‘Moanings’* of a Caribbean-Central American based Caribbean Central American artist
Belize is completely isolated from a world moving faster and further into contactless payment. Add to this the fact that, chances are even if you’re familiar with both the Caribbean and Central America, you might not have ever heard of Belize. Or maybe yes that one time when you went diving or on honeymoon, “oh that was incredible” and you’re probably planning to one day return, if you’re ever this way again and if the cheaper rates in Tulum or Petén don’t lure you there instead.
There are layers of exclusion when it comes to Belize.
The Belize Tourism Board has made that unfortunate position profitable by once using “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret” as the country’s tagline. That is great I guess, if you’re a tourist who wants to inhabit a secret fantasy for a while, and there’s no chance any of the locals will be around to disrupt your daydream. It’s not great though if you are a Black woman visual artist trying to have a career in an art world, where success is extremely reliant on, and determined by, being connected to big names, the right galleries or art capitals of the world. It often feels like manoeuvring layers of periphery.
Periphery in the art world is useless currency except in the rare moments when the art world takes a minuscule break from its navel gazing to mine and exploit periphery for thee hot, new but fleeting trend.
And it is very important who does that mining, it has to be a very known entity for it to be considered relevant and to be well received.
apple pay, cash app, venmo, paypal, wise etc, none of those services work in Belize. You can only access these if you have a bank account from an eligible country. Most Belizeans do not. Some Belizeans have a Belizean bank account, most a Credit Union account, and some none of these. As it stands now the only way Belizeans can access money when outside Belize travelling, is via credit cards. Credit cards are loans, not everyone is considered eligible to take out loans and sign up for credit cards. This immediately limits a great majority of Belizeans from accessing this service. So if disenfranchised Belizeans do travel, if we can afford to, (or on invitation, as is usually my case), there is almost nothing you’re able to do without a credit card while away. The only way that money can enter or leave Belize is by two very expensive methods: wire transfer (a bank will charge the sender or receiver a fee AND the currency exchange rate per dollar) which takes a long time, or quicker, using the services of western union or moneygram.
I have, since 2015, when I was to go to Barcelona to launch Binomium in a library there (This didn’t work out because at the time I was denied the Schengen visa because people need to first prove to the European consul that they can afford to travel and have enough money for the allotted time. I was unable to do so). Visa requirements seem very racist, classist and widely inaccessible to the average Caribbean or Central American citizen. I have been trying, very unsuccessfully, to get a credit card or a debit card which works internationally. No bank in Belize offers debit cards which can be used internationally. You need to be eligible for a credit card and the limit is so small, overage penalties can and do abound, or so I have been told.
In 2018, I was in London for 9 days, well actually 8, as one day I went up to Wakefield, to attend a conference where I was the invited Caribbean artist. It was a mess, and that’s because England was not almost fully contactless payment only yet. I didn’t get the travel award when I finished my performance. I received it several weeks later, and only after several emails, via wire transfer to my mom’s bank account. I did not have a bank account at the time.
Artists in Belize have to fight tooth and nail the “starving artist” trope. Many do not see the value in paying artists at all. Culture is not even considered a viable career in Belize. If your work, in their uninformed opinion, looks like “something my child could do” even less so. When it comes to the culture market in Belize, there are very specific things which collectors look for, anything outside that won’t get sold. So one can imagine how making enough money from one’s work to maintain a bank account is challenging if not altogether impossible. The product (tangible), most times shows no signs of the process, hours, research, nor investment of the artist. As a lot of my work is conceptual or performance, my art stands outside the market and because of erasure, gatekeeping and favouritism in culture institutions in Belize, unknown. The cultural institutions legitimise what is art and not. They definitely introduce or obscure artists to the Belizean audience and for this reason especially I rely on social media, which has been suffering because of the algorithm. Did I mention that materials are hard to find here? If you do manage to find them, these are very expensive and may not be of ‘fine art’ quality.
I strayed for a bit. You might wonder why I was there for 9 days for a 3 day event, of which my participation was 45 minutes? Because travel to Belize is exhausting. There are few flights and no night flights, so that always means a connecting flight and overnight layovers at the airport. As a Belizean citizen and passport holder, with a USA visitors’ visa, I ALWAYS experience long lines, and an accusatory-in-tone line of questions from immigration officers. They cannot believe that I am simply visiting for a short while, for the purpose of my work or to visit my family. They assume that I must be trying to deceive them. They assume that I must be hiding from them my true intentions, which must be figuring out how to overstay my visa and start the citizenship process. Honestly that thought has never once crossed my mind. I honestly have never been frustrated enough with how little resources are available in Belize to consider the USA an option. They always assume that I do not have money (they always ask how much money I have because as I’ve been told many times verbatim: “we do not tolerate people coming to the United States to be burdens to US citizens.” They often ask me why I visit towns or cities they assume are inhabited only by rich white people. Now as hard a time as I have in Belize, and trust me when I say that I do, there is not a single country that has impressed me enough to start the gruelling, racist and super expensive process of seeking out any other citizenship. Belizean racism and misogynoir is what I know well and am accustomed to. The weather is great and the food is too.
In Belize we like to stay “beta di devil yuh noa, dan di deep blue sea” (Better the devil you know, than the deep blue sea). I have no interest in learning how to manoeuvre and learn a brand new racism.
I am too exhausted trying to manoeuvre this one that I’ve known my whole life.
In 2020 an art fair invited me to do a talk via zoom. Nice and all, but I had to navigate payment for several days with them. They even suggested, after I explained to them that no international digital payment platform operates here, that I ask my father, who is a citizen and lives in the USA, to accept the payment via zelle then have him figure out how to get it to me in Belize by “western union or something.” I finally asked them to just send me a western union, since they had put that option on the table.
In 2022, for 11 weeks I tried to navigate groceries, art supplies and miscellaneous on a stipend. Thank god my mom taught me how to budget on very little chile, because how?! Being far away from home, for that extended amount of time, with no relatives or close friends who could’ve assisted me, was quite an experience. There were a million other things I wished that I could have done in London because it truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in an actual art world capital for a significant amount of time, but I simply could not. The Eating Sugar series, 2022 could have expanded and been developed with more nuance, if I would have been able to travel to Scotland and do site specific video performances with spaces connected to Abram Lyle, one of the two namesakes of the Tate & Lyle Sugars (which is still pretty much pulling the sugar strings in Belize via ASR). Colonialism is not far off in Belize, which gained independence in 1981. Independent but with ALL the colonial mechanisms and the mindset firmly in place, even today in 2022.
Two months and 11 days passed before I received the reimbursement for materials and miscellaneous via wire transfer to my bank account. I mentioned earlier that the process is expensive, but it is also inconvenient, because all transfers have to first be passed through an intermediary bank in the USA. If any mistakes are made, the money is sent back and the entire process must be done all over again. Receiving the reimbursement while still in London, during the residency, could have defrayed a lot of the stress and anxiety that I experienced. I had to navigate all that while also feeling the homesickness, loneliness, and just the inevitable stress of being on an artist residency. Especially in my case where there are few to no opportunities at home, I put a lot of pressure on myself to produce good work in hopes of being seen. I hoped to do a decent enough showing that could create a curiosity about Belizean contemporary art.
The consideration too, of which artists will be asked to cohabit, needs to be deliberated with a great deal of sensitivity. Where people come from culturally, politically and emotionally, all these are important things to know and consider when expecting people to live together for an extended time. While there, a white housemate unabashedly told me that Indigenous clothing is “just pretty colours, so what let her (Frida Kahlo) wear it” and that “I should have an easy time in England because of British colonialism in Belize… it’s like coming home, no?.. preferential treatment.” The last statement was made at a lunch where I was railing holy cane about the horrible experience I had had at the British Library, among very many other bizarre things.
Clearly white Europeans need desperately to inform themselves on what colonialism was and still is to the “global south.” I use ‘inform’ loosely; because really, how can someone not know these things? Both that term and the nations considered part of that label are products of white European colonialism and racism. The nonBlack person of colour housemate intimated that it was difficult for her to interact with me. I assume less so than interacting with the other two white housemates, which seemed to come to her so naturally. I’d like to beg white and nonBlack people of colour to sit with their own internalised antiBlackness and misogynoir, because it’s truly foul. Representation and inclusion sure, but not before making these spaces less hostile and safe for Black people. When I had questioned an organisation which gave a discussion on decolonisation about the panel’s lack of diversity, the nonBlack person of colour housemate disregarded my concern as “angry.” Of course, because what else is a Black woman and any utterance of hers, if not anger?
I tried to numb myself and avoid responding to what I was experiencing during the residency because I still needed to make art and do many studio visits. Definitely these studio visits could have been beneficial but I don’t see that networking extending to 5,000 miles away. The visits produced a ton of anxiety and I felt that their approach to my practise and work was from a European art model perspective. That perspective is nothing even remotely similar to what’s available in Belize, nor does it factor in how culture operates down here. The residency was a great experience for my work and practise, clearly. Personally, though, emotionally and mentally, it was extremely challenging and the experience of being the only Black person in predominantly white spaces is never not depleting to the spirit and corrosive to mental health. I know this very well because this was my experience studying at la Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatán from August 2005 to December 2008. That trauma changed me and my work forever.
The money aspect is something which I have been contending with for years. I have decided, for my own mental health, not to travel outside Belize until I can have access to a Belizean international debit card and or if we have some kind of international digital pay platform. I have danced that dance way too many times than I should have done. Why must one suffer so intensely for career development? I mean it’s the art world we are talking about here. A Black woman artist from Belize (Belize which is widely ignored in the Central American, Caribbean and Latin American art reviews) I will certainly have a hard time garnering interest in my work and networking with galleries and museums. Considering that, in any and in every way that I can remove discomfort from my life, I will.
The banking system of Belize needs to make some serious adjustments and attempt to modernise and keep up with the dizzying new experience of contactless-only payment. Especially as there are few to no opportunities for artists in Belize, and those few opportunities are heavily gatekept and reliant on respectability politics.
Artists, visual artists especially, survive because of opportunities from abroad, especially those of us excluded for the few events that cultural institutions organise. Not having a credit card, nor wanting to incur severe debt because of a credit card, will bar many Belizean artists from international opportunities. I firmly believe that this is beyond an issue of unfairness to the artists; this is detrimental to Belize’s own cultural growth. I feel that if we do not prioritise artists and support them until the necessary infrastructure is put in place for us to fully take advantage of the opportunities which are available, Belize will never really be truly independent. Belize will forever have to depend on, and be at the whim, fancy, and ever changing tastes of developed countries’ ideas of culture and cultural industry.
Furthermore, organisations that claim to want to create opportunities for artists from the Caribbean and Central America must acknowledge the massive lack of resources, the expensive, restrictive and strict visa requirements and insufficient or non-existent cultural infrastructure. How can we fully make use of the opportunities if we don’t have the infrastructure, resources nor support in our home countries?
In the case of Belize, I feel that the National Institute of Culture and History, the Central Bank of Belize, the commercial banks and credit unions of Belize and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could and should convene and troubleshoot this issue with some level of urgency.
I am deeply hesitant to pursue any residency, workshop, culture exchange or any other opportunity if special provisions are not first put in place. Until such time, I need to find other methods of furthering my career within these limitations and without much resources. Mindful not to say too much, because as painful as this all is to me, it hurts all that more when it is received with flippant ‘suggestions’ (all of which I have tried for several years with marginal to no results) or told flat out that I am “moaning.” I’ve come to realise also that diasporan Caribbean and Central American artists can be and in some cases are as exploitative as their European or North American counterparts. Completely disconnected from the challenges which artists endure here, because they only visit on holiday and mostly stay in resorts. They are Caribbean artists, yes, but they live in the Empire, with all that that entails, access to resources, non-visa required travel and passport privilege. Quaint how many of those who used to downplay their Caribbean heritage or Central American heritage are leading with that now, as many museums, galleries, artist residency programs and art funds, because of the sudden hyper-visibility global Black Lives Matters movements (eyeroll here because glad that you all finally became aware of and saw in 2020 movements which were happening for centuries, worldwide), are forced to diversify so as to appear less racist and more inclusive. I say quaint not because some artists have shifted identities, but because they know that art institutions won’t look too far. If the art world really wanted to do something revolutionary, they should look to the region along with the diaspora. And lord help these art institutions as they struggle identifying the differences between ethnicity, race, nationality and geographical culture markers.
Far too many of these think that employing, including or selecting white Caribbean or white Central American artists, curators and historians is doing something revolutionary. Considering that racial hierarchy, inherited from colonialism, still dictates power, class and status in this region, those selections would be ludicrous if it weren’t so dangerous.
It’s definitely not the representation and inclusion that they are claiming that it is. Caribbean and Central American diaspora artists must realise too that undoubtedly they face challenges within Empire, still they don’t struggle with the extreme lack of resources, visa-required travel and the overarching consequences of centuries-long exploitation and extraction (enslavement and colonisation) which left this entire region bereft and almost completely dependent on former colonisers. Especially our industries and how limited growth is allowed for those because international finance, built on enslavement and colonisation, still uses those same exploitative structures, policies, trade routes and business practises, today.
“So much trouble, so much trouble”
as Bob Marley and the Wailers famously sang.
This all looks extremely bleak but most of it was predetermined, I can only try my best not to let it destroy me. And I do intend to continue ‘moaning’ because as Zora Neale Hurston rightfully said,
“if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
note: in the initial draft (August 21, 2022) i mentioned that the wire transfer took two months, but it was actually a little more, i made that correction on August 29, 2022. i also explained a little further a few things that i had mentioned in the first draft. * the title ‘moanings’ makes reference to a group discussion with other Caribbean diaspora artists who live in the Empire. i made certain observations when asked, what it had been like for me since returning home to Belize after the residency. i related how little culture events there were here and was sharing my experience and a comment was made that i was “moaning about.”