, are posters for fetes, some vulgar and usually depicting women as sexual objects – but there are also signs placed all over the island proclaiming ‘Jesus is coming.’ Barbadian photographer Mark King created a series titled ‘Call and Response’ where he wrote on these signs and photographed them, in a tongue in cheek look at the severity of religion. These signs, although not meant to be offensive, were taken down almost immediately, presumably because they were seen as inappropriate; yet new provocative posters continue to be put up every day.
It is this tension, and precarious relationship between piety and hyper-sexuality that artist Alberta Whittle sought to investigate through her piece ‘Hustle de Money – a Performance by Bertie aka Big Red aka General outta Glitter Zone.’ Whittle was born in Barbados, but has been based in the UK for most of her adult life. She took part in a residency at the Fresh Milk Art Platform in her home country from October to December last year, and her performance took place there during FRESH MILK IX on Thursday, November 29th 2012– the day before Barbados’ Independence Day.
From the title to the installation she crafted as the stage for her piece, Whittle used fete posters as clear inspiration for her work. The title of course uses the language of the posters, with dancehall lyrics, the fixation on money, the aliases and stating of territory, but of note is that none of her aliases are gender specific. The names used on these posters already imply a false identity, but the gender is also significant due to the extremely uneven ways men and women are portrayed; the men are always dominant and exuding machismo, while the women are exposed in poses which show their availability to their male counterparts. Removal of this dividing factor gave Whittle the freedom to experiment with both sides.
At the forefront of her installation was a large frame, painted with the colours of Barbados’ flag, the outline of the island and the word ‘Independence’ emblazoned across the bottom. Over this, the words ‘BIG RED’ were spray painted continuously, obscuring the seemingly patriotic tribute. Again we see one of the ‘akas’ being used as a façade, hiding the Barbadian imagery but also becoming part of its fundamental design. Behind the frame, two billboards were plastered with posters – which at first glance could have been collected from an excursion to town – but upon closer inspection, show Whittle to be the subjects of the flyers, occupying both male and female roles. She continued to undermine the assumption that she need fit into either mould, while poking fun at the personas in these contrived representations of ‘bashment culture.’
Listen to Bad Boys Ain’t No good.
Between the billboards, there were two television sets playing silent movies, one featuring several men dancing or ‘wukking up,’ and one with men posing shirtless, flexing their muscles for the camera. Both televisions were encircled by rings of flowers, and protruding between the two was a bundle of cane. Gender roles continued to be subverted here – while the arrangement of objects and the actions of the men are obviously meant to express virility, the flowers are very effeminate, as is this idea of performing and being exposed; particularly when placed next to the posters. The absence of sound also removed the videos from their contexts, and we can only focus on the bodies and movements, most notably the pelvic gyrations and thrusting. The question can be asked, who is this behaviour for the benefit of? These men have recorded themselves and chosen to broadcast it, because they feel they have something people want to see. However, without accompanying audio, and displayed in this manner, the self-gratification is brought to the foreground and these men are in fact displaying a vanity that is generally thought to be a very feminine trait.
The final part of the installation shows a pair of bronzed shoes slung over a cable overhead. This is the most subtle aspect of the composition, yet in a way given prime placement as they oversee the entire event from on high. Shoes over a telephone wire are a regular sight in the urban landscape, and also have personal significance to Whittle:
“In the neighbourhood where I grew up, I always used to see shoes suspended from telephone wires. I was always drawn to these shoes and instinctively wanted to retrieve them and take them home with me…When I mentioned them to my sister, she said shoes dangling from the wire signified that drugs were peddled in this area. Hence, these shoes adopted a different meaning for me and became an image of demarcation of space, as much as of gang culture.”[i]
The shoes, although in a rural setting as opposed to urban areas, could be easily missed as they are not an unusual occurrence – but for Whittle they hold traces of nostalgia, and represent a loss of innocence. The fact that they have been gilded gives them an added sense of weight and value.
Before the performance began, Whittle stood behind the large frame, hands on her hips. She wore a white vest, black shorts and ripped up black tights, barefoot with her hair in corn rows. To her right, Barbadian visual artist Janelle Griffith was decked out in yellow, black and blue to echo the flag colours. She stood behind a bench stacked with bananas.
The performance itself consisted of Whittle adopting poses like those on the posters, distinctly male or female, then inching slowly towards audience while she held the posture. As she approached the viewers, she repeated phrases from the posters, a different one for each pose, and each relating to the gender she was representing at the time. She would settle on one audience member for each position, and come right up to them, entering their personal space. Griffith would then get actively involved, handing the chosen participant a hand of bananas, and instruct them to place the fruit on Whittle’s body until there were none left. At that point, Whittle would stand up, letting the bananas fall for the participant to pick up, and return to the frame to assume the next pose and begin again.
Listen to If It Don’t Make Money It Don’t Make Sense.
The only costume change Whittle used to differentiate between masculine and feminine was to pull on black track pants over her tights for the male role. Otherwise, the vest and hairstyle gave the performance an intriguing androgynous quality, and the verbal and physical language were more than adequate for the audience to understand whether they were being addressed by a man or a woman. The phrases she chose, such as ‘Bad boys ain no good, good boys ain no fun. I love my Mr. Wrong,’ ‘If it don mek money, it don mek sense’ ‘Get dat easy,’ and ‘Gals dem ah bubble,’ also took on a different life when used without the visual assault of the poster behind it;
“The visual language of the fete posters, which mirrors dancehall lyrics is often highly polarised. The phrases which frame the overall appearance of the poster, appear as either spiritual or excessively sexual. When these phrases are taken out of the context from the song, the words often act as aspirational mantras, slogans or invitations for play.”[ii]
This displacement, combined with the awkwardness of Whittle’s movements as she held the poses, added a level of absurdity to the event and at first it seemed some viewers were not sure how to react. Laughter was tentative, and a few people seemed apprehensive, no doubt wondering whether they would be chosen to take part and have their personal space invaded. But as it went on, people relaxed and became more responsive and open with their expressions – not to mention some very creative ways to use the bananas.
Despite the humorous side, there was also an inherent vulnerability on Whittle’s part – offering the bananas to randomly selected people and giving them permission to place these phallic symbols anywhere on her body was releasing her control, leaving her at the mercy of others. For example, having a banana put in her mouth during the performance raised a laugh, as she continued to speak around it – but in another context, being forced to ‘perform’ in whatever situation you are in takes a more sinister undertone. This was also a reminder that, although she was playing with gender, Whittle is still a female, and to be in that position can be dangerous in other circumstances.
Apart from being physically susceptible to the will of others, Whittle also opened up and made herself emotionally vulnerable by ending the session with each person saying ‘I love you.’ Although this is still in keeping with the practice of some men calling out flippantly to women they find attractive, her tone of voice changed each time she said it, and she made eye contact with the person she was addressing. The way she professed love after allowing herself to be ‘used’ speaks to the underlying desire, which transcends gender, to feel affection in some way – even if it comes from the over-sexualized fronts that are masqueraded on the posters and in society.
After the last set of bananas had been distributed, Whittle chanted ‘Fresh Milk crew all large off,’ while Griffith blew a whistle between each repetition. Whittle went to the people she had previously approached to retrieve the bananas. The whistle blowing, aside from signalling the end of the performance, also brought to mind the idea of wolf-whistling. In a sense, the piece was about the Caribbean equivalent of a wolf-whistle; trying to express attraction and get the attention of others, but going about it in such a way that can translate as uncouth or demeaning. Whittle carefully cradled all the bananas in her arms, stopping to pick up any that fell, and she carried her burden into the house, continuing to hail everyone until her voice trailed away and the whistling ceased.
Listen to Fresh Milk Crew All Large Off.
Hustle de Money by Bertie aka Big Red aka General outta Glitter Zone combined elements of playfulness with serious ideas about social awareness and ownership of the body as it pertains to both men and women. Whittle has said that she feels she has only scratched the surface where this loaded topic is concerned, and would be interested to continue along this vein. She hopes to continue investigating these projections of self-image, the motivations behind them and how they factor into a community where morality is said to be held in such high regard. There may never be resolution to this paradox; opposing extremes exist on a variety of delicate and complex issues, but it is important to acknowledge these societal discrepancies rather than shy away from the topic because of discomfort or sanctimony, and be open to conversation and compromise.
[i] Alberta Whittle, Progress, (November 23rd 2012), quoted in http://albertawhittlenavigation.blogspot.com/
[ii] Alberta Whittle, Your Body is my playground…. (November 14th 2012), quoted in http://albertawhittlenavigation.blogspot.com/