Caribbean Queer Visualities
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Caribbean Queer Visualities
A Small Axe Project Statement

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One of the most remarkable developments in the Caribbean and its diaspora over the past two decades or so is the emergence of a generation of young visual artists working in various media (paint, film, performance) who have been transforming Caribbean visual practice, perhaps even transfiguring Caribbean visual culture. A significant part of the veritable explosion of Caribbean art in this period is owed to this generation. Undoubtedly, the increasing visibility of Caribbean art is not unconnected to other significant developments—for example, the transformation of mobilities (the literal and digital movement of ideas and people in new ways across the globe) and a decentering of the evaluative and temporal assumptions of modernism that secured the privilege of certain aesthetic norms over others.

But part of what is important in thinking about this generation of artists is its location in a new conjuncture of postcolonial Caribbean life. This is a generation that is not shaped by the ethos that framed and animated the cultural-political questions of earlier generations of the postcolonial Caribbean. The artists of this generation did not grow up in the “aftermaths of sovereignty” so much as in the aftermaths of sovereignty’s aftermaths. They have come of age in the context of the exhaustion of the great narratives of collective social and political change of the latter half of the twentieth century—the great collective narratives of decolonization, postcolonial nationhood, black power, socialism, and so on, that gave a point (however contradictorily so) to their parents’ lives. Or to put this more precisely, this generation is growing up in a context in which these narratives, once oppositional, once open to the adventure of a [End Page 118] future-to-come, have congealed and ossified into orthodoxies, and as a result, in their work these artists disclose more and more their own modes of exclusion, marginalization, repression, and intolerance. As the old antisystemic movements for social and political change were installed in power in the new states of the region, they stultified into their own terrified normativities, anxiously policing the boundaries of identity and community, sex and pleasure, personhood and belonging.

Not surprisingly, then, the artistic preoccupations of this younger generation are not animated by the same ethos of artistic value as their elders; their visual aesthetic of dissent does not gravitate, for example, toward the politics of class or race or nation, or anyway not in the same centered, earnest, aspirational way of older generations. Think, in the Jamaican context, of Barrington Watson’s evocation of the maternal dignity of black womanhood in work such as “Mother and Child” (1959); and think of the dread displacements of this sentimental ethos of nationalist self-respect performed by Karl Parboosingh in work such as “Jamaican Gothic” (1968); and think of the displacements of this cultural nationalist aesthetic performed by Dawn Scott’s social realist critique of the structural violence embodied in the Jamaican political rationality in “A Cultural Object” (1985). For all their profound differences these artists share the horizon of a progressive collective futurity—the project of the decolonized Jamaican nation-state—in whose name they can enact a quarrel. Now, it is not exactly that the symbolic universe inhabited by these artists does not persist in the work of a younger generation of Jamaican artists born from around 1980 onward. These artists do not necessarily disavow the demand for art as engaged intelligence. But none of them sees this exactly in relation to collectivist categories of social change enacted by previous generations. Think (to keep to our Jamaican examples) of Khary Darby’s sublime meditations on subjugation in work such as The Birth of Tragedy (2002) or the figurative minimalism of Oneika Russell’s A Natural History series (2012) or the mannered voluptuousness of Phillip Thomas’s Carousel (2009).

What has opened here is an aesthetic space—and a very embattled, uneven, and conflicted space—in which new questions about subjectivity and identity, powers and subjugations, have emerged, questions that are less about ideologies than about embodiments, less about representations than about performativities, less about utopias than about instantiations, less about belongings than about lovings, less about...


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