The self, centred
By Nicole Smythe-Johnson
See Me Here: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraits from the Caribbean, ed. Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown
(Robert & Christopher Publishers, ISBN 9789769534483, 224 pp)
The Secret (1992), by Irénée Shaw; oil on canvas, 32 x 32 inches. All images courtesy Robert & Christopher Publishers
The Caribbean Contemporary Art Survey Series from Trinidad-based Robert & Christopher Publishers began in 2012 with Pictures from Paradise: A Survey of Contemporary Caribbean Photography. As the title implies, that collection sought to re-present the Caribbean, in response to and/or in spite of the limitations of hegemonic representations of the region. The focus on photography was not arbitrary. Bahamian art historian Krista Thompson has written extensively on the constitutive role of photography in the development of the visual vocabulary of the Caribbean. Pictures from Paradise was a sort of visual essay, anchored by Thompson’s insights but not limited by them. With that volume, series editors Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown managed a book of equal parts coffee-table appeal and critical significance.
See Me Here, the second volume in the series, does not disappoint. It is not the tag-along younger sibling one might have feared, either. Indicating an overlap between curatorial and editorial inquiry, Archer and Brown have followed up with an instalment that departs from the first in important ways, while still unfolding from it. See Me Here fruitfully expands the frame beyond photography, following a new direction but along the same line of inquiry. After all, once one has said, “Here are some pictures from paradise — not of paradise, from paradise,” can the next question be anything but, “How does paradise look upon itself?”
Like its predecessor, See Me Here is beautifully laid out by graphic designer Richard Mark Rawlins. As a practicing artist himself, Rawlins translates artwork in media as varied as documentary photography, painting, and installation on the printed page without flattening, crowding, or designing them beyond recognition. From the introductory essay to the almost two hundred pages of uninterrupted images, the book maintains a pleasing visual cohesion, with the images the unapologetic stars of the show.
Bubalups/Mother Sally: Private Audition (2013), by Ewan Atkinson; digital photographs
The attitude of Barbadian Sheena Rose’s Too Much Make-Up II (2013) on the front cover and the peek-a-boo of fellow Barbadian Ewan Atkinson’s Bubalups/Mother Sally: Private Audition (2013) on the inside cover index the spirit of what follows. In their brief introduction, the editors reinforce this idea, pointing out that the title is a reference to the Jamaican patois expression “see mi ’ere!”: “an instruction used to call attention to the speaker — whether for his or her physical appearance, or to note the occurrence of a significant moment in that person’s life — an arrival, so to speak.” These works are not shy, they are not polite. They confront, they shock, they play, stretching the concept of the self, through the other and beyond.
In the accompanying essay, Trinidadian writer and academic Marsha Pearce ably unpacks the practice of self-portraiture and its implications for Caribbean identity. In a beautiful turn of phrase, she argues that self-portraiture presents “cartographies of self,” tentative maps of a self that is constantly evolving in a Caribbean context, often in maroonage, effacing itself as a protective measure. She further contends that the included works wilfully reconfigure “how we conceptualise narcissism; redefining the notion so it becomes a self-centredness that is not selfish nor egotistical, but instead urgently puts self at the very centre of constructive scrutiny and critical study.” Given the popularity of selfie-sticks, one does wonder at the limits of Pearce’s seductively refreshing perspective — but that is a conversation for another day.
The Roach — Landscape (2007), by Jaime Lee Loy; digital photograph (flowers and silk pins)
Pearce follows those initial comments with a review of contemporary self-portraiture globally, and an examination of the various approaches to self-portraiture taken throughout the book. Discussing the work of Jamaican Anna Ruth Henriques, Bahamian John Cox, and Trinidadians Dave Williams and Ashraph, she notes the presentation of a confined self, attempting to escape the straitjacket. In the work of Atkinson, Trinidadian Joshua Lue Chee Kong, and Jamaicans Olivia McGilchrist and O’Neil Lawrence, she finds a self that demands: “(Re)imagine me!” Jamaican Laura Facey and Barbadians Rose, Joscelyn Gardner, and Annalee Davis, meanwhile, engage self-portraiture as a means to “underscore a collective self.” Vincentian Nadia Huggins, Canadian-Nevisian Stacey Tyrell, and Jamaicans Lawrence Graham-Brown and Roberta Stoddart present a much more individual inquiry, self-consciously mining their personal experiences. Trinidadian artists Susan Dayal, Jamie Lee Loy, Steve Ouditt, and Michelle Isava present “self as a portal,” using their bodies as the route via which some broader issue becomes perceivable.
The images are divided into five thematic sections: “Face Value”, “Remembering”, “Laid Bare”, “Rebellion”, and “Role Play”. The categories should not be viewed as descriptive — they are rather recommended lenses through which the works might be viewed. All of the artists are represented by several works, often divided over several themes. This approach gives a more complete picture of each artist’s practice, and suggests parallels between practices that at first glance seem to have nothing in common. Thus Irénée Shaw’s and Che Lovelace’s contemplative and curious works end up side by side with Lawrence Graham-Brown’s and Sheena Rose’s more aggressively demanding works. The fact that all of the works assert selves takes precedence over the radical differences between the particular selves asserted.
I recommend regarding the volumes in this series as exhibitions, rather than as books. Yes, they function as books: they are portable documents of artwork of a certain type, from a certain region, in a certain time. However, they also make deliberate use of the logic of the art exhibition — the establishment of visual relationships, a focus on placement and space, etc. The series makes an argument — not as a literary text does, but as a visual one does. In this way, they are truly successful art-books, fusing the two media in the best possible way. To own a copy, then, is to have a portable exhibition, open for viewing the moment you part the pages.
Son of a Champion 5 (2012), by O’Neil Lawrence; digital photograph
The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2016
Nicole Smythe-Johnson is a writer and independent curator, living in Kingston, Jamaica. She has written for ARC, Miami Rail, Flash Art, Jamaica Journal, and a number of other local and international publications. She is currently assistant curator on an upcoming exhibition of the work of Jamaican painter John Dunkley at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. She is also working on an Institute of Jamaica publication looking at Jamaica’s national art collection. Find out more about her work at www.nicolesmythejohnson.com.