ALL THAT IS SPIKY IS NOT HOSTILE
Coming to terms with Aruba’s landscape is a struggle that reflects certain personal concerns that I am trying to address in my work. I have only recently been cut open to ideas of softness, vulnerability and porosity; qualities shunned by the man in me, qualities shunned by my own conditioned fear and insecurity. It was premature of me to condemn Aruba’s landscape to notions of hostility and images of wasteland. Everything is indeed dry, hard or spiky, between the dirt, stone and cacti; but these qualities do not necessarily produce a desolate or deprived wilderness. I am trying to find the softness in spikes – those relational dimensions that allow cacti to bear the overeager embrace of a hard-eyed sun, those adaptations and re-conditionings that allow soil to stay fertile even in the most helpless or numbing of droughts. Things relate differently here, and I fell into that same old trap of relying on stories, expectations, familiar ideas and fantasies that hold no weight in the rising threat of the real. Things relate differently here, in ways I’m not used to; the skin of plants toughens to a supreme defence, spikes rise like whiskers and shade is in short supply. The wind never stops running its mouth and all the trees lean on themselves in boredom of its chatter. All that is spiky is certainly not hostile (or at least not actively).
The cactus won’t drive the blade of its thorn through you, but you can certainly skewer yourself if you make the choice to bother it. I can appreciate this landscape – it’s neither flexing nor tensing – it’s disinterested in me but it definitely wouldn’t stop me from losing my hand to its serrated grip. I’ve touched a few spiky and / or poisonous plants while being here – not knowingly and to no effect so far – and it’s given me the room to recognise that it’s not that this landscape is hostile, inhospitable or non-relational but, rather, it has been raised and conditioned to relate differently, through the creative conflict of all of its resilient and very particular textures. And when you see the hotel district, you have never seen land look so flat (and I come from Barbados). The word, “pavement,” has never before been so personified. The imperfect, the organic, the entropic all sit in scarcity in this flatland and I can find neither weeds nor cracks nor any testament that earth once laid here beneath this artificial hell. But all that is paved is not perfect. Meeting fellow artist, Gwladys Gambie, who already understood the softness, eroticism and sensitivity of spikes long before I even reached the threshold of this particular way of seeing, really highlights the peculiarity of which stages of development each of us find ourselves in as artists.
Following a first week of intense tours and trips through the island, there was an initial anxiety as to when we would have time to work. This seems to be a reoccurring concern for residents across each edition of Caribbean Linked. I was quick to question whether or not substantial work could really be produced in the panicked span of two weeks but, now, it seems that everyone managed to pull through. Perhaps a little more faith in our ability (combined with the fire lit beneath us from the dwindling of days) does make for unique possibilities in making. And one of those days of touring did indeed give me something valuable for what I was producing.
Visiting the aloe plantation and learning of its story – an almost mythological tale of alternative industry and local prosperity – gave me the fuel for the work I have been producing. It also helped to rethink the ways I was viewing Aruba’s landscape and flora. Aloe, like cactus, wears a thick dry skin, allowing spikes to form at the naturally perfect seams of its design. They are sturdy vessels for life, prosperity, magic and myth. They are bodies of external drought hiding cores of vitality; volcanic rock stitched around diamonds. Channelling this view, working with clay seemed appropriate and I hoped to make a ceramic vessel mask, to be the head of a new character in the works; a character crowned with a head of drought, capable of holding life within itself. “Aruba Aloe” has been extremely helpful and supportive of my project and several local organisations, institutions, initiatives and businesses have shared their support and hospitality with my fellow participants’ projects. The clay mask would not have been able to be realised without the masterful guidance of fellow artist and great friend, Averia Wright, and the added support and facilitation of Ciro Abath, an Aruban sculptor and visual artist.
Working in Aruba has been a surprisingly painless process in negotiating the help of external institutions. Whether or not the works we are producing translate well to the Aruban public, people here seem to hold a value, promotion and interest in the ongoing development of the arts and the creative sector. This is unfortunately not the case in my own Barbados. Though the Barbadian arts community is extremely supportive of young emergent artists and creative practitioners, very necessary institutional and governmental support, consciousness and concern for the arts has remained virtually non-existent (aside from political lip service and strategic posturing). Caribbean Linked, as a regional initiative, offers strategies of doing better, doing better for our people, doing better for our creative industries. In the words branded into me by Averia Wright, “Don’t say sorry, do better.” And it’s not about models, following models or dropping everything we have – it’s about identifying and isolating where we fall short, filling those gaps in our ability with the shared knowledge of the region. Avoiding the fall into the same old traps, the same old historical mistakes, the same old learned behaviours and stifling conditions, can only be assured in the bridging of our knowledge and experience, distanced by sea walls and ingrained regional mutual suspicion. Do we really have the time to fall into each other’s mistakes?
Being around artists of the region, befriending great artists of the region, of islands and countries I have never visited, really has emphasised the limits of my knowledge and experience. How much they have taught and given me is unravelled by how much I will lose or lack in their absence, in the distance promised by our mutual impending departure. The risk of stagnation and instability rears its head in the refusal to acknowledge that we can never truly flourish in isolation. There is no joy in our isolated island hells, in the hell of refusing one another, in the hell of keeping one another barred beyond our own horizons.