By Akima McPherson
Akima McPherson is a lecturer (on leave) in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies, School of Education and Humanities, University of Guyana (UG) and a practicing artist. She graduated from the University of Guyana with the BA degree in Fine Art (Distinction), 2001 and is currently pursuing the MA degree in Fine Art studies in the United Kingdom.
Drawing comparisons between the biographies, one soon realizes that a number of the region’s key figures have had significant art training outside of the region; only 12 of 40 have trained solely within the region. In fact, this tendency resonates with the early history of Caribbean artists having been trained abroad and of the art from within the region evolving out of a kind of ‘foreign intervention’.
Appreciably, there can be noted three instances of regional cross-fertilization in the sphere of art training. Ras Akyem-I Ramsay and Ras Ishi Butcher are both Barbadian and have studied at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Cuba. (Before this, Ramsay had studied at the Jamaica School of Art, later called the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts).
Similarly, Marcel Pinas of Surinam attended the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts after completing early training in Suriname. This subtle highlight and the multiple implications and questions that arise will, I hope, resonate as needing urgent address amongst the region’s art training institutions.
The collection, presented as a chronological, and not thematically-structured, runs through seven decades, with accompanying biographical notes, and allows the audience to become engaged, in critical and analytical ways with the work and the collection.
Can it be said that there are typical thematic concerns characteristic of the work within the collection, and maybe even of the collective body of artists? Can this therefore point to something Caribbean about the work and what positions the work as ‘Caribbean art’ and not work from or about the Caribbean? Is this even a relevant question? Has the reality of emergence from amalgam cultures created distinct aesthetics? Or have issues of fragmented ethnic/racial identity characterized the work? If so, why and what can be inferred from this?
Anne Walmsley received a Doctorate from Kent University for research on the Caribbean Artists Movement, published in 1992 as THE CARIBBEAN ARTISTS MOVEMENT 1966-1972: A Literary and Cultural History. She has taught a course on the art of the Caribbean at the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London. Her two anthologies of Caribbean writing, The Sun’s Eye (1968, new edition 1989), and, with Nick Caistor, Facing the Sea (1986) are widely used. She compiled GUYANA DREAMING: The Art of Aubrey Williams (1990).
How has nationalistic social politics reflected or not within the art? Most importantly, how has art emerging from within the Caribbean dialogued with each other regionally and with art emerging elsewhere, especially in the principal locations of art discourse? These questions posed by the collection, as a body, are best answered within the second section of the text.
The second section of the text, ‘Historical Background,’ offers a very satisfying overview of the region’s visual culture development in three sections. It begins with a brief discussion of artifact: Indigenous visual culture in ‘Pre-Columbian 5000BC – AD1500’.
This is followed by Colonial and early independence 1500 – 1900 and overviews the impediments and enabling realities to the emergence of art within the context of European settlement and empire building in the region.
It looks at the region as locations of economic interest for European empires. As such the authors look at how art was valued (or not) in the building of the Spanish, French, British and Dutch empires respectively within the region, and how the emergent visual culture reflected their principal interests and relationships with the peoples they encountered or brought here.
Following upon Colonial and early independence 1500 – 1900 is a rich overview of the development of art in 13 territories and territory groups in Modern and Contemporary 1900 – 2010.
This latter section will be much appreciated, especially in locations where a written and accessible art history (particularly of the early period) is nonexistent, fragmented or is fragmented and conditionally accessible. It also serves well those situations where the art community is largely territorially insular, removed and disconnected from elsewhere in the region.
In this section also, one realizes a number of similarities in the materialization of a European affiliated notion of art amongst individual territories – for instance, the discriminatory practices and the contributions of expatriates to art training in the early periods, and the consequences of art instruction for locals by locals.
Stanley Greaves is a well-respected Guyanese artist and teacher. Trained in Guyana, the United Kingdom and the United States in fine art, he has an appreciable biography of teaching in Guyana and Barbados; he received a Diploma in Art Education while in the UK. He has also served the Caribbean Examination Council in its design of the Art and Craft Syllabus
One is able to consider how art was instrumentalized within the region, especially in independence struggles and in the formation of national identities. Contrary to what “picturesque” imaging of the Caribbean has suggested, visual art in the hands of locals almost immediately exhibited a studied, self-reflective character and tended to lack the superficiality of the entertained visitor. This is well suggested in the historical narratives.
Through this section, one also becomes familiar with the varied efforts over the last few decades in particular (whether through artist collectives or governments), to situate art emerging from their territories within a regional and international discourse. As an artist, one can be encouraged by these initiatives, as several have sought to collectively engage the region’s artists.
A disappointing feature, and one the authors could not have avoided for possibly a number of reasons, is the paucity of image reproduction within the ‘Historical Background’ section. Works are mentioned within the narratives which one realizes are of great importance, but no accompanying image is available.
But this disappointment may be largely due to the reality of the situation the text attempts to address – to offer in one ‘place’ a sense of the rich art history and contemporary art situation of the Caribbean. Because while soca and reggae permeate the island and mainland territorial boundaries with ease and speed, even in an age of the Internet, this does not happen with art and the discourses it provokes. However, our visual art output defines us as much as our music and dance. These histories will also serve as good points of departure for more substantial investigation.
Of no less significance is the third section: Time Line 5000BC – AD 2010. For the approximate 6,500 years prior to European settlement that the text addresses, the timeline summarises migratory events of Indigenous peoples and the type of material culture evidenced at intervals. From 1500AD, the timeline positions European settlement, other important historical events, and the emergence of ‘Art’. It does so by grouping activities of relevance by nation-colonizer, thus allowing opportunity to situate the activities of the different colonizers in time against each other.
The developments from the 1960s onward are listed under countries and groups as follows: Bahamas, Belize, Leeward and Windward Islands; Barbados; Guyana; Jamaica; Trinidad and Tobago; Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico; French Antilles and Haiti; Netherlands Antilles and Suriname. The timeline works well in conjunction with the previous section.
A brief Glossary of Art Terms follows along with a Select Bibliography by region, and by territory with historical narratives within the text.
The Caribbean constitutes 31 territories bordered by or situated within the Caribbean Sea, and two on the northern South American coast washed by the Atlantic Ocean: Suriname and Guyana. Of these there are sovereign states, dependent states, and overseas departments. The region’s territory consists of fragments of land and an expanse of mostly sea and ocean that together is in excess of 2.7million square kilometers. The population exceeds 36 million and comprises of peoples whose ancestry stems from Europe, Africa, India, China, Indonesia, etc and the Indigenous population. The language situation is as diverse. With this in mind, the complexity of the task undertaken by Walmsley and Greaves may be better appreciated and thus their accomplishment.
Art in the Caribbean: An Introduction should become a requirement of every secondary school library and of every tertiary institution where art and cultural studies are offered. It is a valuable resource offering up within one text (183 pages) a good visual culture history of the region. Very readable and voluminous in content, although slight in size, it should be added to the library of every artist, researcher and person with interest in the visual culture of the Caribbean.
The Editor of The Arts Forum Column, Ameena Gafoor, may be reached on E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 592 227 6825