Reclaiming Spaces

Katie Numi Usher
10 min readNov 4, 2021

written August 10, 2017 on invitation to present at TEDxBelmopan: Celebrate, i was later asked by TEDxBelmopan curator to defer my talk to when mental health would be the topic, possibly the following year i was told, since i mentioned anxiety and panic attacks in my text. I declined their offer, TEDxBelmopan has not done any specific event for talks on mental health to this date. This text was edited on February 19th, 2021

Despite living a very happy childhood in Belmopan, my mom received a letter in Jamaica saying something along the lines of, “sometimes, I do not want to live anymore… hope you come back home soon” underneath these words a drawing of green hills and a house. I was seven. My mom was alarmed and took me and my brother to Barbados with her for one year.

Sometime around age nine, then in Standard three at Belmopan Junior School, my childhood friend Rachelle Estephan and I entered drawings for UNICEF’s I Draw My Dreamhouse contest. We spent much time in the wide open field behind the school, jumping from tall rocks to short rocks, rudimentary parkour. Neither of us fit in with our classmates. Art was our space. It was no surprise then when we both placed as semi-finalists for Belize (17 were chosen country-wide that year). We were given colouring pencils, pencils and a sketch pad. These were my first set of “professional” tools.

In 1998, my family moved to Belize City. As a little girl, Belize City, which is entered into and exited from through a cemetery, scared me. This place I would soon realise was a straight up, talk fast, talk loud city. I found my voice here. I also found poetry.

In 1999, I started high school at St. Catherine Academy. I was scared. My grandmother, for example, who grew up between Punta Gorda Belize and Puerto Barrios, Guatemala dreamed of attending the ‘Convent School.’ This was a coveted space, I learnt that right away. I remember the principal telling us at orientation, that we were “special girls… above the rest.” The concept of space became real to me. This is also when I began experiencing what are called panic attacks.

This was also when I had my first experience with a drawing class. For one semester we learned pencil, charcoal, oil pastels and pastels. It was the most beautiful experience I had ever had, and I will always be grateful to Mrs. Amideyeh for that. There would be no more art until 6th form but there were many wonderful books to read, two from first form which really impacted me were Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell and Heroes, Lizards and Passion by Ziola Ellis. These were books where I first saw myself, and people like me, raised to the elevated state of literature. Reading Dickens, Dumas, Brontë and other European writers drew spaces of faraway places in my mind. These two books were mirrors and written by Belizean women like me. Another gem, at that time because now my relationship with how Black women were written in that book now make me feel ill, was The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Here the backstory of the “crazy” Mrs. Rochester who tried to set the house a blaze in Jane Eyre. Stories ignored, were being shared. This was inspiring to me.

At St. John’s College Junior College, I met Yasser Musa, Gilvano Swasey and Lita Krohn. People who would show me that history and art were beyond separation. I also met Michelle Perdomo, the art fairy godmother of many Belizean creatives. She showed me how to paint, the value of material, acrylics for example can not be squeezed back into the tube. One very valuable thing I learned from her was, “that’s beautiful!” This is key. Self-esteem is a must in a post-colonial setting. As we build identity and move toward self-determination, one must be proud of one’s self and one’s place in the world, regardless of what big museums and official art history books say, or in our case: women and especially Black women, Indigenous women, omit.

Yasser Musa would show us Barbara Kruger, Mercy Sabal, Pablo Picasso, George Gabb, Andy Warhol, Gilvano Swasey, Gustav Klimt and Micheal Gordon. 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 in E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.

At the Escuela Superior de Arte de Yucatán, I confronted a new language, and a new postcolonial space. This when, for example, a Spanish man, told me “yo soy de la madre patria” and I cheekily responded, “no’’ because, “I am from Belize.” This created new questions for me: who was my mother? Why did these men see me as an exotic Negress? Who on earth was this negra cadiente? In Merida at 19, I was confronted with a hyper-sexualised trick mirror. Black women, especially in the body of Rarotonga, made it seem like my sexual appetite appeared to have no end. Black bodies also took the form of Memín Pinguín and his mamá. There were many myths to dispel. Even those, folded neatly into the vernacular. This led me to work then against and alongside the imaginary Black. I learned semiotics, art history and theory, techniques in painting, sculpture and video, these became my arsenal.

The first was le roi Christophe I of Haiti and his wife (the first black queen of the western hemisphere) Marie-Louise Coidavid. Christophe was depicted as a mixed-raced man and his wife, a blonde woman in a popular Mexican comic, Fuego. I scoured the internet for hours to find a high resolution image of the Haitian King and Queen, Black royalty in the ‘new’ world. The page from the comic strip and this image were blown up and presented in the foyer of the Peon Contreras in 2006 as an installation I called Don’t Let them Fool You. It was important to me that Black people, especially Black women not be erased from their achievements or erased from the picture completely. This still informs my practise today.

In 2008, jaded with my studies and battling my anxiety, which had turned into a severe depression, I left my degree program and returned home. Facing the Music was my last performance. In the Plaza Grande, this space of governance and socialization, I paraded in shirts which had phrases printed on them. These phrases which I found worrying from the vernacular like “trabajar como negra para vivir como güera” (work like a slave to live white), I fused with Kriol, Yucatec Maya, dancehall lyrics and my own thoughts. They made for some interesting photos and some exchanges of quizzical looks and rolled eyes. Days later I would return to Belize.

Being back home was great for my mental health, but I longed for the art activity of being in Mérida. So I teamed up with creatives everywhere in Belize, to get things going. The year after returning to Belize, I participated in Women in Art 2009, this would be my first and last participation until 2015, when I would be invited back to participate. That is a long twisted story for another time.

In 2011, I co-exhibited with artist Jill M Burgess of Punta Gorda. The show el Fleco + Vixens, and Whores, Seriously Misunderstood Women featured the ebook el Fleco by Yasser Musa, an interview on life and art. Here I realized that the kind of art I make, sometimes does not result in a product beyond a concept and is definitely not like commercially successful Belizean art. I decided to abandon white wall spaces and made personal galleries out of facebook, twitter and instagram and doing art actions around politics. Now those formats are quaint because likes don’t translate to critique or analysis, but I guess the work is out there, being shared. And oddly enough making an impact, a recent encounter with cyberbullies and their apologists proved that. The collateral damage using social media as a platform because of some folks’ ego and social media bravado.

Between 2012 and 2014, I oscillated between Marin County, California and Ladyville, reading about and looking at art, wondering where the Black, women and non-traditional white cube artists were. This, I felt, had to be addressed right away.

In late May of 2014, I proposed a project to the Image Factory Art Foundation. A project which would encourage both culture producers and consumers to produce and consume in a very urgent way. Creators would have a maximum of 24 hours to have their work mounted, after which everything is documented, removed and the space is prepared for new work. This concept was known as the LAB, and though both News 5 Belize and 7 News Belize, erased me from my own project in their coverage, I continued creating within the LAB and encouraged others, especially those erased from Belizean history and not represented in private and state collections, to do the same. We must counter the long standing tradition of the systematic erasure of Black women and Indigenous women from art history.

The LAB had been active for 4 years with the collaboration and support of the Image Factory Art Foundation and several artists. We approached it with urgency and purpose because the dire state of culture in Belize required that. Desperately!

In 2013, the largest structure on Noh Mul was demolished, almost completely. One year later, a group of artists in a BAFFU attitude, visited the space and performed work. Mine was the burial of my academic history, transcripts from Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatán, St. John’s College Junior College, St. Catherine Academy, copies of CXC certificates, an acceptance letter to John Carroll University, and application forms for scholarships and student visas in a crevice on the mound. Well, what is the purpose of pursuing study which I could not even afford at the sum of 90 thousand Belizean dollars a year, in the face of the demolition of culture and history? Does a Black woman who creates and wants to learn in that context matter? This performance was Bury My Credentials.

In 2015, the work I did inside the LAB 2 were two works aimed directly at crime. On July 6, 2015 Kareem Clarke, a journalist who worked for Amandala press and who constantly reminded us that the violence was raging, that the statistics represented were our fellow Belizeans, not mere statistics, was slain on the street in Belize City.

For the Wall, I collected names from newspapers, from the third week of January to the first week of July and found more than 70 names of Belizeans, all of different ages, but majority male, and of that majority, mostly Black, and from Belize City. These I wrote on the black wall in chalk. Covering the wall from ceiling to floor. In front of it, an empty chair and a small lit candle. Kareem Clarke, one of the chroniclers of this madness, ended up on that wall. We lost seventy plus Belizeans to extreme violence in 7 months. That is unacceptable! Days after I started In Words, Kareem Clarke, a selection of his articles from January to July. He had written about many different topics with ample skill. These newspaper clippings covered the wall floor to ceiling, and imagine what else he would have written? The clippings have since been bound and handed over to his mother.

Those two pieces I consider my biggest work, none of them have a physical product per say. The product, if there is one, is a space of contemplation on our role as artists in society. We are both the record keepers and the creators of history. This is what I want parents to ponder, when their child says that they want to be an artist. Your child wants to be intelligent, socially responsible, involved in society. Encourage them. They will need your support as they attempt to stay the course in an environment which has, and unfortunately continues, the systematic erasure of women, Black and Indigenous people, and what this society deems non-traditional white cube spaces from the Belizean art canon, from Belizean art history and theory. It gatekeeps the Belizean art canon, and relegates only meager representation in collections and almost no documentation in art history to art and artists, it deems unworthy.

With my work I create spaces to discuss mental health, child abuse, the Black woman. In an effort, yes to do and show my own research, but also in an effort to inspire, to start the conversation. In an effort also to approach life with the knowledge that yes, my experience is valid and necessary to the wider conversation. We must tell our stories to combat exoticism and dispel the myths aggravated by tokenism.

Earlier I mentioned the BAFFU attitude at Noh Mul. BAFFU is an art magazine from Belize. It features a scan of the Belizean contemporary. No Belizean creative was barred from submitting work. High resolution documentation was the only requirement. Since June 2014, there have been 11 issues and one printed. Twelve all together, and ten thousand plus pages of literature and visual art. So, this is how I approach everything I encounter now.

Earlier this year, as I did my first artist residency in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom. I took my passport, and 10 copies of BAFFU magazine. These: my visa or ‘in’ to an established art centre, one with a functioning art council and grants, art masters and doctorate degrees, and art careers, art residencies, art talks, workshops, museums and galleries. It truly was a different world, and for four weeks, I tried to absorb everything.

The strongest experience was my interaction with refugee children, and their journey into a brand new culture, language, climate and space. It made me ponder our role as ‘Belize, the haven for those seeking refuge’. What is the refugee experience like here? And stronger still was my meeting with Hawa, a young Sierra Leonean woman seeking refugee status. When I met her, I was happy. My grandfather’s grandmother was called Auntie Sierra, because she was said to have come to Belize from Sierra Leone. Shortly after that meeting, I had a panic attack. Why? Many factors I am sure, but also because I realized how little I know of Sierra Leone, of where my ancestors came from, of myself.

This is where I want to leave you today, explaining that through the challenges of being a Black Belizean artist who suffers with generalized anxiety disorder, I have made it my life’s work to tell stories. To collaborate and to create spaces for artists like myself. It is important that young aspiring Belizeans have references they can mirror and reflect upon. This has to be our responsibility. They will not give us space, but we need space. We must collaborate to make them. Thank You!



Katie Numi Usher

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