An attempt at decolonising culture as a Black woman: LAB 2014–2017
In Belize, formerly British Honduras until 1973, the colonial project commenced as early as 1638, by 1862 a colony ruled by a governor who answered to the governor in Jamaica, and officially named Crown Colony in 1871. That is a very long time; one hundred and nineteen years of formal colonial destruction and dilution of our culture, after two hundred and thirty years of colonisation that was called “discovery of new land and fighting off aggressive intruders” also known as the Indigenous people of this land, which we now call Belize. And while the nationalist movement gained us our independence finally on September 21, 1981, a nationalist movement that I must state was spearheaded by mostly dark-skinned, working class Garifuna and Kriol women, who are erased every September from the discussions of Independence to allow for discourse on the Baymen, the colonisers and enslavers, and the men, mostly nonBlack, who negotiated our independence. This is unacceptable. Obviously, independence is not decolonisation, as very many have said before, and more eloquently than I have, these are two separate processes and clearly explains why things are as they are.
Colonialism is what I see and experience in the Belizean culture realm. I can not rightfully speak about dance and theatre, but I can speak for visual art. Visual art in Belize is still grappling with colonial delirium. In 2021, art still has to ascribe to genre, to being a tangible, and as far as conceptual work is concerned, unless it is a painting, or maybe, and it would depend heavily on who made it; a sculpture, it will not be received, without having to first explain to exertion, or tirelessly defend itself as art.
Outlier art and the people who make it, fringe artists, by and large are kept outside the canon. Meanwhile the exhibits are largely populated by representational paintings or realism, photography and a few abstract pieces. Paintings which banks and the Belize Tourism Board would enjoy, to rest their eyes, or which show the splendors of “Belize: the Jewel, Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret” are what reign supreme. Predominantly, boats, seascapes, jaguars, orange-pink-lavender sunsets, fish on the line, barefoot children basking in the sunlight and other tropicana.
I get it, I really do. If your practise is your career, something has to pay the bills. So some artists have admittedly done the ‘commercial stuff’ while still producing contemporary or ‘risky’ stuff for themselves. This is great but I often wonder if the flood of ‘commercial stuff’ has not become the standard for what art can be, is, and should approximate to, in order to be considered art. Anything outside of it is gawked or guffawed at as extraterrestrial.
As far as collectors go, taste determines what is sought after. I am certain that this is the same everywhere and is not exclusive to Belize. This dangerous and completely exclusive practise is fraught with coloniality. I mean, try to explain ‘good taste’ without listing white Eurocentric ideals. And the plot thickens here because who is collected will always be collected and sought after and the reverse is true for the opposite. That though, is a discussion for another time.
An honest observation of the art world would discover that even if one abides by aesthetics’ defined principles, art history or theory, movements, techniques etc. this is a space widely dominated by white-European-male tastes, techniques, energy and representation. A space where many are absent, erased and overlooked. It is not for nothing that women artists have the lowest representation in museums and galleries worldwide. A fact which the Guerrilla Girls have been bringing into sharp focus with their work since the 1980s. Things are unfortunately pretty much the same, even in 2021.
As a Black woman artist, a Garifuna-Kriol woman, I face an intersection of discriminations in the art world, gender, race, class, being an artist from what is considered the art world periphery. Belize is in the Caribbean and Central America, interestingly enough cultural discussions on both regions usually do not include Belize. I quickly realised these layers of erasure and decided to make work which discusses this and also to create a platform for myself to be seen in an art world which insists on Black femme invisibility. A system which was installed since the colonial days of olde, basically white supremacist patriarchy and which is securely fixed, still, in these postcolonial spaces, which did not embark on a systemic decolonisation process when they attained political independence. Thanks to instagram, I have seen shifts in these tendencies, slightly. Posts under the hashtags Whitney Biennial, Venice Biennial and even La Habana Biennial recently have shown many Black women exhibiting, more than before, anyways. And compared to before, even a handful makes a huge difference. Every day I am grateful for social media connecting me, via that platform, in a totally superficial way, with Black women artists. These inspire me to cope with the gatekeeping and erasure that I face here at home.
It is not all bad in Belize, and I honestly hope that this text will not be received as malicious, but as a peek into my experience.
I have and am grateful for spaces like Di Imagination Factri, previously the Image Factory Art Foundation, an art foundation dedicated to contemporary art founded in 1995 which is based in Belize City, the former capital of Belize. This is a space open to all creatives in Belize, the Belizean diaspora and beyond. In 2014, when I approached the director with the idea of the LAB, a space which would operate inside the gallery’s space, but which would encourage and prefer free experimentation, not have any of the formalities (no launch, no opening night, no press release) and would only exist physically for a maximum of 48 hours, there was no hesitation. The lack of formalities did not mean lesser or no quality, proposals were submitted, a schedule was developed, everything was documented and the director edited the documentation and hosted all four years of the LAB experiments on the Image Factory’s website. (this site is currently unavailable) The purpose of this was to create a rapid-succession of events, which would showcase the agility, scope and variety of Belizean contemporary. It created a platform for some who may not have otherwise had, I hope.
For the four years of the LAB, I took off 2 weeks from my part-time job, and all other supplementary income, to dedicate myself fully to the LAB. This entailed cleaning the space, developing and keeping the schedule, promoting the LAB and the actions within, and for the first two years almost all the documentation.
This also entailed confronting racist and sexist stereotypes and consequent discrimination, the two most common tropes: 1. The Black woman as a work-horse: “Is this tiring you? How come?” My labour was both unacknowledged and expected. They didn’t care if I had swept, mopped, stayed up all night organising and promoting, and was now waiting for them, (if they arrived late) and would demand which photo angles they wanted me to take, because there is no way that I would have known how to take a proper photograph. This, for a proposal which they either never explained or did explain as something which in no way resembled what would happen the day of. (not all experiences, but some) and 2. The Black woman as: “better not seen nor heard” Some artists sent proposals after the deadline had closed. Some informed me that they would be participating even though it was indicated to them after weeks of open calls for proposals (which they ignored), that there were no more available spaces. Some artists decided to contact the director directly and insist that they be given space because I was “difficult, unyielding,” “keeping them out.” Others still organised their schedule, proposal and participation with an artist who volunteered to document the experiments. Never through me. That high level of disrespect is a typical response when a Black woman is in charge. They sought someone who they felt should have been in charge. Reflecting back, I should not have allowed such disrespect towards me or the project. I was the organiser and creator of the project. I should have taken the position that either you schedule with me or you don’t participate. One artist even just showed up, unscheduled, while another artist was preparing his scheduled piece and instructed the director of the gallery to film the action.
The media houses of Belize, the biggest perpetrators of erasure, upholders of patriarchy, and misogynoir, in my opinion, please observe their various new stories for reference, approached the LAB in a similar way. Even though the LAB which had started small, disregarded as a joke, eventually gained acclaim and even, because of several phenomenal pieces which came out of LAB, caught their attention. Each mediahouse was emailed a press release which stated explicitly that the LAB was my idea, proceeded to report that the LAB as a project exclusively created by the Image Factory Art Foundation, with the participation of a few artists. I can only assume that since they knew better, their actions were deliberate.
The LAB was proposed as a process of decolonised art practise, experimentation, no opening, no adherence to white wall politics as to what is art and what isn’t, who is an artist or not and who can really be considered for exhibition or to be given a platform. Because if we are honest, exhibiting is steeped, for the most part, and in most places, in respectability politics. Questions like: What is your art like? Where have you exhibited before? Is it a finished piece? Which genre is it? None of those questions were valued or asked of artists who participated in the LAB. Artists were instead asked: What do you need from this space? (the whole room, half of the room, a corner). More or less, what would you think is the duration of your work to elaborate and install, or is this something prepared that you will install in space? (this to schedule the documentation and borrow the equipment to do so) What is your proposal like?? (this to schedule the documentation and borrow the equipment) What is your proposal? (is it a dance, a poem, an installation, a combo of all, none of the above, an experiment?) This, to figure out what would have been needed: one camera or two, lights or no, etcetera. What time and day are you coming? (just so I could set up a schedule, to keep it flowing, to promote, again to schedule use of equipment and gallery space). The LAB, while it featured almost 40 artists, several stellar art pieces, experiments, and demonstrated, what I knew all along, that the Belizean contemporary is in fact amazing, robust and varied. While representational art is dominant in the Belizean culture landscape, there are also various other kinds of cultural proposals too.
Still, the LAB experience demonstrated just how much racism and sexism still delineate culture in Belize. How colonised the culture, culture products, audience and even the culture producers still are.
The LAB admittedly entered a colonised space like an unidentifiable object intending to dismantle something bigger, and more powerful than itself. It might not have succeeded, but then, aren’t we here at least to try? Whether the LAB was a successful or failing platform, it did provide something for us, and a lesson for me.
If ever I wanted to know how far we have not moved away from the mindset which justified colonialism, developing the LAB was a stern teacher. The same mindset which justified the subjugation of Black people in Belize to some of the harshest human rights violations of all time. The very same mindset that denied entry to Belize by the British here to the very same Garifuna people who were exiled from their homeland in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (Yurumein) by the British there. When the Garinagu were finally allowed access, they were told to stay in the southernmost part of the country, which the colonial government developed the least, an unfortunate colonial legacy which prevails in an independent Belize. That the British divided the Kriol from the Garinagu (the two diasporic African ethnic groups in Belize) during colonialism, which we can still witness today as the battle rages on online over a Guatemalan artist covering Ding Ding Walla Walla without saying anything about the cover’s origin, claiming it as Guatemalan. Even claiming that song as Belizean is disingenuous because these ‘postcolonial’ nations are neither postcolonial nor decolonised. Both countries, as all ‘postcolonial’ countries, are still heavily invested in the colonial project which disenfranchised and continues to disenfranchise Black people and which use Black people’s culture products as national items, while denying Black people in those countries the full perks of said nationality. The discussion of this song should have brought us the Garinagu and the Kriol to the conclusion of our shared African culture practises, instead we are slicing deeper into the colonial wound which has festered since the Garinagu arrived here in 1802.
If we cannot decolonise ourselves, that is to say how we make, consume and show culture, then projects like the LAB, which was borne out of the desire to reclaim the space colonisation predetermined should never be mine, will never work. The irony of all ironies is that if a white man had developed this project it would have been extremely successful in creating more space for white men. Space which they are already given, abundantly, as the colonial dictate insists.