The Eyes Have It: Manoeuvring the Gaze in Sheena Rose’s Island and MonsterThursday, April 13th, 2017 Categories: Features, Performance, Reviews, Updates
Adam Patterson shares a review of Barbadian artist Sheena Rose’s performance ‘Island and Monster’, which took place February 27, 2017 in the Academicians’ Room at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Acting as a physical manifestation of Rose’s internal struggle with reentry into Barbados after leaving to pursue a master’s degree in the US, the piece investigates a number of viewpoints and tensions raised by both local and foreign expectations or assumptions, using the characters of ‘Island’ and ‘Monster’ to reckon with these conflicts. Read more below:
Appearing in a semi-sheer black bodysuit shouldered with flowers, head dotted with googly eyes that seemed to return the audience’s gaze, Barbadian artist Sheena Rose circled the Academicians’ Room at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, performing Island and Monster.
A Bajan soliloquy uttered around feelings of alienation in returning to Barbados and shifting perceptions of the island and its inhabitants, Rose momentarily disrupted and drifted the Academician’s Room towards the Caribbean. The performance – a doubled invocation of the Island and the Monster – involved a dialogue (verging on argument) between the two characters which manifest within Rose, highlighting a conflict in how Rose (as a returning Barbadian) is perceived by the local and tourist gazes against the artist’s own self-image.
Beauty, as a concept that frames the Caribbean through the lens of paradise, was interrogated throughout Rose’s jabbing repetition, “Aren’t I beautiful?” The insistence of this question becomes rather haunting when considering the tropical expectations and desires of tourists against the Caribbean region, as well as those placed on Caribbean bodies. In this respect, the Island may become a site for cultivating touristic desire while the Monster may signify the rejection of such stereotypical notions of beauty.
As Rose’s circling of the room begins to adopt a more violent and aggressive lunging rhythm, the internal conflict becomes more apparent; Monster and Island each refusing the other with the Rose’s individual self caught in the crossfire. The Monster, as a repressed defiance against the fantasised subject in the tourist imaginary, emerges in greater concentration, causing the Island to recede. Rose, as the Island (Rose as a local subject), becomes problematised in confrontation with the artist’s own locality. In this confrontation, the eyes peeking out of Rose’s hair begin to stand as a universal gaze (between both tourist and local), scrutinizing the alienation felt around returning to the island. Rose’s hesitation towards the local Barbadian gaze is based on arguments against the island’s supposed conservatism and negative reception of her own attempts of stepping “outside of the box.”
You only care about the tourists. What about me? What about the locals?
The above utterance layers itself in conflict, becoming ambiguous regarding which persona Rose is invoking versus who is being addressed. The ‘you’ in question may refer to the island itself, or it may be addressing the local populace – in this speculation, the utterance may become more internalised, “What about me? What about yourselves?” This interrogation holds the local population responsible for its own subordination while suspending Rose’s own claim to locality, somewhat freeing the artist from criticism. Against this interpretation, the interrogation may be read as Rose’s call to her fellow islanders as a collective movement towards liberation and self-determinacy in the face of foreign desire. In this dichotomy of interpretation, Rose is either positioned as alien or champion.
[T]he coming-into-self caused by migration is a definitive change because the migrant cannot “return to his origins (there he will find that the situation is intolerable, his colleagues irresponsible; they will find him too assimilé, too European in his ways, etc.) and he will have to migrate again” (23).
Following the applause that rang in conclusion of Rose’s performance, a conversation between the artist, curator Jessica Taylor and the audience further unearthed Rose’s personal complications in returning home to Barbados with regard to Island and Monster alongside previous works. The problem of returning – the problem of the self formed beyond locality – reminds us of Glissant’s quality of the assimilated migrant. If we are to apply this “assimilé” quality, Rose’s claim to locality (alongside any claim to criticality of the island) is put into question, insofar as discussions around Rose’s work and position have continued to form social and cultural distances between the artist and non-migrating locals.
The conversation succeeding Island and Monster took a rather discomforting turn when a comment likened Rose’s position to be that of a saviour for local Barbadian art and culture – a rather dismissive stroke against the efforts of Rose’s predecessors and contemporaries. As Therese Hadchity has warned of Rose’s work being seen abroad, “the danger lurking behind that perception is that she becomes the lens through which her work is understood as quintessentially Barbadian.” Rose’s international recognition and professional mobility are undeniable and indeed respectable, but behind her arsenal of characters, Rose’s work is only a single shade of the Barbadian tapestry of identity, art and culture and the execution of Island and Monster affirms this.
The degree of investment that Rose plays towards characterisation in such personas as Island and Monster usually seems to be measured. Rose is careful enough as an artist not to simply impersonate or parody Bajan cultural tropes and archetypes to no end – her individual identity never sinks too deeply beyond the surface of the character’s mask. With that being said, the characters performed may be likened to cultural traits with which the artist identifies. Through exaggeration, these traits are personified by way of performative invocation. However, if we are to review Rose’s concept drawings for This Strange Land produced in conjunction with Island and Monster, the final product (costume and performance) is comparably tame and reserved. Whereas, in the drawings, Rose is wholly enveloped in the landscape of the Island or fully transfigured into the Monster, the performer is still very much present, visibly and iconically, as Sheena.
Let it be understood that this is not a critique of Rose’s ineffectiveness in ‘becoming’ a character but, rather, an observation of the artist’s restraint in maintaining the presence of the self. Whether this is a branding consideration or a challenge for the artist to be immersed completely by the wash of a character is not my concern. Instead, what may be gathered is her inability to represent the entirety of Barbadian selfhood. Rose’s performative self “prompts us to consider,” says Hadchity of another exhibition by the artist, “whether the work can be separated from the artist; whether the preoccupation with personal experience reflects a form of caution (a hesitation to generalize),” to which we should honour such a hesitation. Rose’s drawing from personal experience demystifies the work from any notions of idealism or idolisation as it relates to the emergence of Bajan self-image and identity. In the vein of Rose’s work, the face of culture is not a template to be championed or adhered to but, instead, an ever expanding body emerging through conflicting personas.
All in all, in its response to a variety of alienating perceptions, Island and Monster serves to highlight the transformative potential of the gaze. In processes of desire, expectation, assumption, fear and praise, the cross of our gazes leads us toward collective transformation and distortion. The Island rests as a point at which the gaze is met with no resistance. The Monster emerges at the point by which the gaze is no longer tolerated, where the Monster simply refuses to be fixed or formed by the desires of others. In this negotiation of being seen, Rose’s performance becomes an unapologetic record of her selfhood, in its complexity, incoherence and inconsistency. In our negotiation of casting the gaze, to what extent do we emerge as islands that erode, unearth and transform one another? In our negotiation of being seen, to what extent can we resist or defy the desires and expectations of others? In how at odds Island and Monster appeared to be, Rose’s wide and varied use of personas helps us to understand that our identities are not as stable as we (and others) would like to believe.
Brathwaite, Sheria. “A Rose among Thorns.” NationNews Barbados, November 22, 2016.
Glissant, Edouard and J. Michael Dash. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989. Cited in Malachi McIntosh. Emigration and Caribbean Literature. NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.
Hadchity, Therese. “The Personal is the Political. Or is it? – Thoughts on Sheena Rose’s ‘Baby Pink’.” ARC Magazine, December 7, 2016.
Rose, Sheena. Island and Monster. Performance. Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, 2017.
 Sheria Brathwaite, “A Rose among Thorns,” NationNews Barbados, November 22, 2016.
 Sheena Rose, Island and Monster, performance, 2017, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK.
 Edouard Glissant and J. Michael Dash, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989). Cited in Malachi McIntosh, Emigration and Caribbean Literature (NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).