Monday, September 06, 2010

“What’s valid?

Boscoe Holder — artist, musician, dancer, raconteur, and a man who squeezed more pleasure out of life than most — died in 2007. He left behind several outrageous novels’ worth of stories and memories, and — more important — a large and crucial body of work, including hundreds of paintings and drawings in his studio.

Earlier this year, several of Holder’s portraits were included in an exhibition in Berlin co-curated by Peter Doig, the British artist who now lives in Trinidad, and the American writer Hilton Als. A few days ago, the New York Review of Books blog posted a conversation with Doig, Als, and the artist Angus Cook on “Discovering the Art of Boscoe Holder, Trinidadian Master”, accompanied by images of fourteen paintings.

I’m glad to think that Holder’s work may be reaching new and wider audiences, but reading this conversation left me bemused and bothered at statements such as:

Peter Doig: ...The drawback of Boscoe having lived and worked in Trinidad is that there is so little kept history — there’s almost no public archiving. It’s hard to know where all the Boscoe paintings are. The Caribbean being what it is, sadly, there’s not much interest in history. I mean, sometimes for good reason — people like to forget history. People like to knock down old colonial buildings.

Get rid of them, you know, who cares? Nothing is under preservation order. The weather destroys things. Photos disappear into the sunlight, books get eaten by all sorts of insects and stuff. I mean, everything there is kind of temporal, really. The forests and the jungle take over....

Hilton Als: I’ve been dreaming, literally, since last night, of the next show that I want to do with you. And we have to do it, and it’ll be called “After Rousseau.” And it’ll be Caribbean art, which no one ever shows, because they always think it’s, like, parasols and beach scenes. But it will be not just a show of paintings, but all sorts of things, like newspapers, all the shit that gets disappeared....

That’s what’s interesting to me, that it would be not just painting, but about the whole idea of reclaiming the past from the Caribbean, which is apt to destroy it.

I responded at the NYRB blog with this comment:

It’s pleasing to see a significant Trinidadian artist receiving critical attention and appreciation. (And I suppose the four small, unsigned Boscoe drawings I own are now worth a bit more than they were a few days ago.) But aspects of this conversation perturb me.

Words are slippery. They can mean different and unexpected things in different contexts. “Discovering”, in the Caribbean, is a heavily freighted word. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we used to have a public holiday called Discovery Day, commemorating the occasion in 1498 when Columbus turned up off the south coast of Trinidad. We took Discovery Day off our calendar twenty-five years ago, but the notion of the Caribbean as a landscape ripe for discovery endures.

And I’m disturbed by statements like “there’s not much interest in history” and “everything there is kind of temporal, really”; and “the whole idea of reclaiming the past from the Caribbean, which is apt to destroy it.” Perhaps one ought not take casual conversational remarks too seriously, but these raise crucial and troubling questions about autonomy; about who has the right (or the resources) to claim or “reclaim” the past; and about what the late Trinidadian philosopher Lloyd Best called epistemic sovereignty.

This conversation also raises questions about what “history” means, and to whom, and who gets to write the definition. Someone who was born and has always lived in the Caribbean, like me, might think we are frequently over-burdened by a history that includes five centuries of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. (I refer readers who don’t understand what I’m talking about to Derek Walcott’s poem “The Sea Is History”, as good a primer as any.)

I too worry about historic preservation in my country, the status of our archives, museums, and libraries, and the under-funding and -staffing of most public institutions charged with stewardship of our heritage. But I also worry that this state of affairs leaves the Caribbean vulnerable to external agents with their own concerns and priorities. I don’t espouse a crude cultural nationalism, or discount the often valuable work of foreign researchers, archivists, and collectors. And “outside” perspectives have their own validity. But there is a very long history of the Caribbean’s social and cultural complexities being represented by foreign voices. Caribbean artists, writers, thinkers, and citizens grapple with the challenge and the imperative to describe and define our own reality in and on our own terms.

Finally, I’m entirely puzzled by Hilton Als’s statement that “no one ever shows” Caribbean art “because they always think it’s, like, parasols and beach scenes.” Caribbean artists working in every conceivable medium — hardly just topographical painting — show in galleries and museums all over the world, even if they don’t always achieve the publicity or financial success of some of their North American and European contemporaries. In close proximity to Als in New York, and just in recent years, important shows of contemporary Caribbean artists have run at the Brooklyn Museum (Infinite Island, 2007-2008) and Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut (Rockstone and Bootheel, 2009-2010). A retrospective on the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer just closed at El Museo del Barrio. El Museo is collaborating with the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum to organise a major tripartite Caribbean show to open in late 2011. These are only the first examples that come to mind.

As Peter Doig aptly says: “it makes you think, well, actually, what’s valid?”


Ewan Atkinson said...

I agree with everything you just said.

Afrodeity said...

Thanks for this Nicholas. I read this interview myself and came away disturbed and not sure how to articulate it without sounding as if I were speaking with that "crude cultural national[istic]" voice that you spoke of.

Indeed, of all the local artists, to say that Holder was under-appreciated or exhibited seems odd. Indeed only the homoerotic portraits seem new to me - and those not so much and I'm not intimately familiar with his work. There are obvious cultural and perhaps even personal reasons why these paintings may not have been shown.

At any rate, there are serious historians in our midst, even if our archivists are in short supply (as are preservation orders).

Melvin said...

I think Hilton Als' is fairly right in saying that no one shows Caribbean art. Of course he doesn't mean literally no one but to be frank, Caribbean art doesn't really have a significant place in the various metropolitan art discourses. It's resigned to being somewhat of a niche interest. I can assure you that most of the people at the opening of Doig and Als' self consciousness exhibition, in which holder among other west indian artists were shown, had never given so much as a thought to Caribbean art nor would anyone expect them to. And while some would be quick to argue that this is merely evidence of the self interested nature of metropolitan cultural markets, artists from Brazil, Cuba India, Iran, Ghana and various other parts of the "third world" have variously found their ways to international, read metropolitan, acclaim. Personally, as an [aspiring] Trinidadian artist studying art abroad, most west indian artists aren't really functioning on a visual or intellectual level comparable to that of their metropolitan counterparts. But i digress. I think it's great that Holder's work is coming to international attention though i'm a bit peeved that i didn't get there first

Ms Sancoche said...

Nicholas - thank you for such a beautifully written and well-considered response. I am, frankly, dismayed by some of the comments of both Doig and Als, and it bores me, this Naipaulean notion, that we are somehow all living in the bush; further, that others are somehow saving us from ourselves and "exposing" us to "the world out there". I'd also like to point readers to the upcoming "Global Africa" exhibition in New York at the Museum of Art and Design, which will feature the work of several Caribbean artists.

Tanya Marie - Designer Girl. said...

Thanks for mentioning of the "Global Africa" exhibition in New York, Miss Sancoche.

I was very disturbed when I read this.

It's great that the exhibition was held and that people who didn't know about Boscoe Holder's work got to see it.-

But the 'New Columbus' mentality is really upsetting.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I find it hard to believe that some of the comments being made (both here and on facebook) are honestly considered. The state of archiving in Trinidad, as far as the visual arts are concerned, is quite poor. Any of you who have ever attempted any kind of research concerning the visual arts in trinidad will be aware of the difficulty in finding images of work from even the most noted trinidadian artists like atteck, chan, boodhoo etc and even more so for any kind of text that approaches usefulness. Further more the indignation at the use of the term "discovery" all wreaks a bit opportunistic. Doig, Als and various others finding out more about Holder's work is only a discovery so much in the sense that me finding out about Laurence Weiner or Luc Tuymans is a discovery. No one in their right mind would argue that I'm engaged in some sort of underhanded political gesture to usurp the primacy of the anglo-american creative tradition by my "discovery" of their work. While I'm sure CXC and the various other cultural institutions riding out the wave of pre independence nationalist fervor would be quite proud to see the direction of this conversation, I can't help but imagine that any trinidadian trying to engage in this discourse with any shred of objectivity must walk away a little ashamed.

Nicholas Laughlin said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. I'd be inclined to engage it more substantially if you'd been frank enough to sign it with your name.

Anonymous said...

Nicholas, i must say, you are quite the fool...

Nicholas Laughlin said...

"you are quite the fool"

Perhaps. But, if so, at least I'm a fool prepared to put his full name and hence credibility behind his opinions, foolish or otherwise. That's an important aspect of the intellectual autonomy we're discussing.

(Incidentally, I moderate comments here, and decline to approve those that don't add anything useful to the discussion. This is my blog, and that's how it works. Feel free to start your own.)

enigma said...

The problem with this blog is that it is controlled by the blog author so dissent can be thwarted. How much has been left out? Nicholas has introduced a 'Little Trinidad' environment to the subject. Are we to believe that Boscoe Holder's art is to be for the eyes of Trinidadians only? He takes Anonymous to task for hiding under a pseudonym in this environment? Nicholas knows Peter well and should know better, but he seeks to denigrate him by suggesting that he claims to have discovered him in some way, when all he has done is to introduce him to a wider and predominantly German audience.

Shame on you Nicholas

Nicholas Laughlin said...

Dear Enigma,

1. A blog is by definition controlled by its author. This is a space for me to express my thoughts and interests, which you may or may not share. I'm not obliged to host a public discussion, any more than I'm obliged to open my house to anyone who walks in off the street.

I allow comments on my posts in the interest of conversation, but absolutely reserve the right to decide who gets to participate. You don't like this? Happily, I don't control the Internet's on/off switch, and you are perfectly free to start your own blog or other form of website, or to use tools like Twitter to share your own opinions.

Furthermore, the fact that I've approved comments above that I disagree with should make it clear I have no interest in "thwarting dissent". However, I refuse to publish comments that don't go beyond name-calling or sarcasm. As I said before, if you don't like this, there's a simple solution: start your own blog.

2. Nowhere have I said that "Boscoe Holder's art is to be for the eyes of Trinidadians only", or that it's a bad thing these paintings were exhibited in Berlin, or that Doig and Als should not take an interest in Holder (or any other aspect of Trinidadian or Caribbean culture). Have you not made the effort to actually read what I wrote, or are you deliberately misrepresenting me?

My original comments are clear, and I don't intend to repeat them.

3. Yes, I do know Peter quite well. I have the right and sometimes the responsibility to disagree with my friends and colleagues, and to express that disagreement publicly.

4. I am a writer and an editor. I spend most of my time working with, contemplating, and trying to understand language. Words matter. Meaning matters. Context matters. I read and write as carefully as I can--with as much attention as I can muster to the historical, social, cultural, and political implications of words. If I make the point that the word "discover"--chosen by the NYRB blog editor for the headline of the original piece--has certain implications, it is precisely because I believe all of us engaged in this debate need to think about and imagine what our words do and can mean.

5. I don't feel the slightest sense of shame. I express my opinions and make my arguments publicly and sign them with my name. That implies confidence, autonomy, and respect for the people whose words I'm commenting on. I wish the anonymous and pseudonymous commentators here would demonstrate similar confidence, autonomy, and respect. Perhaps you're the one who's ashamed. Else why are you hiding?

Afrodeity said...

Always say what you mean, in that way, you will always mean what you say.
Thanks for your last comment Nicholas. It was a timely reminder for me of the sentiment above. Sometimes we forget and unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding may ensue.

I do believe that language, though not the sum total of communication, is powerful, both written and oral. Unfortunately for Doig and Als, whom I suspect had not previously contemplated precisely how to articulate their views on the issues at hand here, this is a transcribed interview. An oral conversation now relegated to the page... some things do not translate, nuances in tone may evaporate. It is also a conversation being had, I imagine, outside of a Caribbean context with a non-Caribbean interviewer. I'd venture this conversation might have read quite differently if it had taken place at Studio Film Club.

As far as archiving goes, I really don't think anyone on this forum is disregarding how poor it usually is in Trinidad. The irksome part for me is that Doig would seem to be suggesting that this means this there is no appreciation for history here. I beg to differ. Poor archiving definitely equates to a sad lack of an institutional structure and the specific skills needed to archive art, artifacts and other facets of our history. A statement such as: "The weather destroys things. Photos disappear into the sunlight, books get eaten by all sorts of insects and stuff" is true of just about anywhere in the world and so becomes meaningless. Many people throw old things away or let be taken by natural decay - even things that may be of great historical importance. It is the work of a dedicated few that serves to preserve and archive these items and narratives. Things get lost and destroyed. To preserve them is practically a reversal of a basic law of energy: in all processes, entropy increases. Disorder is more natural than order. To reverse this requires RESOURCES (please note, this is not restricted to $$) and will.

Resources tend to be in seemingly short supply here and are often arbitrarily, ignorantly or unfairly distributed. I do not think this points to an under or non-appreciation of history or art or art history in particular. I think it speaks to the underdevelopment of systems and institutions in general. We haven't yet gotten healthcare, education or national security right either.

But, "everything is temporal[...] the jungle and forests take over..."?? Really? Isn't that a bit extreme? Imagine you'd never been to the Caribbean, what image would you have of this island? Not to mention using a word like "jungle" alone would set some Trinis off because of the, I assume, unintentional connotation. My mother, who, were she alive, would be about 60, was taught in secondary school by a woman who came from Ireland expecting the native Trinis to be wearing grass skirts. Extreme as this example may be, it serves to show how statements like these may serve to touch raw nerves and reinforce stereotypes that we'd rather see the end of.