A key aspect of the Transoceanic Visual Exchange project (TVE) is to integrate community voice into its curatorial framework. This is in order to explore the effectiveness of a lateral approach to curatorial practice, as opposed to the traditional hierarchical approach.
To facilitate this ethos in the Caribbean branch of TVE, two workshop sessions were hosted by the Fresh Milk Arts Platform Inc in Barbados. One was held on the grounds of Fresh Milk, the subsequent was held at the Errol Barrow Center for Creative Imagination at the University of the West Indies (EBCCI).
For the first session, Fresh Milk Director Annalee Davis and myself were joined by Groundation Grenada founder Malaika Brooks Smith-Lowe, Perez Art Museum Miami Curator Maria Elena Oritz and filmmaker Russell Watson. For the second session, I met with Senior Lecturer in Film at EBCCI Andrew Millington, and Producer / Director at Studio Caribe Sanna Allsopp.
The participants of these sessions were asked to bring a clip of a film or video work from the Caribbean as a visual to their thoughts on three strains of inquiry:
- How Caribbean narratives are currently portrayed through film and video works;
- How these may connect with Africa and New Zealand;
- How national, regional, and international artistic communities can be fostered through exchange of visual narratives in film and video.
The clips chosen varied in style and content, allowing for broad examples to draw from. In addition to these, a sample of three (publicly available) submissions was presented to the groups, furthering the discussion and linking discourse to the project directly.
From this format and two sessions, the following points were drafted, and these informed the curatorial process in selecting works to be screened in the TVE physical and digital spaces.
Embracing diversity over identity
There was a consensus in both groups that representational narrative in Caribbean media has been problematic in relentless attempts to construct a ‘Caribbean identity’. This is viewed as creatively limited, and usually catering to a touristic ideal. As an alternative, an emphasis was put on embracing narratives that facilitated the diverse experiences in the region. For example, the recent Barbadian short film Auntie (d. Lisa Harewood, 2013) was discussed as an un-romanticized portrayal of an authentic Barbadian experience. It was felt there was a need for more recognition of diverse experiences in the narrative choices of filmmakers and video artists in the region.
Although links with Africa and New Zealand can be made through a shared colonial history, it was thought that the submissions to this project may bring to light different possible conversations in individual artist / filmmaker discourse.
Film as a ‘safe’ space to bring up difficult societal discourse
It was noted that in Caribbean society, some controversial aspects of our histories and cultures are difficult to bring to the discursive surface. Building from the first point of going beyond narratives of identity, film works can function as an accessible and ‘safe’ space to facilitate conversations around social issues. Linking with the shared colonial history of Africa and New Zealand, it was discussed that mainstream films relating to this are often made from a perspective outside of the Caribbean. Additionally, there is very little explicit linkage between that history and the contemporary Caribbean society portrayed in films. However, artistic video and new media works are mediating this scarred cultural landscape.
There was also a notion of film facilitating community voice for previously invisible aspects of Caribbean culture. Returning to the film Auntie, this is evident in the Barrel Stories Project. In this initiative, oral histories around aspects of parental migration and children being raised by relatives until “sent for”, give the public both in the region and diaspora a platform to connect and exchange an overlooked history. Barrel Stories states: “People said that for the first time, they felt like someone understood what they had been through and that they felt a sense of relief.” It was agreed in the discussions that effective contemporary filmmaking in the Caribbean sparked some type of community connection.
Exploring the space between video work as ‘fine art’ and video work as ‘popular culture’
One reflection on the TVE project as a whole was whether it could realistically be an accurate survey of what was happening across filmmaking in the Caribbean, to be presented in Africa and New Zealand. In particular, how it proposed to bridge film and video works considered ‘fine art’ to those considered more popular. From a technical perspective it was debated that while the Anglophone Caribbean appeared less developed in terms of techniques and quality of tools used, was it more an indication of where the film community was at culturally rather than a lack of skill? This was probed further by using an example of a Barbadian local web series Scab Whisperer and the disconnect between groups producing similar works and groups that were in Fresh Milk’s target audience (and indeed the list of submitted works). Is there an in-between space that this project can navigate?
Although content of discussions in both workshop sessions were extremely insightful and engaging, what was truly exciting was bringing together practitioners in a community, to contribute to what is traditionally an exclusive curatorial process. For some, it was the first time they had connected with each other, and it was expressed as an unusual chance to exchange ideas about contemporary film and video works in the Caribbean. These sessions highlighted the need for more platforms on cultural discourse, and lay a positive foundation for the future international exchange with Africa and New Zealand.
A huge thanks to our participants for their insightful contributions