When Jamaican artist Oneika Russell speaks about the tunic-like garment she has designed during her time at Caribbean Linked IV, she refers to the person who might wear such an article of clothing, one embellished with tropical signifiers, as an ambassador or an explorer.
This is a revealing way of talking about her practice; in Russell’s work she herself alternatingly takes on each of those roles. At times her relationship to “the tropical” is that of a voyager seeking out uncharted meanings and associations. At other times she is acutely aware of herself as a representative, someone for whom the burden of the imagery she works with is much more immediate.
The path by which Russell arrived at an interest in the tropical is a crucial part of the narrative she has organized of her development as an artist. In that narrative there is a distinct fault line, one that has rerouted her work away from direct social investigations towards the more existential concerns of the journeyer. From 2010 to 2014, Russell pursued doctoral studies in film, video and media arts in Kyoto, Japan. The uprooting, though it was temporary, was enough of a challenge to her sense of self to remain a presence in the work that she has produced since her return to Jamaica.
Russell herself describes the shift like this: before her time in Japan, the main thrust of her work followed a well-established tradition of Jamaican artists questioning the oppositions initiated by the colonial encounter. This involved an instinctive challenge to the Western project, particularly its invention of the black/white racial binary. But in Japan, Russell was faced with a social context in which these concerns were drained of their meaning. Suddenly the most profound thing about her identity was that she was an outsider.
From these new circumstances, a curiosity about what constitutes a tropical identity emerged in Russell’s practice. This was first investigated through various mediums in a project undertaken in Kyoto titled A Natural History, of which the central video piece is one of my favorites of the artist’s works. The jarring feeling of incongruousness and otherness that I assume Russell experienced during this stage of her career is palpable in the video’s bold idiosyncrasies: its uneasily jaunty keyboard music, the contrast between swelling foliage and the artificiality of its urban-park setting, the peculiar inclusion of figures from ethnographic photographs.
I see the work that Russell is doing at Caribbean Linked IV as connected to the aesthetic sensibility that she began developing in A Natural History. There is a personal distance, a fragmentary approach to memory and experience, that has carried over into her latest pieces. The references to exoticism, verdant growth and anthropological opacity also remain.
It is experimentation with the materials available to her in Aruba that has occupied most of Russell’s studio time at Ateliers ’89. The novelty of many of these materials to her suggests the introduction of new cultural practices and consumer goods into the region due to constant migrations. Some of these materials include fetishized imagery of the tropics being sold back to the tropics in a bizarre loop. For instance, a pervasive fabric decorated with macaws and palm leaves caught Russell’s eye early in the residency, as did shiny gold foil emblems emblazoned with a man’s profile. They form the foundation for Russell’s “ambassador’s” uniform, a piece with affinities towards the tropical baroque.
A series of embroidered badges complement the garment, each representing an impression the artist has made during this residency. I cannot help but read these objects as connected to Russell’s interest in preserving memories of places and peoples encountered, a project that often becomes increasingly important to those for whom cultural attachments and personal acquaintances have become scattered and diffused.