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Embroidery, India

Creativity, innovation and art in the Caribbean

Leon Wainwright

 

Caribbean Creativity and Innovation in a World of Movement

Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean

Matters of approach: Disciplinarity, creativity and movement

Art, innovation and movement in contemporary Barbados: Precarious cosmopolitanism

Art, capital and innovation in Trinidad

Creativity and collaboration in Guyana

Cuba: The geography of an art biennial

Suriname and the Netherlands: Atlantic movement in art of the Indo-Caribbean

Continuing the project: Future research networks

 

 

Caribbean Creativity and Innovation in a World of Movement

In June 2012, at the CIM closing conference (University of Utrecht), I gave the following outline of my role in the consortium. I drew attention to the Caribbean dimension of CIM and indicated the direction that this work is likely to take in the future beyond the life of the project.

Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean

I began the CIM project at a time when my monograph Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean (Manchester University Press, 2011) http://oro.open.ac.uk/29007/ was not yet published and needed further work. Given that its completion took place with support from HERA, I have acknowledged it as a project ‘output’, and indeed I hope that it will be useful for others in the consortium as they finalise their own project findings. The main concern of Timed Out was to find a way of understanding the place that had been assigned to art of the Caribbean and its transnational diaspora within art historical discourse. Primarily, this involved rising to the challenge of being presented with the diversity of points of view within an art community for whom the art historical record was deemed inadequate or ran counter to their experiences and purposes. I drew on this diversity and sense of discomfort in order to speak directly to art history as a discipline, in the effort to unsettle it and to animate a new sort of art historical understanding that would involve the Caribbean. I responded to what stood out for me through living in the Caribbean and in spending time with artists of the Caribbean diaspora here in Europe over roughly a fifteen year period: namely, that this community remains heavily focused on issues of representation, historical representation through writing and exhibition curating, and the terms of their visibility, canonisation, remembrance, identification, inclusion, and so on.  

Like me, my interview subjects shared a broad sense that the Caribbean has been ignored or subtracted from the mainstream of art history. Setting out to address this context and this discipline explicitly, I chose to present this problem in more specific and strategic terms than as a situation in need of historical revisionism or requiring the expansion of the canon of modern art. Rather, I have argued that it is a problem to do with theoretical assumptions at the heart of art history (which correspond to those in other disciplines too, such as tendencies within the history of anthropology). If art history has a time-space logic in which ‘over there’ equates to ‘back then’, then I have suggested that it tends to narrate according to a geography in which art and artists of the Caribbean are assigned a place ‘behind’ the mainstream and its centres. They are consequently subject to assumptions of backwardness or belatedness and anachronism, and to varieties of alterity, marginalisation and provincialism. Caribbean artists have had to cope with these and responded in a surprising range of ways. They have often made belatedness and provincialism an integral part of their practice, perhaps in the attempt to turn on its head the prevailing spatio-temporal scheme, and in order to recuperate a place within art history’s politics of time.

A chapter of Timed Out was developed further and included in Maruska Svasek’s anthology Moving Objects, Moving Subjects (Berghahn, 2012) http://oro.open.ac.uk/30554/ . This marked for me a turn toward the aims of the CIM project – to try and understand transit, transition and transformation (with these terms having to do with time as well as space), and to centrally consider the emotional lives of creative subjects and encounters with creative objects. In Timed Out, that chapter is entitled ‘Emotional chronology’; when it appeared in Svasek (2012), it was presented as ‘The Emotions and Ethnicity in the Indo-Caribbean’.

Matters of approach: Disciplinarity, creativity and movement

Looking back to the end of 2010, my next phase of work on the CIM project was to conduct fieldwork. I did this through a programme of interviews in Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana, and by drawing upon material gathered during visits to Suriname, the Netherlands, Jamaica and, in 2012, Cuba.

Again, a major challenge was that I was presented with a range of perspectives in a space where the meanings and roles for art and artists are deeply contested. I was also grappling with the difficulty of working primarily under the cover of art history as a discipline, in which many of the methodological approaches at the core of the discipline differ from those that we were pursuing with CIM. I had to choose between these options in order to find ways of making sense of interview materials, approaching art works in relation to what their makers could tell me about them, and learning how to listen to individuals of all kinds – whether those were members of the public who were attending a gallery talk or an exhibition, or were curators, arts organisers, art funding officers, or other academics. It is also worth saying that I may also have been reckoning with my own identity in collaborating with scholars from outside my discipline. I have an established profile as a writer and sometime curator in this same arts environment, and I’m known as someone involved in art education and in advocating for artists in public galleries and museums.

Against the background of all those external complications, there was also a challenge that I had set myself. I wanted to substantially confront and, if necessary, to revise or at least reformulate my earlier work. That work was also based on long-term fieldwork and archival work, conducted in the Caribbean and in its diaspora in Europe. My present focus however would fall on the concept of the ‘transnational’, and whether the ideas and practices associated with transnationalism were indeed the most pertinent for the art communities that I went out to visit during CIM. They were ideas of free movement and interconnectivity across national borders, and of an expanded ‘global circulation’ of art. Questioning these would mean facing up to the possibility that the centrality given to transnationalism in my previous book may need to be more firmly grounded in a new sort of global geography for creativity, innovation and movement. I will now go on to explain what this move has come to resemble.  

Part of my task has been to take the CIM initiative of drawing back and refusing the temptation to look at creativity as a final product – away from the finished art work alone, for instance – and instead to enlarge one’s sphere of attention and identify the dynamics of a certain art environment. I seized on this opportunity, since it allowed me to extend my analysis beyond a concern with discourse per se, and the sphere of aesthetic discourse in the Caribbean that I had highlighted in my previous writings. A central dimension of each of my chosen settings is money. I began to see that the diverse ways in which creativity and innovation in the Caribbean are presented and understood – in the process of ‘issue framing’ – has often to do with the impact of money, and the ability to attract it, or the promise of being able to do so.

Another pillar on which the CIM project stands is a concern with movement, which I took as an invocation of concerns with space, place and scale. Primarily, movement is an implicit part of the way that I would behave as a researcher, travelling and sojourning in urban centres in a variety of countries across the Caribbean. More than that, I addressed how spatial concerns in each of those contexts were held by the people I met. This was in order to try and see how practitioners and organisers of art have understood their own circumstances, and the scale of their concerns, connections and networks, through the global geography of their patterns of movement. I would set out to explain the impact of money – and the ability to attract it – on forms of organisation among artists and in relation to art production, and to show the geography of this impact. Capital is a normative force in generating the field of contemporary art, with a readable influence in place-making and meaning-making activities in given local contexts. I would find that capital shapes attitudes toward collaboration and artist’s groupings, as well as the increasing links with the commercial sector (as in the ‘cultural industries’), international travel, and the movement of artists and art works within and beyond the Caribbean.

Art, innovation and movement in contemporary Barbados: Precarious cosmopolitanism

Addressing these concerns to the context of Barbados, we may need to pause on the question of how various stakeholders in the contemporary art scene in Barbados (whether those are international art agencies, regional art organisers, or local bureaucrats) are positioned vis-à-vis international capital, foreign, regional or national cultural policy priorities, and flows of funding. I suggest that we should ask to what extent do claims – however codified or indirect – for a ‘cosmopolitan’ future for art in Barbados come to shape and direct such policies, and the patterns and directions in the movement of capital? I found that the concepts of sustainability, innovation and the tools associated with the cultural industries enable the local bureaucracy to work within legal regulations, or in some instances to change them altogether. These are competing claims over artistic ‘success’ and ‘creativity’ which have come to animate a precarious cosmopolitanism that hardly advantages all of its participants.

Art, capital and innovation in Trinidad

It is worth comparing several other settings that I have visited over the duration of the CIM project, beginning with Trinidad. Here I have given particular attention to the changing economy of relations between individual artists and to the production and definition of art spaces. Interview evidence suggests the emerging influence of the concept of the ‘cultural industries’ in Trinidad, where the commercial sector of marketing and advertising has helped to shape ideas about what constitutes contemporary art and a successful art environment. This has become central to the ways that artists organise and distinguish themselves, and how they ‘frame’ their situation according to concepts of creativity and innovation. Fieldwork revealed the impact of capital, its effect on the decisions that artists have made in seeking financial support and in defining the cultural contexts for their practices. A geographical sense was gained of the ambitions or ‘success’ of artists to participate in exhibitions abroad, whether these are elsewhere in the Caribbean, North America, Africa, Asia or Europe. In Trinidad itself, it became clear that particular values are attached to notionally ‘independent’ art organisations such as Alice Yard, and that such values need to be analysed with attention to the normative influence of capital in shaping and defining collaboration and locality.

Creativity and collaboration in Guyana

Turning to another of my sites – Guyana – presented the opportunity to understand how capital helps to frame notions of creativity and innovation, while shaping patterns of movement and defining locality. The perspectives offered by members of the art community in Georgetown, Guyana revealed some striking contrasts with the other Caribbean contexts examined in the rest of the research. The dire state of Guyana’s national economy, its political instability, and heavy outward migration have a bearing on how artists of several generations have conducted their respective art practices and defined their current interests. I did a set of interviews with art students, recent graduates of the national Burrowes School of Art, art education staff, and curators of the National Gallery of Guyana. This allowed me to see how members of the art community have come to cope with the near dearth of opportunities for the sale and exhibition of art in the private sector, and the near neglect of Guyana among art patrons and organisations in the international arena. In many other locations of the Caribbean examined during the CIM project, competition among artists is rife, even against a background of collaboration. In Guyana, however, artists and arts organisers pay attention to the relationships between competition, collaboration and community on a somewhat more local scale. By framing their concerns in this way, they have provided a context which makes sense of the interconnections between Guyana’s art practice, the scarcity of capital – whether national or international – and the country’s global isolation.

Cuba: The geography of an art biennial

My visit to Cuba in 2012 allowed me to explore the geography of a significant art biennial and to extend my Caribbean-focused interest as to include a simultaneously Latin American dimension. Through numerous gallery visits, interviews with artists and curators, and participation on the ground in diverse art spaces in Cuba, I examined the geographical scale of the interests held among participants at the Havana Biennial. What comes to the fore of this analysis is the matter of how major art festivals may ‘frame’ the issues around contemporary art practice in a setting where movement across national borders is the focus of an explicitly ideological concern. I would argue that a range of stakeholders in Cuba – including artists, art organisers, curators, audiences, and policy-makers – have come to relate to one another through ideas about biennial culture. In this light it is possible to see what sort of ‘sustainable’ future they envision for an art landscape and an art community with an apparent locus in Havana.

Suriname and the Netherlands: Atlantic movement in art of the Indo-Caribbean

Settling finally on my work around Suriname, I should point out that here too there are similar sorts of framings. This largely Dutch-speaking context bears closest comparison to Barbados, with prevailing claims having been made about its ‘cosmopolitanism’ in general and for Suriname’s embedding in an ‘inclusive’ and ‘global’ contemporary art environment. Here the lines of connection between Suriname and the Netherlands rather belie those claims for an art community that freely connects with others around the Atlantic region, forming a single art world. As I have pointed to, my interest is in what ensues from such claims about the ‘free’ movement of artworks and artists, what such claims enable for various stakeholders in this environment, and what discontent and disadvantage do they help to bring about, or even to hide.

I suggest that there are some ideas which were given attention within academia at the end of the twentieth century and which are now enjoying something of a career, or at least having an impact outside the academy. These are critical models that have treated certain art practices as significations of global, transnational movement and in which art works may be seen as representative of one or other ethnic or diasporic difference, and as ‘signifying’ visual media. What is the articulation of these models beyond the sphere of critical analysis, I would ask, such as in the field of contemporary art? How are these concepts taken up and mobilised or commoditised? What sorts of choices does this present to academics in the ways that we reckon with artists who undergo movement?

The process that prompted these questions is explored in my writing that draws on evidence from fieldwork in Paramaribo (Suriname) and Rotterdam. These are urban settings where Dutch and Surinamese official sponsorship shaped two related art exhibitions in 2010 that were the culmination of a Suriname-Dutch partnership of ‘cultural exchange’. I have looked at how Caribbean artists’ works were framed through art patronage and curatorial presentations in ways that emphasised their diasporic difference and placed them within a transnational art environment. The suggestion is that this instance is revealing of some of the complexities and limits around the agency of these artists. Their movement along an axis of connection between the Caribbean and Europe – entailing processes of transit, transition and transformation – implicates Suriname artists with place-making and meaning-making processes and, perhaps rather too centrally, with the priorities of arts organisations and currents in funding and cultural policy within Europe.

Raising the matter of ‘a right to the city’ (with reference to David Harvey’s essay by the same name), my writing around this has turned to the uneven relations between various national and urban locations in the Atlantic region. I am fascinated by the experience of Caribbean artists and the sorts of positions that artists have come to adopt as a way of coping in this climate. My attention has settled on those individuals with an Indo-Caribbean (South Asian) background. This is a feature which has made these artists seem distinctive, in a region better known for its African diaspora, and there are consequently perceptions of difference – whether of being ‘Indian’ and Surinamese – that have helped to steer the patronage of their art. In this light, I have sought to address a specific instance of recent ‘cultural exchange’ between Suriname and the Netherlands, and asked to what extent it is possible from this setting to draw wider conclusions about a transatlantic field of contemporary art.

Continuing the project: Future research networks

My purpose in the foregoing text has been to give an at-a-glance account of my area of the CIM project. In closing, it would be good to look beyond the project a little bit. What the Caribbean contribution to the CIM project has not addressed in any direct manner is how these art communities consider their relationships with the communities of Caribbean people at large. How is the future of Caribbean community thought about and implicated in the lives and interests of communities of art practitioners, art curators, organisers, and academics across this complex contemporary field? It is this direction for research that has led me to initiate a new two-year project that began in September 2012, together with Professor Kitty Zijlmans at the University of Leiden. Funded by the Dutch Scientific Organisation (NWO) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK, the project is entitled ‘Sustainable Art Communities: Creativity and Policy in the Transnational Caribbean’. It entails research networking and exchange among members of the Dutch-speaking and English-speaking Caribbean, and will bring a range of stakeholders from the Caribbean to open meetings in the Netherlands, through our partner the Tropenmuseum and led by Wayne Modest, and at the Institute for International Visual Arts in London.

Much like another project that I am leading, ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’ http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/disturbing-pasts/ taking place this November at the Museum of Ethnology of Vienna (with a grouping of three HERA consortia, and speakers from around the world), this should be seen very much as a continuation of the CIM project. It maintains its emphasis on engagement and exchange, and the wider world in which we have conducted our research as a consortium. My hope is that it will bring just as much interest as the CIM project has enjoyed.

 

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