During one of my visits to his studio space, Caymanian artist Simon Tatum says of his practice, “I no longer want to preserve the image.”
What Tatum means by this is that he is increasingly interested in working with media that will fade, flake off of surfaces or otherwise weather away over time. This instinct towards making his drawings and paintings, which are often figurative works depicting scenes from Caymanian history, vulnerable to deterioration began in 2015. Already, some previous works done in ink on acetate, amorphous and subtly altered interpretations of old photographs found in the Cayman Islands National Archive, are beginning to dim and evaporate.
When considered in the context of Tatum’s passionate investigation of his islands’ visual archive, an archive he describes as complicated by blindspots inherent to its production, his turn to making ephemeral works is a gesture towards doubt. Doubts about the artist’s function. Perhaps doubts about his own hybrid identity in relation to contemporary social change in the Cayman Islands. Most importantly, doubts about the authority of historical narration.
This is something that is not yet fully resolved in Tatum’s practice, a fact which he is astutely aware of. There is in his sensibility a very familiar, to me, grappling with the artist’s responsibility to community, a particularly insistent question in the Caribbean’s smallest, often politically as well as economically dependent, islands. This grappling is clearly present in the way Tatum refers in his artist statement to a collective called “The Caymanian People” and his desire to bring awareness to its dignity and the values it upholds, and to develop a studio practice with a more intimate relationship to such a collective.
Although many contemporary artists working in the Caribbean and its diaspora today would likely advise Tatum away from the supposedly outdated, and politically-thorny, impulse towards cultural representation, I find the ambivalence in Tatum’s practice a richly meaningful one.
A small population’s relationship with its culture creators is transparently direct; in places ensnared by an imposed sense of non-history, the emerging artist’s search for a balance between creative freedom and social engagement is doubly restless.
Here at Caribbean Linked IV in Aruba, Tatum has had the chance to consider questions of audience that would not be immediately pressing in Columbia, Missouri, where he is pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree, nor at home in the Cayman Islands. Many of the questions he has about Caymanian history – the origins and transformations of race, color and class hierarchies; the role of religion in the colonial project; the consequences of the tourist gaze – turn out to be very much about the present and future of the thing we are calling “The Caribbean” here.
The way this awareness has been expressed by Tatum is through a desire to bring at least one of the works produced for CL IV outside the Ateliers ’89 gallery space where the residency’s exhibition will be staged, and into a “foreign” Caribbean landscape. He has chosen a ruin at the Balashi Gold Mill, which the residency’s artists visited during their first week in Aruba, as the site that will house this work. The ruin is an older site with its own unfolding history, Tatum explains, one that he seeks to contribute to, even if his use of unfixed chalk and gouache paints will ensure the impermanence of his mark there. His work will simply be another layer added to the tangles of graffiti already accumulating within the ruin, something that appeals to Tatum due to the graffiti’s enigmatic chorus of protest.
While the work to be made at this site has not yet fully taken shape as I write this, Tatum has explained that he is using a book of Dutch Renaissance painting found at Ateliers ’89 to begin experimenting with its composition and content. The Christian iconography of the Madonna and Child is the point of departure for the work, which will include the figures of a migrant domestic worker holding a more privileged-class child, a comment on the class-stratified landscape within which inter-Caribbean migration takes place.
Equally important to the meanings that the various visitors to the Balashi mill ruin might find in the content of this developing work is Tatum’s evolving quarrel with the idea of cultural representations as immutable and enduring. The work is not meant to last. What this suggests to me is that the tension developing between Tatum’s attraction to temporality and the local circumstances from which he has acquired an interest in cultural preservation will likely be a determining force on the direction of his future work.