Caribbean artists discuss idea of a queer diaspora
By Andre Bagoo
THINK of the Caribbean diaspora and you think of people, linked by a common home, history or race, scattered across nations. But is there room to also think of sexuality as another thing that links us across boundaries? Is there a space for the idea of a queer diaspora, a landscape of desire beyond ideas of nationhood? Is there room for all in this home?
These are some of the questions that arise during a roundtable event featuring a group of Caribbean artists and scholars who gathered in November for the Outburst Queer Arts Festival at Belfast, a city in which the LGBTI community has been one of the few threads that have united religious and political factions.
The roundtable was the third installment in an ongoing conversation instigated by Small Axe, the forum for critical thought. With support from the British Council, a ground-breaking exhibition, ‘Caribbean Queer Visualities’, was also staged at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, to open the Festival.
“The theme of our festival is home,” says Ruth McCarthy, festival director of Outburst. “I think that a queer diaspora is really important. So many people leave home in order to find themselves. I think queer people leave home at rates much higher than straight people.”
At the roundtable discussion held at the Black Box on Hill Street in chilly Belfast artists originally from Caribbean countries like Trinidad, Haiti, and Jamaica were asked about the complexities of defining home and also how that might relate to being queer.
David Codling, British Council Regional Arts Director, Americas, poses a question about the gap between the standards that apply to home and to the diaspora.
“One of the things you have to contend with is the tension between home and the diaspora,” Codling says. “If there are things that you do and people at home chose not to love, the people at home will somehow question the authenticity of what happens in the diaspora. Is that a tension that is creative?”
David Scott, founder/editor of Small Axe says, “That tension between the supposed privileges of the diaspora; the supposed authenticity of the region is a tension that we cannot overcome and therefore it is a tension that we have to learn to live with as creatively and as supportively as we can.” He continues, “We have to learn to produce the space in which there is change and support and some conception of family. That is in substance what we are. The Small Axe project has been an attempt to produce that sense of internally complicated community existence around thinking about the Caribbean.” He notes the complicated idea of the diaspora.
“The Small Axe project itself was initiated as a way to try to think about home and belonging,” Scott says. “We have over the course of 20 years struggled with our personal and intellectual relationship to the question where we belong. There is no place that is home like landing in Jamaica, there is an immediate corporeal, embodied sense of belonging within those rhythms, those aromas, that sunshine, that sea—that is home.”
He continues, “but yes the question of home is a larger cultural/political one. We are always already inauthentic. The Caribbean begins diasporically: there are two diasporas. It is constituted through slavery, indenture, the larger colonial project. It is already constituted by the question of where identity is. That movement out of the Caribbean
only complicates and adds another layer.”
For Canadian/Trinidadian artist and scholar Andil Gosine, questions of belonging – in terms of nationality, race and sexuality – have had a profound impact on his life and practice.
“For me being home is where I get looked at as a full and complex human being,” Gosine says. “There are some ways where that is undermined by questions of class and sexuality. In the Caribbean I get to be a full complex human being in a way that proves evasive in Toronto or New York or in queer communities if you fall out of the landscape of desire. Power is there and power is shaping that relationship to where you belong.”
THE SEA, A DEMOCRATIC SPACE
Trinidadian artist Nadia Huggins, whose own work crosses liminal spaces between land and sea, notes the psychogeography of the spaces many in the Caribbean call home.
“I am living on the island,” Huggins says. “I am occupying a certain body as well and I have certain experiences. I am still made to feel I am an outsider. The thing to me that makes an island an island is that boundary where the land meets the sea.”
Huggins states, “My work has gone in a direction where the ocean is the thing that brings us all together. It is a democratic space where you can be yourself. You are on a mission to get somewhere when you are in the water. For me home is a quest to find that place where I feel I belong and the place I feel I belong is actually in between the islands.”
Of Huggins’ work, Nijah Cunningham, curator and one of the coordinators of the ‘Caribbean Queer Visualties’ show, adds, “There is also the risk of drowning. You put your body on the line. It comes at a cost. That’s what I love about your work. It is so at once radically possible.”
Says Huggins, “There is a level of comfort in that space. I grew up by the beach. I never felt restricted by what I can do with it. I am terrified of a shark! A lot of the people on the islands cannot swim. On the north coast of St Vincent, the patios are turned away from the sea. There is such a deep respect. You are terrified by what you think exists in it.”
But in sharp contrast to the sense of freedom in Huggins’ work is the limits imposed within Caribbean rhetoric on persons who identify as LGBT or anyone who does not conform to what is expected of them.
“On the question of the discourse on queer issues there is a strong political messaging around identity which is accusing artists like you of in someway undermining the real identity and culture and being in some ways a new kind of imperialism coming from the north, this gay rights discourse,” Codling states. “A lot of that very homophobic discourse is coming from the United States. I wonder about what that says and how it affects your work?”
For Haitian/German artist, Jean-Ulrick Désert, his response is to provoke.
“In my own work I do try to deploy little landmines,” he says. “That’s one way.”
For Gosine, the problem is part of a range of experiences.
“Some people grow up very religious and there is the overriding legislative culture and the laws that get taken up in the Caribbean,” he says. “Yet it’s full of contradictions.” He describes Trinidad as, “the San Francisco of the Caribbean”.
“There are very well known and celebrated artists who are gay,” Gosine says. “This accusation of being a traitor to your nation is a common one, queers supposedly betray the nation. But I think it’s a very complicated experience and I don’t think it’s that special.”
Huggins notes regional variations in attitudes to persons who are gay or who do not identify as heterosexual.
“The experience varies drastically from island to island,” she says. “For example there is a vast difference between Trinidad and Tobago and St Vincent. In St Vincent you just don’t be gay. It is shut down, people just don’t want to have that conversation. It also boils down a lot to class. Coming from a middle class family I have a different experience than someone from the gullies.”
Scott traces current attitudes to the rise of small churches.
“I grew up in 70s Jamaica there was homophobia but it did not take the form it did in the 80s and 90s and I think that is connected to the rise of certain fundamental Pentecostal churches which come from the United States,” he says. “But certainly in the Jamaica the rastas have trumpeted a certain type of homophobia.”
Scott adds, “One of the enormously productive things in the emergence of Caribbean art is the emergence of a new space in which to think about ourselves that is now providing a different kind of idiom to think about identity; to recalibrate what colonialism was for us and that animates the way in which the question of a revolution is not just a question of equality and justice coming from outside but also within. Therefore, the question of how we imagine and re-imagine our societies.”