When asked about the sources from which she draws inspiration, Trinidadian artist Shanice Smith explains “I read bell hooks for fun and dystopian novels for research.”
There’s something about that statement that I really like, and it has stuck with me as I’ve considered the work that Smith is making at Caribbean Linked IV. There is indeed a dystopian leaning to Smith’s vision of power and the way it demonstrates itself: the totalitarian methods by which dissent can be silenced, the ways that some human bodies are reduced to objects, the nonchalance with which societies accept violence.
Before she was an art student at the University of the West Indies, Smith studied social work and psychology. This was more of a path to understanding herself and the society she lives in, she says, than professional training. The development of a social practice remains important to Smith even if the heavy, often taboo, subject matter of her work – child abuse, the ubiquity of harassment and violence towards women – opens the door to confrontation with more conservative elements of the community in which she works.
At times that confrontation is straightforward; other times it is insinuated. One of Smith’s ongoing works involves the process of making paper boats out of newspaper articles about the abuse and murder of young children in Trinidad. Before burning these boats, both as funeral rite and a re-enactment of violence, Smith often photographs them in public spaces associated with children.
Smith is attracted to Audre Lorde’s words on “transforming silence into language and action.” Often her practice involves collecting stories that might otherwise evaporate in the face of power and giving them materiality.
One project she is working on conceptualizing is a credit card machine that, instead of printing receipts, prints out womens’ stories of street harassment told to the artist by friends and acquaintances. The work is a continuation of Smith’s exploration of female objectification, a process by which violence is made possible. A previous work in this vein involved the printing of approximately 200 Trinidad and Tobago dollar bills with images of women in vulnerable, sexually-suggestive positions and distributing them into the islands’ economy. Smith wonders, what is suggested about the value of women when clubs and bars use “Ladies’ night”-type specials to attract male customers? What is suggested when we accept it as normal for young men to speak about their number of sexual partners as if they are accumulated currency?
Smith says that her most direct engagements with feminist criticism have been called “too Americanized” (read: “too metropolitan”) by men in Trinidad as a sort of dismissal of the content of the work. I can’t image a more effective rebuttal to that than her sly response of drawing a banana on one of her dollar bill works and asking “is this Caribbean enough now?”
Here in Aruba, Smith’s sensitivity to issues of violence towards children lead her to immediately take note of a common piece of graffiti scribbled on walls around the capital of Oranjestad. “Aruba Pro Pedofiel,” it says, or “Aruba for pedophiles.” The information she has been given about this disturbing message has been fairly vague; it is, she has been told, someone’s objection to the slow pace of the local legal system in dealing with a particular child abuse case. The presence of the message is made more odd by the scarcity of other graffiti in Aruba’s urban spaces.
Giving action to the language, further enlivening the directness of its dissent, has been a preoccupation of Smith’s during her residency at Caribbean Linked IV. A video installation was the initial method by which she planned to do so at Ateliers ‘89, although Caribbean Linked co-organizer Holly Bynoe has suggested she embrace performance. It may be that a simple repetition of the anonymous words scrawled again and again inside the gallery space will prove effective. Or it may be that the language will find a home on a series of kites she is making with the help of Aruba’s noted artist Osaira Muyale, a reference, like her previous paper boats, to breached innocence. Either way, what Smith is most interested in is the provocation of a new and unfamiliar audience.