By Nan Collymore
The period after Colonialism – when countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas liberated themselves from colonizing countries – brought with it a fervor for study around identity, cultural construction and cultural difference. Claire Laurier Decoteau, for example, examined the schizophrenic condition that occurs in states with a colonial past in her study of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The phrase “Postcolonial Paradox” was coined by Decoteau to define those nation states that “need to respect the demands of neoliberal capital in order to compete successfully on the world market and a responsibility to redress entrenched inequality, secure legitimacy from the poor, and forge a national imaginary.” This paradox can be observed across the globe where colonialism has been instituted and postcolonialism occurred as a corollary. In the Caribbean, the French, Portuguese and English colonizing states sought to avoid the reflection on a brutal past to repair the present and future conditions of Caribbean inhabitants and their descendants by securing this “national imaginary” and therefore allowing continued representation in a system of capital that undermines the greater population within those islands.
Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox, a current exhibition in the Museum Of African Diaspora (MOAD), in San Francisco, US, looks at the legacy of European colonialism in the Caribbean through the work of 10 contemporary artists: Firelei Báez, Leonardo Benzant, Andrea Chung, Lavar Munroe, Angel Otero, Phillip Thomas, Lucia Hierro, Adler Guerrier, Ebony G. Patterson, and Didier William. As the introductory text to the exhibition explains, the show’s title is inspired by “some of the core products that have historically been produced in, and exported from the Caribbean to the rest of the world – with a focus on Europe”. And furthermore: “A key driver of the exhibition is the theory that colonialism has continued to exist in other forms, and is in fact spreading through the export of soft power, the use of military force, the control of international financial and banking mechanisms, as well as the increase in globalization”.
Among the examined artists, Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson’s tapestry and fiber works explore gender and body politics. In A View Out and A View In (2015) Patterson plays with the tropes associated with youth culture – excess, embellishment – and builds a canvas to explore the disembodiment of youth, black culture, state violence and exclusion from mainstream society.
Firelei Báez’ large scale paintings examine the exclusion of specific cultural histories and bodies from the broad spectrum of popular culture, using hair and women’s corporeality to re-write those cultural myths. Baez, who was born in Dajabón, Dominican Republic, bordering Haiti, grew up with parents from both sides of the border. At age ten, she moved to the US and her paintings are wrought with this vibrant, multilayered psychological journeying from place to place. Her colorful use of flowers, natural big, unrestrained hair and curvy silhouettes puts black and brown women’s bodies into a wider context of rejecting what Spivak would describe as their subaltern status, instead inviting an audience to gaze at the body that is undesired and invisible in the realm of whiteness.
In 2018, in a series entitled The Redbones, Lavar Munroe – who lives and works in Indiana and the Bahamas, where he was born – built a fictionalized account of a group of children forced by wealthy landowners to be on the frontline of war as a rite of passage. Over the course of four years, Munroe collected photographs from cities in Senegal that he used as references for the paintings. The gory crimson and pink is a reflection of the atrocities that occur throughout the Global South and is a demonstration of how little power is yielded by those in lower income brackets, the unsheltered and the subaltern. The use of that palette also speaks to the barely covered flesh and the requisite trauma that lay just beneath the surface of people’s impacted by colonialism and the subsequent dilution of that history through postcolonialist rule.
The politics of the Caribbean hold a complicated narrative, one immersed in its brutal history of the capture of Africans, the terroristic and violent nature of the system imposed on those captives and the consistent refusal to acknowledge the painful and destructive legacy both on the captives and the indigenous population of those islands. The curation of the Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox, by Larry Ossei-Mensah and Dexter Wimberly, cleverly raises this subject by including Firelei Baez’ How to Slip Out of Your Body Quietly (2018), which approaches the idea of the connection of human tragedy with ecology as a witness to it’s abuses. Using the black/brown female body as the roots, the below-the-ground interior life of a foundation of the flora and fauna that grow from the ground is a gesture of poeticism and an illustrative way to think of what the Indian scholar and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak might describe as “the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow.”
The broader issue for Caribbean inhabitants and Afro-Indigenous populations in the Americas in general is how to build nations that have been ravaged by Europeans over the course of hundreds of years – nations that can be equable, sustainable and able to trade fairly with their neighbors, without curtailment by the IMF and other international bodies, who only serve the interests of the economic-political elite. The Global North’s “plundering” (Ta-Nehisi Coates) of people of the African diaspora is an important juncture from which to create discourse and activism around rebuilding of agriculture, economies and negotiating the terrain of exploitation that takes place in the annual debts paid to the Global North and the immense payments that go to France from Guadalupe and Haiti. And perhaps this is the greater paradox: that colonialism as a system of oppression never ceased, but re-branded to a softer form of socio-political and environmental exploitation through tourism, environmental pollution and inter-island competition for resources.
Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox, Museum of African Diaspora, San Francisco, runs through August 11th, 2019. The show is curated by Dexter Wimberly, independent curator, Founder & CEO of Art World Conference, and Larry Ossei-Mensah, Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Co-Founder of ARTNOIR.
Panel discussion. A Postcolonial Paradox: Caribbean Art & Economy in the Global South, June 1st, 2-4 p.m.
Nan Collymore is a writer and independent scholar in visual culture, specifically art, cinema and fashion. She writes for Contemporary And (C& and C&AL) magazine, The September Issues and is an Editor at Teeth Mag.She has lectured at Goldsmiths College, CCA and Roehampton Institute and teaches fashion and jewelry construction at NIAD as well as being the founder of small conceptual art project NN and co-founder of slow publishing press – CC Press.