My teenage yearning to do the grand backpacking art tour of Europe was never realised, mainly due to the expense involved coming from a small island in the Caribbean. At the time I lived in Trinidad. Airfare costs and foreign exchange restrictions at the time made travel to anywhere further than Tobago and Grenada prohibitive. 30 years later, airfare costs from the small island Caribbean almost always puts paid to this type of endeavor. In 2013, I spent 10 weeks in the UK over winter, courtesy carefully hoarded AA miles, revelling in the exhibitions at the national art institutions in London, and then travelling from by coach to see the national galleries of Cardiff Wales, and Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland.
Even though my parents, uncles and aunts all studied in the UK/Ireland, and had travelled at least once to the continent, none were predisposed to doing it again, for various reasons financial and personal. I suffered their expressed incredulity that I wanted to go to Europe to see art. Art! Thus, my youth education on European art, on World art, was relegated to thumbnail images and descriptions found in two expensive collections of Encyclopaedia Britannica, for which I am eternally grateful some salesman one day induced my father to purchase.
Their continued incredulity about my wanting to see the great museums of Europe, (at the time the rest of the world was outside my limited view), and by extension my wanting to pursue a career in art, occurred against a background of generational prejudice that art was for ne’er-do-wells, or for people with money to waste. The belief that visual art connected with culture, and that the intersection of different cultures could provide fertile ground for artistic inspiration and creativity in dealing with the realities of our communities, was never on their horizon. Teen me became the young adult who had to tow the line and take my place as a respectable member of society, read: doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer, with a healthy leaning towards the first profession.
30 years later, been there, done that. Played the respectable member of society gig, all the while lusting after what my heart truly wanted. Wants.
The point of arts exchange programmes is to encourage mutual understanding between artists from different cultures, through the language of art in a supportive environment. When I am able to travel to these arts exchanges, my emphasis is on the introduction of the traditional and contemporary art of Grenada overseas (thanks heavens for Powerpoint) and, when I return, the introduction of what I have learned, to Grenada.
I do believe that interaction between Grenadian and other non-Caribbean cultures is mutually enriching. When I introduce myself as coming from Grenada, I say “Island Grenada, Caribbean, above South America.” This stock phrase I can also say in Spanish, French, and thanks to Google Translate, in almost any other language as needed. I also pass around maps that I get (or used to get) from the Tourism Board, now Authority, as well as copies of Discover Grenada visitor magazine. And, to make sure we are not confused with another country, there is my famous rum punch made with freshly grated Grenada nutmeg, with extra nutmegs as gifts.
Cross-cultural exchanges often reveal/inspire new ideas and concepts for dealing with old challenges, in art, in business or otherwise. I believe in the phrase “Each one teach one”. Given that there is, in Grenada, a lack of cultural infrastructure to support visual art, it has become my duty as a responsible citizen, to teach someone else, to give forward, in the hope that the history of Grenadian art and perhaps, the formation of a distinctive artistic style, will be the better for my small contribution.
|Grenada in Haiti 2013 series|
The majority of my visual work in recent years explores a subsection of a public celebration that is a combination of elements from different cultures, carnival. Grenada’s traditional masquerade characters, like the ShortKnee, the Vecco, the Jab Jab or example, are all derived from foreign cultures encountering creative island spin. That island spin, what we hold on to as purely Grenadian, comes from a convoluted history of exposure to, and interaction with art across the African and EuroAsian continents, combined elements of which filtered down to the Caribbean, and became local tradition.
In a 2013 Vanity Fair article titled ‘The Diplomacy of Art’, Hillary Clinton wrote that art is a tool of diplomacy. Art “reaches beyond governments, past the conference rooms and presidential palaces, to help us connect with more people in more places. It is a universal language in our search for common ground, an expression of our shared humanity.” The US State Department has, since 1963 championed this global visual arts public-private partnership to share the work of more than 4,000 US and international artists annually in more than 200 US Embassies and Consulates around the world.
To paraphrase Hillary, just think about what an exhibition of Grenadian and the artists where we have diplomatic ties with, means to someone from Grenada, yearning to express herself or himself. It is in this context, and in the absence of our home grown programme, that I (and others) attend - when we can afford to - fora of artistic and cultural exchange. We are aware that citizen artists have a responsibility to ignite collaboration, and build on Grenadian diplomacy.
Diplomatic art gifts have the potential to seal international friendships. As recently as last month, Grenadian art was gifted in the Grenada-Qatar bilateral cooperation talks. In 2012, the Earl and Countess of Wessex who visited Grenada as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations were presented with two pieces of art.
Two paintings from Freddy Paul, by far the most prolific artist at the moment, were presented to HM The Queen by the Governor General of Grenada, in November 2008 and July 2009. Two paintings by deceased elder artist John Benjamin MBE, are part of the UK’s National Art Collection.
Carriacou’s Canute Caliste’s paintings are in the collections of George Bush senior and HM The Queen. According to a November 2006 article in the UK Guardian, “The Grenada tourist board latched on to him (Canute) as a marketing vehicle for Carriacou, and he was exhibited at venues around the world, including the Research Institute in New York, the OAS Museum in Washington DC and the Pedro De Osma Museum in Lima, Peru.”
There are more instances of art being gifted, but that never makes the news. Since our art has been used as diplomatic gifts, why then is the infrastructure to expose our art and artists to the same cultural encounters, as well as to support their exploration of global influences that deeply permeate our small island nation, not on the agenda of talks?
One of my childhood dreams was to be an archaeologist, specifically an Egyptologist – all that art! News of mysterious illness and deaths, and over exposure to dust and hot sun, soon put paid to that. However, since 2004, for me, the lines between Grenada cultural studies and Grenada visual art are merging to form a hybrid animal, as yet un-named. It lurks somewhere in the digging through layers of past art, trying to unlock answers.
The subject of our 109 Amerindian petroglyphs as documented by Thomas Huckerby in 1921, must be a source of national embarrassment, given the lack of respect paid to the work of our first artists. Few have sought the meanings of these symbols and, as the images disintegrate over time, all we shall have left are the grainy images Huckerby provided, plus images from late researchers and hobbyists.
In response to this, in 2010 I created a series of enamel paint on galvanise works depicting the petroglyphs. They were to be installed at D’arbeau Park, a desert I worked hard to turn into a garden on the Green Bridge side of the National Stadium. They were never installed as that project came to an abrupt halt. I revisited the theme of art that intersects cultures and time, in 2011, through a series of posterboard works positioning the Grenada ShortKnee receiving blessings from the Amerindian spirits of the stone.
I am off to Romania in less than two months’ time, to participate in a two week international art camp with 38 artists from 26 countries in the city of Aiud. At 54.9 square miles, Aiud city is twice the size of the parish of Saint George, at 26 square miles. It is an important centre in terms of agrotourism, ecotourism and cultural tourism. So far, the only reference I can find to link the two places, is that Romania supplied the PRG during the Revo years. There must be more than that. I look forward to discovering elements of tourism to bring back home with me.
By exposure to artists of other cultures, we soon realise that the ‘exclusive’ cultural traditions we extol at home, are re-blended cultures regurgitated for domestic consumption. Thirty-eight artists from 26 countries: I can’t wait.