Sasha Dees’ Report
Connecting the Dots
At this moment the contemporary art scene in Barbados relative to its population (approx. 260.000) is internationally mostly known for its artists Annalee Davis (b. 1963) Ewan Atkinson (b. 1975) HYPERLINK “and Sheena Rose (b. 1985) True ambassadors for Barbados; check any international contemporary art exhibit that includes artists from the Caribbean and you will see work by at least one of these three artists.
I had the pleasure to meet Rose personally in New York in 2012, which resulted in her inviting me to Barbados for a weeklong curator-in-residency through Projects & Space in Amsterdam, which I curate.
Projects & Space is a platform founded and administered by Rose, that connects primarily through Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr). The group consists of visual artists, curators, musicians, actors, photographers, critics, filmmakers, researchers, fashion designers, interior designers and writers. Her idea was born (of a) from a three-month residency at the Tembe Art Studio & Residency in Suriname in 2010, where she felt isolated at the programme’s rural location and language. Upon returning to Barbados, she was surprised to discover that isolation was present there as well. Project & Space came out of the need to fight that isolation and to develop a vibrant creative network in Barbados. Rose wanted the separate circles to come together in order to push the contemporary arts field forward and out in the world. By using social media and physical venues like her own private studio space, as well as public venues, Rose created a platform where both younger and experienced practitioners could meet. The platform allows for artists of different disciplines to talk about and showcase work, initiating a Bajan discourse on contemporary art in a wide context. The artists exchange experiences, as well as discuss universal issues such as professionalism of the arts sector, sustainability, funding, curatorial and arts practice, marketing, pricing, etc. Periodically Rose invites international artists and curators to visit for short residencies in her own private studio. In doing so Rose, working and living on the island - and determined to keep it that way- not only seeks out international residencies and opportunities to exhibit her work outside the island, she also actively works at bringing “her world” to Barbados. In this way, she shares her ever growing international network with all Bajan artists and exposes them to other projects, views, ideas and experiences to resonate and bounce back their ideas off.
Rose, introduced me to the Bajan art scene in an informal way - just the way I like it! I was asked to meet and talk to as many artists and artist organisations as possible, and I was happy to do so. Rose organised an art time where all were invited to hear about my work and for me to hear and see works by the Bajan artists. During the evening, different art practitioners from all over the island came and went: first generation painter Winston Kellman; newly relocated photographer Mark King; art critic Therese Hadchity; dance student Ju Ju Boy Wonder; and film student Vonley Won Li Smith, to name a few. It was gathering of like minded art practitioners from diverse disciplines and experience just as Rose set out Projects & Space to be. Several Bajan artists gave presentations on their work too, and we had lively passionate discussions on work and sustainability. It was inspiring and empowering.
Rose also made sure I did studio visits with not only Davis and Atkinson but also first generation artists (Ras Aykeem, Ras Ishi and Winston Kellman) and newly graduated artists and students. I spent substantial time at Fresh Milk an art residency program launched by Davis, in fall 2011, who envisions it becoming the physical space and agency for contemporary art in Barbados. I also spent several days at the Barbados Community College (BCC) where Rose is an alumnus. I gave a presentation and talked about and critiqued students work.
All three organisations are connected and complement, support and elevate each other. They also utilise the natural connection in the region to connect to the other contemporary artists and organisations like Alice Yard (Trinidad)
Co-author “Curating in the Caribbean” and head of the Art Department at BCC, Allison Thompson explained to me that Colleges/Universities within the Caricom countries now are discussing the creation of specific programs per semester which can be taken by students from the whole region to make more specific art classes viable. They also discuss the possibility of having professors travel and teach a semester throughout the Caricom. BCC is also looking into cost-efficient ways of streaming lectures into the classrooms within the Caricom.
Next to national galleries and adhoc international exhibitions, an increasing amount of Bi- and Tri-Annuals are organised in the region, giving structural international exhibition possibilities for the artists in the region such as: Havana is now taking place, and in September 2015 there will be the first Tri-Annual in Moengo Suriname. Momentum for contemporary art in the region appears to be gaining, when you look at the pool of artists, residencies and exhibition possibilities supporting the contemporary conceptual art field in the region. These art events are no longer overlooked in the international art world.
Looking at Barbados, we are talking about the three Bajan artists, each from a different generation, that work and exhibit internationally with an economic value most likely to have higher returns on its investment. The three contemporary conceptual artists on the island, however, are not selling enough work and can’t make a living in the region! The commercially successful artists on the island - not unlike the rest of the Caribbean - practice the figurative decorative Caribbean fine arts. It is said that pricing might be a problem in the region, but as I traveled with Rose to the different galleries it became clear it’s not about that. The prices paid for figurative and decorative artworks range up to 20.000$; these works might keep their value but will not increase over time. It fascinates me that there seems to be a lack of interest in collecting contemporary conceptual art, not even as an investment. I for one treasure my Sheena Rose original work on its artistic merit alone, but I also know it will have its increased value come retirement day!
One problem seems to be that the contemporary art is not presented in its right context for the viewer to learn to appreciate it for what it is. Contemporary art artistically leaves the viewer to think and make up its own mind on what the work is communicating, telling a story beyond what is seen. Put that together next to a well executed landscape of a shackle house, palm tree or sea view, and it is clear the story here is what we see. Let me be clear: I am separating but not diminishing one art form from the other; both genres have well trained highly professional artists and works. That said, we are looking at two different forms within the art field that really don’t go together as they are too different. Presented together, they will diminish each other, but given their right space, they will both be viable work fields, allowing the artists to earn their living. It’s the responsibility of curators, critics and art consultants, but also the contemporary conceptual artists themselves, to frame and present all the work in the right context, so it can be viewed and enjoyed at its best! The right context should make the works speak to the viewer in a language they understand, making its artistic value clear.
Professionalizing the contemporary arts field will also have to include developing a group of collectors, patrons and supporters. Worldwide contemporary art is a highly respected, big business. I for one hope that the contemporary arts scene in the Caribbean will not only grow through its artists – which I’m sure it will - but will grow in its appear. Citizens and companies in the Caribbean will eventually pick up on the fact that contemporary and conceptual art has artistic and economic value and is something to support, enjoy, invest in, be proud of and make money with. I would like for the returns on some of the artists that no doubt will become successful flow back to the Caribbean and contemporary art not becoming yet another drain - artistically and financially - for the region!
There are two organisations, which I was introduced to, that include a physical space that provides the right context for contemporary art. BCC is presenting contemporary art in the right context but its challenge is that it’s a school. It has problems to profile the space as an Art Gallery. To visit a campus, pass security, find out about opening hours, is not something that would come to mind to neither islanders nor visitors. Fresh Milk organised a presentation within E-create 2013 that singled out contemporary art. It showed the three international artists mentioned above, and also gave space to a group of young aspiring Bajan artists and students to present their work. Framed in the right context the artists were indeed well received and understood. For Fresh Milk founder Davis and her apprentice Katherine Kennedy, the challenge is foremost sustainability. First, they have to develop its mission and vision, and second to execute and maintain it.
In order to sustain and further develop, the art department at BCC, Fresh Milk and the art-collective Projects & Space need support. Not only financial, but importantly it needs support and investment from the art field. Bajan art practitioners have to become a solid group and connect with similar groups in the region. Yes, there will be differences, dislikes and confrontations, but in the big picture that is only healthy and will contribute to develop the discourse. The regional artists and arts organisations have to start working together and think of the long-term plan for the contemporary arts field, instead of getting bogged down on the short-term, individual goals.
I discussed an example to cultivate new collectors, a program in the Netherlands called: “My First Art Collection”. MFAC is geared specifically to people that have disposable income to invest, are interested in alternative investments and have affinity with the arts. Thompson told me that there used to be a similar course offered in the evenings/weekends at BCC. Collaboration on putting a MFAC type program back in place between the organizations could help give a boost to professionalize the contemporary art scene in Barbados.
It seems all elements for a sustainable vibrant contemporary art scene in the region are there. Once all activated, made visible and connected, it can be a powerful force to reckon with internationally! This is an accelerating and exciting time for the region that I’m excited to be a part of!