Interview with Oneka Small, Artist and Curator

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This post was first published by Gyal In A Gallery and reposted with kind permission on Bajan Art

After some well-earned rest, Gyal in a Gallery is back in action to present an interview with Oneka Small. Thanks for your patience during the brief hiatus! I hope you enjoy this week’s post, but please spare a thought for those affected by Hurricane Irma, and keep a weather eye out on how you can aid the relief efforts. Thank you.

It’s almost impossible to go anywhere on the Barbadian art scene without running into Oneka Small. You can see her work hanging in different exhibitions. Going to an art show in a strange location? Oneka probably curated it. She knows and is known by half the artists that I engage in casual conversation. She appears almost everywhere. As a good curious blogger, I requested an interview to learn more about her curatorial work.

Getting someone as busy as Oneka Small to sit down for an interview about her curatorial work proves to be a challenge. I finally cornered her in “Home” at Norman Centre. Even as we chatted, she attended to business on her computer, or greeted guests that came in. Yet in between these interruptions, I learned about how the Pop-Up movement started, what the Artist Alliance of Barbados really is, and how to make friends (and maybe influence people a little.)

So I’ll get right to it. Everyone says that the pop-up shows all started with We Pledge Allegiance. Can you tell me about that?

We Pledge Allegiance [Title from the Pledge of Barbados] was done to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence [the Independence of Barbados from the United Kingdom]. It featured nearly 100 artists and 300 pieces of art.

How did it get started?

The Government wasn’t doing anything for the visual arts. I called, because I wanted to be involved, and they said they were doing NIFCA and Crop Over, so they don’t have the resources to do anything for the 50th.

So I took my work to Crop Over and thought, this was not a true representation of what Barbadian arts had been for over fifty years. How do you account for the people who couldn’t or don’t enter? Like Karl Broodhagen—Broodhagen is dead, but he’s very much an important part of the Barbadian artistic landscape and should be represented.

I called my friend Adrian Elcock [who owns the Manor Lodge Complex] just to complain bitterly about this government and the treatment of the artist, and I believe that he was doing a walk around of his compound and he said to me, “Do you want this space?”

And I said, “Sure.”

Oh wow. That’s amazing.

Yes. I thought well, even if I had to go pull work from different collections, we could fill this space. It was a space I’d always liked.

So how did you pull together all this art?

Well, I’d spoken to Juliana Inniss a couple of times about doing something for Independence. And you know she always said, let’s think of something we can do that’s you know, fairly epic. So when we got the space…

I used to to be the gallery coordinator the Barbados Gallery of Art. So I reached out to different arts groups that I worked with, different artists that I’d known, to see if tey’d like to be part of it.

And Juliana has worked with the National Art Gallery committee, so I told her to contact the national people now to see if we could get some work from the National Collection. With the time frame, it wasn’t going to be easy to get work out.

Wait, how long did you have to plan?

It was very short, like maybe four weeks.

(a view of Revoclectic, also curated by Oneka)

That’s quite impressive!

I’m still trying to recover from it. If it wasn’t for the team, I’d still be lying down in my studio.

Who was the team?

There are so many and they wore so many different hats. Juliana Inniss was co-coordinator, and handled “Eternals” which was one generation of the show. Nerys Rudder, who I’d traveled with for ICOM [International Committee for Museology], handled Collections Management and Conservation. Kraig Yearwood officially managed Generation Next. Graham Gill handled “New Media” and also did Graphics. Also Risee Chaderton (Photography), Jamonn Roberts (Film), Sade Payne (Administration), Natasha King (PR), Corrie Scott (photography and PR), Norma Springer (Administration).

What was the goal of the team?

Let’s put together an exhibition that exemplifies where we would like to see art in Barbados. Like every single artist, I have a secret love for the National Gallery, cause I think it will help…everything. So it was not supposed to be the national gallery, but it was to represent us nationally with lots of art in a really nice place.

And one of the things I wanted to think about as we celebrated Independence was how we go forward as a mixed community with different groups and different factions. How, even though we are different, we can come together—and it sounds flighty—but how we can come together as one.

And it worked.

It worked. Though some artists became offended that they were not included in what they perceived as a national effort. I always said it was never a national gallery.

Ah well. What happened after that?

Well, from that then, people were like, you should continue it, and I was like really? You can’t see how tired I look? Cause there was a high level of responsibility that was mine, that was Oneka Small, for a lot of this work that I was borrowing.

So when people said you should continue, I said I don’t mind continuing to work for the upliftment of arts in Barbados, but it can’t be under Oneka Small. So that’s how Artist Alliance Barbados came about.

Tell me a bit about that.

AAB grew out of “We Pledge Allegiance.” It’s a group of many different artists and we pop-up in different areas around Barbados with shows organised around different themes. We’re far more organized now—there’s a hanging fee, which helps cover the opening events, pay salaries for attendants, all the other little things. And we’re setting up things like our vision, and our plan.

We’re looking to register as a charity, and our goal is to create opportunities for all ages and stages of development. And that’s what we’ve continued with in terms of exhibitions.

How do you find the spaces?

A lot of times, they approach us. We’re looking to be more proactive in seeking out spaces. It’s part of how we seek to evolve—creating more opportunities for ourselves.

How is it working so far?

I think it’s making people step up their game. I don’t believe that the production of art in Barbados is any easy feat. Not that I think that it’s easy anywhere in the world, but I think that there’s more opportunities elsewhere, and it’s not literally so insular. As artists exhibiting, there’s not a lot of Galleries. There’s the Crop Over show, there’s NIFCA, Fresh Milk…but there’s not a lot of places to show things. And not a lot of places for people to sell things. It got worse with the recession.

So I think having a show every few months gives people something to work towards. Gives them time to prepare, get new things going. And I ask for work with two weeks notice, so you have to have something ready.

What’s next then?

Next is a show in December or so. We’re looking to get more sponsorship, try to have four shows a year, with more structured programming.

Nice. Alright, last question. What do you say to the fact that Oneka Small is becoming a rising star in the art scene in Barbados?

I’m just doing what I feel is natural to do for who I am and what I’ve experienced. It’s what needs to be done. I didn’t do it to be acknowledged. That’s not my goal. I’m just doing what I love.

Interview edited for clarity and length.

Corrections: This interview was updated on Friday, September 8, to better reflect the hard-working team that made “We Pledge Allegiance” possible. Mr. Adrian Richards is the owner of the Manor Lodge Complex, not the Oral Care Centre at Manor Lodge. The National Cultural Foundation was managing NIFCA and Crop-Over, not CARIFESTA and Crop-Over.

Freedom By Oneka Small – Photo by Corrie Scott