Ada M. Patterson

“You Cannot Comprehend the Magic”[1]: On Caribbean Linked V

and to think you had me believing that all this time
and to think that I was feeling left out left behind… I kept asking myself should I bother should I complain or should I build another or my own concept of history or of historical process.[2]

And no matter what they say, this main street is nothing. All right. You can’t just say it is banal; it simply does not exist! Yes! […] I say that this town has a charm, simply because it is not a town after all. You said it yourself. It grows out of the ground like a flower. It’s full of people who think they are special because they have salons, services and go for a stroll every Sunday afternoon. But this is not the truth of the town! Deep down inside they are aware of the land around them. Beneath the dummy’s exterior there is a gleam of light. They cannot live as if this were a real town, they cannot run and shout, because this town is a product of the land, not cut off, there is no wall, it’s part of everything, pulling it all together, and what does this mean?[3]

You are drunk on the crescendo and decrescendo of a reverberating brass band. It dangles you up and down the pavement in both sticky heat and baffling breeze. Your legs are bound to this rhythm and you catch yourself surprised in finding bliss in this most unusual street. You remember the transience of the festival and, in your ear, the brass rusts to a close; Caya Grandi clears its throat and resigns itself to its familiar rest of people passing through in a most disinterested silence. Whatever rests beneath the plastic sheen – the gimmick of fountains, the question of a decapitated tramline and the perfection of pavement – is not known or remembered by this writer; I am also only just a tourist to this spectacle. The smoothness of Caya Grandi shames the bumps and dents in your face. You find bittersweet relief further up the street, when the shops start boarding up and disorder reacquaints itself through palm trees dishevelled to exploded crowns of overgrowth. The illusion collapses, and the wilderness stares back at you from beneath the cracked eyelids of a failing façade. Tourists are melting, souvenirs have grown sentient, segways have run amok, aloe plants are springing up from sleeping dirt, bodies are blooming spikes, the sun speaks in shadows and people speak back from the rooftops, while children have grown several feet taller overnight. Don’t panic; the wall recalls how we were led here. The fifth edition of Caribbean Linked, a residency programme for emergent artists across the region, unfolds at Caya Grandi, where new meaning may be salvaged from those tricky gaps in those built-up stories of ourselves and our stories told of each other.

An Inheritance of Souvenirs

Sometimes I dream of islands, all the islands around us… It seems absurd that they should have separate existences, similar islands in the same sea.[4]

Discovered by a difficult and devastating normality which stalks him in his arrival, where are the tourist’s stories recounting his own mounting embarrassing strangeness? The premise of Caribbean Linked complicates a region’s citizenry when we become guests in each other’s homes. I tell myself I am of the region and such a fantastic declaration casts my body to corners I have even yet to know. For, perhaps, I can recognise myself in your worryingly familiar face or maybe you will find bits of you in my scattered bones and ashes. Or, perhaps, we will find nothing in common and the strangeness will become overbearing in its divergence of our veins; where our mothers once were cousins but our fathers, competitors of rival tongues and banners. What stories do they tell us of each other, those suspicious brochures cloven in our skulls? What stories – memories – cling to us in the sparkled scar of souvenirs not yet appraised?

They seem pretty surfaces that do not fully contain or represent the meaning of the event, the exterior that does not signify the interior.[5]

A straw-faced doll, drowning in a grinning blue of waxen dolphins, greets our gaze from behind a beaded beard of raffia. At first, shapely and flirty, a boardwalk monument sprouting a sign from her cross of mermaid thighs reading “Your country name,” – a commercial phallus that points us to her demise. Now resigned and disposed, this orphaned toy unwinds in a heap, ripened and dismissed by a hard-eyed sun. Averia Wright’s Your Country Name imagines a living souvenir between two sites; a tourism-centred boardwalk near Caya Grandi and a pocket of the Rancho neighbourhood. Glittering with a surface of commercial motifs prominent in the Bahamian tourism imaginary, Wright’s body becomes a screen on which touristic expectation projects itself. Cultural matter becomes a question when we wonder whether these materials of straw, Androsia and raffia, as well as the forms they assume in both Wright’s vision and the Bahamian craft market, are a reliable reflection or simply an economical charade that speaks to touristic desire. How do the stories expected of us affect our cultural and material production? What images of ourselves do we uphold in a repetition that moves parallel to the seasonal arrival of visitors? Wright’s sign becomes a surface in which all viewers may participate in this spectacle of images, fantasies and stories. However, when discarded in the Rancho trash heap, the illusion fails. Rancho, a vulnerable though culturally resilient community that bleeds into the pavement of Caya Grandi, becomes a scene where this wasted fantasy collapses. In being moved to Rancho, we are “suddenly exposed to the assault of reality,”[6] where both ‘paradise’ and the desire to uphold it are absent and out of place, where the souvenir is thrown away as its image melts under the flame of the real. This souvenir, no longer needed, is put to rest.

If true utopia defines what is not desired, the gold-land of false capitalist utopia defines what is desired, over and over again. Such present delight enjoyed through the exclusion or exploitation of others is not Eden, it is hell, even if the enjoyer does not realize it.[7]

A different souvenir manifests in the work of Franz Caba, where the memento of sunburns is exaggerated to violent yet humorous proportions and consequences. Touristic Enhancements stages a mishap of molten pools of pink bodies bubbling in the sun. Cautioning viewers to avoid the spillage, Caba’s intervention is produced by his own confrontation with the Aruban landscape. Unprepared for the overeager embrace of this same constant sun, Caba, touched with unexpected sunburn, visualises his own position and vulnerability as a tourist. Usually drawing his bodies in twists and contortions, their snaky bones and masses dissolve into puddles of flushed skin, burning red under an indiscriminate sun. Assembled with applications of gauze, Caba’s sculptures have a feeling of being put-together, catered to, cared for; there is a sense of excessive application imagined in processes of rest, relaxation and indulgence as inherent to holidaying practices. In consuming, in being pampered, in abandoning responsibility and in resting to points of excess, the touristic body collapses to a decadent mass of flesh which knows no work or function. Indulging in fantasy forfeits the tourist’s body to the cracks and whims of ‘paradise’, and Caba’s multilingual signs further warn viewers of the potential consequences of immoderate experiences of pleasure. Touristic Enhancements, then, imagines the sunburn as a scarring souvenir; a reminder of the cost of trapping oneself in rituals of overindulgence and succumbing to the throes of fantasy.

The Rise and Fall of Gods

We “know” our “history” but there is no Myth to inform us of our origins. […] The Caribbean artist therefore has to design and execute his own Myth regardless of the directions that such a venture would take him.[8]

From the dirt beneath your fingernails – all you have gathered in your labour – you will find your gods. No longer forsaken by someone else’s totems, your mouth swells with breadfruit and cassava – all you need to keep you well – and your memory finds its head in mangled roots. The yam hair caught in your teeth is a splinter of gods no longer known to you. Not treading a coherent line, you scratch your way home through limestone plates and the blood of your fingers looks like a severance. You nail trees to your knees and someday you might grow tall enough to see where you came from. If all else fails, you’ll set fire to everything, hoping that the smoke speaks new worlds of comfort to your unreasoned breath. What stories can you dig out in specks from the tender pink of your nail’s underside? What myths do you tell yourself to keep your candles burning, your effigies drowned, your altars lit, your men trapped in jars, your salt lines unbroken, your hexes charged, your spirit whole?

The yolk of the sun is flung back and forth across the horizon, led astray by a chariot – no, a Segway – and its rider, Phaeton falls to the earth; the price of his hubris. Phaeton is invoked by Raily Stiven Yance, where the son of the sun is reimagined as a Segway-bound fallen deity in his work, Manera un Faetón Caribeño. Progressing from a series of allusions, insertions and revisions of ancient Greek myths and folklore, Yance’s pantheon casts a parallel between the basins of the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas, displacing linear and geographically fixed applications of history and mythology. Dismantling the boundaries of European Classical art traditions and the narcissism in which Europe indulges around the screen of an imagined heritage of civilisation, Yance’s oeuvre inserts itself into this canon by dissolving the canon, “undoing the Mediterranean as a European space altogether, opening it up for stories to be told, at least, in disguise rather than in reflection and imitation.”[9] The Segway (as chariot), a touristic object of indulgence, leisure, mobility and discovery, is repurposed as a vehicle for failure and disintegration. Like Caba’s melting tourist sculptures, Yance’s Phaeton is a victim to his own indulgence, whereby losing sense and control, he is doomed to perish. The signified cost of decadence, the cost of illusions of ease, leisure and flight in the mobility of the tourist, the cost of the literal raising-up of the tourist class, are emphasised through Yance’s falling Phaeton, where host localities must ask themselves whether they’re being taken for a ride.

We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.[10]

A black star from somewhere comes ashore. Its opacity breaks all sense of vision, a nowhere-hole cut through the depth of sand. Cracking open like a dissected heart, this sea urchin spawns a figure in a plume of matchstick smoke. The prevailing wind betrays its name and Manman Chadwon rises from her sea egg, a goddess; but, no longer Manman but Moko Chadwon, risen as a defiant tree – unlike the Divi-divi – for which the wind knows no power. Using a combination of personal and wider-arching mythologies and folklore, Gwladys Gambie invokes the avatar of Moko Chadwon, a spiked giantess dedicated to the self-image, sensuality and elevation of black womanhood. Striding across the horizon, the mobilisation and rise of Gambie’s goddess presents new meaning and visuality in the depiction of black womanhood, uplifting her own image through the transformative potential of masquerade, costuming and storytelling. Where spikes rise as shivering points of sensuality, Gambie locates islands of pleasure, joy and beauty through an intimate introspection of the landscape of her body. Such self-concern and self-care disrupts exotic and objectifying projections against black women – where, like a sable Venus, this body has been shaped by the desires or fears of others – making space for more opaque reflections of self and expressions of sexual agency. In crafting this mythology, Gambie poses a new pantheon of value, where standards of beauty and the cultural prioritisation of certain bodies are put into question, where god is made in the image of its disciple.

Where mythology is mobilised towards theology, Kriston Chen uses the Moko Jumbie as a tool for social uplift. Working with Stichting Rancho, Chen helped to introduce the practice of stilt-making and walking to the children of the Rancho neighbourhood. Installing a workshop, Stick Ting in D’ Alley, a progression from his own “Sticks in De Yard” at Alice Yard, Trinidad and Tobago, Chen’s exchange of yards for alleys acts as a syncretism that signifies the multitude of forms that community spaces manifest across the region. Sharing an inherited craft and mythology positions Chen as a storyteller in the dissemination of intangible culture, and the story unfolds into practice when seeing the neighbourhood kids walking in full force at tremendous heights. In precarious and vulnerable societies, mythology may be an important foundation for the welfare of cultural memory, as myth informs being. However, being and doing certainly help to inform the value, weight and priority of a society’s mythology; and this is where the question of theology comes into play. Whether it is to bring a community closer together, to expand horizons of aspiration, or simply to affect joy or meaning, Chen’s installed theology around stilt practice in Rancho is an appeal to the particular sensitivities of a community. Where god (or objects of reason and devotion) is not relegated to the foggy realm of myth but, it may arrive in the simple form of timber, charged with the power of letting people walk taller in more ways than one.

The Truth in Your Mouth

But this is no folk tale. For a man can anytime and anywhere sacrifice or risk his life, but nowhere else can a man find a colour like that of the land spilled around him; and all men are made in order to tell the truth of their land, and some tell it in words, some in blood, and others with a true grandeur[11]

Over a wilderness of voices, a story told itself in fear and pavement. Mortared and spackled with a terracotta breath; a sickly gold road raged, sickeningly rich in artifice, illusion and other things we could not afford. It filled our mouths, this concrete melt, and our words could only fall and crack like clay pigeons. I can’t remember the eruption’s name; a Soufrière, Pelée or Pompeii of words – some lies – spat on our heads and we would eventually believe them. Yet, in spackle’s crack and mortar’s rift, the seam of your lips cut open and, through this failing façade, your wilderness would wrench and writhe and ripen to a fruit of unreasonable words. The pavement names you illiterate as it feels eluded by your bush parlance but, through hopeful imperfections of this plastic mirage, your wilderness arises. Neither cursed to savagery nor devilry, you find yourself unearthed in complicated truths. For, nothing the desert raises is a monster.[12] What of your voice will you find in the forest? What voices cling to you like a shirt of wet cement? Who do you hold with that warming voice of flutter? Who do you stone with that weighted rock dove’s scold? What stories foam to your mouth after a forever’s drought of speech?

I want to feel:
you cannot tear my song
from my throat
you cannot erase the memory
of my story
you cannot catch
my rhythm
(for you have to born
with that)
you cannot comprehend
the magic[13]

Seated at a floating table – your grandmother’s, I believe – your vision scans a city’s horizon and a competition of voices persuades you of its history. This horizon’s unfold wears many faces and you must determine which is real. Misguided by these voices who scour the city, will you find truth in any story served to you or will you simply grow bloated with illusion? Sharelly Emanuelson’s En Mi País is a video installation that moves between languages – Papiamento, Spanish, English and Dutch – while accommodating a multitude of appeals to questions around Aruba’s meaning and emergence. Framed as a tour with many guides, a voice leads you on, instructing you to keep moving along this imaginary excursion. Drifting from overeager rehearsed scripts that embellish and glaze over the various surfaces of images, symbols and motifs of Aruban national culture (such as the colours of its flag) to more genuine and thoughtful reflections of each tour-guide’s experience, position and stake in Aruban society, En Mi País is a compilation of conflicted testimonies and retellings of Aruba as a story. Where the accounts of the nationalistic surface seem constant across languages, each personal testimony offers a new departure. Each tour-guide looks out from the rooftops of Caya Grandi, gazing upon the different points of this panoramic horizon; in this multitude of gazes, we are confronted with the deviations, conflicts and disparities of each perspective and the island unfolds in a confluence of meanings. No single story or language can fully account for the character of this land, its history or its people. Where this writer can only confidently account for the English-spoken components of this work, the remains are lost on me and I am left with only a sample of the textile. And where this work exists as a floating table’s shell – a ghosted front room – it recognises its own incapacity to recreate the whole or, rather, it recognises that the telling of this story is an ongoing effort without completion. As one of the guides laments, “I don’t think we have really developed our own identity yet;” new stories continue to be told in the promise of that ‘yet’.

Of course, each age has its own way of doing things. How many ways are there to uproot a weed? […] The value of a story lies in what it teaches, and in its ability to make us known other lands, the way things are done elsewhere[14]

This open-ended sentiment is echoed in Velvet Zoé RamosShades of solutions / Sombra di solución, a canopy for the sun to speak through. Poking fun at the various canopies plotted along the boiling sunscape of Caya Grandi, Ramos’ work, a canopy with an alternative function and ulterior motive reads, “NO POR TAPA SOLO CU UN DEDE,” (YOU CAN’T COVER THE SUN WITH ONE FINGER). You will neither find shade, shelter nor comfort in Ramos’ canopy; only a stern awakening razed by the sun. A proverb alluding to there being no quick fixes to complicated issues, Ramos’ work, stencilled in Papiamento, speaks to the daily Aruban populace passing through Caya Grandi. Though I can’t account for the specifics of this critique – I am not the one being spoken to – such a remark does resonate and reflect on the various shortcuts taken and infrastructural corners cut by governments, institutions and societies across the region in reckoning with their particular socioeconomic conditions. Expanding on the reading of this proverb, the oppressive constant of the sun could not hope to be eluded by the effort of a single finger; that is, the conditions and issues faced by societies of precarity cannot hope to be approached as individuals but, rather, as collectively mobilised communities. In the absence of consideration for the collective and its participants, reckless decisions are implemented and where work is reckless, those most vulnerable in a community are the first to bear the consequences. Ramos’ proverb, a story that scolds, is a revelation to all that has been kept in neglect, disrepair and disenfranchisement, behind the convenient ignorance of shades, screens and canopies.

You cannot think of the town without seeing the paths leading to the main square; it’s filled with men holding their shoes in their hands, women who have their town dress wrapped in a bag, those who stop on entering to wash their feet, all the people who stream in from everywhere, not so? Who are they? They are the people of the land. There is no barricade, no frontier marking where the muddy path ends and the road begins, have you seen any? […] That’s why the main street does not really exist; it has no reason to be there, it should be a path, an alley, with trees, sand, if only people understood.[15]

A farmer tends to his crop though all the villagers have left the wilderness. They halt, bewildered. A concrete desert meets them. Where did it come from? Irvin Aguilar’s La Línea en La Memoria is a mural, stylistically resembling a linocut print, depicting the flow of Aruba’s history from a point of interdependency with nature to the threshold of the main street, Caya Grandi. A linear narration painted onto a blank peeling wall overlooking a derelict paved waste, the mural features the contrasting images of the aloe worker and the street, divided by the crossing of the villagers away from the fields. The villagers, though silhouetted, are postured in huddled confusion, where the stark flatness of the main street stops them from proceeding. A gradual decline of detail towards the inorganic flatland of the street contrasts with the care, attention and playfulness applied to the gestural line-work in the natural and rural landscape, indicating a loss of something culturally significant. The rigidity of the main street lines the image like a barrier, breaking the flow and influence of nature, keeping the villagers at bay. The sort of bewilderment at play in the course of time, socioeconomic ‘progress’ and ‘development’, in reflection of history and one’s position in it – in one’s being buffeted by history – is reflected in Aguilar’s painted story, where a crisis of memory presents itself. How did we get here? What is the cost of this present? What has been lost in progression? What has been left behind? There is a condition of grief in Aguilar’s work, also present in his Mechanismo Racional, where a façade of a lost building of the main street is recreated in pallet wood, mourning this loss. Held up by flimsy supports, this memory will soon collapse. In the haste towards socioeconomic development, what stories will be forfeited to the pavement?

Wilderness in the Cracks

He contemplates the main road deprived of mystery, really nothing but a simple crack in the fields of rooftops […] A road with no depth. […] Had he not worried about failing to recognize its volcanoes, right under his nose? And they were indeed there. A kind of unlimited potential. [He] watches the roofs and senses the presence of an explosive force as yet inactive. Although denying the possibility of such a revelation, he guesses it is there and waits. Looking at the unrelieved flatness of the town, he feels the need to explore its hidden depths.[16]

Suspending my distance as a writer and resuming my closeness as a participating artist in Caribbean Linked V, I must admit that the working space of Caya Grandi was initially very intimidating. There is a fear, with intimidating spaces, that you will be consumed or become part of a spectacle; an exotic attraction on which fantasy feeds itself. The dazzle of excess will unfold atop you and your body will surrender to the throes of decadence and sandstone finery. A smile will cut itself ear-to-ear across you and you won’t remember who you’re looking happy for. The street will eat you – and so will the tourists – and every scar and flaw that complicates your being will be glazed in a deception of cement… or so I’ve feared. In my fear, my body tensed like that inflexible street, and no promising story could be told.

Salvation could be found in cracks, where artifice holds no power and where wilderness springs anew. I planted aloes in those cracks and did not feel devoured – for, I had not hoped to engage with the street but with its sub-surface, what had been paved over. Disengaged and disenfranchised from the story such streets like to tell, both here and elsewhere in the region, each of the participating artists visualised efforts to tell something back. Beneath the surface of our concern and our respective national memories, lives a wilderness of possibility; alternative systems of value, shifts in cultural priority, both old stories and new. In the unfolding of our streets and our collective cultural memory, our stories’ passages rely on the eloquence and capability of our mouths shared in recitation. In the gaps between each island, between island and mainland, what can be remembered so as to bridge our spirits closer? From the immeasurable depths of the seawalls that distance us, what words will we find to keep our memories afloat?

Ada M. Patterson

[1] Olive Senior, “Meditation on Yellow,” in Gardening in the Tropics (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2005).
[2] Christopher Cozier, Sketch for and to think you had me believing that all this time, 2002, Ink drawing, Berlin Biennale X, Berlin,
[3] Edouard Glissant, The Ripening (UK: Heinemann, 1985), 97-98.
[4] Ibid., p. 152.
[5] Krista A. Thompson, “How to Install Art as a Caribbeanist,” in Curating in the Caribbean, ed. David A. Bailey et al (Berlin: The Green Box, 2012), p. 97-112.
[6] Glissant, The Ripening, p. 132.
[7] Sharae Grace Deckard, Exploited Edens: Paradise Discourse in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (Coventry: University of Warwick Press, 2007), p. 290.
[8] Stanley Greaves, Iconographical Determinations in My Work (USA: Howard University, 1980).
[9] Maria Hadjipolycarpou, Intersubjective Histories in the Mediterranean and Beyond: The Poetics of Self in Postcolonial Autobiography (USA: University of Michigan, 2014), p. 94.
[10] Meister Eckhart, Sermons (MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2001).
[11] Glissant, The Ripening, p.82.
[12] With thanks to Shivanee Ramlochan’s Duenne Lorca, for the original “Nothing the forest raises is a monster.”
Shivanee Ramlochan, “Duenne Lorca,” in Everyone Knows I am a Haunting (UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2017).
[13] Senior, Meditation on Yellow.
[14] Glissant, The Ripening, p. 81-82.
[15] Ibid., p.98.
[16] Ibid., p. 96.