Unrecognised Affinities: Reflections from Videobrasil

The founding director of The Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., Annalee Davis, was invited to participate in the 18th International Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil – 30 Years + Southern Panoramas in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Videobrasil has established itself as one of the most important organizations for video and contemporary art practices in the geopolitical South and included a cross section of curators and critics from arts institutions worldwide, and artists largely from the global South. Davis presented in the 3rd Focus group of the festival’s public programming, which centered on artist residencies. The following is an edited version of her presentation ‘Unrecognised Affinities’ delivered at the panel titled ‘Hospitality and the Politics of Mobility’, originally published on ARC Magazine’s website.

Panel on Hospitality and the Politics of Mobility. Participants from L-R: Annalee Davis, Aaron Cezar, Amilcar Packer and Koyo Kouoh. Image courtesy of Sabrina Moura.

Panel on Hospitality and the Politics of Mobility. Participants from L-R: Annalee Davis, Aaron Cezar, Amilcar Packer and Koyo Kouoh. Image courtesy of Sabrina Moura.

I was asked to speak about my work as a creative activist in Barbados and the formation of the artist led initiative called The Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., of which I am the founding director. As a tutor at the Barbados Community College in the BFA programme, I decided some years ago to respond to the fact that none of our graduates continued making work after graduation. This is, in part, because there is not a developed creative economy that can provide a supportive space for emerging practitioners. Fresh Milk was born in 2011 to foster young talent and is named such because it is located on a dairy farm, as well as relating to the act of women turning their blood into milk to nurture their young.

The network responded to a specific local need to harness the talent of our young creatives – to be a safety net to catch artists as they fall into the real world after art school. Now, two and a half years later, graduates are continuing to make work because Fresh Milk is opening up opportunities and doors of exchange.

Fresh Milk is located on the premises of a former plantation built in the mid-1600s. It has been functioning as a dairy farm for several decades. My home and studio are located on the farm, and I have turned my studio into Fresh Milk’s headquarters. Due to the island’s brutal history rooted in indentureship and the slave trade, the physical location of Fresh Milk has raised concerns as to whether it is a legitimate or appropriate setting to carry out its work. Traditionally, the plantation was an exclusive venue, hospitable only to a white elite planter class who oversaw the inhumane treatment of an enslaved and indentured population.

The Fresh Milk Studio. Photograph by Mark King.

The Fresh Milk Studio. Photograph by Mark King.

I am interested in this debate about the plantation as a fixed space, defined perpetually by conflict and division. I see this location as a site for investigation; an environment which I am unpacking from the ground up. By literally digging into the soil to find ceramic remains, reading through documents related to the former plantation, including conveyances, wills and deeds from the early nineteenth century, I am thinking about the potential for transformation and reconciliation. Through creative intervention via my own practice as well as the development of critical programming at Fresh Milk, the historical divisions within the plantation are reconsidered.

The idea of transformation is linked to hospitality, which originates from the Latin word ‘hospes’ meaning “guest” or “stranger’.  I am concerned about the stranger or enemy among us and within our national boundaries, the region and the wider world. Certainly, there has been much debate within the insular Caribbean about belonging and ownership, which plays itself out most disturbingly at many of our national borders. There is a precedent of xenophobia which has come to define how Caribbean people think about citizenship and the landscape. The failure of CARICOM to provide a conduit for real integration after forty years of operation attests to this. For real change to occur, we need to be hospitable to ourselves first, work to ‘to open ourselves up, share ourselves out’ with the stranger in our midst, which we can do through the arts, creating safe, critical settings for exploration, innovation, connection, excellence and production.

Fresh Milk reacts to our needs at the moment in Barbados and the wider Caribbean by building  a robust creative community within the local context. Our geographic consideration of the Caribbean is always shifting. The normative definition is the archipelago that stretches from The Bahamas in the North, to Trinidad in the South, moving on to Suriname and the Guianas. Its extension into the coastal rim of Central and South America and out to the diasporic outposts including Amsterdam, London, Toronto, Vancouver, NYC etc is evidence of the Caribbean as a broad and dynamic area.

Annalee Davis introducing the Fresh Milk Map of Caribbean Art Spaces. Image courtesy of Sabrina Moura.

Annalee Davis introducing the Fresh Milk Map of Caribbean Art Spaces. Image courtesy of Sabrina Moura.

What is radical about this notion of hospitality in our Caribbean context, is the relationship to the history of plantations. By transforming this territory once grounded in hostility and prejudice into a welcoming, creative, critical arena, Fresh Milk is indeed a defiant undertaking. Our programming works in opposition to the traumatic history of abandonment and points to new possibilities by offering harmonious acts rather than ones of obstruction. Instead of reading Fresh Milk’s presence on this site as problematic, we propose an alternative reading, and suggest that an adjustment is both necessary and possible.

I see the work I am doing as an artist, unpacking and redefining the plantation, as work which is altering the very chemistry of our own soil. This practice is rooted in scientific ideas around phytoremediation. Phytoremediation is the removal of toxins from the earth by cultivating plants whose roots have the capacity to extract toxins from the soil, thereby allowing the soil to be replenished and to grow something again.

I believe that we have the ability and the responsibility to alter the course history, contributing to a healthy cultural ecosystem by nurturing creative production and producers. By establishing the Fresh Milk platform and executing its programming, functioning locally, regionally and internationally with inclusive and open projects, we are building relationships with other human beings and offering a real connection to a known locale of isolation and privilege that has been timed out of opportunity and significance.

Being hospitable in the historical context of the Caribbean is a radical gesture. To nurture one another, to consciously reject what we were taught by the colonial past and a consumer oriented present, to choose to convert these historical sites of abuse, torture and neglect into sanctuaries that revel in the creative imagination, to take care of and look after the emerging talent; these are all revolutionary actions. I have faith in the capacity we all have as human beings to envision and manifest alternate possibilities through the forging of relationships with others which may offer something beyond perpetual conflict.

The building of the Colleen Lewis Reading Room, which provides free and accessible research material to the Barbadian public, is a critical statement in a region where reading is not always a popular activity. This is a testament to the powers of the colonial system where bars for the consumption of rum were more common on the plantation than libraries. The availability of the reading room allows a way for us to think about using knowledge and scholarship to open and challenge minds, inspiring intellect while developing new modes of thinking.

The Colleen Lewis Reading Room. Photograph by Dondré Trotman.

The Colleen Lewis Reading Room. Photograph by Dondré Trotman.

The interactive Fresh Milk Map of Caribbean Art Spaces contests the ways in which the hegemonic powers historically segmented the region linguistically and created artificial boundaries to separate us from fully understanding our similarities. This is a myth and one that should be denounced categorically from a cultural and political perspective. The construction of this virtual map reinforces linkages across linguistic and geographic divides in the region, insisting that we are indeed interconnected.

Fresh Milk is building connections with other human beings through residencies, the Colleen Lewis Reading Room, the Map of Caribbean Art Spaces and its activities, contributing to our goal of transformation – all the while believing that we can alter the chemistry of our own soil, creating new paradigms of thinking and behaving, engaging in hospitable acts, or the most radical gesture of all – loving each other.

I close with a quote from the author Theodore Zeldin which inspires what we do at Fresh Milk – “The meeting of ideas which have never come together before…the art of making life meaningful and beautiful, which involves finding connections between what seems to have no connection, linking people and place, desires and memories…discovering unrecognized affinities between humans holds out the prospect of reconciliations and adventures which have so far seemed impossible.”

See the original article on ARC Magazine.

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