Tilting Axis 3 | National Gallery of the Cayman Islands | May 18 - 20 2017
The British Council has been allied with the Tilting Axis conference from 2014. In 2017, TA 3 was hosted by the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, welcoming 66 delegates from all linguistic areas in the Caribbean, its diaspora and internationally. This included Sara Hermann | Centro Léon of Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic; Christopher Cozier | Independent Artist, Trinidad & Tobago; Franklin Sirmans | Director, Pérez Art Museum Miami; Tanya Barson, formerly Tate Modern now Museu D’Art Contemporani De Barcelona; Pablo Leon de la Barra | Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, Brazil; Eungie Joo | Independent Curator, Director of Sharjah Biennial 12; Miguel Lopez & Gabriele Saénz-Shelby | Curator & Director, TEOR/éTICA, Costa Rica; Vanessa Selk | French Embassy Cultural Services, Miami; Kira Simon-Kennedy | China Residencies & others.
Tilting Axis (TA) is a roving meeting, conceptualised by ARC Magazine and the Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., that moves in and out of the Caribbean region on an annual basis. It brings together arts professionals who are interested in, and committed to, expanding contemporary visual art practice across all linguistic areas of the region. Participants include those based in the Caribbean and its diasporas, professionals working in the coastal rim of the Caribbean, as well as global professionals whose research and practice is influenced by the region. The goal of Tilting Axis is to facilitate opportunities for those who are living and working in the Caribbean, to increase interest and understanding of this region’s contemporary visual practice while contributing to a healthy cultural eco-system and purposeful growth for the Caribbean creative sector.
Tilting Axis 3: Curating the Caribbean, is a continuation of conversations formed in 2015 at Tilting Axis: Within and Beyond the Caribbean in St. George, Barbados, and at Tilting Axis 2: Caribbean Strategies at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) February 2016, but within the specific context of curating. This third convening at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands (NGCI), explored the Latin root of the word “curare” meaning to take care. TA explored how artist-led initiatives, institutions, and government cultural departments among others in the Caribbean are nurturing the visual arts sector through exhibitions, residencies, programming, arts education and cultural policy; and forward-thinking models actively demonstrating how the Caribbean’s fragile arts ecology is being enriched, provoked and buttressed, through a curatorial lens by professionals both in and out of the archipelago.
The gaze of the contemporary art world is increasingly shifting by degrees to the global South including the Caribbean. Tilting Axis is an attempt to harness this shifting collective gaze to the advantage of the Caribbean.
The British Council was pleased to have supported the participation of three Scottish-based curators including Dr Eddie Chambers (based in Edinburgh), Professor at the University of Texas, Austin; Tiffany Boyle (based in Edinburgh), co-founder of the curatorial collective, Mother Tongue; Ainslie Roddick, Curator at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow.
REPORT 1: Dr Eddie Chambers was a presenter on the panel called Curating the Caribbean
This was the third iteration of the Tilting Axis workshops and the first one I was able to attend. It took place at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands (NGCI). I am grateful to the British Council and Juliet Dean in particular, for enabling me to attend.
Tilting Axis is a project with a broad and multi-dimensional remit. On the one hand, it encourages debate about the ways in which the Caribbean region itself might do more to promote, encourage, and facilitate activity amongst artists in its midst. The arts infrastructure within the Caribbean very much varies from country to country, but within a number of countries, the arts infrastructure (as regards the visual arts in particular) is, to varying degrees, quite challenging. In this respect, the task of encouraging or securing greater resources for the visual arts is a hugely important task.
The Caribbean as a region is in some respects difficult to precisely define. It includes a country such as Guyana, located on the north-east coast of South America. It also includes, of course, the giant of the Caribbean, Cuba. But Cuban art history is often presented within the context of Latin American Art, creating a tension that Tilting Axis seeks to neutralise by forging interplay between notions of Caribbean Art and notions of Latin American Art.
Given the intertwined histories of the region, this particular Tilting Axis agenda is a very necessary and important one. The other hugely important dimension of Tilting Axis’ conversations relates to the ways in which Caribbean Art, or art from the Caribbean region, can more substantially be represented in the curatorial agendas of museums and galleries beyond the region. My own personal view is that in this regard, solo exhibitions by the strongest artists within the region should occur with far more regularity in museums and galleries throughout the world, rather than the tactic that seems to have been preferred by the art world – the mounting of blockbuster style exhibitions of ‘Caribbean Art’ once every couple of decades. My own paper at the Tilting Axis workshop touched on the problematics (as I would regard them) of the Caribbean being a region ‘explained’ to gallery-going audiences in catch-all exhibitions, occurring with pronounced infrequency. And of course, beyond broad-based ‘Caribbean’ exhibitions, there are the exhibitions relating to individual countries, most notably Jamaica. In contrast, the galleries of Britain and the US (for example) have yet to play host to sporadic exhibitions of art from Grenada, for example, or St. Lucia, or Antigua. Even countries such as Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago – within which take place all manner of dynamic visual art initiatives – have yet to be represented with the sorts of exhibitions of art from Jamaica which take place periodically. These arguments do of course contain many caveats. It’s not hard to imagine exhibitions of ‘Art from Barbados’ or ‘Art from Trinidad’ containing the sorts of problematic fissures that often tend to be a feature of such attempts to consolidate the disparate art of one country into a neatly packaged exhibition. Furthermore, many artists of Jamaica have had barely a sniff in the international arena, so one needs to be careful not to present Jamaica as some sort of bountiful space for shows beyond the island.
Tilting Axis is important for many reasons, chief amongst them, the ways in which mature levels of debate and exchange, about these and other questions, characterise its workshops. Furthermore, with so many participants coming from the region itself, the starting point for conversations is one that has already set to one side, internationally dominant notions of the Caribbean as somewhere to go for a holiday or for a glamorous and exotic wedding. Many countries of the Caribbean might rely on tourism as a generator of foreign exchange, but the vast majority of artists in the region seek to operate in ways as real as those of professional artists elsewhere in the world.
My own contribution, on the second day of the workshop was on a panel chaired by moderated by Dr. Mario A. Caro (Lecturer in Art, Culture, and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Board member of Res Artis, New York) with Tiffany Boyle (Curator and co-founder of Mother Tongue, Scotland) and Miguel A. Lopez (Chief Curator of TEOR/éTica in San Jose, Costa Rica). My paper was titled Archiving the Caribbean Artist in the Diaspora: Problems and Progress. It sought to present some of the problems associated with the absences that are a perennial and seemingly systemic aspect of the profile of Caribbean artists in the Diaspora. I made mention of problems of erasure that lead to us asking “where are they now” about artists of the Caribbean who were active in London (for example) in the 1970s. I used the example of a Trinidad-born artist, who simply went by the name ‘Caboo’ and was active in London in the mid-1970s. Seeking information on such artists (and there are many) is indeed a frustrating and dispiriting process. I ventured the view that the period between being active (and having that activity noticed) and slipping into obscurity was for many artists just a few short years. Caboo was active in the mid-1970s, but it appears that by the early 1980s, he had all but disappeared from view.
I brought up other examples of the erasure and throwing away of important archives relating to Black artists’ practices, thereby creating formidable challenges for those art historians interested in piecing together histories of Caribbean artists working in London, for instance. I made mention of the ways in which certain ‘Year Zero’ pathologies oftentimes dominate exhibitions of art from the Caribbean region, rather than seeking to build on what has gone before. Another aspect I touched on was the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to recovering histories. I cited as an example of this the important of Jamaican-born, British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose poetry of the 1970s spoke convincingly to a new generation of artists – the children of Caribbean immigrants, coming of age in the UK in the mid to late 1970s.
I learned an extraordinary amount from Tiffany Boyle’s paper, in which she outlined some of the Scotland-based activities of pioneering Caribbean modernists in Britain such as Ronald Moody, Aubrey William, and Donald Locke. Tiffany’s paper gave me much to reflect on, in terms of my own thinking vis-à- vis Black artists in British art.
Tilting Axis gave me the opportunity to meet new colleagues, a number of whom I knew of, but had not previously met. I was particularly grateful to the NGCI Director, Natalie Urquhart, who gave a guided tour of some of the most significant works in the collection. She made mention, elsewhere during the workshop, of problems of visibility faced by artists in the Cayman Islands. As an example of this, she pointed to the fact that it was in excess of twenty years since an artist from the Cayman Islands was represented in a major show of Caribbean art – that being Samella Lewis’ Caribbean Visions: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, which dated from 1995.
These were several days extraordinarily well spent. I am, as mentioned earlier, grateful to the British Council and Juliet Dean in particular, for enabling me to attend.
REPORT 2: Tiffany Boyle was a presenter on the panel called Curating the Caribbean and in her testimonial, demonstrated how important it is for the Scottish art historical narrative to be explored more deeply and in relationship to the Caribbean.
“…Mother Tongue’s research has included a sustained exploration of archival material, re-assembling a history of activity from seminal Caribbean practitioners in Scotland through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The activity uncovered by this research has encompassed British Council bursaries, university scholarships and the exhibition programme of the former Commonwealth Institute, Edinburgh. In many respects, this research had been devised in order to re-insert the important work produced during this time back into Scottish art historical narratives, by artists including Donald Locke, Frank Bowling and Aubrey Williams, all with Guyanese roots.
The invitation to present on this specific research at Tilting Axis 3 usefully forced me to rethink the potential relevance of this research, instead of asking how this research could be useful in a Caribbean context….
Beyond this presentation, I was entirely subsumed by the richness, diversity and excellence of the programme, presentations, practices and delegates gathered together for TA3. The panels and the issues they unpacked – as well as the “break-out” sessions – acted like a cross section, a vertical plane cut through the region, offering a snapshot of current developments, concerns, urgencies, collaborations and forward movements. What I have been able to learn in three days of a programme spanning geographies and moving beyond the Anglophone Caribbean, would be impossible to do on an individual basis. I was able to engage again with artists who exhibited as part of the ‘Rum Retort’ exhibition, learn new practices, engage with the local Caymanian art community and national collection, and to discuss seedlings of future projects with curators based in the Caribbean.
The ability to spend an intensive period of engagement with the Caribbean in 2015 created a series of ripple, and whilst I cannot predict what will come of TA3 in 2017, 2018 and beyond, I am certain of new beginnings and future projects working with the region for Mother Tongue.”
REPORT 3: Ainslie Roddick, CCA Glasgow – CCA Curator
Expectations and Highlights
The Tilting Axis 3 conference was one of the best curatorial/network gatherings I’ve been to. Not only was it extremely well organised and administrated in terms of hospitality and conference structure, but the panel discussions were among the best I have attended. There was a breadth of important discussions – most notably about ways of encountering, disseminating and countering the lost histories and futures of the region through art and instituting. There were many inspiring critical and contemporary practices presented, leading discussions about alternative ways of working. A real balance was struck between conceptual and practical discussions – about discussing how and why infrastructure could or should be developed. The discussions focused on ways of addressing how structures and supports should be created and reimagined for the region, how knowledge should be shared in more radical ways, the problematics of the archive, and how alternative ways of working could be implemented.
I personally found the panel ‘The Space of Exhibitions: Traditional versus Nontraditional Spaces’ incredibly interesting and urgent – which reflected on which kind of curatorial spaces should and could be imagined – this discussion was incredibly informative and passionate – and coming at the beginning of the conference, set the context for many different dialogues to continue for the rest of the week. It raised important points about how the Biennial structure might serve communities or how it might perpetuate art-market capitalist problematics; which kind of art spaces could or should be created in the Caribbean and for what purpose, and whether these new infrastructures should focus more on performance and Carnival artists working prominently in the region; what museums for the future might look like in any context, and finally ask how one might readdress the relationships with arts infrastructure across the world whilst paying attention to a ‘post’-colonial positionality. I found these discussions incredibly stimulating.
Networks and new opportunities
It was my first time attending Tilting Axis, and my main aim was to meet people and to get to know the spaces involved in the project, so that we might take something forward that would be useful to the artists, curators and organisations working in the region – and to find ways of collaborating with the CCA Glasgow. It was great to hear formally and informally about different spaces and ways of working. Nicole Smythe Johnson’s presentation was especially great – since it introduced many different spaces in the region that I might not have known about. I had already met or been connected in smaller ways with spaces such as Beta Locale via Beatriz Santiago Munoz who showed at Transmission and Gasworks, and Alice Yard through a previous British Council exchange – when Christopher Cozier talked in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Hearing about The Davidoff Foundation’s work was also great – I had been keen to connect with Pablo Leon de Barra after missing him when I visited Brazil. CCA has worked with Cooking Sections in the past, and they have a project at Atlas in Skye that I will be attending following an invite from Alon Schwabe (whose presentation was also excellent).
Currently, there have been no direct invites to participate in discussions or panels, but along with Tiffany Boyle and Jessica Carden from Mother Tongue, we hope to ensure that the Scottish involvement in Titling Axis can continue. I would personally like to develop a critical knowledge exchange between artist and practitioners in the region. The research and work taking place is really exciting and important and I think there is ample opportunity for a further dialogue, particular around radical archives and archiving, alternative institutional models, artist-run spaces and the presentation of the ‘lost’ histories of black and Caribbean artists working (or previously working) in the UK (and specifically Scotland). I think Tilting Axis could be used as a way to support research that is reciprocal between the UK and Caribbean region, where previously unsupported Scottish based Caribbean practices, artists and legacies in could be supported and researched and histories properly archived (or the notion of ‘archive’ readdressed for the Caribbean context).
I also felt following the breakaway sessions, where we discussed key issues in smaller groups, that there was a lot of interest in CCA’s open source programme and community working and many of the informal discussions I had afterwards were with people interested in hearing more, and hope this might also be a legacy of the meeting.
Importance for the UK
It is important for further research and knowledge exchange to happen between the Caribbean and the UK as a way of consciousness-raising the destructive history of the UK’s colonial operations. Eddie Chamber’s presentation highlighted how easy it is for the knowledge of projects and histories to disappear because there is a willful ignorance within many UK institutions about the work and legacy of black and Caribbean artists. Whether institutions fail in their responsibility to archive and make visible the knowledge of Caribbean artists who might have worked, or to represent a community of artists working in the city – there is still a lot of work to be done.
Tiffany Boyle’s presentation demonstrated how little is known about Caribbean artists working in Scotland in the 60s and 70s (as well as from other decades), and I think Mother Tongue’s research is incredibly valuable. There are so few people working towards making these histories visible in Scotland. Working as a freelance researcher, she has worked incredibly hard despite having fewer resources than any art institution, and I think it is really amazing that British Council has been able to support her and Jessica Carden so far. Mother Tongue has been instrumental in pursuing this network of exchange and creating education outcomes in Scotland too. I hope CCA can continue to be a key partner to developing the conversation further.
The ability to continue to share this research and create pedagogical resources in Scotland would be really important, as well as creating further opportunity for exchange and support through our various organisations. I hope this can continue as a legacy and an ongoing dynamic of the Tilting Axis.
As I’ve said the conference was orchestrated perfectly – one conference attendee remarked to me that he hadn’t heard a single complaint which was very true. Everyone was incredibly well looked after and cared for. My only suggestion for the conference would be to give non-panelists the opportunity to speak earlier in the programme as a way to break the ice – or share a little in advance about each organisation's key interests.
Other suggestions are noted above but in bullet point format:
- Find further ways of sharing knowledge of Caribbean practice in Scotland with a focus on criticality.
- Develop discussion within Tilting Axis on alternative institutional models and infrastructure – this seemed to be a key discussion.
- Continue to support curatorial dialogue perhaps as a fellowship, but perhaps also ways of supporting research into Scottish-Caribbean histories.
- Work towards a .5 iteration in Scotland, perhaps with CCA open source partners, and local researchers.
- Work with higher education infrastructures to develop critical discourse