By Natalie McGuire
Fresh Milk III: A Broad View
January 15th 2012 saw the third Fresh Milk event and first one for the year with inspiring discussions of two parts: the MFA experience and the theme of ‘Abroad’, topics both separate but connected at the same time. With the ‘Abroad’ section, speakers had ten minutes to talk about twenty images and how they express their interpretation of the chosen theme. The panel consisted of Alberta Whittle, Harriet Rollitt, Dorothea Smartt, Linda Deane and Adrian Greene, a healthy mix of visual contemporary artists and writers.
Alberta Whittle (via skype) commented on the benefits of her experience completing a MFA in Glasgow. One of the main points she highlighted was that it added a new dimension to who she created for, the concept of an audience interacting with her work became much more relevant. This actually reflects a current complex amongst some artists practicing here in the Caribbean. Creating anything outside of the conservative is usually not easily received by the general population here, so for Alberta as an installation artist, it is understandable how she withdrew into creating for herself.
Alberta’s installations look a lot at the themes of mysticism, and she spoke about the use of the traditional ‘Shaggy Bear’ character with the ‘Harlequin’ character as a way of integrating Caribbean mythology in a European context.
“I decided to use the Shaggy Bear character with the Harlequin character and look at basically bringing the Shaggy Bear into a European context. Playing with I guess the ideas that we have of masculinity and mythology, ideas which we can’t construct, history has such bias in one direction, it’s nice to find a way to actually play with mythology. It makes it more vibrant, and I guess more personal to me, the idea of displacement has become very apparent to me living in Scotland for so long and finding a way of resolving you know my feelings of difficulty with being in the UK, and looking at British mythology as a way of comforting myself. Also I think my feelings about being a woman have been so much informed by my feelings of not being a man, how all my ideas about femininity have been informed by the absence of masculinity. And the Shaggy Bear character is very much this kind of aggressive character in the video, someone who almost embodies the darker side of masculinity, which we don’t really like to talk about, you know in Barbados it seems very much that masculinity is a specific idea, whereas femininity is something you can play with more easily. So the Shaggy Bear, he is kind of dancing between these two ideas of masculinity and the purer, softer, I don’t know maybe more sensual side and the sort of vibrant, aggressive, sexual side of Harlequin. In a way then it is Shaggy Bear but it’s also Harlequin, the costume you see on Shaggy Bear you see all over the world, he’s built up so much in mythology in Europe, in Africa, in the Caribbean, he’s not just our Shaggy Bear.”
This fresh perspective on a part of culture that is so ingrained in the Caribbean mentality is a vital illustration of how relevant artists like Alberta are to the contemporary Caribbean condition. It suggests that our culture is not necessarily definite within the boundaries of our own festivals and myths, but is integrated in cultures that tie with our colonial past and the present Diaspora.
Harriet Rollitt was the next to speak about her experience doing a MFA at Newcastle University. She stated that what motivated her to pursue a Masters was her frustration at the consumer driven concept of art seen here in Barbados, where she found herself producing works which were solely aesthetically pleasing for the ‘potential buyer’. “The best thing about doing the Master’s degree was that there were people there with so much knowledge, they would constantly give me references for other artists, so I was just learning and learning so much.”
Harriet’s work for her Master’s degree was a reflection of her displacement of identity felt, something that she reiterated powerfully in her interpretation of ‘Abroad’. Her experience of the term abroad is the most unique and under discussed. Linda, Dorothea and Adrian during their interpretations all talked about the complexities of maintaining the Afro-Caribbean identity, Dorothea and Linda in their melodic prose, and Adrian in his strong lecture. For example Dorothea looked at the notion of hair associated with identity in Afro-Caribbean women, where Adrian looked at the imbalance of Barbadian culture as produced by tourism and the expectations attached to that industry. Such as when he discussed the expectation of ‘cultural unity’ in his humorous delivering, showing a slide of the Mother Sally figure dancing on a tourist whilst saying “..when it comes to Barbadian art form and Barbadian culture and Barbadian performers, this is more akin to what they where expecting.” Linda talked about the comfort of nostalgia for the Diaspora through the familial preservation of West Indian folk songs. And although what Linda, Dorothea and Adrian discussed in their presentations was interesting and engaging and definitely expanded the meaning of the term ‘Abroad’ in expressive ways, these topics have been looked at and emphasized many times before, in fact they symbolize the absolute when it comes to thinking about Caribbean identity.
Harriet’s version of ‘Abroad’, however, was contemporary and addressed a different and somewhat ignored type of struggle with identity, the Euro-Caribbean complex, you might say. What she outlined was that being born in England but growing up in Barbados she felt like she was both and neither at the same time, mainly due to stereotypical perceptions of what it means to be British and to be Barbadian that she could not relate to through her personal experience. And its true, to be Euro-Caribbean is to be displaced. White people are always questioned as a person from the Caribbean due to the colour of their skin, even if they were born here and can trace their ancestry back to colonization. There is no ‘Euro-Caribbean’ ethnicity box to tick like there is an ‘Afro-Caribbean.’ Why is that, when logistically we all contributed to the forming and development of the region at the same time? There is no ‘indigenous’ ethnicity currently in the Caribbean. I suppose it could be that white people are assumed to have ethnic loyalty to Europe, but that seems to slightly oppress their right to identify as a Caribbean people too. At one point in her presentation, Harriet stated “I began to envy the trees as they had roots, and I wanted roots.” This illustrates perfectly the complex, and the metaphor has been used by other Barbadian artists in the past such as Annalee Davis in her ‘uprooted’ series. The majority of what is ‘Caribbean culture’ has been derived from the African side of our heritage: Carnival, Calypso music, the Creole language. It seems the ultimate backlash to the horrors of slavery was to strongly emphasize and ingrain these traditions as ‘ True Caribbean’ rather than more European traditions. So how do Euro-Caribbeans find a sense of their personal heritage through these aspects of culture?
Ultimately, what makes Fresh Milk platforms like these so important is the questioning of our own cultural circumstances, taking what is deemed as ‘truth’ and exploring its flexibility. Each speaker’s presentation illustrated this, and Harriet’s final quote encompasses the zeitgeist of the event:
“Truth is the sand on the beach of beliefs, constantly shifting in the tides of temporality.”