Self-recognition: The Shock of Seeing Yourself in the Mirror
My last Caribbean residency experience was on the north coast of Trinidad in 2001. It was organized by CCA in collaboration with the Triangle Arts Trust and I was part of the residency committee working with Charlotte Elias, CCA’s director, along with committee members Sean Leonard, Adele Todd and Richard Bolai. I put forward the idea of organizing a residency only for Caribbean artists, but given the relationship with Triangle Arts Trust, this was not feasible at the time.
Fast forward ten years and while installing work for an exhibition at the Fondation Clement, Tirzo Martha, co-founder of theInstituto Buena Bista (IBB) invited me to be a part of their organisation’s lustrum celebrations, marking their fifth anniversary.
While on the ground in Curacao later that year, I spoke with IBB students about using aesthetics to build connections with artistic communities across the Caribbean by developing a collaborative project with their regional counterparts – my students at Barbados Community College. I was surprised when the Curacao students said that they weren’t Caribbean, they could not imagine a connection with young artists on another Caribbean island and that they were Dutch.
However, later that week, we set up a Skype meeting between the two sets of students via Skype to begin a dialogue. The Dutch Antilleans expressed surprise after the meeting – “They look just like us” is what they said. There was a shock of recognizing themselves in the virtual mirror.
Fast-forward four more years, my involvement in this residency is as a founding partner of Caribbean Linked with the aim of simply linking the Caribbean through the experience of making art and erecting mirrors where we can see ourselves, functioning as a catalyst for basic self-recognition.
The experience over the past week, being in conversation with the young artists, reminds me of an experiment developed by psychologists to determine when infants develop self-concept. The ‘mirror test’ carried out in the seventies, placed infants ages 6 to 24 months in front of a mirror with rouge on their noses and asked “Who’s that?” Initially, those between 6 and 12 months think the reflection is a kid they want to play with; between 1 and 2 years old there seems to be some withdrawal; while at 24 months, they recognize that the image in the mirror is the self – they point at the rouge on their nose. Research reveals that in order to connect with others, we must have some sense of who we are – however limited that notion is.
Caribbean Linked is a ‘mirror test’ of sorts – the artists show up, we put rouge on their noses and ask them to look at each other. Like the young infants in the ‘mirror test’, they want to play as they did in the Quadirikiri Caves, at Arikok National Park, or in shared studio spaces. Some experienced a ‘disconnect’ at times, but as the days and weeks rolled on, there was a sense of recognition in the other. Several artists have spoken about this experience as one that is creating enduring connections and providing a renewed sense of belonging in and with the Caribbean.
I had my own experience of seeing myself in the mirror. Yesterday evening, I traveled to Arikok National Park to participate in Diego Espinosa’s portrait project and to work on a collaborative sound work in ‘Fontein’, an abandoned plantation house. On entering the space, I saw myself in the tiles on the floor by recognising the same pattern on tiles in the house where I grew up in Barbados.
For several of the artists in Caribbean Linked’s residency programme, they have had little or no travel experience to another Caribbean island; their identities are often rooted in a national landscape more so than a regional one. Alex is a Trinbagonian, Simone a Bajan. While for others, their location in the diasporas of the Global North makes their connection to the region more tenuous at times – a Vinci in Brooklyn, for example becomes absorbed in her daily life in the metropole, interrupted by her temporary reinsertion into the region, reawakening a bond with what feels like a familiar space. For the artists, familiarity was palpable, there was a graceful easiness to receiving each other.
And yet, this sense of recognition I witnessed might belie some of the more difficult material being processed through the various projects. Alex Kelly from Belmont, Trinidad has three works in the exhibition hall – a palette installed on the tiled floor with carefully folded brown paper bags, a small square drawing and a large totem-like image boasting a tower of oil drums with palettes precariously perched atop. Standing under this ominous drawing I couldn’t help but think of Trinidad’s pending elections slated for next month and a sense of vertigo was brought on; the very unstable column that this twin island’s republic is balanced on might be about to collapse.
Leasho Johnson, working out of Kingston, Jamaica, shares his installation Promise Land, introducing a new character to Aruba installed in the exhibition hall, with a wheat paste version sitting proudly on an abandoned building on Dominicanessenstraat, just around the corner from the Ateliers. Promise Land, a female avatar, references dance hall culture and daggering – her body bumps and grinds, a luscious landscape entertaining the loud beat, presenting her self with a wince or a wink.
Caribbean Linked is a large polyglot drawing with many authors. Our last delicious supper on Saturday evening in the open courtyard of the Ateliers took place under a beaming full moon. Generously prepared by Aruban creatives, Jess Wolff and Velvet Zoe Ramos, we all ended by singing Happy Birthday to Alex in English, Spanish, Papiamento and Dutch. Caribbean Linked is a new anthem of sorts, a multilingual hymn, marking our continued birth and growth, complete with growing pains.
Next year, we turn four.