A colonial gaze often assumed by the contemporary media is a frequent point of investigation in the work of Guyanese artist Dominique Hunter, who completed her BFA at Barbados Community College in 2015.
These investigations often take the form of collages focusing on the female body, particularly the black female body, and the disturbing continuities and repetitions of colonial discourse found in 21st century advertising and popular culture. The associations of such things with a global economic order are clear. As is the case with much contemporary art that directly critiques mass culture, Hunter’s collages function as exaggerated refractions of the experience of a cosmopolitan consumer class. The art audience is implicated.
Because this is a theme that does not need reference to a specific place to have resonance, I became curious about what Hunter would produce in Aruba when she told me she was open to working contextually during her time at Caribbean Linked IV. It seemed to me that the influence of place would not reveal itself easily in the materials she was gathering, the sorts of local tourism publications that are ostensibly designed to sell particular destinations, but whose imagery and language are largely uniform regardless of place. Hunter’s process of letting her materials act on their own, giving them the chance to develop their own narratives, also seemed antithetical at first to the work being shaped by the artist’s impressions of a new environment.
But during the first week of our residency, Hunter became captivated by an architectural detail seen on our tours: the brightly-colored, patterned ceramic tiles, common to many countries with a Latin influence, encountered on the floors and walls of homes and businesses around Aruba. The artist began to wonder how her collages, with their sharp focus on contemporary concerns, might be joined with the aesthetic of the tiles, linked to ideas of geometry and symmetry.
It was visiting master artist Humberto Díaz who advocated for Hunter leaving her comfort zone as she considered ways of working with tiles. Díaz spent many of his visits with Caribbean Linked IV’s residents encouraging them to try things they’d never tried before. If an artist had mostly made 2-D works in the past, Díaz recommended producing something three-dimensional. If an artist was attached to representational work, he argued for abstraction. In the case of Hunter’s collages, Díaz asked if the artist had ever considered creating her pieces digitally.
Using photographs of tiles she had taken around Aruba, Hunter re-created their designs in Photoshop, leaving blank space to be filled in. She then visited the website of “Aruba’s premier lifestyle and entertainment magazine” Island Temptations to source images for creation of the tiles’ patterns. For those interested in analyzing the media’s uses of the female body, Caribbean lifestyle magazines generally do not disappoint.
What materialized in Hunter’s digitally-produced designs, however, is less the critique of representation seen in earlier works, and closer to formal exercise. The digital process allowed Hunter to easily experiment with mirroring effects and patterns introduced through color. The confusion of disembodied human limbs and torsos that fills the tiles’ interiors points towards chaos, but there is also a gracefulness to the kaleidoscope movement implied. Images of an idealized Caribbean sea incorporated into the designs add to this grace and fluidity, counterbalancing the more purely carnal associations of the tiles’ tangle of body parts.
The effect produced by the tiles’ installation into the gallery space in Hunter’s piece titled Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today: A Place to Wash Dirty Hands ended up being, for me, the most powerful element of the work she produced in Aruba. Printed on 6” x 6” stickers, the artist’s tiles were arranged over identically-sized bare white tiles in a particular corner of the Ateliers ’89 exhibition space that houses a sink. The installation was seamless. The media-sourced material and the clearly digital process rattled my sense of an otherwise traditional aesthetic. Yesterday, tomorrow and today; as Hunter’s new works suggest, there is both insecurity and pleasure in experiencing all of these at once.