Ethan Knowles

Digital Beginnings
Eleuthera, The Bahamas

My laptop easily arranges sixteen rectangles. They fit together like tiles in a mosaic so that briefly I imagine my laptop as a kind of artist, as a sculptor of interactions. Beyond my screen is a beach with reasonably pink sand. Beyond the beach is a patch reef exploding with elkhorn coral. And beyond the elkhorn coral is at least one shark glimpsed, though possibly imagined, the day prior. Beyond all these things is the Atlantic Ocean and beyond that, a planet navigating the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

I am staring at sixteen rectangles because I am a part of Caribbean Linked VI – a regional residency programme that aims to build awareness across disparate creative communities of the Caribbean. Faced with the complications posed by an ongoing pandemic, the core team of organisers – Elvis Lopez, Holly Bynoe, Katherine Kennedy, and Annalee Davis – opted to make 2021 a bridging year comprised of various digital conversations, both private and public, with the expectation that participants meet in person next year, at Ateliers’89 in Aruba.

The four rectangles they occupy are too small to fit their smiles.

Another nine rectangles are occupied by the participating artists: Claudio Arnell from Saint Martin, Taisha Carrington out of Barbados, Romelinda Maldonado from Aruba, Akley Olton out of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Susana Pilar from Cuba, John Reno Jackson from the Cayman Islands, Sarabel Santos-Negrón of Puerto Rico, Samuel Sarmiento representing Aruba/Venezuela, and Béliza Troupé from Guadeloupe.

Besides my rectangle, which holds the resident writer, that leaves two rectangles for the two invited curators: Sofia Olascoaga (Mexico) and Miguel A. Lopez (Peru).

I am staring at these rectangles through a pair of blue-light blocking glasses. They have risen to power, these glasses, in an age of rising screen times. Though few studies have actually confirmed their health benefits, the glasses continue to sell exceptionally well – likely because we now find ourselves in a world where illness and wellness are equally hard to escape.

I am not sure if I am wearing the glasses because I care deeply about the longevity of my eyes, because they match my outfit – most of which is eliminated by my rectangle – or because I want to appear a certain way, that is, the way people who wear glasses appear. All these things are possibly true, or perhaps slices of the truth, but none of them are the entire truth. But this is fine, because in my practice I am never looking for complete truths anyway.

Before we begin introductions, before we bridge the gaps between our individual geographies, I try to imagine what lies beyond each rectangle. I extract clues from the walls of living rooms, from the creaks of seats or occasional animal cry, from the corners of furniture and the corners of faces, from the reflections of glasses that are not my own outfit-matching blue-light blocking glasses. I am nosey and curious and perhaps too fast for my own good, but I am also a writer in search of slices. I am part of Caribbean Linked VI and so I decide that now more than ever it is important to be nosey and curious and fast because our region has long been divided by the colonial enterprise and this residency works to challenge such imperial parochialism. Indeed, by connecting writers, artists and cultural workers from the Dutch Antillean, Anglophone, Francophone and Hispanic Caribbean, the programme seeks to dissolve the boundaries between islands – whether natural or man-made – and support the growth of a robust cultural ecosystem in the region.

So here we are, sixteen people looking to dissolve sixteen rectangles and take a step toward greater regional awareness.

Overlapping Islands
Nassau, The Bahamas

Two weeks have passed and my family vacation in Eleuthera has come to an end. Having readjusted to life in the capital, I begin examining some of the notes and photos taken during my time on the family island. I decide this residency is an ideal time to explore new literary modes and so I draft a narrative non-fiction piece investigating the old, dilapidated ruins of a Club Med resort.

Though writing non-fiction is by no means uncharted territory for me – I have written a good number of analytical essays on art and culture for instance – there remains a unique challenge inherent in writing narrative non-fiction. You might imagine that since the story is ‘real’ it might be easier to compose than fiction, that is, that the facts might simply be sought out and arranged and the story completed. But in that process of organising moments into scenes and scenes into a story is a range of decisions about what to include and when best to include it and, by extension, whose story it is and ultimately what the story does – if it does anything at all. Indeed, I found that writing narrative non-fiction requires careful dramatic road mapping so that exposition and engagement cohere into an effective narrative.

In the end, I arrive at a story that explores postcolonial land use, tourism, and the lasting effects of extreme weather events on small island developing states. The piece is titled “Afterlife of an Atlantic Resort” and is published on my personal website. A short extract can be found below:

I watch as a snake vanishes inside a crumbling mess of concrete before looking up to find a tennis court. To me it looks playable, albeit dusty and overgrown. It is one of few things that remain. A tennis court, the swampy hollow of a swimming pool, and a run-down cottage: these are the amenities available in the afterlife of an Atlantic resort. They have not been destroyed, only tampered with by hurricanes and time. They make up these ruins, which hidden gaulins oversee and singing cicadas set alight.

Before my final departure, I take one more look around the admin building. Schematic drawings, forgotten cheques and outdated calendars litter the floor. Above, money bats beat the air aimlessly as wasps cling to grey bouquets. It is damp and stuffy and smells of pee. For the first time, I notice a phrase written on the wall:

How vain the quest for profit is.

Not long after I finish the piece, our first public dialogue takes place. Up until now, the limited knowledge I have of my fellow participants has been gleaned from online conversations, Instagram profiles and artist websites. For this reason, I am delighted to hear Taisha, Akley, Susana and Sarabel speak in greater depth about their practices.

Taisha Carrington, Musical Chairs/A Game of Chance, 2021

I learn that Taisha is interrogating her individual relationship with Barbados, a precarious and yet irreplaceable home. By engaging with self-made devices, Taisha explores the intricacies of increasingly untenable ecosystems, placing particular emphasis on small island states struggling to grapple with the climate crisis. Beyond 3-D creations, I learn that she also employs performance art as a means to survey the sociocultural realities of her island. In one performance piece, Musical Chairs/A Game of Chance (2021), she invites beachgoers to construct chairs out of sand for a game of musical chairs. Taisha then proceeds to play the game solo while singing a Bajan song about displacement interlaced with excerpts from a speech by Prime Minister Mia Mottley. The speech, delivered at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva, draws attention to the fact that global inequalities threaten to exacerbate an already severe climate crisis, one which threatens the ways of life of all Caribbean people.

Akley’s practice as a filmmaker and visual artist shares similar concerns, though where Taisha is concerned with the ongoing erosion of island topographies, Akley is working to remedy longstanding elisions in the national narrative of his home country, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Through radical imagination and careful questioning, he seeks to fill gaps in a history primarily recorded by and for the benefit of elites while critically examining the neocolonial character of more contemporary structures like the tourism industry.

Susana Pilar, Dibujo Intercontinental, 2017

Narratives of the past also surface in the work of Susana, who reflects on her African and Chinese heritage through works like Dibujo Intercontinental (2017), a performance piece in which the artist tows a wooden boat by a rope wrapped around her torso. The performance not only speaks to the coerced voyages of Susana’s ancestors and the experience of migrants more broadly, but it also testifies to the daily forms of resistance undertaken by Black women artists who seek to navigate disobliging environments.

Sarabel Santos-Negrón, Ir y retornar (día 28), 2020

Sarabel extends the discourse of resistance in describing the role of the Puerto Rican landscape in her practice. Working on an island in which foreign development poses a near constant threat of displacement, Sarabel employs a range of media, whether digital photographs taken in the wake of hurricanes or retrieved elements of the island’s physical landscape, to explore affinities with her native land and pick apart shifting sociocultural realities. In engaging with the tangible terrain of the world’s oldest colony, the artist seeks to centre a landscape that has long been relegated to the periphery by global powers.

Hearing about the work of these artists, I cannot help but notice parallels between my practice and theirs. Issues of coloniality, climate extremes, and island ecologies are just a few overlaps that stand out immediately. Much like my fellow participants, I also draw on lived experiences to inform my work while attempting to tackle more universal themes, such as liminality, memory, loss and belonging. Indeed, as a writer I rely on what I know as a queer ‘conchy joe’ oscillating between islands but I also rely on slices from the lives of those around me. I try to stay radically attuned to my surroundings, whether by taking note of curious statements or projecting beyond the confines of short, electrifying encounters. In this way, in this act of sorting through life to find its most salient slices, I carry out my work as a writer.

New Things are Sinking (In)
Rome, Italy

As the virtual residency approaches its end, I work to wrap up two pieces of writing that grapple with the climate crisis, specifically in the context of the Caribbean. One is a prose piece examining the prospect of political destabilisation should current trends in climatic patterns continue while the other is a poem titled New Things Are Sinking which deals with disaster capitalism and displacement in the wake of extreme weather events. Both demand a fair degree of research, but despite many of the studies exhibiting rather grim projections, I feel empowered accumulating this information. After all, the only way to adequately respond to issues of water scarcity, rising sea levels, and worsening hurricanes is to enact change informed by the findings of rather grim, extensive studies.

I decide to pack these findings in my luggage and ferry them across the Atlantic with me. My overnight flight to Rome is filled to capacity, a fact the chief flight attendant relays over the intercom like a threat. Unable to sleep, I watch four films and play backgammon until my brain begins to pulse. When I finally reach Fiumicino Airport, the prospect of postponing sleep for another entire day seems torturous, utterly outside the realm of possibility. Somehow, I succeed in doing just that, evading jet lag altogether.

The day after my arrival I have an online chat with Sofia who, since the start of the pandemic, has carried out her curatorial practice outside the limits of Mexico City in the mountainous municipality of Tepoztlan. I learn that she prefers cooking workshops in lieu of formal lectures when broaching topics of art, culture and power and I also learn that she has enjoyed reading my recently published short story Boundaries, which appeared in PREE this past spring. This makes me laugh and smile and briefly I struggle to find the words to express my literary intentions, which often take the shape of obscure feelings rather than full sentences in Standard English. We discuss works by Octavio Paz, Roberto Bolaño, and Julio Cortazar while finding affinities here and there between national developments in Mexico and The Bahamas.

A few days later, the final virtual conversation of the residency is underway. Moderated by Holly Bynoe and Annalee Davis, the discussion dives into the works of Claudio, Samuel, Romelinda, John Reno and Beliza.

Claudio Arnell, Shelters (Heineken Regatta Trophies, Post Irma), 2018

Claudio, who I had a chance to speak with at length over the course of the residency, shares how growing up on the multilingual island of Saint Martin, which since 1648 has been composed of a French territory in the north and Dutch territory in the south, profoundly influences his practice. After having received his education in France, Claudio returned to the island to develop his arts practice while simultaneously undertaking a career in arts education. Since returning to Saint Martin, Claudio’s practice has engaged with both sides of the island, including a commissioned redesign of the island’s Coat of Arms, a series of metal trophies sculpted from hurricane debris, and photographic murals contracted for public display.

Romelinda Maldonado, I call upon my mantras, 2021

Romelinda’s practice also pays homage to her island home, employing not only bold colours but natural materials gathered from various sites in Aruba. I learn how she honours her body and her country through works like “I call upon my mantras” (2021), a series of paintings and sculptures produced for the group exhibition Pan, held at Ateliers’89. Exploring personal histories against a broader backdrop of Caribbeanisms, Romelinda centres abundance and joy through her multimedia practice, finding space for play and celebration even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Another artist who is concerned with the intersections of the body and the natural landscape is Beliza. In her drawings and textile works, the artist imbues natural imagery with powerful emotions while simultaneously charting bodily trajectories. In exploring processes typical of both the human and the nonhuman, she brings aspects of latter into sharper focus, whether working in two dimensions or three.

John Reno Jackson, Untitled, 2021

Dissecting what it means to be from the Caribbean is John Reno, an interdisciplinary artist who negotiates dualities primarily through painting and the deconstruction of that form. Employing alternative approaches to figuration, the artist draws on the shifting qualities of human memory in visualising spaces that make up the Cayman Islands. Dualities not only show up in his work as subject matter but also in the stylistic approaches he employs. Besides figuration, the artist has also produced a body of abstract paintings, the physical canvases of which he takes beyond the studio and the museum, inserting them in the natural landscape to how they fair.

Samuel Sarmiento, Aspero cuero de tigre, 2021

While John Reno explores how the elements affect physical artworks, Samuel creates affecting scenes in which the human and natural worlds intersect. I learn that the artist, who recently participated in the inaugural Atlantic World Art Fair with the curatorial agency Sour Grass, often employs cool tones in his works, a recurring motif of which is the figure of the tiger. At once apex predator and solitary survivor, the tiger is a complex figure that interests Samuel, an artist who is constantly interrogating the way humans respond to diverse environments.

Looking back now, it strikes me that I myself am a human responding to diverse environments. Over the course of this residency, I have travelled from Eleuthera to Nassau and finally back to Rome for the final year of my degree. Across these disparate settings, new things have begun to sink in. New facts about my fellow residents and new insights into a region rectangles cannot hold. As I wait for what next year holds, I remain deeply grateful for what has been a remarkable opportunity to mature as a Caribbean writer and cultural worker.