We Are All Queer – On Caribbean Queer Visualities and Beyond Homophobia

By Andre Bagoo Friday, March 24th, 2017 Categories: Conferences, Exhibitions, Features, LGBT, Reports, Reviews, Updates
 

Trinidadian poet and writer Andre Bagoo shares reviews of the the Small Axe-curated exhibition ‘Caribbean Queer Visualities’, which debuted at The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast in November 2016 during the Outburst Queer Arts Festival and is currently taking place at Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland until March 25, 2017, and the ‘Beyond Homophobia’ conference which took place on January 26-28, 2017 at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica. Bagoo attended these events with support from the British Council. Read his report below:

Nadia Huggins, Is that a buoy? (detail).

Nadia Huggins, Is that a buoy? (detail).

Language fails us at the moment we need it most. For instance, what word should we adopt to describe ourselves as members of the LGBTQI community working in the arts? This is a question that comes up again and again in discussions I have had with poets, painters, curators, administrators. For diverse reasons, we are not gay. Nor are we homosexual. The word I’ve adopted, queer, is dicey. Even its origins are controversial: possibly from the German quer, meaning oblique, perverse. Once deeply offensive, queer has been repurposed as an empowering and all-encompassing label for anyone who does not fit into a neat box. As a result, its usage has tripled since the 1980s. Yet, some still consider queer a form of hate speech. For others, it has connotations that are too radical. And others simply think it too trendy.

But the failure of language reflects deeper fault lines. We cannot expect perfection because we cannot all conform to the same boxes. If there is trouble pinning down the language of sexuality it is because sexuality itself is fluid. That fluidity is, ironically, one thing we all have in common and can all understand. We all experience life differently and, therefore, can all imagine an experience that is peculiar to each individual; that does not perfectly correspond to some system or pattern. Whether we admit it or not, we are all queer.

Two recent events have for me shown the need to ensure our artistic, moral and legal values reflect the deeper truth of our innate diversity.

CARIBBEAN QUEER VISUALITIES

The very title of Small Axe’s exhibition, Caribbean Queer Visualities, is itself a provocation. It is a mouthful, demanding we take our time to pronounce it. It makes us ruminate over the word Caribbean, a word whose multiple syllables suggest layers and complexity. And it places queer right next to it, interrupting our visual image of hot sun, white sand and blue sea. The show – which was recently re-staged at the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland (it debuted at The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast last November during the Outburst Queer Arts Festival with support from the British Council) – plunges us into the deep.

In Nadia Huggins’ diptych Is that a buoy? we are asked questions that are already answers. It is as though a series of binaries have quietly collapsed: black/white, male/female, animate/inanimate, shown/hidden, ground/sky, cloudy/clear, race/raceless. Huggins gives us two panels but in truth only one, with her, will do. The work demands a new effort at attention; makes us move from what is presented to what is implied. It is a metaphor and is carried on as a conceit in her body of sea-scapes. The intermingling of worlds on the coast is a dramatization of how we all carry different roles inside us, project these roles on others and also stumble in navigating the tides. If Huggins says nothing polemic here, that is answer enough. For the seeming casualness of the piece is itself an assertion of a banality: we all have trouble seeing ourselves and each other. We should therefore embrace empathy.

The black and white nature of the image also invites further reflection. What if our visual sense of the world with all its rainbow colors is an illusion? Is colour an inherent part of an object? (Thomas Reid) Is it a perception of the mind? (Hume) Or is it both: something we see in our minds because of the way the world is around us is? (Descartes) This is another way Huggins’ work disorients. She presents the possibility of the camera, through artifice, revealing something we cannot perceive to be true: that the world of objects has a reality independent of us. And we may not be able to clearly see that reality because our senses are tinted.

How might our sense of the world be tinted? At any given moment, people standing in an art gallery staring at Huggins’ work will see it differently. Literally. Because no two persons can stand from the same vantage point, each looks at the work from different angles. The shapes within therefore take on subtly different proportions. And the two panels reflect light slightly differently depending on the angle.

These different ways of seeing and experiencing Huggins’ work are not eradicated by modern technology which allows precise digital reproduction. If Huggins were to post images of her diptych on her Facebook page, so that hundreds of her followers may simultaneously see her work in their news feeds, they will all perceive different things. Each viewer will inform the image with their immediate environment. The images may appear differently depending on if viewed in the privacy of a bedroom, at a coffee shop, or on a mobile phone in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

But there is an even more profound reason why I may never see Huggins work as anyone else does. Not only does our immediate environment influence how we perceive things, but so too do our memories of our experiences. My understanding of what is meant by a kiss is tinged by the last time I kissed. It comprises my recollection of how the man kissed back, what his lips felt like, the temperature of his body, the taste of his tongue. Was it minty? Or did it betray the plum of a rich red wine?

If no two people see art in the same way, how can we believe that we all experience desire and sex in the same way? And if our bodies, while conforming to general patterns, are all shaped in different ways, why do we persist in the illusion that there is one way of experiencing sexuality? We all conform yet do not conform. In one lifetime we all have multiple experiences and our tastes may change drastically (I loved Sarah McLachlan as a teenager, now I am embarrassed to state this publicly). We are fluid over time, variegated from body to body. We all exist on the margins of what has been set and defined. Some view queer people as an alien group far removed from them. But the truth is, to various degrees, we are all queer inside, be it in body or in terms of our perceptions.

BEYOND HOMOPHOBIA

When the innate diversity within us is left unacknowledged we are left at the mercy of dangerous illusions. All must fall into line. And all must be seen to fall into line. That we exist within and experience spectrums is denied. These normative illusions, ironically, claim to be self-evident even if they are false and harmful. They frustrate the deeper and truer universal values that arise because of our variety.

Homophobia is one such miasma. One means by which the spell may be broken was recently the subject of a panel discussion in which I participated at Beyond Homophobia, a conference hosted in January by the University of the West Indies at Mona in the heart of Jamaica. The conference sought to address the way in which the story around the Caribbean is often oversimplified in terms of its poor record on the rights of queer people. It also sought to discuss ways in which that narrative, however understood, can move forward to a more just reality.

One way forward is greater visibility on the part of artists. Not only through the embracing of queerness, but also in terms of the stories deemed suitable as subject matter for art. If the complex work in Caribbean Queer Visualities teaches us to embrace our multitudinous selves, it also demonstrates the uses of being seen to be queer on the part of the queer artist. That visibility is ideal not because of trends or the politics of the moment or the imposition of supposedly foreign ideas, but because it better correlates with the fact of our innate diversity, no matter what country we come from.

If we can, within art and art practice, embrace the fact of difference we can achieve a society of greater integrity. A society that accepts the innate diversity of everyone, is a society of integrity. Such a society is then able to validate rules that ensure fairness. If we deny that, among ourselves, some of us are different, then we make a mockery of the rule that says we should all be treated fairly. We undermine the legitimacy of such a rule by making it applicable to one class of citizen and ignoring the existence of another. Without such legitimacy, any system will eventually condone appalling acts. The artist can play a useful role in protecting society by asserting the relevance of rules of fair play.

But further, because the artist is, in truth, not different from the ordinary man; because the line between art and the world it reflects is non-existent, and because we all share the quality of being queer, the queer artist’s duty to embrace queer truth is, ultimately, revealed to be the duty of each and everyone.

Caribbean Queer Visualities runs until March 25, 2017.

Andre Bagoo is a poet and writer whose third book of poems, Pitch Lake, is published in April by Peepal Tree Press. He attended Caribbean Queer Visualities and Beyond Homophobia with support from the British Council and has reported on both events.

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LINKS

More on Caribbean Queer Visualities

https://caribbean.britishcouncil.org/programmes/arts/outburst/show
https://caribbean.britishcouncil.org/programmes/arts/outburst/talk
http://pleasurett.blogspot.com/2016/11/her-fathers-ghost.html
http://pleasurett.blogspot.com/2016/12/speaking-in-parables.html
http://pleasurett.blogspot.com/2016/12/nowhere-boy.html

More on Beyond Homophobia

https://www.beyondhomophobia.info/
http://pleasurett.blogspot.com/2017/01/my-role-as-writer.html

Andre Bagoo
Andre Bagoo

Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and writer. He is the author of Trick Vessels and BURN, which was longlisted for the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. His poetry has appeared at journals such as Almost Island, Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, Caribbean Review of Books, St Petersburg Review, The Poetry Review and elsewhere. He was awarded The Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize by The Caribbean Writer in 2017. Pitch Lake, his third book, is published next month by Peepal Tree Press. Photo credit: Marlon James.