This post was first published by Gyal In A Gallery and reposted with kind permission on Bajan Art.
The Quest for the Elusive Barbadian Aesthetic
Hello all! It’s a long post this time around. This weekend, I visited two of the three shows in the Crop Over Visual Arts Festival 2017, “In Search of a Barbadian Aesthetic.” Overall, I found that the work exhibited was very lovely. But I was also somewhat disappointed, because I’m not sure I found that elusive Barbadian aesthetic.
So what is an aesthetic anyway?
According to the website of the National Cultural Foundation, the show seeks to explore whether, “As Barbadians, do we truly have a Barbadian aesthetic, which represents us a nation and our visual culture and symbols of identity in the whole?” and asks as well, “if we have or need such an aesthetic, what are the visual elements that would define it?”
First off, let’s figure out what aesthetic means. The Oxford Dictionary online says it could be an adjective meaning “concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.” Or, it could be a noun meaning, “a set of principles underlying the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.”
In this case, I interpreted it as the second option. Basically, the question is: what makes a whole country tick, visually?
That’s some heavy stuff.
So with that in mind, let’s get on to the exhibition reviews.
The Exchange Museum of the Central Bank of Barbados (CBB) hosted a small photography show. I had never been to the Exchange, but I quite liked it. There’s lots of wall space. Everything is well lit. There are several benches to sit on. And, most importantly, there was a wonderful brochure that gave me very useful information about the event.
“Visual Healing” featured the works of 13 amateur photographers of the CBB Sports and Cultural Club. Each took photography classes offered by award-winning photographer David Yearwood. The show served as their graduation exhibition. According to the brochure, the show “takes a cathartic look at the images of our island Barbados. It explores the natural and structural beauty of the island even when tested by the passage of time.” So it was looking at the the pretty side of aesthetic.
Overall, the show succeeded in showcasing the natural beauty of the island. Some shots could have come straight off a postcard. Yet I most enjoyed those that succeeded in evoking an emotion other than, “how lovely!” Aesthetic with a purpose, if you will.
“The Extra Mile” by Jeanell Griffith-Wood presented an empty but lovely landscape. The tiny empty road was tucked into one corner, with the green landscape dominating most of the image. It made me feel a little lonely, but excited to travel as well. I also enjoyed Griffith-Wood’s piece, “Survival Story”, which featured large black rocks interspersed with tiny bits of green plants growing. The heavy compositional weight of the rocks made the tiny sprigs of green that much more uplifting!
Toni Sandiford’s “The Looking Glass” peered through the window of an old building to view some images of planets. Something about the mix of old and new caught my attention. And Michele Johnson’s “The Climb” showed how fun and funky a set of stairs could be. Meanwhile, Simone Forrester’s “Lights in Action” looked like something either out of a great dream or a terrible one—it was a fun experiment in light painting.
Verdict on Visual Healing
Overall, it was a lovely show.
In Search of a Barbadian Aesthetic
The Grande Salle of the Central Bank of Barbados hosted the main event: a display of two-dimensional and three-dimensional work.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a show at Central Bank. I was struck by how strange the space is for an art gallery. The lighting isn’t terribly flattering to many pieces: track lighting clashes with natural light from the large windows. The boards that display the paintings limit the height, so everything feels just a little too low for me (then again, I’m quite tall.) And of course, I missed having a clear show list (though that wasn’t the space.)
All these little nuisances aside…
Some Stand Outs
There were some very interesting pieces there. I enjoyed Maya Millington’s piece, “The Power of Energy.” The metal pipe sprays a twirling line of paper flowers. A curious piece, but a fun one to look at, one that makes you think about what energy can really do.
Some pieces examined personal and social problems. “Straighter”, by Anna Gibson, depicts a clenched hand yanks a mop of curly hair straight. It explores the darker side of beauty—that desire to change black hair into something it’s not for the sake of certain ‘standards’. Oneka Small also looked at some darker sides of things. Her piece “Mother Hen” showed three family members, each on their own crosses. Still, there was a touch of hope in the way that the father and child tried to support the mother hen.
Another pair of pieces, “Meno Changing #1” and “Meno Changing #2” described a woman’s life as she went through menopause. Susan Alleyne-Forde used marine imagery such as cowrie shells and sea urchins to depict the change and uneasiness at this time of life.
Other pieces gave fascinating interpretations on the Barbadian aesthetic. Cyrilline M. Goodman produced a piece made up entirely of words. “Bajan Dialect in my DNA” showed a man whose very portrait was made of up Barbadian words and phrases. And Leandra J. Thompson’s creations of “Ah Bajan’s Favourite Foods” looked good enough to eat. She used polymer clay to replicate an array of local delicacies. I was only sad I couldn’t try snacking on it!
Some work chose to highlight some of the natural beauty of Barbados. Of these, I quite liked Patrick Louis’ sculpture of Harrison’s Cave in Mahogany. It depicted a lovely landmark.
And still other pieces were a little abstract. I was attracted to Cecil Webb’s “War Craft”, a bullet wood image that looked like a kind of spear. The sleek lines and intricate shapes made me wander around it.
But did we find the Barbadian aesthetic?
Overall, all the work that was present in the shows was quite good. Many people clearly thought long and hard on how best to represent Barbados. Several pieces were lovely and showed the prettiest parts of the island. Some pieces were quite thoughtful and made me think of Barbados in a new way. Yet somehow, I felt a kind of dissatisfaction itching persistently under my skin: where was the rest of it?
Where were the other visions and images of what made up the island? Why was there not more social commentary questioning what was currently in existence in Barbados? And had no one submitted the images looking forward to create a new feature? Or was it that those images just had not been selected for the show?
You see, I think that was my problem. Many images depicted a story rooted in a rosy-coloured past—nostalgic, if you would. They presented national symbols. Some presented national images. Of course, these are important. Yet after a while, it felt like looking at a tourism brochure showing the pretty bits of history, but not much else.
Let it be Messy
Of course, these images are important. But in order to create a proper national aesthetic, the search must encompass something a little wider. There is an entire history of injustices, revolt, rebellions, strikes, and various dissatisfactions up until the present day. They may be ugly, unpleasant, and brutal—but they are part of the history, woven into the fabric of the country, and should not simply be ignored.
Searching for an identity isn’t pretty. It’s often messy, brutal, filled with insecurities and missteps. And I would dearly have liked to see these shows reflect that reality.
Marlene Bayne, Karen Bostic, Jennifer Clarke-Murrell, Steve Cumberbatch, Jeanell Griffith-Wood, Larry Hoyte, Liam Husbands, Michele Johnson, Keith Jones, Toni Sandiford, Angela Skeete, Peter Whitehall, Simone Forrester.
In Search of a Barbadian Aesthetic
Natasia Rollock, Alanis Forde, Morissa Singh, Anna Gibson, Amanda Springer, Susan Alleyne-Ford, Maya Millington, Tracy Deolivera Greenidge, Cindy Walker, Oneka Small, Anna Legall, Lorna Wilson, Hakeem Thompson, N Maria Stanford, Hamilton Griffith, Leandra J. Thompson, Cathy Alkins, Coral Bernadine Pollard, Wayne Collymore-Taylor, Cyrilline M. Goodman, Keone Jones, Allison Bohne, Michael Evans, Sean Henry, Tony Cutting, Tanya Harding, Patrick Louis, Rosemary Ellis, Keyonne Clarke, Alison Chapman-Andrews, Cecil Webb, Jason Hope, Pamela Lewis, Martina Pilé, Dwayne Gittens
Please note that these links were updated on July 20, 2017, to reflect the correct Facebook page for Hamilton Griffith.