Writer and curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson reflects on Caribbean Linked II, a residency and exhibition programme organized by Ateliers ’89, ARC Magazine and The Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc. She describes Aruba as the perfect environment for this social, cultural and creative experiment, as it challenged some notions of what it is to be ‘Caribbean’ while confirming others, incubating a sense of discovery and solidarity between the participating artists from across the region.
Planting Seeds: A report on the Caribbean Linked II Residency Project
It’s been more than a month since I went to Aruba for a week to support the Caribbean Linked II project, and I am still chewing over all I experienced. Caribbean Linked II was a two-week artist residency, organised by ARC Magazine, the Fresh Milk Art Platform and Ateliers ’89, and funded by the Mondriaan Foundation. I went in my capacity as writer with ARC, but also as a curator supporting the ten participating artists in executing their work, and helping organise the exhibition/open studio at which the resulting work would be exhibited.
It was my first trip to Aruba, besides a brief visit as an infant. And not long after I arrived, I realised (rather sheepishly) that my image of “the Caribbean” did not figure in a place like Aruba. I have lived in the Caribbean for most of my life, and though I’ve visited a number of the English-speaking islands and Cuba, the Dutch Antilles existed only in theory for me. My knowledge of the history of Aruba, its demographics and even the language were sketchy at best.
I knew that Arubans spoke Papiamento, but I had no idea what it sounded like. So I was surprised when what I conceived to be “Dutch-based patois” turned out to be so Spanish-influenced. This did not figure into my knowledge of “Caribbean history” and further, Dutch and Spanish struck me as an unlikely pairing. Yet, my impression of Aruba is a nation that is a comfortable blend of these and other unexpected inflections.
There was the Cinnabun (of American malls) that scented the airport Arrivals Lounge, the arid desert landscape that reminded me more of cowboy movies than any Caribbean island I’d seen, and of course the seaside pet cemetery- a particularly Aruban idiosyncrasy. Yet, there was also “One Happy Island” on signs and license plates everywhere, which I found eerie, being of the “Jamaica, no problem” generation myself.
After the initial disorientation, I became quite enchanted. With each day, I was more convinced that this strange (for me) Caribbean place was the best possible location for a residency intended not merely to bring Caribbean artists together, but also challenge them to think about what it means to be an artist from the region. Coming from New York/Puerto Rico, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Martinique, Suriname, Curacao and Aruba, each artist brought their idea of the Caribbean with them, and had it challenged and/or reinforced by their experiences with the other artists, the curators and Aruba itself.
Much as Aruba and the Caribbean Linked II experience expanded my sense of what a “place in the Caribbean ” might look like, sound like, smell like; the residency expanded the artists’ sense of what being “from the Caribbean” could mean, what “Caribbean art” could be like, and the opportunities for them to participate in the (re)making of those concepts.
The artists’ were housed and worked at the Ateliers ’89. The Ateliers is itself an interesting departure from institutions I have seen in the region. Founded by contemporary Aruban artist Elvis Lopez in 1989, its large and well-appointed campus, is not shiny and crisp in the way of “well-appointed” spaces in New York or Paris, but rather comfortably sufficient. It reminded me of my high school here in Jamaica; long open-air hallways and rooms with lot of windows. To remind me it was Aruba, there was a cactus growing out of a drain that ran along the roof. There was also the fuschia chain-link fence, which Elvis reports he took some flack from the neighbours over. Each artist was appointed a studio space, a dormitory style living space, and a materials stipend. They lived, worked (and partied some) together, so that by the time I arrived in the second week they were operating as a team, or better yet, an organism.
With the help of a daily presentation from each artist on their artistic practice and their plans/work in progress for the residency, they had a good sense of their peers’ projects and approach. The curators were also asked to give presentations on our practice, and both Shantrelle Lewis and I obliged. Shantrelle’s presentation on her Africa-centred approach to curatorial practice and her use of African-derived cosmological and philosophical principles in her work was especially well received, with a lively conversation following it. Her challenge to concepts of what “art” is, and what an “art” space can be were met with an equally well-articulated challenge to curators from one participating artist, Sofia Maldanado. Sofia insisted that curators need to meet artists half-way in thinking outside of the white box, literally and figuratively. She argued for transforming new spaces with art and letting our curatorial approach drift from the academy and European convention.
I walked away feeling like a resident myself. Between Elvis Lopez- an experienced curator in his own right, Holly Bynoe- Editor at ARC, organiser and team-leader extraordinaire, Shantrelle Lewis- Andy Warhol Fellow, documentary filmmaker, academic etc etc etc I learned a lot about my own work as writer and curator. I soon got to know each of the ten artists personally, we stayed up late nights together, combed the city for bull clips together, bemoaned technical glitches together. Whoever said that the Caribbean creative field is fraught with competition, and plagued by lack of collaboration, innovation, support and commitment is a… wait, that may have been me. Well don’t judge, you’ve said it too. In any case, all that was shown to be an incomplete truth.
Here, where the facilities, curatorial and mentorship support, and institutional framework were provided I saw art happening. Not only visual art, but the art of people coming together to make something happen with what was available. The results indicated this. Each artist departed in tangible ways from their existing work; experimenting with materials as Shirley Rufin did, with media as Dhiradj Ramsamoedj did, or with process as Robin de Vogel, Omar Kuwas, Germille Geerman and Rodell Warner did. With Elvis’ oversight and advice, Holly, Shantrelle and I set about developing the exhibition. Often, the teams overlapped, as when Dhiradj needed an additional body to wear one of his three Flexible Man suits and a certain curator took up the challenge. Or when we collectively prepared the space and mounted the work.
When vinyl-signage could not be ready in time, Sofia hand-painted the signs. When Shirley finished installing her exhibition hours earlier than everyone else, she did not go to bed as she wanted to- I assure you, we all wanted to- instead she went to help Dhiradj mount his flat screens. After that, she helped Veronica to thread the hundreds of pieces of painted black strings (yes, she painted all of them) that stretched across her installation.
Veronica, for her part, had carefully worked out the installation in a beautiful hand-drawn diagram. It required that we build a much-fretted-over makeshift wall to cover a bulletin board and window. It was then it really hit me- Mr Lewis, the National Gallery of Jamaica’s excellent carpenter- would not be coming to my rescue. Luckily Elvis, even when recovering from illness, is not to be underestimated.
When Kevin Schuit had to leave for Holland the day before the opening, all of the artists stayed up all night with him to help him complete his installation of dozens of objects found washed up on the beach, hanging in a wind-chime like formation from the ceiling. The subtle and beautiful installation was well worth the labour, but when word came that Kevin won the much-coveted Young Blood Award at the Gogbot Festival he’d left to participate in, it was all the more so.
And finally, there was the opening night. I knew that Elvis had organised an opening, specially inviting the press and Aruban artists, and open to the public. But again he exceeded my expectations (and I’m pretty sure everyone else’s) with a full-blown extravaganza. He recruited the Aruban performance collective Gang di Arte. They got things off with a bang; a potent mix of poetry, spoken word (in English and Papiamento), dance and theatre. The 20 minute performance ended with a group of around 20 young performers dancing their way into the exhibition while beckoning the audience to come hither. Once inside they froze into live sculpture, responding to work in the exhibition. Visitors of all ages poured in, taking photos with the performers or following suit to engage with work. This was especially the case for interactive pieces like Robin’s or Mark King’s. People had fun; talked and debated, played with babies, drank wine, initiated collaborations, expressed gratitude and appreciation.
In two weeks, just over a dozen people within a supportive community (I must mention Ryan Oduber, Osaira Muyale and Glenda Heyliger, who were especially generous) pulled this together. In two weeks compelling and ambitious work that responded to the space and environment was made, an engaging and beautiful exhibition was installed, a well-received opening was organised, a community celebrated and relationships now span the Caribbean Sea. “Seeds were planted”. Luckily, all this has also been documented in artist’s blogs, curator’s reports and an episode of “In”, an online conversation hosted and organised by NLS Kingston. I look forward to harvest for years to come.
About Nicole Smythe-Johnson:
Nicole Smythe-Johnson is a curator and writer living in Jamaica and working across the Caribbean region. In 2013, she completed her tenure as Senior Curator with the National Gallery of Jamaica where she worked on the 2012 National Biennial, Natural Histories (2013) and New Roots (2013) exhibitions. Since then, she has worked with contemporary Caribbean art and culture magazine ARC as an editor and writer, and also works with Jamaica-based contemporary art organization New Local Space (NLS) as outreach coordinator and host of NLS’ online art conversation series IN.