Alex Kelly is a contemporary artist living and working in Trinidad and Tobago. Kelly recently graduated from The University of the West Indies, St Augustine with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual Arts. Over the period of his study at the university Kelly participated in several public art projects. Among them are the mural “Hope” at the Family Development and Children’s Research Centre, St Augustine, for which he acted as co-facilitator; an art outreach program at Mayaro Government Primary School, Trinidad and Tobago, which formed part of a collaboration between The University of the West Indies and the Bridge Foundation; and a collaboration with the College of Science Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago designing a fundraising campaign for the creation of new student bursaries at the institution. Kelly has exhibited in three group shows with The University of the West Indies and in 2012 produced the mural “Slave” at the Night Gallery in Woodbrook, Port of Spain.
In 2015 he began occupying a studio space at Granderson Lab, a project of Alice Yard. In August of that year Kelly participated in the Caribbean Linked III artist residency and exhibition in Aruba, where he spent three weeks producing original works and participating in engagements that have expanded the scope of his practice from a national focus to a regional one. In September of 2015 he began working with the University of The West Indies, St Augustine as a guest lecturer and visual arts demonstrator. Kelly is currently interested in facilitating further integration of contemporary art into the national consciousness and public policy, and in providing opportunities for greater connectivity between art communities in the Caribbean.
Exit the airport, navigate the roundabout and head past the rows of identical houses on route to your destination. Quick stop at a gas station convenience store to collect imported bananas, Blue Waters and a pack of Devon biscuits to hold you over for the night. At some point you pass cane fields and former cane fields only illuminated by the moon and by headlight. All the while you’re discussing economics; the collapse of the sugarcane industry and the ever present anxiety about the need for foreign revenue. One would be forgiven for assuming I was talking about Trinidad.
I have seen landscapes that take me back to Aruba, driven through memories of St George’s and Scarborough and I’ve walked back to my flat at night, under the blessing of a gentle shower of rain, looking over what I might mistake for the Queen’s Park Savannah, if I would only allow it. And in the distance, witnessed hills ablaze with light, as though I were admiring east Port of Spain from afar. And although I’ve developed a curious fixation on identifying the direction of Trinidad and Tobago from whatever spot on the island I might be occupying, I’ve discovered that I’m not so far from home.
I came to Barbados seeking to discover some connective tissue between the islands. I expected that it would be tight and pulled thin under the strain of decades of movement in independent directions. But at every moment I am reminded that I am in the presence of a people whose history is my own and who are shaped by the same education, so that no matter how opposing the forces of change may be, the direction of travel remains tangential to the same circle. The call of history rings out loudly in Barbados. It is a familiar tune, but one that I have never heard as clearly as I do on this island. Except for a few power lines, there are passages through cane fields where one is easily transported to 1816, and “their history” becomes my history.
These experiences are not nostalgia. Nor do they represent a longing to be elsewhere. Rather, they speak to the wealth of inspiration that I have encountered in my short stay. If I were to return home tomorrow, I would do so satisfied that the ideas given life here would bear fruit for some time to come. One can scarcely imagine what wonders the three remaining weeks will have to offer.
I’ve discovered for the second time how a change of environment can help to refocus my thoughts about work and about the space that I am discussing. I suppose the conscious act of applying for and participating in a residency is a way of surrendering myself to possibility. I become more in tune to the elements that potentially connect to define Caribbean people and their environment.
Within the boundaries of this particular space, where you can find water from Jamaica, films from the USA, dried seasonings from Puerto Rico and I shop in a supermarket chain from Trinidad and Tobago, the wooden shipping pallet that I had been working with since last August becomes significant yet again. It is a symbol of dependence on imported goods and cultural influences. In a moment of economic and political uncertainty, the lack of self reliance suggested by the pallet is noteworthy. It is quite striking that this symbol would be the one to connect my practice in three separate Caribbean territories.
What has also struck me as significant is the shared education system and the role it plays in shaping the kind of citizens that individuals become. A conversation I recently had has reminded me that the education systems of many Anglophone Caribbean islands are ultimately geared towards the same goal. So that each of the countries are equally influenced by a curriculum that was not designed to foster critical and creative thought or to nurture citizens capable of shaping the kind of environment that they desire. We are sitting in a rocking chair, moving vigorously back and forth, but making no progress. It begs the question, what effect might decades of this kind of action have on a people and their culture.
Still, in spite of these and other similarities I have discovered, I find that my work represents a reality of life that seems frightfully specific to Trinidad and Tobago. In questioning how this work might be relevant in a wider Caribbean context I can only hope that a possible answer is, that it acts as an account of how we made it to where we are and as such provides a means by which other territories might avoid such a fate.
It’s the last lime before I leave Barbados. I’m having a chat with my Bahamian flatmate and her friend, a fellow Bahamian who’s lived in Barbados since she was a child. There is a bowl of chips and two bowls of dip on the coffee table in front of us. A fly lands on one of the chips and begins to survey the bowl. We continue having our conversation.
Someone gets up and, paying no attention to the fly, takes a chip out of the bowl, scoops up some dip and returns to their seat to enjoy. The fly has of course exited the conversation at this point, but that just happened, and we all let it. In that moment, I once again felt strangely at home in Barbados.
It’s not that we’re particularly fond of flies in TT, in fact I’m sure that the average person, including myself on another day, would have hastily gotten rid of the fly before it could ever desecrate the surface of a single chip; we love we belly. But there was something so unpretentious and confident about the imagined Caribbean that I learned to appreciate, and while on an average day I feel that I am constantly surrounded by actors playing out a role or as Chang might have said, artists more interested in their title than in the work, in that moment I saw an image of that Caribbean. No one pretended to be offended by the presence of that fly.
I am aware that this is an odd and, perhaps for some, off putting example, but I went to Barbados hoping to find a way that my own Caribbean experience could connect to others. I found it yet again in those moments. In that interaction, I was reminded of all the tension that I experience in my work; a practice that examines a way of life that is deeply troublesome and often dangerous, but one that is full of little subversions that make life so much more beautifully subtle and complex.
The frightening question that I am now comforted by, after having been reminded that it is our breaking of the rules that often makes life so nice, is how does a people manage to keep their beautiful conversation going, with that fly still in the bowl, and yet avoid all of the horrors associated with its kind. I believe that we can find a better way, but I’m not sure that I ever want that way to include fussing over a bowl of imported chips. What doh kill does fatten.
This residency is supported by Tridium Caribbean Limited