Early on during my time as writer-in-residence at Caribbean Linked IV, I had the opportunity to experience Bahamian artist Nowé Harris-Smith’s paintings on a more than visual level; I had the chance to be a part of one.
Harris-Smith often uses human faces as canvases, and so, to get a better sense of the artist’s process, I volunteered my own. Painting with just her hands, Harris-Smith created a carnivalesque mask for me in shades of pink, blue and a greenish taupe under a tree in the yard of Ateliers ‘89. She then took extreme close-ups of my face both with her digital camera and a Polaroid camera she bought upon arriving in Aruba. This was all part of an ongoing project she is working on as a student at the College of the Bahamas, one that she initially planned to continue pursuing during her time in Aruba.
Harris-Smith’s Caribbean Linked IV works ended up going in vastly more experimental directions, but I did learn two key things about her practice from my early participation in her face painting series. First, she is drawn to making work outside the confines of a walled-in studio space. This is also demonstrated by her interest in street photography, a genre she is still at the beginning stages of exploring. Harris-Smith likes to make works out in the world.
Secondly, and more importantly, I was able to observe early in the Caribbean Linked IV residency one of the primary interests that motivates Harris-Smith’s work: she is curious about ways that multiple art forms can be combined into multi-layered, hybrid approaches to making work. This began with her combination of painting and photography, but by the end of the residency she had introduced sculptural techniques into her practice as well.
In other words, I think it is form and process that truly interest Harris-Smith. Representation is a secondary concern, as counter-intuitive as that may sound given the prominence of the human presence in her work. The artist herself doesn’t always point in this direction. Her own description of her face painting project, for instance, makes the claim that the concept behind the work is a kind of humanism. The masking or blurring of features is supposed to make differences between individuals recede. But I don’t make that connection in the work; even when Harris-Smith layers her photographs to produce a concealing effect on identity, the result is unsettling rather than reassuring about any underlying sense of human nature. What is most powerful in these images is the patterns the paint makes on the three-dimensional canvas of the human face, and the way those patterns are flattened by the photograph.
Caribbean Linked IV’s resident master artist Humberto Díaz saw this leaning in Harris-Smith’s work right away, and encouraged her to try using a less recognizable canvas than the face if she planned to continue painting on skin. The face cannot avoid communicating meaning on its own, and potentially distracts from the intensity of form that can result from Harris-Smith’s process.
And so other parts of the body – the stomach, the shoulder – provided alternative fleshy topographies for Harris-Smith’s bright acrylic paints during her time at Caribbean Linked IV. The photographs of these paintings do not always have an obvious human reference; the focus becomes abstract expressionism. The ability of the camera to capture the paint before it dries lends a slippery texture to the images.
The greatest departure from Harris-Smith’s previous work found in the pieces she made at Caribbean Linked IV, a series titled Skin Grafts, is her decision to bring her 2-D photos of 3-D body paintings back into the third dimension again. After printing her photographs of painted bits of anatomy on stickers, she adhered them to found metal objects, the metal itself grungy and covered in rust spots. She then carved up and creased the stickers into wrinkled landscapes, as if the images were bubbling up under heat or chemical reaction. It is within this process that the artist took her greatest leap in creating new configurations of the visual art forms in which she is interested: painting, photography and sculpture.