At the end of February a special event took place in Bridgetown, Barbados. I was part of a British Council supported contribution to the Tilting Axis conference organised by Fresh Milk in collaboration with ARC Magazine, Res Artis and the Pèrez Art Museum Miami.
It was the first time for me in Barbados, although over the past years I have developed a keen interest in and was able to travel throughout the Caribbean region regularly. Ending up in Barbados to start talking, exchanging and speculating about how a region could develop its artistic climate and potential is somewhat peculiar. It perhaps instigates one of the core problems the Caribbean as an imaginative region (it's still a loose political entity without clear borders, except for the CARICOM economic unity) that exists foremost in the minds of tourists and off shore financial services. A more complex understanding of the very patchwork of social, colonial, spiritual and linguistically rich area the Caribbean might entail beyond our exotic minds, is harder to advocate for.
An access to such imaginative, but also real knowledge, is precisely what the conference tried to tackle in its agenda, its invited speakers and targeting of supporters in making this gathering financially possible. Fresh Milk and collaborators have worked literally for many years in making this gathering of people in a simple space possible. It needs to say that by making this possible new friends have been made and perhaps lost as well, as it makes the urgency and political need visible to people from the outside.
We gathered in the small library of Fresh Milk, situated on a former plantation now in service as a dairy farm and hospitality platform in the arts. Some of us were branded as outsiders, like ourselves, coming from Glasgow not working directly in the Caribbean. This might sound aggressive at first, but in fact the organisers had carefully considered this as a vital position from which to come up with ideas that not always align directly with the urgencies of the 'insiders'. I had no problem being called the outsider, as it truly reflected our position as well as giving me a free opportunity to speak about ideas that could become relevant in situations outside of my daily reality. Furthermore, I would argue that this is the basis of a true and equal exchange; accepting one's unequal position and start speaking from it.
Before coming into such a space, there is a history to remind our selves of. There are geographical tensions between former colonisers like the UK; American led invasions in Grenada; tax developed communities in the Cayman Islands; French culture in Martinique; Dutch languages across the Antilles and Suriname; oil revelation in Trinidad and Tobago; diaspora realities of The Bahamas and everything that is between. This is even before we can consider talking about art and its relation to these notions, if we think they should be connected and responsive of each other at all.
The question put on the table was straightforward, simple in its formulation, but enormously complex in its extraction and execution. So much was clear from the start. The conference asked the question of how to sustain and connect Caribbean art practices through and from a larger global field.
To start asking such a question, one can see that there is an urgency to connect; to not feel locked up; to have freedom of expression; to be able to travel freely without restriction;, to have access to funds and education; to speak together and to enjoy the same opportunities that seem to be normal in the global North- if we consider the Caribbean as being part of the global South. How to access? is perhaps the most abbreviated formulation of the agenda of the conference.
One of the first statements to surface is 'how to access power?' It's an intriguing question that shows the experience of marginality, inaccessibility and inequality that has been felt throughout the artistic field in the Caribbean. Definitely there is a feeling of not having enough access to the opportunities existing in much of Europe and North America. A strong response on how to access and regulate that power comes from N'goné Fall from Dakar explaining how in an African context certain strategies have worked in order to assert power.
Although there is a certain sympathy in making transparent such strategies and to make right what is yet not, I would like to see an undermining of the very forces that constitute that power or a growing disbelief that the existing Western force of power will become less powerful as soon as we all have less need for them to be used. It goes to the core of the problem for me, which is not only about the inequality of access, but more so undermining the very structures of power by perhaps saying no. Obviously this is much harder to achieve than finding your way to the hands that feed, but still I think the Caribbean holds potential in offering new ways to go around such power. Especially, it is the rich cultural life spanning from literature, politics and visual arts that can hold a key in offering new solutions.
From Martinique, what is raised is the essential question around what an artist might be. In its simple statement, a question the outsiders can relate to, as this is a familiar notion to engage with. How to make more complex the role of the artists, instead of looking for ways to simplify their role more and more? This is an exciting promise, exactly because the accepted role within society of the artist in the region of the Caribbean is often simplified to a labour of craft, if understood at all. It means that any reflective role that the artist, let's not even speak about a curator, can play has to be negotiated every time these relationships are shown in an exhibition or stimulated during a residency. To me this holds strong connection with the complex fabric the Caribbean in itself holds. Where many social issues and relations are not yet resolved and under constant change, from the development of gay culture, to post-colonial trauma to political activism- they might benefit from non-straightforward and imaginative approaches.
These forms of social development within the Caribbean is also noted through the reality of a place such as Grenada, where 'forgetting is not an option', as we hear from Groundation Grenada's Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe. In a place where the revolution (which accumulated in 1983 by a US led invasion) still bears it marks, this memory helps put ideas forward on how change would look. It's interesting to see here that a political proposal, or event is not directly used by unpacking the context and reasons why the revolution happened, but to understand better its tactics in order to make them viable and usable within artistic practices. What is the inner-life of rebellion that still exists?
From Jamaica the idea of hospitality is raised. How welcoming should a residency be? Micro-residencies that have happened in a small room or for a very short time have happened in NLS in Kingston, Jamaica and have proven to be successful. It perhaps brings together the reality of infrastructure and resources the Caribbean often has to deal with, but also the hospitality so known in the tourist industry. What to draw and extract from this industry of competition? How to see platforms existing beyond the exhibition alone?
Non-alignment springs to mind as a possibility to think about generosity and alternative approaches. From Trinidad and Tobago we learn how Alice Yard, a programme that has been running for the last eight years, has operated as a non-profit without a budget, in and 'on their own terms’. It is where generosity of people is measured by freeing up family property, personal time and funds for the sake of keeping information and programming free. It's this independent thought that shows how entangled personal relations are in forming stable bodies that speak out in the voice of art. It's perhaps something that is completely lost elsewhere but still very much active in the Caribbean where these values have more value and are often the only currencies to use. It's also here that the first critical approaches appeared as warnings. Warnings that would brake an overenthusiasm toward artistic models in Europe, and instead focus on fields of politics, writing and sociology produced within the Caribbean as sources that are already there, perhaps more usable, more close and more creative in challenging systems of marginality.
It seems another central example in our discussion is Curacao and the Instituto Buena Bista, founded by David Bade and Tirzo Martha. They have been creating an alternative school of sorts that, from a practical point of view, offers opportunities of producing and thinking about visual art. What can this idea of support be about? What does it mean to study in the region? Within their platform, housed in a psychiatric ward, they have been working on removing the idea that there can be one Caribbean art, that borders and exclusions exist for mainly young students and that inclusion and support are the main issues to consider at all times far beyond curatorial and artistic concerns alone.
Both my report, as well as the conference seem to be incomplete, for me- a positive conclusion. Where things are missing on the table, conclusions are incomplete and ideas are still developing, the further need of physical meetings become more and more relevant. This is not only to have the opportunity to actually be able to speak in a time and geography where this is still difficult (the Caribbean is poorly but expensively connected internally) but also to show through the simple fact that meeting is possible, challenging the necessity of it and showing that this is possible.
This is the first 'win' situation that the conference has made possible, it’s not to be underestimated how important it is to have organised a gathering of people sharing ideas in a room. It's even interesting to put that in the times of now, where we think a global reality speaks to us in a digital form.
But, there is more that has been 'won' here. It's definitely the concentration, commitment and ambition that sparked off this meeting in the first place. Not only were we able to share ideas on all of our spaces, environments and concerns, we were also asked to transform these speculations into tangible proposals. It's where we as CCA have been talking about supporting a mentorship programme together with Mother Tongue and David Dale Gallery. For us this hits the core of being able to sustain a long-term commitment, rather than understanding and dividing into projects with clear borders and ends. Others have been talking about writing residencies, setting up libraries, mapping the institutions in the region, offering job opportunities in the arts, etc.
Where the borders of projects are being marked, we can equally talk about the more physical border of the Caribbean itself. These borders are still enormous hurdles in terms of funding, mobility and exchange and the conference has made clear that this is something to continuously challenge.
For me however this challenge does not lie in understanding how to pass these borders in the most efficient way, whom to talk to and how to divert power to make the Caribbean a more powerful engine in the visual arts. The real challenge lies in a better unpicking of these borders, its operation and its potential. I don't think we should put too much energy in developing techniques to get the Caribbean into a better position, it is to say the Caribbean is already in an amazing imaginative and strong position, steering away from victimising one’s role.
These ideas come from my own current personal distrust in Europe's politics and social reality. In both Europe and Northern America we are still seeing a real deconstruction in governance and reliable political atmosphere under the name of democracy. The conference had some belief in changing the position of the Caribbean in such a way that finally Europe and America will see us, but I am not so sure about Europe's value in any case, advocating that Europe is exactly not the way to look. Also, we have to imagine that whilst writing this report Cuba is still on the list of terrorist supporting nations, Puerto Rico is still a colony of the US, we can still pay with Euros in French Guyana and the Panama Canal has only been in Panamanian hands for 14 years.
I think this alignment with political but also artistic ideas coming from Europe, should be criticised. If we really want to consider the Global South, as this is a form we so easily talk about also in curatorial practices, we need to get rid of its imagination as a place always in lesser order than the north, a place that has not been in the light before and needs to be put in the centre. It's a form of neo-exotisation that for me feels unproductive and in fact dangerous. For me, the argument needs to take place in not wanting to move towards the centre and reclaim a rightful place, it's to partly ignore the power relationship that has made us talk and think as if there is always a centre and a periphery.
If we can challenge that very thought from artistic work, we might move to a much more balanced notion of the Caribbean, a notion that is sustainable and speaks of connection by analysing and speculating about the very infrastructure that has made up the complex Caribbean. It's a form of criticality that does not simply accept 'the global south' as a term and is able to find exciting new ways we cannot yet think of, out of this unequal human relation. The conference has made me confident that it needs a lot of long-term committed work still, but as long as people can meet in a hot, small library, we will be just fine and great things might happen.