By Asher Mains
The ocean is at the heart of origin stories across cultures. Before anything else, there were the waters, the sea. These origin myths according to Édouard Glissant serve to strengthen a community or culture through filiation – or memory. In Poetics of Relation Glissant describes a socio-cultural phenomenon where filiation is used as a legitimising factor when cultures interact. The people who can remember the furthest back in history will dominate. Eastern and Western cultures both present water in front of sacred spaces. In the Western tradition, water was kept outside of the Tabernacle and later the Temple for the priests to cleanse themselves but also as a symbol of the world and a reminder that the earth was once formless and void “…darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” It is not lost on our Caribbean writers, Saint-John Perse, Derek Walcott, and Édouard Glissant, that whether the Sea is the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, remembering the waters is fundamental to the structure of a civilisation. When Derek Walcott wrote The Sea is History he absconded the Western tradition of domination through filiation and reasserted with Glissant – there is no memory that is longer than the Sea itself. It is not lost, the gravitas of arriving to a beach. The sea is then the laver of the tabernacle, the Brazen Sea of Solomon’s Temple, the Wudu of the mosque, or the temizuya of a Shinto temple and the beach – a sacred space. Appropriately, the 5th Grenada Contemporary Exhibit, held by Susan Mains Gallery and hosted by Art House 473 in Calliste, Grenada, themed “The Beach”, was shown in what used to be a Pentecostal church. With a cross still in station on the back wall, “The Beach” occupied a deconsecrated yet still sacred space – this point of convergence to consider origins, culture, economy, environment, and most of all, a space of relation where cultures and ideas converged to consider the complex space that the beach represents.
If the setting of the Grenada Contemporary exhibit was established on these important elements of origins, memory, and sacred space, entry to the exhibit was equally irreverent. A spotify playlist called “Steel Drum Beach Party” played such idyllic hits as “Yellow Bird”, “Matilda”, or “Day O” played for guests upon entry to the exhibit. While these songs are absolutely part of the fabric of Caribbean music and culture and by themselves represent endearing and timeless melodies, in the context, Walcott would have cringed.
“What is the earthly paradise for our visitors? Two weeks without rain and a mahogany tan, and, at sunset, local troubadours in straw hats and floral shirts beating “Yellow Bird” and “Banana Boat Song” to death. There is a territory wider than this – wider than the limits made by the map of an island – which is the illimitable sea and what it remembers.”Derek Walcott
The latter is what the artists were charged with exploring in their work. Guests to the exhibit would have had to have passed a small arsenal of Pure Grenada print material from the Grenada Tourism Authority, another small reminder that our sacred and complex space can easily be encompassed and commodified with saturated images of mostly empty beaches with enough room for you, the viewer, to occupy. Everything up to this point in the exhibit could confirm a status quo interpretation of the beach theme. Glissant’s voice is nearly palpable – “Have something to exchange that isn’t just sand and coconut trees but, instead, the result of our creative activity. Integrate what we have, even if it is sea and sun, with the adventure of a culture that is ours to share and for which we take responsibility.”(Glissant, 153) All 31 artists, admonished by Glissant and in the spirit of Walcott offered their exchange.
A number of artists took the beach as a starting point to talk about climate change, stewardship of our environment, and sustainability. Kirby Shaw, Ingrid Newman, Susan Mains, LaVanda Mireles, David Lemmer, Roxi Hermsen, Alex Stanco and Christine Renaudat all expressed the beach as an ecological metric – a place where one could nearly literally take a pulse of the planet because conditions change so quickly and the sea is eager to provide criminal evidence of its pollutants. Pieces included paintings, installations, video and sound pieces that implored visitors to join in care for our beaches but also more broadly, our planet.
One of the current issues in Grenada on the beach is the prevalence of Sargassum seaweed causing disruption to life on the beach as well as the sea. As a problem that is potentially costly to either remove or process, artists such as Roxanne Marquez-Augustine and Xandra Fisher took this as their central theme.
Many of the works demonstrated a variety of perceptions that people have of the beach usually revolving around a story but always people in relation to each other with the beach as the stage. John Henry, Carol Youssef, Gihan Batihk, Farihah Khan, Billy Gerard Frank, Oliver Benoit, Suelin Low Chew Tung, Asher Mains, Patrick Lacaisse, Salomie Lawrence, Kriston Banfield, Amy Cannestra, Raily Steven Yance, Christine Norton, Susan Valentine, Deborah Thomas and Junior Wedderburn in different capacities relate to the beach as a setting for social exchange and cultural interaction.
A few of the pieces, while they could have been included in other categories, focused on the beauty and natural activity of the beach free from human intervention. These artists depict natural narratives for the viewer to be reminded and immersed in the beach for the beach sakes: Kadiejra O’Neal, Daniella Froehlich, Rick Feld, and Jessica Hobson.
While categorising the work can be useful as far as thinking through the different paths taken to the beach, many of these pieces could easily span multiple categories and/or be a category unto themselves. It is important to remember the sea as illimitable but also the poetics of relation constantly seeks relation and new connections to synthesise rather than create inarguable outposts of ideas. Not one of the artists from the 9 countries represented at this exhibit were immune to the affect of the island, and by extension, the beach in their practice. Every artist is a collaborator as we reassemble, from our different paths our memory, what continuously works towards a more complete vision of our collective identity. Glissant would urge us to remember that as we assemble Walcott’s pieces of the Antillean memory we are as a result creating even more rhizomes and points for connection. This is what makes our civilisation rich. “Identity is no longer just permanence; it is a capacity for variation, yes, a variable – either under control or wildly fluctuating.” (Glissant, 141) With this idea of ‘identity in relation’ as a preface we can take in Walcott’s poetic reminder that an exhibit like this is an effort in memory.
“All of the Antilles, every island, is an effort of memory; every mind, every racial biography culminating in amnesia and fog. Pieces of sunlight through the fog and sudden rainbows, arcs-en-ciel. That is the effort, the labour of the Antillean imagination, rebuilding its gods from bamboo frames, phrase by phrase.” (Walcott)
In a way then, the Caribbean as a region, and an exhibit such as the Grenada Contemporary can be read as a surreptitious and devious engagement. Much like many species will lure prey towards it with attractive bait to achieve its own ends – the Grenada Contemporary Exhibit is full of beautiful, well-crafted pieces that intrigue and invite guests to have a closer look. If you were at the opening you would have tapped your foot to the sound of steel pan music and had one of the in-house made rum punches. It is in this beautiful space with beautiful work, however, that you should feel confronted. The Caribbean lures people from all over the world to engage in a practice of relation identity amongst its sea, sun, and sand. What the region gains in return are the elements that contribute to the complex identity of the Caribbean as a sounding board for the entire world. Glissant calls this the echoes-monde found within the chaos-monde. This positions the Caribbean identity at an advantage in an increasingly globalised world. Despite this unique position as a place where identity in relation is activated, it has not made equal strides economically and within a capitalist framework is not seen as a valuable contributor to global civilisation. Walcott succinctly describes this “idyllic” place that people do not truly engage with and look to exploit.
“The Caribbean is not an idyll, not to its natives. They draw their working strength from it organically, like trees, like the sea almond or the spice laurel of the heights. Its peasantry and its fishermen are not there to be loved or even photographed; they are trees who sweat, and whose bark is filmed with salt, but every day on some island, rootless trees in suits are signing favourable tax breaks with entrepreneurs, poisoning the sea almond and the spice laurel of the mountains to their roots. A morning could come in which governments might ask what happened not merely to the forests and the bays but to a whole people.” (Walcott)
Just as someone may spend a week on an island and not think twice about their identity in relation to the island, art exhibits can be equally illusory. If you visited “The Beach” and went away with a mind full of craftsmanship and skill, which there were, and not the underlying subtext and messages, which there also were, then you may have only taken in a portion of the whole. We miss opportunities constantly to embrace the complexity and fluidity of who we are especially in relation to the other. “Sometimes, by taking up the problems of the Other, it is possible to find oneself.” (Glissant, 18). “The beach”, in the case of the 5th Grenada Contemporary, but also as a universally relatable space with many identities engaging with each other is not only a space where we can consider these ideas and themes, it is a space that through relation we can find each other and ourselves. If the waters are a place of origins, the beach is a place where we can all begin.
Genesis 1:2, The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.
Glissant Édouard. Poetics of Relation. University of Michigan Press, 2009.
Walcott Derek, From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1991-1995, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997