Ground-breaking exhibition of queer Caribbean art at Belfast

By Andre Bagoo

NO MATTER what country you are from, one thing we all remember is playing with our parents’ stuff as kids. Boys put on their mother’s heels; girls walk in daddy’s big shoes. Jorge Pineda’s installation Giguapa returns us to those early moments of freedom.

Giguapa comprises four pairs of ceramic shoes arranged in binaries – male, female; adult, child; black, red; facing forward, facing back. We are reminded of Dorothy’s ruby shoes in The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella’s solid glass slipper. But here are shoes within shoes. The solidity of these ceramic pieces is at odds with the fluidity of the body of ideas inhabiting them. We think of clothes, fashion, roles. Do we wear them or do they wear us?

This work is a fine encapsulation of ‘Caribbean Queer Visualities’, the ground-breaking and nuanced exhibition of queer art from Caribbean artists at The Golden Thread Gallery which opened Belfast’s Outburst Queer Arts Festival in November. Supported by the British Council, the show was the first gathering of queer art – or art which the organizers say has a “visual aesthetic of dissent” in relation to sex and gender – from the Caribbean.

“I think of Caribbean history as a kind of queer history,” says David Scott, founder/editor of Small Axe, a coordinator of the exhibition – the culmination of a series of collaborative Small Axe forums. “We tend to think of these colonial stories through a kind of normative lens overriding social and individual dimensions… But we all have stories of people who stand out in our family settings. If you tell the story through those lenses, what emerges?”

Like Pineda, who is from the Dominican Republic, Surinamese artist Charl Landvreugd asks us to pay attention to spaces. Landvreugd’s Movt nr. 8: The quality of 21, gives us a room within a room. In this video installation, a dapper male figure sits astride a sofa – that ubiquitous symbol of home – and tells a story about his grandmother’s 70th birthday party. But is that the story? Things happen, the video is disrupted, audio overlapped, the man stripped and masked. Flowers sprout from beneath the sofa. Or is the furniture squashing them? A taxidermist seems to have forgotten a bird. Nothing here is black and white.

“When you are on stage voguing or doing drag, doing a performance, you have to reach the people all the way in the back,” Landvreugd says of his work in the show’s catalogue. “You need big eye-brows, big feathers, and big mimics and gestures….So this aesthetic or sensibility kind of moved over into my visual art practice.”

And the little things are big things too, the artist argues with this piece. Gestures in everyday life reflect larger positions. The choice to wear or not wear a dress or a suit is really part of a bigger performance. You may think you have little in common with Landvrreugd’s drag, but he shows us the drag we all enact in the club or seated on a sofa.

“Queer provided a much more capacious term compared with other kinds of categories, ” notes Scott, who coordinated the show alongside Nijah Cunningham and Erica Moiah James. The exhibition also addresses anxieties surrounding the term queer and the limits of labels on art.

“There is a way in which we use the term queer to apply to anything that unsettles or disrupts,” says Trinidadian/Canadian artist Richard Fung. “I’d say a place like Trinidad is already quite a queer space right?”

The photographs in Fung’s First Generation ask us to see queer afresh. There is nothing exotic or fetishized. Just people, posing for pictures at Caribana, the Toronto carnival parade.

“Here are ordinary folk looking back at you,” Scott says of the photographs. “What is queer in this is a question that should be asked.” 

The complex realities of what the label queer means in small island states is also something that looms behind each artist’s decision to be associated with the show.

For instance, in Trinidad and Tobago, while politicians have prioritized the equality of all citizens before the law in platform rhetoric, they have left homophobic laws in place. In Jamaica, instances of violence against LGBTI persons is documented, and its homophobic dancehall culture persists. The title of Jamaican painter Leasho Johnson’s Promised Land alludes to this with sardonic irony.

“I got inspired by the boys in New Kingston who lived in the gutter,” Johnson says. “For me it’s interesting how tragic it was, and in another way, symbolic, as it relates to young men growing up in Kingston—and Jamaica, generally.”

In Promised Land, the canvas is segmented. The individual pieces, if taken on their own terms, do not give the full story. A coconut tree on a beach; a man with an erect penis – both tell us different stories about pleasure when isolated. But when combined we think of the stereotyping of the Caribbean as a tourist destination, as well as the objectification of the black body. The fish in the work perhaps references the gully, but also alludes to the use of fish as a symbol of the feminine, literally embodying another form of objectification. The artist suggests that if we stick to only labels and narrow segments of our personalities, we are in for trouble. The red is a warning.

A similar sense of danger pervades Ebony Patterson’s work.

“I decided to use florals and lace—materials and archetypes normally associated with the female form but, instead, employed on the male body,” she says. “When I make these kinds of material decisions, I’m thinking about the transformation of materials on the male body that read slightly differently on the female body.” But do they? What, truly, is the difference?

Between the Leaves and in the Bed, presents a presumably male figure who falls, Ophelia-like, among dense foliage. Violence and swooning are simultaneously suggested, raising questions about death and love that transcend sexualities and gender identities. We think of the line flores para los muertos in Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. Something of the artificiality of the beautiful flora and the anonymity of the figure in repose suggest disembodiment, how we can be seen yet not seen; simplified, hidden.

If Patterson challenges the politics of desire, Andil Gosine troubles the story of migration. In particular, he challenges the common assumption that a gay man from the Caribbean will find a better life outside of the region.

In Coolie Colors we are made to consider the relationship between two sets of objects. One is a series of pictures of the artist as a child in playful poses, perhaps like the little boy or girl we might picture playing with Pineda’s shoes; another a clump of jhandi flags cut short and placed in a bucket as they are in Caribbean communities across North America. Stunted growth is suggested. Something large has been curtailed and forced into a smaller place.

“I would have been fabulous but then I moved to Canada,” Gosine says, saying he wanted, “to challenge the dominant narrative of the Caribbean as an oppressive space for people who don’t conform to heteronormativity.” He recalls a childhood in Trinidad where none of the experimentation of those formative years was policed.

“But then I moved to Canada,” Gosine says. “That was the place that was, for me, less free.” Later, he explains, “You won’t see me claim gay pride because my experience of gay culture has been really race-invected.”

Also not afraid to question the way stories about being gay are told is Jean-Ulrick Désert.

“This idea of gay marriage has been instrumentalised,” he says, countering that he tries to avoid letting politics enter his art. “I object to legitimating through respectability politics.”

In Neque mittatis margaritas Vestras ante porcos (Do Not Cast Pearls Before Swine) we are immersed in what might be a celebratory setting. There are balloons, rainbow garlands. But the warm intimacy of these contrasts with the severity of the Biblical edict the garlands spell out. The command is then replicated, multiplied across languages, oppressively. Discipline is translated, but value judgments lost in translation. What are the pearls and who are the swine? The pearl-white balloons are sensual, if not seminal; the artist has also hung chains in the room suggesting bondage and sexual fetishes. The room seems to escalate. It warns away with its Bible-thumping, yet entices with promises of extreme, taboo pleasure. This reflects the universal contradictions of desire and shame about sex.

A similar snowball effect occurs with Nadia Huggin’s profound piece Is That a Buoy?

“Everyone from the region knows that there are a lot of different dynamics that you have to move through—race, class, and then queerness, in my case,” Huggins says. “I always feel I occupy a body of being other, and the queerness intersects with that.”

Her photographic diptych mirrors the process of seeing yet not seeing that happens when persons do not conform to the norm. In one panel, a human figure haunts the surface of the sea, reduced to nothing but the shape of her skull, the suggestion of eyebrows, eyelashes. In another figure, a buoy floats. Both could not be more different, yet in the blink of an eye they can be mistaken, the human being mis-read and objectified. At sea, her mouth is not visible, her voice inaudible. The world is a brutal black and white.

“Women are expected to have hair, expected to behave a certain way,” Huggins says. “People look at you and make certain assumptions.” She adds, “I found that through self portraits, I was able to move outside of these expectations and reaffirm myself as a woman. This was who I was. I didn’t have to prove anything and be what people stereotyped me to be through these images. It became a performance in that way.”
Bahamian Kareem Mortimer’s Witness is also concerned with mirrors and seeing. We follow a group transgender women getting ready to go out into the night. They have a frank conversation about the range of transactions they will embark on, and we see them transform before our eyes.

“I am gay—I’ve always been gay—but I didn’t know I was gay,” Mortimer says. “It took me a really long time to face the work, even though it’s just seven minutes, even though it’s less complicated than my other work. It was just a hard one for me.”

Seeing through barriers is also central to Barbadian Ewan Atkinson’s Select Pages from the Fieldnotes of Dr. Tobias Boz, Anthrozoologist. The title alone satirises the idea of the queer as an exotic, alien species. In this series of collages and drawings, there is a spirit of cheekiness, a sense of joy, in subverting a dehumanizing gaze through dogged play.

“This is world class work,” says Ruth McCarthy, festival director of Outburst. “This is an important exhibition. It is saying something important. There needs to be some way to have more conversations like these.”