Christopher Cozier: Instigator, Mentor and Cultural LeaderTuesday, January 14th, 2014 Categories: Features, Updates
Selene Wendt of the Global Art Project, writes a feature on Christopher Cozier, renowned artist, writer, curator and cultural advocate based in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Cozier has been honoured with a Prince Claus Award for his ongoing dedication to promoting Caribbean art within a societal context. His practice reflects on what it means to be Trinidadian or Caribbean, while his work as a cultural advocate involves a wider discussion of the Caribbean as a critical space shaped by a collective historical experience, and generously defined as wherever Caribbean people are.
Christopher Cozier is a renowned artist, writer, curator and cultural advocate based in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He has been honored with a Prince Claus Award for his ongoing dedication to promoting Caribbean art within a societal context, a commitment that extends beyond his own studio practice into the local community, the entire Caribbean region, and also internationally. In his work as a visual artist, he tends to reflect on what it means to be Trinidadian or Caribbean, while his work as a cultural advocate involves a wider discussion of what the Caribbean actually is. He defines the Caribbean as more of a space than a place – a space shaped by ways of seeing and thinking derived from a collective Caribbean historical experience, and generously defined as wherever Caribbean people are. Naturally, this involves a multiplicity of stories, journeys and sensibilities, and stands in distinct contrast to the simplified postcard image of the Caribbean.
For over 25 years Christopher Cozier has been committed to expanding the parameters of contemporary Caribbean art practice and its surrounding discourse. He has been a major contributor to Small Axe – a Caribbean journal and platform for critical exchange and creativity. He has also been an editorial advisor for Bomb Magazine’s Americas issues in 2003, 2004 and 2005. In 2006 he co-founded Alice Yard in Port of Spain, Trinidad with Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard. With an international artist residency program and a thriving music scene happening alongside exhibitions of contemporary and experimental art, Alice Yard is truly a melting pot for cultural creativity in the widest and most vibrant sense of the term.
Christopher’s advocacy of Caribbean art on a global level has also translated beautifully to his role as a curator. Among other projects, he co-curated Paramaribo, Span in 2010 and worked with Tatiana Flores on Wrestling with the Image shown at The Art Museum of the Americas in Washington DC in 2011. Currently, he is a satellite advisory curator for SITE Santa Fe, 2014. Citing from the Prince Claus Fund’s jury report, Christopher has been honored “for his influential role and open, inclusive approach in developing art and culture across the Caribbean; for selflessly and generously creating possibilities for others, inspiring and mentoring younger generations; for his disciplined commitment to intellectual inquiry and critical discourse.”
There is so much to say about Christopher’s work as a cultural leader, but I would also like to express a few words about his artistic practice, as there is a very distinct and relevant parallel between the two. Christopher works in a variety of media, including drawing, printmaking, sound and installation and has exhibited all over the world, from Copenhagen to Havana, in museums including The Brooklyn Museum, The Tate and The Museum of Art and Design in New York to name only a few. Early this year he had his first major solo exhibition in New York at David Krut Projects, featuring mixed-media drawings on paper, monotypes, linocuts and silkscreen prints. His visual language is as much about personal and collective experience as it is about strictly formal aspects, expressed in what I would describe as a perfect balance between drawing, printmaking and painting.
An important aspect of his exhibition at David Krut Projects involved a repeated geometric pattern that brings to mind the breeze bricks familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Caribbean or elsewhere in the tropics. These sort of decorative open bricks are typically used to open and ventilate space without containing it, functioning as a powerful symbol that relates to notions of possibility and longing for those in political and societal transition anywhere in the world. This is the magic of Christopher’s work, his ability to transform something as mundane as a brick into imagery that has tremendous theoretical, political and visual impact.
These factors have also shaped his work Tropical Night, which he started in 2006 that includes an increasing number of works on paper that have been arranged differently with each new exhibition. I mention this work in particular because I feel that it is representative of his overall approach. Tropical Night can be described as a collection of visual vignettes of the Caribbean today with references to the Caribbean’s colonial past, along with observations from Christopher’s travels abroad. It’s fascinating to see what happens to the drawings from his sketchbook when they are displayed in large blocks of two hundred or more at a time, resulting in a fluid and ever-changing personal and collective narrative. The way he integrates his sketches into powerful large-scale works is similar to how he creates meaningful spaces of opportunity with very limited resources.
In general terms, Christopher’s work investigates the problematic conditions of post-independence Trinidad. He addresses notions of how symbols of power both remain and change with time. He also unveils the complex narratives of economic and societal development and the loss of history and culture to commercial expansion.
Christopher is engaged in an ongoing critical communication that is solidly anchored in his visual vocabulary. The narratives that unfold in works such as Tropical Night reveal that Christopher is never afraid to question himself or others, and is always prepared to make new discoveries along the way about who he is and where he is, what it means to be who he is and where he is at this particular point in time, and even more importantly, how that also pertains to those around him.
In my written laudation for Christopher, my focus was on how he widened the discourse about Caribbean Contemporary Art. The first time I met Christopher was in conjunction with the exhibition Equatorial Rhythms at The Stenersen Museum in Oslo, Norway. His installation Sound System fit beautifully into the context of an exhibition that featured visual artists with strong ties to music. Cozier’s work was inspired by an analysis of the inner structures of music and an examination of the similarities and differences between indigenous music traditions and modern street music, such as rap and dancehall. With Sound System Cozier defined a space for experiencing music that was ideological as well as physical.
The entire time we were installing the work, carefully arranging each drawing, sound-checking each speaker, adjusting the lights, and tweaking every detail, he had me engaged in a captivating conversation that has stuck in my mind ever since. In particular, I remember him speaking passionately about the importance of broadening the dialogue about Caribbean contemporary art. We spoke as much about music as we did about art, exchanging ideas about everything from our mutual interest in reggae to the significance of recent developments within Caribbean music. Naturally, the conversation wasn’t so much about his own work; rather it was about the people he was inspired by and collaborating with such as the renowned poet Christian Campbell. Campbell’s work reflects a similar interest in and analysis of the shared cultural roots of the Caribbean, and the development of its music. At the time, I was struck by the extent to which Christopher’s level of engagement extended far beyond the walls of his installation, which is perfectly in keeping with his overall approach to contemporary art practice.
As an acclaimed artist in his own right, Christopher Cozier has exhibited extensively throughout the Caribbean and worldwide. He has taken advantage of his experience and expertise to play a vital role in developing innovative creative networks and platforms for progressive thought and artistic practice. He has succeeded in changing the discourse about Caribbean contemporary art though an inclusive approach that invariably involves others in fruitful dialogues and collaborations. He has a rare talent for turning academic conversation into real change on the grassroots level, by listening, sharing, exchanging, challenging, questioning, and collaborating with others.
Thinking back to our lively talks during the installation of Equatorial Rhythms, I remember Christopher telling me about Alice Yard, an alternative venue for creative experimentation in Port of Spain. The combination of Cozier’s experience with contemporary art was complimented by Sean Leonard’s accomplishments as an architect and Nicholas Laughlin’s role as an established writer. Seven years later, Alice Yard thrives as a place where music, art, performance and poetry are all part of the cultural mix of creative improvisation and exchange. Alice Yard could almost be described as a continuous, open-ended conversation that is being heard far beyond the physical site. This is a spot where the differentiation between local and global is both highly present and completely invisible.
Throughout his practice as an artist, writer, curator and cultural advocate, there is one question that keeps coming up. “What is the Caribbean?” Christopher explains that the Caribbean is a critical space shaped by wherever Caribbean people are, that it is about who is looking and who is concerned about this space, and what it has to offer. Christopher has managed to create the kind of environments that have changed the balance of the equation in regards to who is included and who is excluded from the wider context of Caribbean Contemporary Art.
In an interview in the Artzpub film production Critical Space visible on YouTube, Christopher Cozier defines what the Caribbean means to him. He emphasizes that he is not declaring a territory; rather he is asking a question. Naturally, he speaks eloquently about the importance of engaging in conversations with people in an expanded intellectual arena. This really captures the essence of his ambitions. The answer to Christopher Cozier’s question is as fluid, flexible, open-minded and inclusive as the many discussions and spaces that he has created along the way.
As Cozier once said, “The measure of democracy is the degree to which artists have the freedom and right to experiment and to engage us.” Christopher Cozier has increased that level of freedom in the Caribbean by creating philosophical and tangible spaces that have revolutionized the concept of ‘belonging’ in the region. As he continues to engage others in a meaningful, qualitative discourse that can further expand the parameters of Caribbean art and its reception, he deserves honour and recognition for what he has done so far so that he can continue the kind of conversations that foster an increased awareness of and understanding of Caribbean contemporary art on a global scale.