Do you take this region?
Reflections on Caribbean Linked V
“It’s nothing and everything falling into place.” – Franz Caba[i]
In 2016 when I returned home after Caribbean Linked IV, I remember an artist and friend of mine in Barbados asking me “what exactly goes on in Aruba” at this residency, because “Caribbean Linked people seem to end up really loving each other.” I just laughed, and replied that of course I love them. They’re family.
Caribbean Linked (CL), co-managed by three artist-run spaces – Ateliers ’89 in Aruba, The Fresh Milk Art Platform in Barbados and ARC Magazine – has been running since 2012, evolving into an artist residency and exhibition programme for young and emerging artists from across French, Spanish, Dutch and English speaking territories of the Caribbean region. Since I have worked with both Fresh Milk and ARC for many years now managing administration, residencies and communications and co-developing programming with the respective founders Annalee Davis and Holly Bynoe, I have always been involved with this initiative – albeit from a distance, working remotely from Barbados – and thought I had a full appreciation of its value. I did not realize that my understanding was still at a surface level until I attended CL IV in in person, fully submerging myself in an environment that I am still in awe of when I am reminded of how rare such opportunities are in the Caribbean. The effortless bonds the participants cemented with one another were so genuine and unique, that even though I knew it was a reoccurring programme, I felt sure they could not be replicated… then in 2018 I fell in love with a whole new circle of remarkable individuals at CL V.
Though generally the activities and outputs of each CL residency can be followed online, what maybe isn’t as obvious to people observing the dynamics of CL is that – just like an actual relationship or family – making it work is not always easy or straightforward. Reflecting on its fifth anniversary, I think it is important to demystify some of what goes into making a programme as ambitious as this happen, and to be forthcoming about the challenges as well as the rewards.
One of the works included by Curaçaon filmmaker and artist Sharelly Emanuelson in her Black Box Artist Talk for CL V was titled Doh mix meh up: We always negotiatin’ (2014). While this video explored the cultural nuances that go into shaping an Aruban identity, the phrase “we always negotiatin” speaks to a wider Caribbean quandary of harnessing something that is “authentically” our own, and discovering what that means in a region built on multiplicity. I couldn’t help but apply the idea of constant negotiations more specifically to the organizing of CL, a project that is to some degree shaping a new culture in itself, and knowing how difficult it can be to navigate the social, political and economic factors involved while keeping the core purpose intact.
CL V was different from the previous four iterations in many ways. For one, this year came with more sponsorship and support than ever before from numerous sources, spanning long time backers in cultural organizations in the Netherlands to first time major backing from the Aruban Government. The scope of CL is such that it could not exist in its present format without funding. The plane tickets of inter-Caribbean travel alone would be daunting enough, even before the costs of the complete three week period are taken into account. The core team was incredibly grateful for the money secured for CL, and acknowledged the milestone of having interest on a governmental level, in hopes that it may signify a shift towards how the arts and culture are valued in the island. But truthfully, I was also intimidated, and wary of what the influx of support could mean for our independence within the residency programme. This combination of gratitude and cynicism may be another condition of coming from places that have been historically taken advantage of, and not being sure if to dare to trust those that have been positioned as having authority or power over our situations. There is always a fear in the back of my mind that, if multiple agendas are to operate or clash, the true purpose of CL and the autonomy of the artists’ experiences could be compromised or overruled. That’s not what we’re here for.
Video courtesy of Leasho Johnson and Leo Aguirre
Another shift this year was the mandate for public artwork and community outreach. Again – I was nervous. Public work isn’t unchartered territory for CL per se, as in the 2015 edition CL III, Mexican artist Diego Espinosa led a procession down the streets neighbouring Ateliers ’89 during a public performance, and Jamaican artist Leasho Johnson wheat pasted the large piece Promise Land on the wall of an abandoned building on Dominicanessenstraat. Despite this, my reservations around this edition’s insistence on utilizing the public space hinged on two concerns: knowing the steep obstacles I have faced at home when it comes to either permissions or reception to contemporary works in public areas, and worry that the artists would find the requirement of putting work in Caya Grandi (Main Street) restrictive to their own ideas or trajectories. This street in Oranjestad had been allotted to us due to stipulations of sponsors and, while chosen with a specific intent, was selected without the input of the full CL core team or participants. I worried that this would be the manifestation of misaligned agendas, and that we were treading too closely to a line where the residency could be in danger of serving something other than cohering the region and supporting Caribbean artists’ right to create.
I can’t say for sure if that dichotomy was ever fully resolved in my mind…we always negotiatin’, and filtering the quagmire behind the scenes to try to extract something positive. But regardless of internal conflicts, the artists exceeded any and all expectations, and went beyond “rising to the challenge” of the showcase; they did one better and made the enterprise their own.
In his CL V blog post, Barbadian artist Ada M. Patterson noted of Aruba that “people here seem to hold a value, promotion and interest in the ongoing development of the arts and the creative sector.”[ii] I thought this was interesting because, in addition to our both being from Barbados and having intimate knowledge of the struggle to maintain a creative practice there, it showed two sides to how CL was unfolding from the participants’ and organizers’ viewpoints. Local businesses – whether art-centric such as Terrafuse Studio, or otherwise such as Aruba Aloe – had been enthusiastic about coming onboard with Ada’s work. And it would be remiss to not mention Maggy’s Perfumery, a store on Main Street that had already taken keen and progressive steps to incorporate art into their business activities, which gave us our only indoor gallery space in Caya Grandi for the exhibition. Their team was phenomenal in preparing the space and accommodating the pieces by Sharelly and Martinican artist Gwladys Gambie, which looked stunning in the room provided. There was, however, pushback from some other privately owned stores on the street around collaborating with artists, particularly as the works would not be for profit. We were given the impression by some business owners that they did not believe the initiative would be well received by the public or the street’s occupants.
When we were installing the pieces, however, we were generally met with generosity and curiosity from passers-by and those working in Main Street, versus the bureaucracy we had met while seeking permissions from some establishments. This made me wonder if perhaps there was a disconnect somewhere along the line about what “the public” is willing to accept and encounter, making it that much more complicated to maneuver through the grey area between engagement and imposition. The very notion of “public space” is brought into question – who has the right to claim it? Is it the store owners? The government? The shopkeepers? Their patrons? I don’t know that we can singularly surmise “public opinion” from any one subset.
I still need to check myself however, and not overstep my position as a visitor to Aruba and spectator to this culture. I can only speak to limited observations made during CL V, and cannot presume to understand fully where public art interventions stand in Aruba. I have heard a few word of mouth tales from Aruban artists, but I do not know, for example, how long Leasho’s daring work stayed up on Dominicanessenstraat, or if the remnants of it I saw the following year were due to environmental or human action. But I do know firsthand that the work produced and displayed during CL V came from organic responses and legitimate respect for the context and space the artists were afforded. Caya Grandi rose up and caught spirits that night at the opening event, thrumming with the energy emitted from the residents’ hard work and passion, not to mention the brass band occupying the street’s tram.
Another occupant of Caya Grandi during the opening on August 25th was Ada’s original character Buchibushi, an aloe worker with a large, bulbous head crowned by a small cactus – or ‘bushi’ – who performed for hours up and down the street. With slow, deliberate motions, he wheeled his barrow along the main walkway and down alleys, carefully tending to aloe plants already growing there and planting more in the cracks, garden beds or hidden cavities in the ground. In Aruba’s thirsty, desert landscape, aloes (and cacti) are some of the only plants able to truly flourish, and stand in stark contrast to the insertion of palm trees or tropical fantasies.
I am fascinated by Buchibushi’s place among Ada’s growing repertoire of characters that reflect and reimagine contemporary Barbadian/Caribbean cultures and gazes. Looking at Aruba’s reliance on tourism in comparison to Barbados’ sometimes feels like looking into a mirror with different filters applied: at times, the reflection is blurred and barely recognizable among high-rises and strip malls, and at times it is a painfully sharpened recognition of the uncomfortably familiar “one happy island”[iii] ethos. Like the sea urchin motif in some of Ada’s past work, or like the prickles of cacti and pointed tentacles of aloe, the double edged sword of tourism causes us to be defensive against invasiveness, yet enticing enough to portray the roles we have been cast in as “tourist attractions.” At CL, residents usually come with clean slates, having left much of our baggage in our homelands, but we also tend to wear the effects of this like hearts on our sleeves, making us exposed and vulnerable to the outside world. Ada said in their Black Box talk that they are starting to explore the vulnerability that coexists with a hardened and guarded exterior, and I could see this softer, subtle side coming out in the sensibility Buchibushi brought to quietly cultivating the resilient aloes.
While Ada traversed Caya Grandi from one end to the other, the work of Dominican Republican artist Franz Caba remained firmly melded to the far end of the street at Plaza Niki Habibe. The way Franz usually depicts corpulent, intertwined or collapsing human figures and faces in his drawings has a very special quality that I find equal parts endearing and heartbreaking. There is so much sentiment evident in his lines and expressions, and his interplay of humour and emotion when discussing the works makes me want to laugh and cry, particularly at how relatable I find his introspection about boredom, privilege and deprecating mental states.
Because of his masterful handling of these delicate topics in his drawings, I was even more impressed by Franz’s brave decision to work in sculpture for the first time for the pieces exhibited on Main Street. His self-reflexive reaction to Aruba’s overwhelming sun and heat, as well as the all too common sight of raw, sunburnt skin of vacationing visitors, became the catalyst for his Touristic Enhancements installation. Using desecrated mannequin heads and shaped slabs of plaster board, all wrapped in pink medical bandages, he created a number of heavy ‘pools’ of melting bodies on the plaza. The paint colour staining the bandages was chosen by colour matching a photo of sunburnt skin for maximum effect. The backdrop of these works was a wall of black and white posters reading ‘BEWARE – TOURISTS MELTING’ in several languages. I felt proud of Franz’s transition to three dimensional work and installation, and that this leap allowed him to experiment with the relationship between materials and concept. Similarly to his drawings, the work is relatable and humanized by dualities of good and bad, pleasure and pain, humour and harm. There was a playfulness tying this group of artists together; you could see it in their shared observations and the outcome of the work. In the Caribbean, we sometimes use humour much like the spikes of a sea urchin or cactus; a defense mechanism that deflects others from getting too close – preventing ourselves from getting burned under the guise of nonchalance.
Tackling tourism from the angle of commercialization of cultural practices was Bahamian artist Averia Wright. I was floored by Averia’s Black Box Talk, because I felt she was able to deftly encapsulate what is regularly discussed in the Caribbean about tourism and commodification. She shared with us her wisdom and insight into the tourist market, learned from her mother’s longtime career in the Straw Market in Nassau. Averia’s work offers alternatives to how we, as Caribbean people, can perhaps take back the reigns to steer this lucrative but problematic tourist market in a direction that benefits ourselves as opposed to solely catering to outsiders, or even as an educational vehicle for those coming to the islands with ill-informed presumptions.
Averia’s diptych Your Country Name is two large scale still photographs of performative actions carried out in the Rancho district of Oranjestad and near the cruise ship port, to further her investigation of ‘the Caribbean souvenir’ stereotype. Using materials that are typical of Bahamian souvenirs but also fall into a type of generic and repeated aesthetic of items that are mass produced and rebranded with various island names to be sold anywhere, she created a masked and corseted costume that hid her face and identity. Carrying a brightly coloured sign saying ‘Your Country Name’, she essentialized her body into a symbol of regional capitalism and drove home the notion of interchangeability. In a photo taken by the port, she poses on the boardwalk charmingly, featuring the sign prominently and looking almost at home against the postcard-esque background of palm trees. On the other hand, the photo in Rancho – which despite its integral history in the island’s development, is now seeking to redefine the image Arubans today have of it as a troubled area known for addiction – shows Averia reclining listlessly by a galvanized fence, the sign dropped on the ground beside her. In some ways her wilted stance is not unlike Franz’s melting sculptures, except instead of being a tourist succumbing to the whims of the environment, it is the object of touristic desires that has given up on performing the façade of happiness. Ironically, beneath the costume, Averia herself is a tourist in Aruba too; I think there is a layered introspection in these photos into our own limitations when making artwork in foreign countries, even if they are still in the Caribbean, as we toe the line of insiders to the region but still outsiders to this context. These two images work on many planes to unravel tropes of authenticity in the Caribbean.
Sharelly Emanuelson has ties to Aruba that are distinct from most of the other residents, which was apparent in her take on tourism in her film En mi pais. Because her mother is from Aruba, although she grew up mostly in Curaçao, the island is not alien to her and has played a significant part in her upbringing and identity. As a filmmaker who has worked in documentary and branched out into docu-fiction and video installations, I think it is crucial that Sharelly not only has this background and tangible grasp of the environment, but that she worked with the actors she cast from a local open call to co-develop the script and direction of the short film. From the rooftops of Caya Grandi, the actors/tour guides she collaborated with donned exaggerated outfits befitting these jobs, in a nod to the indulgence of external expectations. They paced up and down while voiced-over monologues provided the soundscape (in English, Dutch, Papiamento and Spanish), in which the rhetoric and repetitive speech pattern reminiscent of well-rehearsed tours mingled with personal anecdotes of locals to provide commentary on Aruba and on Main Street, which has gone through a rise and decline of prosperity in part as a direct result of tourism.
I admire Sharelly’s sensitive and professional approach, as I have increasingly found myself wondering about the authority of filmmakers in documentaries, and to what extent that influences the final product. I don’t necessarily see it as a question of being valid versus invalid, but more so of responsibility to the material and remaining humble to the things that may lie outside of one’s frame of reference. One of the ways Sharelly seemed to remain grounded and avoid asserting excessive control over the essence of her pieces was by incorporating a universality into their titles or context, despite the specificity to Aruba in this instance. ‘En mi pais’ – in my country – implies communal ownership and inclusivity for the performers and the local and international audiences. This invites us to internalize aspects of the film, leaving the viewer to ruminate on Aruba’s condition as well as that of our own countries and their participation in or exploitation by tourism, as the case may be. The installation of the film in Maggy’s was a projection downwards on to a ghostly lace tablecloth, doubling the image and suggesting a multifaceted experience that is at once otherworldly and close to home.
Venezuelan artist Raily Stiven Yance was the final participant to use tourism as a key point of departure, but once again his path deviated from the others’ representations. His wider practice has dealt with themes of hardship and cataclysm, using absurdity, resourcefulness and unlikely unions of objects or actions as a way of realizing – or not realizing – solutions to problems. There is an irony in his paintings, in which he uses multiples of his own image to perform unrealistic positions and actions, or groups together objects in assemblages that are representative of functionality, even if they are not literally operable. These pseudo-inventions end up revealing the shortcomings of humankind from a societal, economic and personal perspective. After seeing some tourists riding Segways around Aruba during one of our sightseeing days, Raily became infatuated with the apparatus and how it corresponded to concepts of privilege, tourism and occupation of a space. This resulted in the creation of several makeshift Segways from discarded found materials. There is a resilience and a resourcefulness, but also an inability in these sculptures, capturing the disparity that is highlighted between tourists and locals in society. He also produced a series of paintings in which he himself rode the vehicle. Raily does not usually perform the actions he devises in real life, but this time around, he decided to take the plunge and booked a Segway tour with a specific goal in mind: to fail at it.
Watching the unedited video footage with Raily on his return from the tour, I was in stitches as he zoomed in and out of frame on the Segway, even before he started to intentionally fall from it on to the sand while it continued its merry way down the beach without him. Raily is Spanish-speaking, and I unfortunately can only speak English and am embarrassed to say I’m shy when exercising my meager knowledge of foreign languages, but we were on the same wavelength with our uproarious attacks of laughter punctuated by Raily’s refrain of “muy tonto.” The ludicrous sight, however, was effective in communicating the incongruity between Aruba as a paradise or image of perfection that unavoidably will not hold up under scrutiny because nowhere is perfect, especially for the inhabitants that live there and contend with all of the issues and ramifications of the state of the country. This video was displayed at Ateliers ’89, while a number of his sculptures found their way to Caya Grandi. A large painting of his bandaged hand – a casualty of his Segway falls – was mounted on a wall behind them, reaching for the handlebars but unable to grab them. This installation was adjacent to Franz’s bandaged, melting tourists on the plaza opposite, and I found the synergy and conversation between the pieces about the harsher, painful side of tourism to be clever and captivating.
While Raily’s work may have shown a side to human restrictions and capacity, witnessing Mexican, Aruba-based artist Irvin Aguilar at work was its antithesis – it was a study in perseverance and triumph. Like Franz, Irvin also began the residency venturing into the realm of sculpture, as his work has been primarily printmaking and wood etching until this point. He has also worked on murals which followed a similar aesthetic to his prints, as we saw when we visited the Ateliers ’89 exhibition space in San Nicolaas. He had transformed the walls of a studio there into murals illustrating his perceptions of Aruba’s past and present in the piece Oblivion. Coming from Mexico, with a wealth of culture and history that is visible in daily life, Irvin has begun to mine Aruba’s history for artistic content, bringing it into dialogue with contemporary society. His sculpture was inspired by this archival research into Caya Grandi, and is an attempt to reconstruct a building that no longer stands, as a way of looking at the area’s gradual historical and architectural erasure.
Partway through his work, however, Irvin was set the mammoth task by Director of Ateliers ’89, the undeniable Elvis López, of painting a mural on a huge, burnt eyesore of a wall that CL had gained permission to use. Granted, he had his eye on the wall for a while, and he was not at all lacking for ideas… but I was anxious that he would feel that the residency was trying to dictate his output, and many of us had concerns about him finishing the monumental piece by the exhibition’s opening date. We both giggled and cringed at the sight and “beep beep beep” sound of him religiously riding the scissor lift to Main Street, knowing he would toil in the unforgiving sun day in and day out. Laura de Vogel (an Aruban artist, gentle soul and my magnificent partner during the whirlwind of coordinating CL V) even helped build him a little tarpaulin hut for the lift when it became unbearable, but nothing broke his determination. And miraculously, to all of our admiration and undying respect, Irvin defied the odds and finished his striking mural La Linea en la Memoria, in addition to his sculpture Mecanismo Racional #1 exhibited at Ateliers ’89.
If there was one work that touched Caya Grandi the deepest, I believe it was Irvin’s mural. His visual depiction of a public, historical archive that translates tales of the area’s roots into bold lines and graphic shapes is impossible to ignore. It slackened one of the tense knots in my chest about the “public” component of CL V, because as incredible as our opening procession was, I’m not a fan of fleeting, one off events. Too much of what we strive for in our respective arts organizations and projects in the region battles against the “parachuting in” model of non-investment, for us to commit the sin of entering a space without intent to further a relationship. Irvin’s impressive, detailed intervention merged a rendition of Caya Grandi nearly lost in time with its current, floundering existence, in a way leaving the street at a crossroads. In which direction will the reformation of Main Street go next? I feel hopeful that there might be ripples of positive change; the replacement of an eyesore with something so compelling may be in part responsible for some other efforts to repaint walls and contribute to the street’s upkeep that have cropped up since Irvin’s wall was painted. I like to think the two are correlated.
This year the only Aruban artist was Velvet Zoé Ramos, whom I had met before at CL IV when she came out to support that year’s group, as well as knowing of her work with ArtFama, an informal arts platform she manages with her husband and fellow CL V resident Irvin, that is mainly committed to promoting a true sense of community and solidarity within Aruban society. I was thrilled that Velvet would be an official part of Caribbean Linked, because from what I knew of her and her work, she radiated a generous aura you could not help but respond to. Again, there was a certain playfulness to her pieces, but with more of an earnestness than the kind of biting wit present in some of the others’ works, which made for a refreshing balance in the show’s vibe. However If there was one word I would use to speak about her practice, it would be empathy.
A version of Velvet’s 2011 work The Feast: A Banquet of Crude Empathy was included in the Ateliers ’89 exhibition at San Nicolaas, consisting of several cooking utensils that had been etched, gouged and plasma cut to undermine their usefulness, placed on mounds of uncooked rice grains. This piece is a response to those relief efforts carried out during disasters which unceremoniously drop “poor people’s” food into countries seeking aid, with no meaningful follow-up or support lent to actively rehabilitate the space. In Caya Grandi for the CL V show, Velvet produced another object incapable of sufficiently carrying out its protective function. Shades of solutions / Sombra di solución was a canopy assembled in the street that had the common Papiamento phrase “no por tapa solo cu un dede” cut into it, so that the message would emerge in a shadow on the ground at different times of the day as the sun transposed its rays. This saying roughly translates to “you can’t cover the sun with one finger.” Velvet’s work echoes her desire to do better, to give more, but reckons with the inadequacy of humanity in fulfilling this mission.
There were two occasions, technically outside of the residency’s official activities, where Velvet’s core values around art-making collided with reality, and the call for empathy and community was answered by the CL V family under vastly different circumstances. Towards the end of our second week, Velvet took ill and was hospitalized for a few days. Our hearts went out to her, and our hearts went out to Irvin. We knew Velvet’s health was the indisputable priority, yet we also understood the frustration they would feel that this would happen during such a high-pressure time. We were faced with our own inadequacy in being able to solve the situation, but despite knowing there were perhaps some holes in our figurative utensils, we all wanted to reach out and offer sustenance in whatever way we could. When we arrived as a group at the hospital to visit her, the receptionist asked that we enter the room two at a time. We declined:
The second instance of solidarity instigated by Velvet came on the last night, when she told us she had a proposal to put forward: how would the artists feel about having a group critique before we all part ways? I held my breath for a second and gauged the faces of the others, hesitant that this would be viewed as too much after an exhausting three weeks – but everyone was excited at the prospect. Velvet understood the group’s predilection for discerning feedback, filling a void too often neglected when there is such an emphasis on production and meeting a deadline. Seeing them sitting in a circle, drinking Ada’s rum punch from personalized cups and giving forthright, fair and encouraging assessments of their work, the care and respect everyone had for one another as people and creators thickened the atmosphere between us and misted my eyes. Velvet’s larger quest to build community is a daunting one, but she can definitely take solace in achievements such as this along the way.
Video courtesy of E Arubiano News
Community engagement was also implemented through the work and presence of Kriston Chen, a graphic designer from Trinidad and Tobago, who added something beautiful and genuine to CL in ways that we could not have altogether predicted. He gravitated to the task of engagement not because the residency “required” it, but because it is the most natural reflex for him. After one of our tours in Rancho, not far from Caya Grandi or the Ateliers, Kriston began a collaboration with the community activism organization Stichting Rancho, which works to preserve and revitalize the culturally rich zone. This led to a Trini-Aruban hybrid of the #1000mokos ‘Sticks in de Yard’ project he spearheads at Alice Yard in Trinidad – affectionately dubbed ‘Stick Ting in D’ Alley’ as a play on words, cultures and associations.
Through this series of Moko Jumbie (stilt walking) workshops which attracted the community’s citizens, children and adults alike, Kriston accomplished something in the alleys of Rancho that would not have been possible if he confined himself to the Ateliers, and this is important; artist-led spaces often operate as an alternative to the white cube model, but that does not mean they do not have constraints. Their strength can be when they recognize this, and are open to moving beyond those boundaries, collaborating when necessary and allowing projects to become more than being tied to one organization, location or framework to reach a fuller potential. There is immense strength in knowing when to break the mold. The works of international artists/writers/designers now strewn as posters on the walls of Caya Grandi for a special edition of Kriston’s other inclusive, public-facing project Toofprints, and the continuation of weekly Sticks sessions at Centro di Activiad Rancho now helmed by the volunteer efforts of Ginelly Na Kaminda and Robert Tromp, attest to this.
“With projects like Toofprints and Sticks in de Yard, the art is important but it’s the process of artistic collaboration in relation to building community that matters most right now for me.” – Kriston Chen[iv]
With an effervescent attitude as infectious and omnipotent as the Moko Jumbie he embodied, it was almost inevitable that another one of the participants would be seduced by stilts and become the next Moko in Kriston’s quest for 1000. Sure enough, Gwladys Gambie stepped into that role with the dynamism and grace she brings to all of her endeavours, whether it is her sensual and intricate drawings that integrate her affinity to her surroundings with her body; her experimentation with sculpture and projection as a way to push herself and bring a new dimension to this visual marriage in her piece Sensitive Cartography; or her indomitable performance work. Her personal avatar ‘Manman Chadwon’, a deity Gwladys performs, summons the fortitude of the sea urchin and becomes a spiritual conduit for celebration of femininity, Blackness and African heritage to counter predominant Eurocentric standards. Manman Chadwon was drawn to the Moko Jumbie mythology, and in collaboration with Kriston and Laura, metamorphosed into ‘Moko Chadwon’ on a rugged, sandy cliff at the crack of dawn.
“It’s not only about balance, it’s about power, confidence, relationships with the elements, the breeze and the sea…On the stilts, I felt higher, stronger, powerful. I felt like a goddess with the breeze, confident. I fell twice, but I’m proud to have done this amazing walk!” – Gwladys Gambie[v]
“…not only about balance, it’s about power, confidence, relationships…” Gwladys reminded me with her words that while managing CL V was at times a balancing act, that the enrichment and empowerment borne from the residency take precedence. There is power in knowing that there are those who will support us and catch us if we fall, a trust built on something deep enough to penetrate a cynical outer shell or thorny defense. Rather than being concerned about egos or traditional power structures, this group of creatives affirmed for one another that we were all Moko Jumbies in our own right; we all defied limits, tested personal and professional boundaries, facilitated healing and left indelible impressions. Gwladys, the student, went on to become the mentor when Ada strapped on stilts during our last night together, and I can’t write a more poignant metaphor to describe CL V than this…the next time I have the opportunity, I hope I can draw on my family’s bravery and stand on stilts myself.
During my (eventful) transit home from Aruba to Barbados, I was very kindly taken for coffee by Trinidadian artist and co-founder of Alice Yard, Christopher Cozier. In our discussions, he spoke about the Caribbean often not being seen as “real.” This resonated with me, especially as I was still reeling from the intensity of CL V. Places that have well documented history, scholarship and established cultural canons may have a harder time understanding this statement; even though documented history can be contentious, having this archive to reference, contest and draw from gives places a kind of credibility that the Caribbean is still trying to build for itself from the inside. I met a US-based artist/filmmaker with diasporic Caribbean connections in 2017, who when asking me questions about different islands, inquired whether I found certain cultures to be “stronger” or “weaker” than others. Opinions like this, that seek to “rank” Caribbean islands without wholly appreciating how our cultures were forged to begin with, as well as our contemporary claims to these narratives, are to me symptomatic of this kind of packaged, “unreal” image that Chris spoke of.
It is my hope that programmes like CL, that platform the lived experiences of artists and cultural activists in the region, can show that our cultures are on a spectrum rather than a hierarchy; they are real and diverse, indefinable and in constant vacillation. In the face of this, the testimonies and feedback of CL alumni are not empty vessels with which we blindly praise the residency. They hold agency, they are critical, and they are full of undercurrents of regional truths. Ada already said it best: “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.”[vi]
At Caribbean Linked, we fall in love with one another’s realness; our beauty, our flaws, our histories, our complexity and honesty in this familiar/foreign setting. Conversations could range from friendly jabs at one another’s accents, to which colonial powers had historically “owned” our islands, listing them off and comparing notes. It is almost bizarre, the casual way we could chat about such a heavy topic, but maybe the ease with which we could have this discussion could be attributed to a mutual acknowledgment of a shared history – and, more importantly, an unspoken understanding of what it meant for us to be challenging and disowning that legacy of oppression and segregation, even by simply being in the same space. Caribbean Linked simultaneously breaks down everything I thought I knew, and reminds me of what I have always understood about being from the Caribbean.
The love at Caribbean Linked is not a honeymoon phase; we all come from countries that have known and continue to know complicated existences and difficult relations. Though performance and masquerade were employed by some artists through their work this year, we did not mask these truths from one another in our frank daily exchanges. Throughout Caribbean Linked, we have held one another for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and despite parting ways for now, vowed this separation will be temporary. Gwladys taught us her favourite way to say “goodbye” in Martinican Creole: a an lot solely, translating roughly to “til another sun.”
Mi ta stimabo;
Ik hou van je;
Love wunna bad.
[i] Caba, Franz. Caribbean Linked V Blog Post, 22 Aug. 2018,
[ii] Patterson, Ada M. “All that is Spiky is not Hostile.” Caribbean Linked V Blog Post, 1 Sep. 2018,
[iii] “One happy island” is the official slogan of Aruba, promoted heavily in the island and used in tourism campaigns.
[iv] Chen, Kriston. Caribbean Linked V Blog Post, 22 Aug. 2018,
[v] Gambie, Gwladys. Caribbean Linked V Blog Post, 4 Sep. 2018,
[vi] Patterson, Ada M. “All that is Spiky is not Hostile.” Caribbean Linked V Blog Post, 1 Sep. 2018,