The Caribbean itself can be seen as a series of dubbed spaces or dub mixes of the European countries they once were colonies or outposts of. Moving from island to island is like visiting a series of ghost towns where the distinctive English, Dutch, French and Spanish architecture is now repopulated, recomposed and remixed into Creole versions of European cultures. Language isolates and separates Caribbean countries from each other but the common grammar of the Creoles and Patwas of the region unite them. Jamaican writer and critic Annie Paul writes about the Caribbean art dub.
Caribbean Art Dub: A Hauntology
Version. This innocuous word resurfaced in my consciousness over and over as I made my acquaintance with Paramaribo. Version as a concept first gained resonance for me in Kingston, Jamaica, where almost every local song has a dub version, a haunting instrumental Side B simply titled ‘Version’, full of echoes and reverbs and the voice dropped out. A dub is a ‘postsong’, what Michael Veal describes as “linguistic, formal and symbolic indeterminacy”; a dub mix, according to him is “a version of a pre-existing song that allows fragments of its prior incarnations to remain audible as an obvious part of the final product.”
The Caribbean itself can be seen as a series of dubbed spaces or dub mixes of the European countries they once were colonies or outposts of. Moving from island to island is like visiting a series of ghost towns where the distinctive English, Dutch, French and Spanish architecture is now repopulated, recomposed and remixed into Creole versions of European cultures. Language isolates and separates Caribbean countries from each other but the common grammar of the Creoles and Patwas of the region unite them.
Nicholas Laughlin’s essay ‘Guiana Dreams’ describes the fantasy of El Dorado, the golden city that lured lustful European explorers and adventurers to the jungles of South America, precipitating the era of colonialism and slavery in the so-called New World. Another by-product of this rush to capture new territory and wealth was piracy, a form of organized crime that flourished in the Caribbean and became synonymous with it.
The flag pirates flew, often referred to as The Jolly Roger, and depicted a skull over two crossed bones. This simple black and white image would have been one of the earliest instances of modern graphics in the region. The skull as a graphic element continues to have resonance today it seems; as it turns out, images of skulls played a significant role in my exposure to art from Suriname, an area of the Caribbean I was exposed to when I participated in a cross-cultural art experiment between Dutch and Surinamese artists named Span Paramaribo in February 2010.
Connecting the Dots…
The process of writing about art and the symbology used by artists can sometimes be like detective work. I felt this strongly when on a trip to Trinidad and Tobago I took the opportunity to have a catch-up session with Christopher Cozier. I had written about his artworks in the past and we work together closely on the journal Small Axe and other projects. The last two years had found each of us so busy that this was the first time in a couple of years that I was able to show him some of the visual works coming out of Jamaica recently that I found interesting.
One of these was an eloquent, trenchant commentary on the political situation in Zimbabwe by a young Jamaican artist, Michael ‘Flyn’ Eliott. It seemed to me that Flyn had proved with this painting that he was capable of the kind of imaginative leaps that his customary photorealism often left one craving for. Titled ‘The Trillionaire’ the painting depicts a self-absorbed and abstracted Mugabe sitting amidst the ruins and debris of a burnt out building. He is seated on a patch of red velvet, drinking wine, surrounded by piles of Zimbabwe dollars. On the left is a heap of bleached out skulls. The painting is testament to the power of an image to convey what a trillion words could not.
Michael ‘Flyn’ Eliott, The Trillionaire.
Previously all of Flyn’s paintings had faithfully reproduced in lifelike detail whatever subject his camera captured. These would customarily be abandoned buildings; an old railway engine; mounds of fruit, fish or on occasion something more macabre, like bullets. But there had never been anything like ‘The Trillionaire’.What had motivated such a departure from his usual subject matter I asked young Flyn. Well, said he, he had been in Suriname recently, visiting fellow graduates of the Edna Manley College of Visual Arts there and had come across the ruined building. While photographing it, the image of Mugabe sitting in the ruined interior suddenly came to him. Normally he would have simply reproduced the interior, brick by brick, in loving detail, but this time something had clearly jostled his imagination. Whatever the reason, I thought the resulting painting was an exciting departure and leap forward for Elliott.
Being notoriously critical of painting qua painting Chris nevertheless agreed that ‘The Trillionaire’, with its pile of skulls, was intriguing; it reminded him of the work of Surinamese artists such as Marcel Pinas who had graduated from the Edna Manley School of Visual Art (located in Kingston, Jamaica) in 1999 at the top of his class. It seemed to Cozier that the artist was dealing with the theme of mass killings, perhaps genocide. When I mentioned that ‘The Trillionaire’ was inspired by Eliott’s recent Suriname trip Cozier pulled up a Pinas image called ‘Alibi’ on the internet from a recent exhibit of his, to show me what he was getting at. The work, part of an installation, clearly hinted at what might have nudged Elliott’s imagination and provoked the devastating image of Mugabe he subsequently produced. Pinas’s work often references the destruction of the N’dyuka culture in Suriname. The N’dyuka is the Maroon community Pinas was born into, whose way of life is gradually vanishing.
Marcel Pinas, Alibi, 2008.
How interesting, I thought to myself, listening to Chris Cozier and noting the pile of skulls in Pinas’s installation. Ping Pong! The circuit of influence had bounced back and forth between Jamaica and Suriname. Pinas attributes the development of his artistic language to his education in Jamaica at the Edna Manley Art College; Michael ‘Flyn’ Elliott, also an alumnus of the Edna Manley College travels to Suriname and is inspired by the landscape and the artwork he sees there to produce a new kind of work for him, ‘The Trillionaire’.
After all this when Chris asked if I would come to Suriname and participate in the Paramaribo Span project by attending the launch of the D(e)S(urinaamse)B(ank) exhibition and the activities around it, then writing about it, I immediately agreed.
I was coming to Suriname fresh from having participated in the second international Reggae conference at the University of the West Indies where I had chaired a panel on the collection, preservation and dissemination of cultural heritage which really was a discussion of Jamaican music and its collection and preservation. I have written at length elsewhere about the dysfunctionalities of the Jamaican art scene, about the fact that despite entire institutions devoted to its study and dissemination it has not produced an art to match its music; in fact it completely lacks the ecosystem of art as we understand it today in terms of functional galleries, art criticism and a review culture.
There is no analogue to a Marcel Pinas in Jamaica. You rarely see work in Kingston or Jamaica as materially and formally innovative or as eloquent as ‘Alibi’. It was surprising therefore to find Surinamese artists such as Kurt Nahar, Marcel Pinas and others crediting the Edna Manley College and the Jamaican art scene with having inspired them to produce innovative and groundbreaking work. I wonder if the experience of travelling to a culture so different from their own proved stimulating and game-changing. It also suggests however that the problem with Jamaican art lies outside the Edna Manley College which seems to be executing its mandate with the minimal resources it’s provided with.
At the Paramaribo Span show I was struck by two contrasting works: Dhiradj Ramsamoedj’s ‘Adji Gilas’ and George Struikelblok’s ‘Groei’. The latter consisted of a purpose-built chicken coop in which 200 chicks were housed. The chicks had hatched the day I saw this work for the first time, February 25, 2010 but there was no way you could have guessed this because they were all busy feeding and watering themselves with an industry and aptitude that belied their tender age. Their constant chirping was amplified, filling the atmosphere with insistent tweets. Inadvertently the installation evoked the omnipresent omniscient cyber phenomenon of Twitter, that twenty first century ‘Argos Panoptes’, with a trillion eyes around the world spewing a never-ending data-stream of observations and announcements. The chicks were statistical icons, penned for convenience and economy, and provided with the means of their subsistence.
George Struikelblok, Groei, 2010.
The artists’ intention was to comment on state-run orphanages; I instantly thought of the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre scandal that was rocking Jamaica just as I left to come to Suriname. In May 2009 seven young girls, aged 15-16 were killed in a fire at the home. A commission of inquiry was instituted and the findings had just been made public. The girls had rebelled at the horrific conditions they faced at the home (23 girls locked in a room with seven bunk beds) and demanded improvements. As their protests escalated a police constable threw a canister of tear gas into the room igniting a fire which led to the deaths of seven of the girls.
Wouldn’t the chicks soon outgrow the coop I asked George? What did he plan to do with them? The plan he said, was to give the chicks to children at various orphanages in Suriname to teach them the value of life and to give those who depended on others for everything a chance to be responsible for another life.
Dhiradj Ramsamoedj, Adji Gilas, 2010.
‘Adji Gilas’ by Ramsamoedj on the other hand could be seen as a multimedia, multivalent tribute to the importance of socialization by family rather than by state institution. A gentle tour de force, the simple, eloquent poetry of the aluminum cups, themselves institutional in their plain functionality, each one transformed by the image of the artist’s grandmother, created evocative visual statements. Every room was mined for childhood memories and resurrected as a stage, the deceptively simple chiaroscuro recalling the magic of shadow play, sometimes happy, sometimes frightening. The frail and crumbling stairway viewers had to negotiate to reach the interior spaces of the old wooden home itself symbolized the fragility of Indo-Surinamese identity today, the tenuousness of family life and of individual memory and levity in contrast to the robust but harsh economies of corporate life as evoked by Struikelblok’s ‘Groei’. With ‘Adji Gilas’ Ramsamoedj has displayed his fluency in several different media. His subversion and resignification of the texts in printed novels, each page now turned into a canvas for fluidly rendered paintings of childhood memories was particularly effective, moving viewers to reconsider the existentiality of books, themselves today an endangered species. The video of Adji’s mugs on the windowsill. appearing, disappearing and reappearing was a poetic visualization of loss, memory and recovery. In its plangent silences, it’s exaggerated reverberating shadows and its recurring echoes of memories ‘Adji Gilas’ is a powerful dub version of an analogue world whose shadows and cobwebs are likely to be swept away by the fluorescent glare of the digital.
Dhiradj Ramsamoedj, A Passage of Memory, ongoing project.
The monument culture of Suriname, reinterpreted by Pinas in his sublime Marowijne Monument commemorating the massacre of a Maroon village in 1986 is a focal point of the SPAN Paramaribo project. It brings to mind another project that unfolded in Kingston in April 2010, the inaugural performance of Tirzo Martha from Curacao: ‘The adventures of Captain Caribbean and his Side Kick Knockoff’. The project involves a performance in which Captain Caribbean visits the national heroes in each island asking permission and blessings for his mission. Captain Caribbean “wears a KFC bucket as his mask as a symbol of his wealth and fashion (like everybody eats KFC if they can afford it). His Dashiki, the wooden Rosary, his rubber gloves and his machete are the basic pieces of his costume. “His sidekick, Knockoff, wears mostly wigs and dark glasses because these he can steal easily. He also tends to wear fake brands of clothing and shoes.”
Artists in the Caribbean occupy a different world today. The tools once available only to the most talented, skilled or well-connected among us, webs of privilege granted those who produced that ephemeral something called ‘Art’ are now widely available to all and sundry. What was once an artist’s prerogative, has been outsourced to anyone with access to a computer, a karaoke machine or a digital camera and every man, woman and child is now a writer, an artist, a film-maker or curator.
In fact programs like Twitter and Facebook have made curators of us all and we make our selections available online, broadcasting them as far and wide as we want. Where once we were relegated to being consumers we now find the means of creative production at our fingertips with bottomless archives of digital material available, mediated by better and faster search engines. Our products can be published in a variety of media, with YouTube leading the way. The optic of the market struggles to regain focus as the intermediary in this global creative commons but has yet to find any purchase (so to speak). In the breathing space produced by this conjuncture Trinidadian artists are busy exploiting the myriad of new opportunities for creative expression.
In Port-of-Spain, for example, a group of artistically-minded individuals ranging from architects to graphic designers to dancers, writers, musicians and artists designated a humble backyard known as Alice Yard a creative space where they would perform, display or otherwise showcase their productions. The antithesis of the grand theatre, music hall or national gallery Alice Yard has served as a focal point for real time art happenings whose life is then extended by digital means–blogging, tweeting and facebooking the resulting images, video and texts to wider and wider audiences elsewhere. As one of the key players Nicholas Laughlin explains:
“The whole enterprise runs on a half-a-shoestring budget. We set up the Alice Yard website as an inexpensive way to document and publicize our projects and programs, and of course it’s helped us engage with an international audience. More interestingly, in the past three or four years there’s been a decided shift towards online media in contemporary Caribbean art. The reason is simple: it’s easy to share images via websites and e-mail, an artist can set up a professional website using free online tools, and the medium makes it possible to see, hear, and discuss in a common space the work of artists otherwise separated by geography. Within the Caribbean there’s a dire shortage of formal exhibition spaces, serious art criticism, and art publishing. It used to be that in order to experience the work of contemporaries in other Caribbean or diaspora locations, an artist had to travel or seek out printed catalogues. The web has shortened those circuits, and younger artists in particular have been quick to take advantage of the free virtual exhibition space offered by WordPress, Blogger, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, and other tools and sites. The phenomenon raises interesting questions about curatorship, audience, influences, mediums, and forms. And it makes the old local-versus-foreign dichotomy seem inadequate as a means of understanding artists’ negotiations with global economies of images and ideas. Alice Yard, via our website, is somewhere in the middle of that, trying to figure it out, like everyone else.”
Alice Yard has maintained a hectic exhibition schedule inviting artists from different Caribbean locations to create and show their work there. One of the most moving performances in recent months has been by Jamaican artist Ebony Patterson who spent her residency building coffins for those killed in violent confrontations during the two weeks she spent there. Titled ‘9 of 219’ the performance consisted of a candlelit procession of male and female pall bearers carrying the exuberantly decorated coffins along with anyone else who chose to join in.
Ebony Patterson, 9 of 219, 2011.
Patterson’s Trinidadian meditation on violence recalled a performance titled ‘Letters from the Dead’ that took place in Kingston in 2009. Memory; commemoration; restoration; reparation; community. These are recurrent key words in the recent work of Honor Ford-Smith, the Jamaican dramaturge and esteemed co-founder of the Kingston-based women’s collective, Sistren. A prominent actor in the cultural revolution that swept Jamaica in the 1970s, Ford-Smith is one of the few activist intellectuals of that era who have managed to transform their practice, updating and retooling it for contemporary times and producing interventions that apply the latest artistic technologies and language to persistent problems such as abject poverty, voicelessness, violence, and social invisibility. Her collaborative 2009 performance work titled ‘Letters from the Dead: Pedagogies of Performance & Transnational Democracy’ was transnational in ambit. Performed in both Toronto and Kingston, ‘Letters’ enactment of grief and commemoration in public spaces connected not only those cities but also linked them to the streets of Buenos Aires and other urban spaces by exposing, intervening in, and attempting to address common lesions that seem to exist wherever poverty and deprivation are to be found.
Public commemorations and acts of grieving such as the ones choreographed by Ford-Smith and the communities and groups she worked with are multi-significant and multi-functional. ‘Letters to the Dead’ not only acknowledges the traumas experienced by impoverished communities transnationally–those whom Mbembe calls the “people with no stake”–but engages the bereaved in public and communal performances of their loss and pain that are ultimately therapeutic. By explicitly linking the predicament of Jamaican mothers to that of the Argentinian madres who demanded redress, the archetypal women who inspired Bob Marley’s elegiac ‘No Woman, No Cry’, are given the solace of knowing that they are not isolated in their terrible losses in the same way that the families of the youth killed in Toronto were briefly allowed to feel that their sorrow was not unnoticed, unmarked or invisible. In contrast to art that is designed to be exhibited in the context of gallery walls, Ford-Smith’s interpretation of performance art as intervention into social memory represents a powerful tool that can be used to demolish the barriers–the walls–that maintain and reinforce the distance between people occupying the same geographical, national and communal space.
The various versions of art-making outlined above constitute a regional hauntology, a series of poignant dubs by visual artists attempting to come to terms with the specters, spooks and duppies lingering in the traumatic, troubled present of the Caribbean. Only if artists in the region are exposed to each other’s aesthetic takes and double takes, through residencies, exchanges and the systematic archiving and discussion of significant artistic interventions will the Caribbean stand a ghost of a chance of placating its phantoms or exorcising its demons.
(this article was first published in: Papelles de Cultura Contemporanea, Visiones del Post-Trópico Núm. 16 / Diciembre 2012)
Brief bio: writer and critic from Jamaica. Senior Publications Officer University of the West Indies, Mona, Head of Publications at SALISES.