Article featured in the Cyprus Dossier: Notions of common/wealth versus single/wealth

The 7th edition of the Cyprus Dossier, launched this summer during the International Artist Initiated project hosted by the David Dale Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, featured an article titled ‘Notions of common/wealth versus single/wealth‘ written by Fresh Milk‘s founding director Annalee Davis. Read the piece below:

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“Global art is not only polycentric as a practice, but also demands a polyphonic discourse. Art history has divided the world, whereas the global age tends to restore unity on another level. Not only is the game different: it is also open to new participants who speak in many tongues and who differ in how they conceive of art in a local perspective. We are watching a new mapping of art worlds in the plural which claim geographic and cultural difference.”[1]

The Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., founded in 2011, is located on a dairy farm on the island of Barbados in the Southern Caribbean. We are one of several artist-led initiatives continually emerging across the archipelago supporting contemporary art production and the shaping of critical communities in the region. The local contexts these Caribbean artist networks respond to is the lack of formal institutions to meet artists’ needs, such as a national art gallery or a museum of contemporary art with a mandate to support the production, discussion and visibility of contemporary practice.

Artists in the region are functioning in an arena with relatively small local audiences, underdeveloped primary art markets and, in most cases, non-existent secondary markets for contemporary art works with very few spaces to exhibit. A challenge this poses is that much of the artwork produced in the region is exhibited, appreciated and valued outside of the region where more developed creative environments function, creating a gap between artists and their domestic audiences. Artist-led initiatives have been working to bridge this gap by creating opportunities for creatives to engage with local audiences.

Fresh Milk responds by (i) offering residencies for local artists to produce work and nurture critical thinking, (ii) expanding the reading room to acquire material focusing on contemporary practice from within the region and around the world, not available anywhere else on the island, (iii) activating the reading material through establishing mentoring opportunities for young people who write critical reviews of the book collection shared through the Tumblr page – Fresh Milk Books – The books that make us scream!, and (iv) staging public events providing local audiences and artists moments to engage with each other, along with other activities.

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While recognizing the importance of nurturing the local environment, Fresh Milk is equally committed to participating in larger and more diverse conversations regionally. Common obstacles rippling throughout the region’s creative sectors act as unifiers, giving rise to geographical connections among artists across the Caribbean who share in these frustrations and resulting in the formation of many of these artist-led initiatives and collaborations.

Fresh Milk’s online interactive mapping project reconfirms our regional identity and functions as a transnational exercise demonstrating the presence of a myriad of arts entities across the Caribbean from the nineteenth century till now – refuting the fact that we are a divided space as determined by former colonizers who used dominant languages to separate the region linguistically. Consolidating regional art spaces into one, the readily accessible online map also acts as a crucial educational and research tool for locating historical and current data about Caribbean art, broadening both local and international knowledge, awareness and collaboration. Mapping becomes an act of resistance as we become our own cartographers, insisting on connection rather than division and relationship as opposed to discord. The map also resists the notion that there is a central and singular art world of which we are peripheral.

While it maybe true that, as Amanda Coulson wrote in the Frieze April issue, ‘The idea that anything intellectual happens here is anathema to the brand we have projected to the outside world’,[2] this map opposes the reductive way in which the Caribbean has been branded repeatedly as an exotic playground for people from elsewhere.

Fresh Milk has worked with partners in the region to establish a regional residency project called Caribbean Linked.[3] This project brings artists throughout the region to make and exhibit art, engage in critical dialogue and build relationships, while using the arts to foster a more unified Caribbean.

As our relationships spread beyond the insular Caribbean, our programming expands to reflect the shifting dynamics of our engagements. Nurturing our core foundation in the Caribbean equips us to build robust, meaningful connections internationally – not seeking validation, but rather mutually enriching cultural exchanges. Fresh Milk is continually fostering critical conversations with entities throughout the Caribbean, in the Global South and traversing the North/South axis of the world to holistically realize a healthy cultural ecosystem.

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INTERNATIONAL ARTIST INITIATED

The invitation from David Dale Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, is an example of how Fresh Milk is provided with opportunities to engage with international artist networks, in this instance, from the Commonwealth of Nations. In July 2014, we will join the Clark House Initiative (India), The Cyprus Dossier (Cyprus), Fillip (Canada), RM (New Zealand), Video Network Lagos (Nigeria) and David Dale Gallery (Scotland) in Glasgow to collectively make a series of critical interventions for their project, International Artist initiated (IAI). The IAI project reaffirms art as a polycentric practice and is creating this significant platform for a truly polyphonic discourse.

Fresh Milk’s contribution to IAI is in two parts. The first will see the installation of works by three emerging artists on a billboard, external walls of buildings, on railings and on the surface of the sidewalk. The artists include a recent graduate from the Barbados Community College, Ronald Williams, whose crisp digital montages critique the stereotype of the black athlete; Mark King who will share a suite of beautiful linear works, inspired by geometry and origami with patterns derived from algorithms generated from the 2008 banking crisis, and Alberta Whittle’s fête (party) posters. Alberta performs as both man and woman in her critique of gender stereotypes through her engagement with the local fête posters often seen posted throughout Bridgetown, Barbados’ capital city. The posters will be reproduced in multiples and plastered throughout the streets of Glasgow.

Fresh Milk’s second contribution will be a discursive project titled “common-wealth / single-wealth”. This dialogical component will provide a platform for representatives of the seven specially invited networks to participate in conversations with each other and the Glaswegian audience. The aim of the conversations will, in part, be to unpack ideas related to the Commonwealth of Nations – the association under which countries gather every four years to celebrate sport – in Glasgow in the summer of 2014.

BACKGROUND TO THE COMMONWEALTH

The Commonwealth of Nations comprises of 53 independent countries associating voluntarily within this umbrella organization. Most of these nations are former colonies of the British Empire who generated wealth for a single kingdom, brutally extracted from labour and raw materials derived from colonies flung far across the globe. The Commonwealth of Nations is a diverse association including some of the largest and wealthiest countries as well as some of the smallest and poorest, more than half of which are small island states. The origin of the term was mooted in 1884 when the British empire was described as a Commonwealth of Nations by Lord Rosebury while he visited Australia.[4]

In 1926, at an Imperial Conference, the UK and its dominions agreed that they were “equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” In 1949, “Commonwealth prime ministers issued the London Declaration, which changes membership from one based on common allegiance to the British Crown to one in which members agree to recognise the British monarch as head of the Commonwealth, rather than as their head of state.”[5]

In 1971, the Singapore Declaration of shared principles was adopted to include commitments to individual liberty, freedom from racism, peace, economic and social development, and international cooperation. In 1991, the Harare Declaration added democracy, good government and human rights to the Commonwealth’s shared principles.[6]

But the background to these now politically correct, supposedly globally shared egalitarian principles is rooted in something entirely different…the fundamental values that made the Empire so powerful were greed, enslavement, corruption, invasion, racism and pure wickedness – basically a ‘get whatever you can in the most horrendous way’ philosophy, and then run with the spoils, laughing all the way to the bank. What in fact we all have in common is the colonial experience, that terrible encounter which now makes us somewhat familiar, one to the other. That baptism by fire and the English language is what we all share.

“The war of Independence and subsequent de-colonization, may have been fought, and won, on a blueprint of self-determination from the colonial masters, lauded and welcomed universally. The mirrors of international recognition, independence and self-governance, however, flattering though they appeared, were already fractured with partial images, half-told tales and misrecognitions that the young state, drunk with the joy of its own birth, had been turning a blind eye to.”[7]

The Commonwealth of Nations really began as the British Empire back in the 16th century with Britain’s invasion of many lands all over the world. Ideals such as international cooperation were not in fashion in 1625 when Barbados, for example, became a British colony. As the centuries passed and the British Empire’s dependant nations became less profitable, they were slowly granted independence beginning in 1931 with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. India became independent in 1947, Nigeria and Cyprus in I960, and Barbados, once England’s richest colony, became independent in 1966 at a point when it stopped generating masses of wealth for the mother country through the production of white gold, commonly known as sugar.

The English language has become so well laundered that we are encouraged to believe that we all play on an equal and clean playing field. Dig a little below the surface of free trade agreements however, such as the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) – an agreement between Europe and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states – and the dirty laundry surfaces again. Nigerian economics professor, Charles Chukwuma Soludo argues that the EPA is Europe’s second scramble for Africa, while accusing China and India of invading or exploiting Africa.[8]

Professor Norman Girvan, in a workshop on Alternative Trade at St. Mary’s University in 2013, posited that the EPA is a way for Global Europe to neo-liberalise relations with the Global South in order to maintain access to ACP resources and markets while competing for market control against China and the USA. He writes that as the ACP countries continue to export raw materials, food and consumer services and import manufactured goods and producer services, the same colonial model that Britain used centuries ago, albeit now consolidated with its European partners, continues to be repeated over and over again.[9] Although Africa continues to put up a fight against the signing of the EPA, the Caribbean eagerly signed, rendering our own efforts at regional integration null and void, sidelining our best interests in order to secure Europe’s ability to compete globally.

Once we were colonies, raped and pillaged at will. Now with apparent ‘self-governance’ we are supposedly decolonized, established as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations. The English language, our colonial past, democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law unite us. We recognize Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the Commonwealth.

The British Empire transformed into the British Commonwealth, which became the Commonwealth of Nations, commonly known as the Commonwealth, with the Commonwealth Games as its most visible activity. And here we are in 2014, gathering to celebrate sport (and art) in the Motherland as one big, happy Commonwealth family.

THE DISCURSIVE PANEL FOR THE IAI PROJECT

Drawing a line back to Fresh Milk’s proposed framework for the proposed discursive component, we intend to explore the context of the IAI, as a gathering of Commonwealth Nations, and delve into how that relates to the work we all do as artist led initiatives. In the Vancouver based Fillip publication, in its 2012 issue called Institutions by Artists, Peta Rake asks if artist run spaces “attempt to address their structures as alternative modes of artist collective organizations, (and) in what ways do these Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs) take into account the specific location and contingent relationship to the local context”. Rake asks if provincialism arises out of colonial processes or geographic location, or might it be more an attitude adopted by an individual given their position within the system of art, which forces subservience to externally imposed hierarchical values.[10]

Similarly, for the purposes of Fresh Milk’s discursive component, the concern is to unpack the Commonwealth as a macro, historical entity and understand our relationship to it, if any, and all that entails. Interrelated are ideas about the definition of wealth and value, both single and common, in our local contexts. We will meet in Glasgow from Auckland, Bombay/Mumbai, Bridgetown, Lagos, Nicosia and Vancouver. We have English in common, yes, but we hail from nations of people who also speak Marathi, Maori, dialect, Yoruba, Greek and Turkish.

Questions Fresh Milk will invite participants to consider include the following:

  • What does single wealth and common wealth mean or evoke to each of the seven initiatives?
  • As former British colonies and in relation to this gathering under the umbrella of the Commonwealth of Nations, are there concerns of being central or peripheral? What constitutes the centre, and who or what are we peripheral to? Is there anxiety about provincial versus metropolitan environments related to physical location, creative production or critical thinking?
  • How do we engage nationally, regionally and trans-nationally? Do we have allegiances with the Global South, and how do they affect or relate to more traditional interactions with the North?
  • Do artist-led institutions contribute to artists choosing to remain at home, seeing these networks as viable spaces from which they can create and contribute to, within their own context, rather than viewing emigration as the most viable option?
  • Given that those working in the diaspora sometimes struggle with exclusion in local communities in the metropolitan centres and are increasingly looking homeward as potential spaces to re-engage with, what is our responsibility to artists in varying diasporic communities who feel simultaneously connected to and disconnected from, both the original homeland and the adopted homes?
  • Are issues of economic viability for artist led initiatives a core concern, and should alternate models of sustainability be considered and developed? Are decisions to operate outside of formal institutions or away from the market influenced by our positions as More Developed Countries (MDCs) or Lesser Developed Countries (LDCs)? What is the responsibility of MDCs in relation to LDCs?
  • How can we take advantage of this IAI gathering to germinate longer-term relationships among these networks? How, for example, might digital technology support transnational collaborative opportunities among IAI participants? How do we move forward from here?

Sources:

[1] Belting, H. et. al. (eds) (2013) The Global Contemporary and The Rise of New Art Worlds, MIT Press, p.184.

[2] Coulson, A. (2014), ‘Island Life’, Frieze, Frieze Publishing Limited, No.162, April 2014, p.133.

[3] https://freshmilkbarbados.com/caribbean-linked-ii/; accessed on 27 May 2014.

[4] http://thecommonwealth.org/about-us#sthash.JrUvIL9b.dpuf; accessed on 27 May 2014.

[5] http://thecommonwealth.org/our-history#29; accessed on 27 May 2014.

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Aristodemou, M. (2012), ‘Crisis, Beyond the Comfort of Anxiety and Fear’, The Cyprus Dossier, Issue 03, July 2012, pp.20.

[8] http://www.normangirvan.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/EPA-AS-SECOND-SCRAMBLE-FOR-AFRICA-11.pdf; accessed on 27 May 2014.

[9] http://www.normangirvan.info/category/epa-text-and-commentaries/; accessed on 27 May 2014.

[10] Rake, P. (2012), ‘Inclusivity and Isolation’, Folio Series, Institutions by Artists, Volume One, Edited by Khonsary, J. and Kristina Lee Podesva, K., Fillip Editions / Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres, pp.151.

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