Oneika Russell

Destination Aruba

When told my friend that I was going to Aruba for a residency, her reply was ‘I’m jealous that you are going to such a lovely destination,’ or did she say something like ‘Lovely beaches.’ I can’t remember which it was, but I remember explaining that I was going there for time and space to make work I couldn’t easily make in Jamaica. I was going on a residency. Aruba was not beaches for me, it was the location of the host institution Ateliers ’89. So decided was I on the work I would make that I spent the previous month of July doing the preparatory work. This residency would be important because it would give me the space and time that would allow me to tackle a project I had been wanting to do for over a year.

From the first morning when the tour bus arrived at 9 am promptly for a day of getting to know Aruban culture, to the 8th day when we were still being taken to understand more about Aruba’s cultural landscape, the realisation hit me that space and time here were subject to another philosophy or will. This philosophy had something to do with groups, connections, becoming familiar with the close but unfamiliar, art linkages and Caribbean connections. Aaah ok, now I get it – Caribbean Linked!

CL IV group

As a group, we have experienced and are still in the process of absorbing the varied studio visits to locally influential artists’ work/home spaces such as those inhabited by Osaira Muyale, Ryan Oduber, Alydia Wever and Ciro Abath. Each artist has found some way to solve the problem many of us Caribbean artists are faced with in needing to have our studios in the same space as our homes. This is partly for economic reasons and the fact that there is not a whole lot of activity supporting art from the outside in the form of easily affordable art studios. It seems that each local artist decided that since they need to have a home studio, then it would be completely unique and designed for their own needs. Each home has been adjusted to include the work/display/gallery space in such a way that they have become art spaces, art factories and art muses.

We have all taken the chartered Arubus to public and historic landmarks such as lighthouses, the Aruban tourism-brand sign, man-made and natural beaches and aloe farms, and taken walking tours through historic communities like Rancho and San Nicolas. The tours have continued on to public institutions like The Archaeological Museum and locally-crafted souvenir shops. If you can imagine it, even now we continue to think about touring more. Having been introduced to Aruba via a method of researching, exploring and investigation, it seems we daren’t think about being in Aruba without continuing to search – even if the searching takes us to less highly ranked cultural sites like the Chinese-owned supermarkets with its mass of gold, shiny, plasticky but equally novel things. We long for journeys to the massive Kooyman’s hardware store, which is an endless fascination of tools that we all feel we must have for creation, even if we don’t know what to do with them yet. One night we even trekked by bus to a place many of us thought was a portal into Miami’s South Beach. My country has nothing as grand as this to offer tourists. Our tourism product in Jamaica suddenly felt more rural and quaint by comparison. You can still see cracks in the facade in Jamaica; I like those cracks though.

Oneika 1

Speaking of which, the naturally occurring landscape here and the landscape that has been constructed are curious and amazing sights, to me at least. The hotels are all of such grand and pristine scale that once inside The Ritz Carlton, which we visited to see a gallery, all the joys of upscale tropical paradise awaited us. The wild or natural landscape around Aruba however reminds me of those iconic images of The Wild West, New Mexico, Santa Fe etc. There are a multitude of thorny sea bushes that really create the feel of a wild untamed land. What strikes me is that there is very little effort in most areas to make the natural habitat around these buildings look more like the idea of the tropics as we do in other islands. Maybe this is how it should be, as the Caribbean is always a multiplicity of contradictions existing together in the same space. Aruba can’t leave out its sprinkling of non-native palm trees planted around though.

So what about this residency? It is like no residency I have ever been on. I can’t describe Caribbean Linked as a residency, at least not in a traditional sense, but the Caribbean isn’t a traditional art environment either. We in the Caribbean need so much help and encouragement and information that perhaps no 3 weeks that has been designed to affect change could ever be conceived as just giving artists time and space. As I am being encouraged to try things I am unfamiliar with by Humberto Diaz, the designated master artist, I remember myself during the academic year trying to pep talk my own students into doing the same at The Edna Manley College. I am now the student, and I recognise every move in Humberto’s strategy. It is a good one though, as I have found myself making several runs to local sources that reflect the Aruban and indeed Caribbean’s changing culture of materials which is hinged on new immigrants to the region and cultural practices. La Linda, the expansive fabric and trim shop, has been one of my favourites. Since finding time in the studios, I have been painting, drawing, sewing and trying, being anxious and nervous, and trying again. In my studio shared with Laura De Vogel and her grounding in improvisation and intervention, and Tessa Mars who creates painted images and now for the first time sculptural objects, there is a sense that we are all just trying, making and seeing as we navigate all the other activities Caribbean Linked facilitates.

Oneika 2

As we make our way through the artists’ talks and the presentations by arts writers and curators, I understand how carefully or skilfully the group was selected. For that I am thankful. I already want collectives to grow and spring up. I want to collaborate and keep talking about the strange things that happen in your country or my country. Could I ever be as selfless an artist/administrator as our facilitator Elvis Lopez or our coordinator Robin De Vogel or our admin point person Katherine Kennedy? They are all artists, and yet have stepped back to allow us to have the spotlight and creative time. Who knows, but I guess the blue print is there, and this is a choice I can make as I have now become Caribbean Linked.