Nadijah Robinson shares her final blog post about her residency with Fresh Milk, concluding with her thoughts on how history is written, told and understood, and the value held in the land and our own bodies in remembering/passing on these stories. She also shares the impact of her presentation to the final year students in the BFA programme at Barbados Community College (BCC) in considering her goals as a socially engaged artist. Read more below:
My last week at Fresh Milk. I have been wrapping up my work in the studio, making connections, having conversations, getting souvenirs, seeing my Bajan family and seeing some last sights.
On my last morning in the studio, I finished the piece I’ve been working on, although it doesn’t have a title yet. I know now that it is about how the history that I want to recognize is not written in books, it is written in the earth, in the land and in our bodies and blood. It is most accessible in oral stories, by observing ourselves and the culture we create, and by intuitively knowing what we do.
I did my presentation to a 3rd year art class at BCC this week. I gave a talk and slideshow presentation on my history of community-engaged work. This is a collection of my work that sometimes approaches and is within the realm of ‘social practice art’, but is also peppered by work that is more appropriately called arts-based youth work. In preparing this presentation I realized how much my practice has been formed from a desire to do something with my artwork.
I remembered a moment of crisis in high school when I felt like I had to make the choice that would change the rest of my life and set me on a particular path – the middle and high school years in Canada felt full of these deciding moments. I felt I had to choose between being a professional artist and a teacher, more specifically whether to take grade 11 Art, or something more ‘academic’. These were two career paths I’d known for a long time that I’d wanted to pursue. At the time, becoming a teacher was a promising career in Toronto – there was a teacher shortage that would soon after become an incredible teacher surplus. The pay was decent, and it was basically the definition of job security. I had watched all of the terrible, misguided teacher-saviour films, and they had created in my mind a sensational image of what being a teacher could be – a way to effect change in the world, locally. I wanted that, to be a vehicle of social change. But mostly I just wanted to make art, though this was not the wise career choice. There’s no money in art, and I didn’t want to be poor and struggling forever. Not only that, but I didn’t want to be preoccupied with the self-involved, decorative, wishy-washy activities that having an art career seemed to be all about. I wanted a way to make artwork that meant more than that one-dimensional caricature-like story I was presented. My younger self wanted to make art that was all about edgy stuff and politics and was ground-breaking and would one day make it into an Adbusters magazine. I wanted to make artwork that would infect people’s minds with possibilities of better things to come, and place a how-to handbook in their hands. I chose in the end to take grade 11 Art, because I had the genius realization that I could be an art teacher, and have an art career in my off time. I’m glad I did.
In doing this presentation more than 10 years later, I realized how I came to reconcile wanting to make art that does stuff for people. I’m still working on it, but I have been listing for myself a set of guiding principles as I go, the first of which was that I must know what I am trying to do with my work, who I’m doing it with (as opposed to for), and in what language (medium and vernacular) I would do it. Along the way I added things like prioritizing integrity, and supporting community-led projects and speaking with my own voice.
I feel very grateful to have had this experience at Fresh Milk, and it is significant that I did my residency here, in Barbados. Being able to reconnect with my family, with Bajan culture and with the history of this place, and having had the conversations that I have had this month has shifted how I see my own particular cultural makeup. The diaspora upon diaspora, the historical memory and living in North America, Toronto in particular. Some ideas have shifted and some have solidified, but they are complex things to reconcile and I feel as if I’ve just begun again.
This residency is supported by the Ontario Arts Council.