Art in the Anglophone Caribbean
Art in the Anglophone Caribbean
Art in the Anglophone Caribbean at the turn of the twenty-first century is a field in transition. Young artists, supported by recently established art institutions, have reimagined, redefined, and even rejected the national aims of their artistic forebears, a generation that came of age during and after the movements for national sovereignty had swept the region, starting with Jamaica's independence in 1962. In the nascent postcolonial period, many artists attended to the cause of nation building in their work. As recently elected majority black governments started to define and erect a pantheon of national symbols and heroes, many artists worked in concert to chisel or paint these newly minted icons in their representations. Frequently, aspects of the islands' "indigenous," or seemingly precolonial, flora and fauna or black working-class populations inhabited artists' representations. Many artists actively sought to elevate the long-devalued cultural expressions of African-Caribbean communities as worthy subjects of art. Boscoe Holder (c. 1920–) in Trinidad, Hervis Bain (1942–) in the Bahamas, and Karl Broodhagen (1909–) in Barbados turned to the islands' black communities in their paintings, national crests, and public sculpture commissions, respectively. Typically, artists represented black Caribbean culture through figurative forms of images, although several artists, most notably Aubrey Williams (1920–1990) of Guyana and Karl "Jerry" Craig (1939–) of Jamaica, embraced abstract expressionism. Although the artistic emphasis on black folk existed in places like Jamaica and Trinidad since the 1930s and 1940s respectively, in the post-independence era these representations formed an important image pool through which the new nation could be imagined.
Many younger artists, in contrast, create what can be described as postnational art, art precisely not compelled by and even critical of the national forces that mobilized artists working in the 1960s and 1970s. These artists, many of whom were not born under the British flag, reached artistic maturity when the sun had set on much of the optimism that pervaded the immediate post-independence era. Their work interrogates the ambiguities of the national project, its possibilities and its limits, its hopes and its unfulfilled promises. Artists variously reflect on the very signs and symbols canonized as representative of national culture, deconstruct the performance or mimicry of political authority and rule, call attention to the marginalization of certain communities in postcolonial society, and explore the continuities between colonial and national forms of governance. In Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier's installation and performance art piece, Conversations with a shirtjac (1992), for example, the artist and subsequent viewers vet their disillusionment with the national project in front of a hanging shirtjac, once a symbol of the anticolonial black revolutionary and now the uniform of the national bureaucratic functionary. Bahamian artist Dionne Benjamin-Smith (1970–) similarly debunks the symbols of nationhood—the national anthem, pledge of allegiance, and flag—in her digital print Black Crab Pledge of Allegiance (2004). Stanley Greaves (1934–), a Guyanese artist living in Barbados since 1987, started a series of paintings in 1992 that call attention to the seemingly carnivalesque character of contemporary national politics in Guyana and the wider Anglophone Caribbean. The works, which began with the painting The Prologue: There Is a Meeting Here Tonight (1994), present the political arena as a theatrical stage on which both political leaders and their followers become so consumed with the performance of power that political efficacy has been written out of the national script. In another appraisal of postcolonial society, Bahamian-Jamaican artist John Beadle's (1964–) paintings speak to the social marginalization of immigrants from throughout the Caribbean within the Bahamas. Cozier, Benjamin, Greaves, and Beadle, whose work can be characterized as postnational, should not be viewed as antinational; rather, they hold up the social, political, and artistic infrastructures of the nation to scrutiny.
Often these artists deal explicitly with the social and economic conditions and predicaments of the contemporary Anglophone Caribbean, addressing the tenability of Caribbean nationhood within the newest global economies. Barbadian Annalee Davis (1963–) in her multimedia sculpture Barbados in a Nutshell interrogates how Barbados's landscape, once radically overhauled by the sugar plantation, has been newly transformed by the tourist transplantation of golf courses. Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward (1963–) in his installation The Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping (1996) juxtaposes Jamaica's paradisical and duty-free touristic image, which lures travelers, with signs of widespread local migration. Barrels of immigrants' possessions placed next to the island's famed white sands attest to the ambivalent character of the contemporary Caribbean as a landscape of happy smiles and hardships, of desire and despair. Trinidadian Steve Ouditt's installation Creole Processing Zone (2000) explores the ambiguous place of free-trade zones or export-processing zones, spaces run by multinational corporations—exempt from national taxes and frequently free of local workers—in Caribbean islands such as Trinidad and Jamaica. Davis, Ward, and Ouditt all explore how the former plantation societies, which were intrinsic to the power of modern Europe, continue to produce commodities, and indeed to be commodities, through tourism and "free trade."
Many Caribbean artists deal with the personal implications of migration, addressing how their own identities and family histories have been transformed by "colonialization in reverse," migration of Caribbean inhabitants to Britain and cities in the United States. Starting extensively in 1947, when waves of Caribbean immigrants journeyed to England, migration has been central to the social, and artistic, formation of the contemporary Caribbean. The parents of artists David Bailey (1961–), Eddie Chambers (1960–), and Ingrid Pollard (1953–) migrated to England from Barbados, Jamaica, and Guyana, respectively. In works such as Pollard's installation Oceans Apart (1992) or Bailey's photographic series From Barbados, Britain or Both, the artists explore their relationships to and displacement from the Caribbean and their place in or alienation from the island of Britain. Albert Chong (1958–), a Chinese-Jamaican artist who migrated to the United States in 1977, similarly explores his family, diasporic, and ethnic identity through photographic images of old family photographs. Fittingly, photographs, objects especially important in the maintenance of memory and family lineage for migrants, have been central to these diasporic investigations.
While a generational split exists between national and postnational art on many Anglophone Caribbean islands, these forms coexist and a single artist's oeuvre can oscillate between them. Maxwell Taylor (1938–), for instance, started working on the eve of the Bahamas' independence in 1972 and continues to create woodblock prints and paintings of the islands' black population in a social realist vein, representations that still resonate with the elevation of black culture prevalent in the post-independence period. From the 1970s, however, the artist has been critical of the limited definition of the nation, exploring the exclusion of Haitian-Bahamian communities from the national mythos of the Bahamas. Taylor's work illustrates that long before the "postnational moment" some artists simultaneously invested in and maintained a critical distance from the national project.
The celebration of what artists identify as Africa or the African characteristics of Caribbean culture, a theme prevalent since the national era, remains evident in contemporary Caribbean art. Indeed, this form of art may be more popular among local collectors—typically upper-middle-class and expatriate patrons—than the work of artists who critique the nation-state. An older generation of artists continue to turn to "Africa" not only to explore the African heritage of national culture but to foreground the transnational or Pan-African links between people of African descent throughout the Caribbean and wider world. Trinidadian artist Leroi Clarke (1938–) and Bahamians Jackson Burnside (1949–) and Stanley Burnside (1947–) create semi-abstract paintings that draw stylistic influence from African-Caribbean belief systems and masquerade traditions like Obeah or Junkanoo respectively, and sometimes make figural reference to African and African-Caribbean cultures. Similarly, Jamaican artist Barrington Watson's (1931–) series of oil paintings of realistic portraits of leaders from throughout Africa and the diaspora titled The Pan-Africanists (2000) also stress diasporic links, broadening the national hero pantheon to a Pan-African one. In addition, many artists who identify with the Rastafarian faith, including Everald Brown (1917–) and Albert Artwell (1942–) in Jamaica, and Ras Akyem Ramsay (1953–) and Ras Ishi Butcher (1960–) in Barbados, also create expressionistic paintings that frequently speak to both the centrality of Africa or, more specifically, Ethiopia for blacks in the Anglophone Caribbean, using a visual iconography and colors of Rastafari. Although many of these artists do not participate explicitly in the postnational critiques as described above, they frequently image and imagine a world on canvas that extends beyond the boundaries of nation.
In summary, artists working in the contemporary Anglophone Caribbean variously critique the limits of nationalism, call attention to the global infringements on the island nations, interrogate their diasporic positions outside of the nation and region, and expand the imagination of nation to include a wider African diasporic community. Artists who address these and other concerns work in an increasingly active, vibrant, and diverse artistic environment in the Anglophone Caribbean, one with unprecedented support for their endeavors, both locally and globally. Previously, although the painterly and sculptural arts were important components of the national imagery in the post-independence Anglophone Caribbean, few local governments invested in institutions devoted to the visual arts or provided substantial financial support for artists in the immediate postcolonial era. One notable exception was Jamaica's National Art Museum, which was established in 1974. The museum, under the direction of David Boxer, was instrumental in expanding the national canon of art, at first centered on academic forms of art, to include the work by artists who never received formal training in art and those who drew inspiration from the wider international art world. Starting in the 1990s, national art galleries established in Trinidad, the Bahamas, and Barbados provided a venue for showcasing the islands' long institutionally neglected artists. These institutions devoted officially to "national art," however, were established when international art exhibitions and biennials, which championed "global art," increased in popularity. Exhibition spaces not officially connected to the state have been central in promoting artists in the wider art world and bringing artists from around the region and globe to the Caribbean: Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7) in Trinidad and The Image Factory in Belize. Institutions based in London, such as the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA), have also provided important exhibition opportunities for Caribbean artists. These state and independent nonprofit art institutions in and outside of the Anglophone Caribbean, which support national and postnational art and the diverse forms of art that do not fall into either category, have brought increased the local, regional, and international visibility of art in the Anglophone Caribbean.
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