Ethan Knowles is a writer and photographer from The Bahamas. His work, largely tied to the islands of the Lucayan archipelago on which he grew up, aims to decolonize and sensitize, paying particular attention to topics of cultural erasure, environmentalism and identity in the Caribbean. After completing his high school education in Nassau, he spent two years in Italy at the United World College of the Adriatic and graduated with his International Baccalaureate diploma in May 2018. He is now enrolled at Colorado College in the United States, working part-time as a photographer while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Italian. Over the past few summers, he has published writing on tourism, culture, and neocolonialism in The Nassau Guardian, worked as a curatorial attaché for and exhibited at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and, most recently, been awarded the James Yaffe Prize for Short Fiction by the Colorado College English Department for a story set on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera.
“Yet every place is both local and foreign. The same place is the site of two very different experiences.” – Lucy R. Lippard
Two planes took me from Bahamian to Bajan soil and soon enough I found myself in the shotgun of a friend’s car en route to Chefette. It was late, around midnight, and in my groggy but giddy state I chose the channa roti. It was a light unto my empty stomach.
The next day was a holiday, Whit Monday, so I started off the morning with a jog to get my bearings. I passed cows, fields of sugar cane, and more than a couple puzzled looks. It was a pretty hot day, so I’m guessing these guys were wondering why I was running. It wasn’t long before I began to ask myself the same question.
Around midday, I met the ever-welcoming Annalee Davis and went on a quick shopping trip with my flat mate during which I forgot many things and continued to fumble the rather simple currency conversion of 2:1. It didn’t matter though, because before long we were all at the beach in the glowing company of Annalee’s dog Mica. The afternoon wrapped up with calm thoughts about how Barbados and The Bahamas seem to have both more and less in common with each other than I expected.
The next day I met fellow resident researcher Kia Redman and Fresh Milk’s communications manager Katherine Kennedy. We discussed plans for the residency ahead before going on to explore the ample collection of the Colleen Lewis Reading Room.
The next few days would fly by as I read contentedly for hours on end, diving into everything from gender theory to regional tourism to the poetry of Andre Bagoo.
One text which caught my attention in particular was See Me Here: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraits of the Caribbean. This collection, produced by Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown of Robert & Christopher Publishers, seeks to investigate how Caribbean artists are crafting their visual identities and, by extension, how the region constructs its own images. Beyond the one-dimensional idyllic representations of the tourism industry, how are we portraying and expressing our own diverse identities?
In considering this question, I began to think about how I navigate my own Caribbeanness. I began to think about all those Caribbean meme pages I follow, about how culture, history and lived reality intersect in my own life. About how, in some ways, I conform to the archetypal image of the Caribbean male and, in others – if such a model even exists – depart from it entirely.
Another day passed before I would settle on the idea of conducting a collage workshop on Caribbean identity as part of my residency at Fresh Milk. I brought this plan to Annalee and she gave me a wonderful book on the work of the Kenyan collage artist Wangechi Mutu to consult in my planning process (funnily enough she is also a UWC graduate!). It was in dialogue with her work, and in the ongoing planning of my workshop, that I examined Stuart Hall’s insightful essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” which discusses a less conventional view of cultural identities as “the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”
At this stage I am still working on finalizing the details of the workshop but look forward to it taking shape. Here ends my first week at Fresh milk, complete with raining mahogany pods, raining rain, and the occasional roar of a cow.
As I write this week I sit listening to the sounds brought on by the rain. Chirps, whistles, coos and croaks spill into the flat as fronds all around me shed the last drops of their watery loads. A phone rings. Engines fade. And every now and then, a rooster’s call claws the air, interrupting the plip plop of puddles. Nothing moves, and yet it all feels alive. It is in this chorus that I am repeating the week, looking back at what has happened and what I have, in some way or another, happened upon. Here we go.
Walking to the studio at the start of the week, I met the third and final member of our residency trio, Ark Ramsay. We spoke about ourselves and our research, and before long Ark was handing me, much to my delight, a copy of Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night. Having spent the week reading and thinking about this text, about the way it blurs binaries and pushes back against notions of paradise in the Caribbean, I find myself feeling more motivated than ever to imagine my own stories in the coming two weeks.
On Tuesday, I rode with Annalee to the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill campus. She had gotten word that a plant in a living installation of hers needed replacing, and so we headed to the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination to check it out. The piece, produced in collaboration with Kevin Talma and Ras Ils, speaks to the importance of biodiversity and local systems of knowledge in the wake of an environmentally, socially, and culturally traumatic sugar economy. Thinking about the work, I could not help but draw connections to bush medicine in The Bahamas and how it’s often dismissed as backward or out of date, barely even recognised at the cultural level for its significance.
Flora at the forefront of our thoughts, we headed to the archives just down the road where I eventually parted with Annalee, hoping to meet and speak with any available UWI professors in the humanities department. With some much-appreciated guidance from a high school friend, I eventually sat down with Dr. Charmaine Crawford and had a highly informative talk about identity, politics and activism in both Barbados and the wider Caribbean. Before heading back to the flat for the day I took a ZR van into town and photographed the harbor with my film camera. One busy bus ride later and I was back at the flat, wondering what my next cooking situation would come to.
Later in the week, Barbadian artist Ewan Atkinson stopped by the studio with some of his recent work. He discussed his ongoing undertaking, The Neighbourhood Project, and its examination of the individual, community and the ways a society makes meaning. One artefact he brought with him for us to engage with was “Peregrination” – a vintage-style board game complete with Neighbourhood personas and a moral agenda. Naturally, we played the game. It was very witty, and after some heated debate around the occasionally ambiguous instructions, Kia emerged as its winner. For me though, the most interesting part about Ewan’s work was the story at its heart. An idea exists – a place and its people – and it all comes alive at the intersections of the artworks he creates.
Then Friday came along and it was time for Kia’s photography workshop at Workman’s Primary School. Ark and I came with to help out as a class of soon-to-be primary school graduates spent the morning documenting the spaces and faces which made up their time at Workman’s. It was a really moving experience, seeing the kids so excited to create and curate the story of a time that would, in just a couple of weeks, come to a close. I would be lying if I didn’t say I got some ideas of my own from their antics.
Eventually we were off to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society for the opening of “The Enigma of Arrival: The Politics and Poetics of Caribbean Migration to Britain.” The exhibition recounted the experience of West Indian migrants in the planning, departure, arrival and acclimation stages of their emigration to Britain. Produced by the University of the West Indies in partnership with EU-LAC Museums, the travelling exhibition incorporates quotes from writers of the Windrush generation, recorded stories of elders from the Caribbean and its diaspora, and even hard copies of travel literature written for prospective emigrants. Beyond noting reasons for departure such as economic hardship and the importance of remittances for Caribbean economies, “The Enigma of Arrival” also confronts the institutional racism black West Indians faced when searching for housing, applying for work, or merely attempting to gain access to services which their white British counterparts were afforded without question. Reflecting on the exhibit, Katherine, Kia, Ark and I would close out the week at Bubba’s Sports Bar with some Bajan fish cakes and lively conversation.
In the coming week, I look forward to leading my collage workshop, crafting a story, and continuing to explore Barbados.
This week I walked along the south coast. I wrote the following at a café along the way.
I am walking along a Bay Street not unlike my own. It is not a long road, but it is – when travelling by foot. It traces the curve of Carlisle Bay, carrying me out of Bridgetown and into a place I have driven through but never before tread. It feels familiar, and yet I cannot be sure what waits around the corner. What building, business or bus stop comes next, I cannot say. That I am going somewhere – that I am on this walk – is all I know.
And on this walk, down (or maybe up) a street I feel I went to high school with some time ago, I see the same image. It repeats itself, though in different forms – always altered but somehow undeniably the same. I see backs: sometimes slouched, sometimes straight. Always shaded, and always, without exception, alone. And though I never feel isolation in these solitary figures, sat like anchors looking out at a sea they left behind, I do feel longing. Indeed, I feel a pining – a pining that could very well be my own – gathered up on these shaded benches without backs holding up backs.
I wonder where their thoughts go, these ocean watchers. Whether they drift to a life they hope to live, or a life they’ve left behind. Whether they wrap themselves up in what’s been going on in the news, or whether the present is the last thing that passes through. Whether they worry about money, or the mortgage, or if they’ll make it to their next vacation. Whether they’re eating enough. Whether they’re drinking too much. Whether they’re pregnant. Whether the rain will come, and the laundry will get wet. Or if they have good credit, or what good credit even means. Whether it’s worth it or, in the case of their house, it’s worth enough. Whether the dog needs to be walked or if that cashier was just being friendly or if the gas light, like the yellow traffic light, is really just a suggestion. Whether the crabs like it better on land or if they themselves would be better off at sea. Whether the bus fares will go back down. Whether to laugh. And, in rare cases, whether to lip sync. Whether this was the way it was supposed to go all along or if the guesses were all just lucky. Or unlucky. Whether the end was near or if there even was one and if it mattered anyway. Whether it was time to go. Or, as it often seemed on that walk along Bay Street, whether there was all the time in the world.
I am thinking of extending this piece further but am fairly content with how it’s already developed.
In other news, on Wednesday I facilitated “Dis We Tings”, a collage workshop exploring Caribbean identity, and I am very pleased with how it went. The workshop encouraged reflection on such questions as: What does it mean to be Caribbean? Who are we? Where are we going? And how are we working to construct our own images and identities in the face of increasingly pernicious touristic representations?
Using tourist brochures, maps and magazines, participants deconstructed one-dimensional representations of the Caribbean in order to craft collages which more meaningfully expressed their (cultural) identities. In this way, images produced with the tourist eye in mind were reconstructed by and with a focus on Caribbean people themselves, many of whom are disadvantaged one way or another by the industry.
Later in the week the whole Fresh Milk cohort met up at the exquisitely decorated home of local arts patron Dr. Clyde Cave for a wonderful evening filled with remarks on our time as residents, warm conversation, kind company, and delightful hors d’oeuvres. This week I am also proud to note that I ate what must be by now my eighth roti from Chutney’s! Fingers crossed I keep the streak alive.
It’s been a week since I left Barbados. Since I’ve sat under a zinc roof, surrounded by good souls and the slow billowing serenade of idle cows. It’s been a week since four weeks of reading, writing and fish cake crawling. It’s been a week, and what a few weeks it’s been.
Week four came right after the Barbados Pride parade, an endlessly inspiring event that brought water to my eyes and liquified my thighs. I walked and wined and smiled and sung and all the while felt welcomed in space I had only known a few weeks. What struck me especially about the parade (my first of the kind) was, frankly, how well it all worked out. It brought together people from separate walks on the same walk: a walk through Bridgetown meant to bring together what, for so long in our region, has not been allowed to be.
Love in all its forms filtered through the streets of Barbados and for making it happen leading organizer RoAnn Mohammed of Equals Barbados must be applauded.
In the days that followed, the whole cohort got to work preparing for FRESH MILK XXII: Residency Readings. Kia, Ark and I gathered our wits and began crafting a range of stories to read and perform on what would be my last night on the island. All the while I began to wonder. Who would my story follow? What would happen? And how would it all intersect with my month of study? These questions hovered around my head like hummingbirds as I went through the week in search of the right words and who would say them.
In the meantime, the whole Fresh Milk team had the opportunity to tour the wonderful work-in-progress multi-use creative ecosystem that is Union Collaborative, an ongoing project spearheaded by designer Israel Mapp. The soon-to-be urban hub for arts and design sat two stories high on a city block in Bridgetown, and hidden away at its core was a beautiful sunbaked courtyard. After moving around its eccentric rooms, we made our way over to Norman Centre to chat with Kraig Yearwood about his forthcoming exhibition “Retro-Future Landscapes” and eventually share a vegan meal with a side of mafia stories.
Later in the week I took a trip to the east coast.
It felt like the edge of the world. Long sweeping breaks of surf faded away at the foot of steep slopes and a haze like held breath hung around the edges. It was mythic, haunting even.
It was just what I needed.
And with that I began to write My First Vacation, a story which draws from Isaac Babel’s My First Fee but reads unmistakably Caribbean. It deals with topics of class, grief and space on a small island. There are more than a few touches of humor written into it, but they slip and slide between deeply somber and even morbid moments. In writing it I was thinking a lot about the question of “What’s it like to live here?”– a question I get fairly often at home in New Providence. What is it like to live on a small island? Does the here of the visitor translate to the here of the local? And, if there is a disconnect, who is allowed to cross that divide? Is the question a rhetorical one? Does it beg for an answer, or require a confirmation? What might it miss?
Writing the story was for me an attempt to think through, if not answer, these questions. I feel we tend to believe that you think and then you write. That you have this thing you want to express and that all you need to do is find the words that fit. For me, it was quite a different experience altogether. I didn’t know what I thought. I had no answers. But I did want to make my way toward finding them, to stumble upon something. And so, I set about writing. And that’s how I found my way.
Many thanks to Annalee, Katherine, Ark, and Kia for all the love and support they’ve shown me since I arrived at Grantley Adams International Airport.