The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing – #CCF


Looking. We do it all the time, often without considering the fact that we are indeed looking. Just looking. Aside from the obvious inclusion of an adverb, what is the difference, if any? Implicit in both is the idea that the eyes are observing people and objects, and the brain is processing information (however trivial) about these things. James Elkins in his book titled The Object Stares Back posits that there is no substantial difference between looking and just looking. The same action is involved and the intention is often the same in both cases. We look because our interest has been piqued. But perhaps the addition of the word “just” is an indication that our interest has been piqued for a shorter time because the person or object being looked at has not kindled enough interest.

The above description is from Dominique Hunter’s guest review of  The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing by James Elkinsthis week’s addition to the Fresh Milk Books Tumblr – the online space inviting interaction with our collection in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room.

For new Critical. Creative. Fresh reviews, look out for our #CCF responses and see the great material we have available at Fresh Milk!

Guest #CCF Review: Purple Hibiscus


Purple Hibiscus (2003) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie follows the story of Kambili, a young girl growing up in a strict household dominated by her father, a wealthy Catholic in post-independent Nigeria. Kambili’s father has created an isolated environment in which she, her brother Jaja, and their mother, Mama, are to live. Controlling by fear and punishment, Papa uses the severe interpretation of the Bible and Catholicism that he received in colonial Nigeria as a way to maintain order in the compound. The novel takes place during a time in Nigeria when the country is falling into civil disorder.

The above excerpt is from our recent resident artist Jordan Clarke’s guest review of Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiethis week’s addition to the Fresh Milk Books Tumblr – the online space inviting interaction with our collection in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room.

For new Critical. Creative. Fresh reviews, look out for our #CCF responses and see the great material we have available at Fresh Milk!

‘A thought on Mediating Matter(s) in Arab and Caribbean Contemporary Art’ by Natalie McGuire

Fresh Milk board member and contributor Natalie McGuire shares a review of the recent exhibition The Place of Silence at the Stal Gallery, Oman. While this show featured work by Middle Eastern artists, McGuire parallels their work with that coming out of the Caribbean, particularly between Iraqi-British artist Estabrak Al-Ansari and regional artists Nadia Huggins and James Cooper, all of whom deal with the materiality and implications of water as a medium. Read more below: 

Stal Gallery, Muscat, Oman. Photo credit: Natalie McGuire.

Stal Gallery, Muscat, Oman. Photo credit: Natalie McGuire.

Not work, taut, deaf, monotonous as a sea, endlessly sculpted—but
eruptions yielding to earth’s effervescence—that expose the heart, beyond
worry anguishes, to a stridency of beaches—always dislocated, always
recovered, and beyond completion—not works but matter itself through
which the work navigates—attached to and quickly discarded by some
plan—first cries, innocent rumors, tired forms—untimely witnesses to this
endeavor—perfectly fusing as their imperfections meet—persuading one to
stop at the uncertain—that which trembles, wavers, and ceaselessly
becomes—like a devastated land—scattered.

– Edouard Glissant, Poem for the World

Standing in the Stal Gallery, Muscat, in March 2015, the exhibition The Place of Silence exhumed an atmosphere so familiar to that of Caribbean art spaces. The works of six Middle Eastern artists commanded attention in the three enclave-spaced gallery, saturated in context and concepts that brought to mind Glissant’s phrase: “Not works, but matter itself through which the work navigates.” From Dada-inspired installations reviewing existence and death (Raiya Al Rawahi’s Life, Being and Death) to an unearthing of self-reflection, a photographic self-portrait mirrored and repeated almost to geometric abstraction (Ahmed Al Mullahi’s Gazing Through the Divine), there were challenging thoughts and narratives seeping through every pore of the walls. The exhibition was physically navigating through the matter of an upscale avenue in the heart of the city, sitting on Al Inshirah Street, a British Council Service Road.

Raiya Al Rawahi,  Life, Being and Death (detail). Installation: photographs, IV bags/stands, headphones, charts. Stal Gallery, 2015.

Raiya Al Rawahi, Life, Being and Death (detail). Installation: photographs, IV bags/stands, headphones, charts. Stal Gallery, 2015.

One in particular was the piece Sayed, a component of the series ‘Omani’s Under Water’, by Estabrak Al-Ansari, an Iraqi-British new media artist and filmmaker, who is currently at the centre of a surging movement in Omani contemporary art. The photograph depicts an underwater view of half the figure of an Omani man in his dishdasha, submerged and poised on the reef. The white gown plays with being transparent in the sunlight that penetrates the water, and clings to the backs of his legs and lower torso. In the accompanying wall text, Al-Ansari emphasized her exploration of “taboo concepts such as sexuality, privilege, oppression, power and understanding.” By having the body of her subject submerged in water, in this realm of nature that becomes somewhat abstracted from the landscape of society, she can unpack the restraints around its presentation and movement. Implementing her concepts ‘under the surface’, the discourse she wishes to raise is mediated by this matter. For Sayed, no conservative Omani could accuse Al-Ansari of presenting him in an immodest manner; it was a natural reflection of the current of the ocean she photographed him in. She later stated, “I might direct a person, an image with my camera, but natural elements like water take over, and the element of the water plays with what I want to convey.”

Estabrak Al-Ansari, ‘Sayed’, Omani’s Under Water. Limited Edition Photographic Prints, Stal Gallery, 2015.

Estabrak Al-Ansari, ‘Sayed’, Omani’s Under Water. Limited Edition Photographic Prints, Stal Gallery, 2015.

I had a chance to visit Al-Ansari at her sea-front studio in Al Bustan, and as she shared with me her thoughts about functioning in a Middle Eastern creative space, the familiarity of her new found artistic community with that of my own Caribbean one was undeniable.

Being her first exhibition in Oman, Al-Ansari believed some movements of the body encompassing a relationship with the sea would be acceptable for display outside of the water. At the opening of The Place of Silence, she presented her live projection painting piece Djinn and Motion. She explained:

Djinn is huge here. It’s in the Qur’an and states that Djinn do exist, it is like the ‘other’, a spiritual world. In countries there can be voodoo, and in Oman there is a big history of that. One reason why the title Djinn and Motion came to me is because I live by the sea within the mountains…and I have friends who refuse to visit me, because the belief is that the Djinn prefer to chill out by the sea, especially at night. Whether or not you believe in it is irrelevant, to me this is all myth and story, and this is the part I enjoy, that has been translated in all of my work.

Live projection painting originated in Al-Ansari’s London work with the group Thre3 Strokes, and stemmed from a desire to connect oneself and one’s viewers with an alternate space of reality. And although response to the medium was positive, the Muscat-based audience had difficulty accepting the title Djinn and Motion. Al-Ansari elaborates, “I had an interview with a guy from one of the newspapers here who was fine with discussing Omani’s Under Water, but as soon as I talked about Djinn and Motion he refused to talk to me, he walked away. He didn’t want anything to do with it. It was weird because for me, I was just normalizing what is here and what people talk about.”

Continue reading

Wide Sargasso Sea: Can you be insane if you are alone? – #CCF


…Antoinette’s childhood directly informed her troubles later in life, whether it was the rejection by her cold-hearted mother who was only attached to her brother, the constant abandonment by her close friends and family (most of whom used her for personal gain) or the anger of the local people and her status as a pariah. This exclusion only led to further isolation in her mind.

In many ways, Rhys has shaped loneliness within these characters as a ‘getaway’ from reality, so much so that Antoinette would ignore the surrounding world and became intolerant towards people. This alienation, compounded by acts of betrayal, causes Antoinette’s personality to twist. Her issues followed her to her stay at the convent, continuing to chip away at her sanity…

The above excerpt is from Tristan Alleyne’s review of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhysthis week’s addition to the Fresh Milk Books Tumblr – the online space inviting interaction with our collection in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room.

Fresh Milk is also currently hosting Australian resident artists of Caribbean extraction Willoh S. Weiland and Halcyon Macleod. They will be with us between April 20 – May 23, 2015 working on their collaborative project ‘Crawl Me Blood’, a sound installation inspired by Wide Sargasso Sea. For more information about their project, click here.

For new Critical. Creative. Fresh reviews, look out for our #CCF responses and see the great material we have available at Fresh Milk!

Review of ‘The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art’ Workshop – Part 1 & 2

As part of his residency at Fresh Milk, Toronto based, Trinidadian-Bahamian writer Christian Campbell hosted a workshop titled The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art on December 6 & 13, 2014. The two days focused on critical essays on art, not only as a form of criticism but also looking at the essay as an art form in itself. Fresh Milk Books team leader Kwame Slusher shares a two part review of the workshop below:


Part 1

The word origami means folding paper. For it to be authentic the paper folder is expected to create a paper sculpture without cutting, gluing or marking the paper in any way. Despite these restrictions, the possibilities of paper sculptures from a simple flat piece of paper are inexhaustible.

On Saturday December 6th, the Fresh Milk Art Platform hosted the first half of a two day workshop titled, ‘The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art’. Led by the Toronto based, Trinidadian-Bahamian poet and cultural critic, Christian Campbell, the workshop was geared toward encouraging us, as artists and writers, to rethink and reexamine our idea of the essay. Campbell demonstrated to us that, like a flat piece of paper, the essay can also take many different forms.

In our first activity we were challenged to analyze an elegiac essay titled Etta James: Her Lonely Sound by Hilton Als. We looked at how his piece deviated from the traditional form of the essay while simultaneously maintaining an analytical authority—how Als expertly weaves the personal with the analytical.

After that, we watched Janis Joplin’s very dark rendition of Summertime on YouTube, and wrote a paragraph long response, bearing in mind the techniques used in Hilton Als’s essay. When we were finished we all read our responses aloud, and Campbell critiqued them. Some of us he encouraged to put more of ourselves in the essay and others to be a little more analytical, but on a whole it was clear that we all were beginning to understand the potential elasticity of the form.

At the end of the session Campbell passed out printed copies of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Map’ to be read for the next session, which will be held on Saturday December 13th, from 10 to 12. As we packed notebooks and pens or pencils away, Fresh Milk Director Annalee Davis served slices of cake/pudding, while we were locked in lively discussion on what it means to be a “…millennial in the Caribbean right now”, and the inexhaustible shapes in which we can sculpt the space/s around us.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait, 1982

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait, 1982

Part 2

In a recent interview, a Guyanese art student at the Barbados Community College said that she was given an assignment where she had to do an abstract self portrait of herself. She decided to focus on her origins, and the result was an overhead topographical map of Guyana. She wanted the art work to show a landscape with all of the bumps, hills and groves that correlate with the complexity of a person’s emotional layers.

The second and final session of The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art was really about creating maps. Like the art student, we were challenged to move away from the established contours and chart emotive and critical pathways with our writing. Christian challenged us to navigate our own ways through perilous territory—ourselves.

The first thing we did was to review the reading assignment that we were given from the previous week, The Map by Elizabeth Bishop. After a not too close reading of Bishop’s poem, Christian brought up a map of Barbados on his Mac and asked us respond to it, keeping the poem in mind. The result was the charting of emotional territory as we found unique ways of connecting with the familiar landscape; from immediately coherent political statements to abstract, but poignant, word associations.

After that we looked at another reading assignment that we got during the week via email. It was an essay called Never Trust a Big Butt with a Smile by Greg Tate, which explored implications of the phrase ‘Black Comedy’ amongst other things. What was immediately apparent, even before the subject matter of the article became clear, was Tate’s use of colloquialisms. After discussing the reading, we were encouraged to make a list of all the colloquial words and phrases we could think of within a given amount of time.

Next, Christian brought up the image of Jean Michel Basquiat’s Self-Portrait on his Mac and challenged us to respond to it using some of the same colloquialisms that we had written down, or any others that we could think of during the free writing exercise. This proved problematic, because the use of dialect and colloquialisms seemed to peel away the seriousness of our responses to Basquiat’s work. We had mapped ourselves into awkward territory and tried to laugh it off. This exercise really forced us consider our relationship with standard English and dialect, and the existing linguistic hierarchy that privileges the former over the latter, ultimately considering our own identities.

There is always that fear of transgressing an existing border, but the workshop showed us that we need to untangle ourselves from preexisting imaginary lines. We need to toss our compasses, and form our own Keys and Legends, and really try to chart our own personal geographies.