Get a boat, a boat large enough for all of us and what we do, was a suggestion in jest to the solution of our problems. It was just one humorous interjection of many, among innumerably more deeply thought-provoking, and serious ones. But, it was one nevertheless that remained with us, and possibly piqued our interest the greatest. Just to clarify, the vessel referred to is purely a metaphorical one. It may be a hybrid between an ark, a ferry and a cruise liner — but it is definitely not sea worthy, being a craft for abstract thought, and riddled with holes no doubt for that matter. But we are mixing metaphors there, though do indulge in the idea a little longer. The boat serves to outline the difficulties facing contemporary art in the Caribbean, and through offering a hypothetical solution, at least, clarifies the issues if not hints at steps towards solving them.
So, if a boat (yes, sorry, still on that), and its historical precedent are the metaphorical solution how can we articulate the future?
As colleagues, Ellie Royle, and I were kindly supported by The British Council, to attend Tilting Axis, a conference on sustainability and connectivity within contemporary art in the Caribbean. The conference was attended by a fascinating selection of practitioners from the Caribbean region in addition to fellow colleagues from Scotland and those from further afield such as USA, Brazil and Senegal. Hopefully the accounts which accompany this one will paint a full picture of the resilience, diversity, and excellence of the organisations and topics covered. I have to offer the précis to our contribution though, that at all times I was mindful that the predicament being discussed was very much not ours. Although we were fully involved in discussions, and our contributions heard, I was ever aware that this was not our situation. And that we could assist in ways, but not find solutions – as that would need to fall to organisations in the region.
Instead of offering a description of the discussions that occurred,, I’ll give an outline on what I drew from the two days — though I may need to offer a couple of recommendations to justify this text. Firstly, what was the most immediately striking, though long lasting impression was the power within the room. Not necessarily a hierarchical power, although there were very prominent organisations represented, but the strength of the attendees and the power of what they produce. A room full of initiative and determination is hard to come across, though here it was in spades full. You could get drunk on inspiration through spending just a little time there, though over the course of 2 days the enthusiasm was so infectious, not one person I think could’ve left not committed to the aims of the conference. And this was exactly how our organisation returned, emboldened with a commitment to contribute and assist. Following on from this point, but distinct, was the intellect and aspirations of the discourse — this was pursued at a level that was both impressive and thought-provoking. The sort of discussions in which you cannot help but feel a duality of being elevated, but needing to elevate yourself to meet it.
There are three primary issues, a secondary one close behind, and a vast myriad of facets, edifices and historical weights between these, other numerous problems waiting in the wings. These primary concerns would be: geography; financial aid; and education — with communication a close second. Now, it is not for us to elucidate these issues, as they will be far more eloquently and deftly dealt with by the residents of the region, only to stick doggedly to our metaphor and offer an interpretation of the issues.
Geography is the most evident, and simultaneously hard to overcome, problem. The spread of islands is incredibly difficult to move between. Therefore physically and culturally the nations have a distance and the main contemporary art centres suffer with this reality and it is enhanced by established capitalist orientated air travel. Obviously one solution would be money, unfortunately there isn’t any. The arts are chronically underfunded almost universally and across the Caribbean this is unlikely to change in the current economic climate. It is an issue, which dictates the current situation and problematizes any future growth within the sector. Added to that the private sector doesn’t contribute to the development of arts which shows a lack of education. Not education in general, but it points to the enlightenment of politicians – and a general strategy for current and future students to be able to lift the region from its current stasis through the development of creative initiatives and informing future policy.
The propositions I drew from the conference can really be surmised in two(ish) ways. Firstly, and more importantly back to the boat, the vessel which satisfies all fulfillments of a boat is the internet – and this needs to be exploited to a maximum. Through the internet we can accomplish all the cultural exchanges required, travel thousands of miles, improve education through pulling resources, position and advocate for groups towards funders, and communicate to the fullest extent. T he organisations involved have obviously begun this, though there are much fuller extents to explore. The sequel to this, and in keeping with a maritime theme, is presenting a common face and formalizing, much like the SS.
Tilting Axis, there is a strength and weight in pulling resources and presenting as one common face. Of course the activities between organisations are multitudinous in nature, this will serve to attract attention and weight to all the constituent organisations aims. And, what we can do we will, the first of these steps suggested by fellow UK colleagues Mother Tongue, and undertaken in partnership with other colleagues CCA, Glasgow, is to initiate a mentoring programme for Caribbean curatorial practice.
Each of the organisations have a great wealth of experience within this, but most importantly a commitment to the region and its development. Curatorial practice within the emerging scene is foremost in my mind to changes and improvement of how people consider the region.
To conclude, I want to offer my deepest thanks to Tilting Axis for the invitation to participate – there we forged lasting connections which I cannot understate, and in particular thanks to Fresh Milk and Annalee Davis for their wonderful hospitality and introduction to Barbados and the wider region. We look forward to contributing more in the short term and participating in further Tilting Axis events.