Factri to Factory

To understand the actions of yesterday, a day before the Solstice, the word’s origin meaning the “sun standing still,” we have to look back. Back to Belize’s origins. Many people will tell the origin story of Belize beginning with British colonisation, most specifically to the event we call the Battle of St. George’s Caye which occurred in 1798. I suppose for many, that fantastic telling of freed Africans voting to go to Battle, in a Public Meeting, previously, and in all other instances, was only reserved for the white British colonisers, who were also enslavers, having a sudden change of heart, which lasted only a few days, to unify with enslaved Africans to defend this territory, which is land stolen from the Maya, stirs patriotic feelings to a fever pitch. It stokes the eternal and mythical flame of the melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, which is Belize. That makes us comfortable and at ease. It numbs us to the oppression that anyone, who falls outside the strictures of white supremacist ideals and recommendations must face. It is why this art action on December 20th, 2021 by di Imagination Factri’s director Yasser Musa and curator Gilvano Swasey, artist Michael Gordon Stonetree Records’ director Ivan Duran may seem less significant to Belizeans than it should.

Micheal Gordon is an artist and sculptor born and raised in Southside Belize City. He is a prolific painter, his oeuvre counting in the thousands. He is an MBE (2001), has had his work published and, or featured in several publications and has exhibited in Belize, and internationally. In a postcolonial space like Belize, where respectability politics (those who are outside, what white supremacy dictates is valid, must take these prescriptions to approximate validity), one would assume that these could have and should have given this 62 year old more currency. But that is the issue with ascribing to respectability politics isn’t it? It still is too exclusive a club, of which only few are allowed the ‘in.’ And speaking with a close colleague and friend via whatsapp yesterday afternoon, we concluded that even though representation (another slippery slope) does matter, true, but it alone is definitely not enough. We don’t need just the first this or that and that’s it and that’s all. We are no longer satisfied with onlies, we want the whole table, with everybody at said table, paak op.

In 2012, this is what Gilvano Swasey said about Gordon’s portraiture: “And most of the portraits were from the back, so it would be someone, but you would just see the back of the head. And so I start wondering why was he painting these people from the back. But it was basically the reaction that they gave him; they turned their back on him. So that’s how he was capturing them. He was giving us a snapshot of how we looked at people who were on the street or people who were less fortunate. And then I saw the power of his art, then. And he evolved.” ~ https://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/69560

I feel that had Michael Gordon fit snugly into what we deem “potant pipil” he would get more of the respect due him and the level of recognition his work requires, for sure. What Gordon contends with as an artist operating within the Belizean cultural landscape is quite similar to what I face. An un-decolonised society remains dismissive of marginalised people. Da jos soh di ting set.

We do have the ability to adjust this. In 2005, I took a class at St John’s College Junior College called Understanding Art by Yasser Musa. In this course he presented work from Barbara Kruger, Mercy Sabal, Pablo Picasso, George Gabb, Andy Warhol, Gilvano Swasey, Gustav Klimt and Micheal Gordon among others. I am forever grateful that he made a point to fold in Belizean contemporary with everything else. Hold up a mirror. In Belize “capital A art” is made even though I would not read about it in E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. It was important that these artists were presented at the same level, as equals, because from there I began to develop the understanding that Belizean culture was not peripheral to any, even if it was geographically situated at the periphery of the art world. I would meet Michael Gordon in person that same year as I did some volunteer work at the Image Factory Art Foundation (now called di Imagination Factri) during the summer before I would go and study art in Mérida, Yucatán, México.

Yucatán, México is key to understanding the events which unfolded yesterday morning in Libertad, Corozal, on the sticky floors of the abandoned Corozal Sugar Factory. The Caste War (Guerra de las Castas) 1847–1901 caused an emigration of Maya, Mestize and White Mexicans to Belize, and they would be the ones who would develop the Sugar Industry in the two Northernmost districts of Belize, Corozal and Orange Walk. These sugar ranchos would later be wrestled away from them by the British.

Interestingly, this art action coincides with another date, December 21. December 21st, 1866 is a significant date in Belize’s history, the Battle of San Pedro Yalbac. “The British were soundly defeated, they almost, almost evacuated Belize. They had the ships out on the port, and they were sending out S.O.S.es saying: please come in and help us the Maya are gonna destroy us.” Dr. Angel Cal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrEfv9AYBiI Today marks 155 years since that battle when the Maya defended their territory from the British. It is the antithesis to the Battle of St. George’s Caye, but one we have celebrated since 1898 to now, and the other we rarely even hear about.

Gilvano Swasey, Albert Peyrefitte, Micheal Gordon, Ivan Duran, Carlos ‘Lito’ Quiroz, Juan Reina, Yasser Musa and myself were guided by Eiden Romero into the old Corozal Sugar Factory, which, he told me, just weeks ago was full of mountains of raw sugar, as the space is still sometimes rented by BSI, although widely in disuse since it’s official closure in 1997. I would like to thank Narda Garcia for her assistance in coordinating our use of the space.

Swasey parked a big white truck, and from the pan, we took out Gordon’s work wrapped and bound in plastic and twine. Trucked from 91 North Front Street, Belize City, near the old Sugar warehouse which is now demolished, at 6:30 a.m., this art action is symbolic. From the bank of Haulover Creek to the bank of New River, a Factri to Factory movement of Micheal Gordon’s work. The large, dark open room is now a shadow of its former glory as the massive sugar factory on Pembroke Hall Plantation, which was established in 1785, and was said to have had “an excess of 100 slave houses, A storehouse, Masa dwelling house, Dockyard for boats and wood cutting areas.” (from https://ambergriscaye.com/photogallery/180530.html) We stacked the parcels one on top of the other. This formed a tower of Micheal’s paintings. The minimal light in the space threw a muted glow on the plastic. The tall tower is a small fraction of the massiveness of Michael Gordon’s output over the years, one of the paintings was dated as far back as 1996, when his long relationship with di Factri began. The tower to me, mirrored the mountains of sugar which used to be in that space, the stacks of logwood, then mahogany, which used to be in that space. Nothing comes from nowhere, and every thing has an origin story, even if we do not tell it.

The tower of paintings stood testament to the massive work which is involved in culture production. Michael Gordon’s production is prolific. He paints and sculpts and draws over-looked narratives. His work is vivid with strong emotions, which when you look at his work is palpable. He has continued to work even in spite of the sea of apathy toward culture and culture workers which has incessantly whipped this country for centuries. Even as I asked him how he felt that morning, to be here, in this great moment, he told me: “Well, I have like 14 ting home weh i di work pan an’ chri finish.”

“Art is work.” to quote author Monica Byrne, I pondered as I saw the tall tower look small in the immensity of that empty, abandoned building. The tower stood there in the urgent aura created by A Strange Eclipse, an approximately 6 minute sound created by musician and producer Ivan Duran. In front of the tower, an iPad recorded for posterity, as this was an ephemeral act. It lasted a few hours in situ, but the reverb from this, I feel, will last for centuries, beyond us.

A few yards away from that installation, Juan Reina, a Belize City youth, recorded an episode of his video-podcast the Blind Spot. Lito Quiroz documented the art action.

A powerful set of actions happened yesterday in Libertad village, testament to how we also have to decentralise art display and exhibition. Kulcha tings do not only occur in the centre (Belize City), and institutional spaces, nor should they, so why not exhibit everywhere? Powerful actions happened yesterday, which ask us to adjust how we absorb and receive art, artists and ourselves.

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Katie Numi Usher

Katie Numi Usher

Black artist, writer, poet curator and critic from Belize, Central America. Currently learning my mother tongue as a decolonial practise.