The Difficulty of Alignment
These thoughts are coming after several conversations I’ve had recently and after years of working as an artist in the world’s 10th smallest country, Grenada, West Indies. Aligning yourself as an artist with something bigger than yourself is not only essential as far as placing you and your work but also to give yourself a network of like-minded people to exhibit and work with. “No man is an island,” but sometimes when the man is on an island it can feel like we have to work a little harder to make the necessary creative alliances. So why is it so difficult?
Many people find a natural alignment in their identity as a citizen. For many people this is organic and easy because in general, people have an awareness of the different histories/narratives of nation states and can place one’s work on a continuum of history to be interpreted. This works as far as people easily being able to categorize the work and deem it successful or unsuccessful based on what they know (or don’t know) about a country. Coming from Grenada, the main issue with this is that people haven’t engaged with our history very much and many times the conversation starts with, “Where is that?” The problem with aligning myself solely as a Grenadian artist is that it does not provide a useful ‘box’ for people to categorize my work with. (Besides the extended commentaries that I believe nation-states are an extension of capitalism and serve to promote the goals of corporations and not to enforce the identity of a given citizen.)
Depending on the country and age of the artist, race can be a filter through which people can interpret your work. In particular, again, in well trodden nations, the racial history can be apparent and not much explanation is needed to understand the narrative of minority and marginalized bodies in negotiation with the majority population. As a minority in Grenada, my identity has less of a formulaic racial narrative. Not only are race relations in the Caribbean different than in the US (which seems to assume that race relations are universally consistent with the US experience) but each island in the Caribbean has a different experience and manifestation of racial composition and interaction. I don’t feel like it is useful to identify as a “white” or “light-skinned” Grenadian artist because it doesn’t give people a useful filter to interpret my work through and there is little about being a minority in my work.
Grenada is in a unique position geographically. Without a continental foundation, Grenada finds itself in an in between place. We can align ourselves with the other small or “down” islands in the Caribbean except that the bigger down islands may not want to align themselves with the smaller down islands. We can align ourselves as an English-speaking region but it is also easy to start drawing lines around whether English is a significant enough unifier. We are 90 miles from the South American continental shelf but to go to Rio, for example, one would need to fly first to Miami. The positions of power as far as travel are dictated by foreign corporations and do not allow a natural synchronisity with our neighbours. We share a colonial history with many South and Central American countries but language becomes a barrier in this instance as well as competing for attention amongst artistically rich countries like Colombia and Brazil. In many ways we could align ourselves with particularly West Africa but while we may reference that region, it feels like a one-way relationship. West Africa does not often reference the Caribbean.
A buzz word in global curatorship, the periphery is at once exciting and discouraging. The idea that the West, or the centers of art world power are extending their gaze to parts of the world that have been unresearched and unexhibited seems like an altruistic, democratizing, inclusive gesture. There are problems with this strategy, one being the role of the curator as gatekeeper vs. facilitator. In many ethnographic curatorships the peripheral artists are allowed invited to exhibit but do so under the guise of the benevolent curator and are not really given the agency to have a continued, sustainable presence in the West’s canon of aesthetic. In fact, many peripheral artists have to consider what sort of work would allow them to be interesting to a First World curator, compromising their aesthetic to comply with what a curator may expect to find. This of course is not a univeral statement, there are always exceptions, but it is worth noting that the direction of the work is typically in one direction, back to center. (neo/post/creative colonialism?) While Grenada is solidy peripheral and in some ways we could argue we are most peripheral, it is not always an empowering position to take.
The decentralized alignment
The language of globalization and the internet age includes implications of liberation and agency because everything is becoming decentralized and democratic. Information can flow easily (in regions that do not censor the internet) and mobility is almost a necessity (for people with powerful passports or access to visas). Many people would argue that we can trascend our physical realities and become a more pure, disembodied version of ourselves through the advantages of what the internet offers. The internet, however, is just another curated space and compounds the efforts of the deviants as well as the virtuous. The Internet is constructed and maintained by for-profit entities and “freedom” exists within capitalist coding. I can claim to be a globalised artist whose identity is predominantly embodied online as if the internet is a pure existence but it is really just a hyperbole of the problems and advantages of the analog world.
More ways to align
Rejecting the socio-political categories for situating my work, one could arrive at some non-traditional alignments. One alignment could be “beach-based practioners” for artists globally that spend a lot of time in the near-liminal space between land and sea. “I come from a place of love and empathy” could be a response to “where are you from?” Aligning myself with others who are culturally fluid could be a useful alliance but to reject the authoritarian structures successfully you have to be allowed to reject them. I suspect that there is a coded, subversive, way of aligning yourself where you keep your integrity and authenticity in tact without confusing or offending the ones who guard the categories. Perhaps the language we use should focus on the art itself outside of where it was produced and by what sort of person. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in a recent article (http://thisisafrica.me/placing-art-primary-position-geography-secondary-position-interview-bonaventure-soh-bejeng-ndikung/) talks about placing the art as primary and geography as secondary when discussing, critiquing, consuming, and art work.
Where does that leave us? With all of the difficulty coming from the external about how we communicate about ourselves as far as categorizing ourselves for easy digestion, maybe we should offer different questions. Instead of “Where are you from?” Taiye Selasi offers, “Where are you local?” (http://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from_ask_where_i_m_a_local?language=en) Instead of asking, “Why are you white?”, it would be more productive to ask, “Do you consider your race as an element your work?” Everyone has advantages and disadvantages where ever they work and they are different for everyone, how would you say that you use your advantages? Ultimately this is a strategy of talking about our fluid identities by not complying with the fixed, antiquated and unhelpful categories that have been put out by census forms and bureaucratic entities everywhere. We need to first understand that there are fewer and fewer people that fit neatly into these boxes and we need to guide the conversation by offering questions that are more helpful in expressing our unique identities, interests, priorities and experiences. “Where is the universe in your work?” or “What’s your position on love?” “Has the internet made it easier or harder for you to communicate?” While these questions may not be traditionally targeted to answering questions about identity, we are past a point where identities can be interrogated with traditional questions.