Changing the game: seven rising talents in Barbados’s contemporary art

Meet seven rising talents in Barbados’s contemporary art scene, profiled by Natalie McGuire, with portraits by Mark King

Alicia Alleyne. Photograph by Mark KingKatherine Kennedy. Photograph by Mark KingMark King. Photograph by Mark KingMatthew Clarke. Photograph by Mark KingSheena Rose. Photograph by Mark KingSimone Padmore. Photograph by Mark KingVersia Harris. Photograph by Mark King

Over the past decade, contemporary art in Barbados has sometimes seemed dormant. After a wave of talent in the 1990s — artists like Annalee Davis, Joscelyn Gardener, Ras Akyem, and Ewan Atkinson — the focus seemed to shift to art produced or exhibited in the Barbadian diaspora. In Barbados itself, commercial galleries held court, with a regurgitation of imagery catering to the tourist market.

But a new creative groundswell is changing the game. A significant surge of young visual artists is emerging, exploring themes of contemporary Barbadian identity, and shifting the art landscape of the island. These artists are negating the commercial galleries’ monopoly on the representation of Barbadian art, creating and independently exhibiting works relevant to their existence as Bajans.

Their presence has arguably rejuvenated the art scene, and highlighted areas that need attention both financially and socially — for instance, the integration of the mainstream galleries into more critical art practice. None of the seven artists profiled here is currently exhibited in any commercial gallery on the island, though the Morningside Gallery at Barbados Community College (BCC) has supported their work. Older artists in the community have also extended support. Corrie Scott, who produces an online monthly arts magazine, includes both emerging and established artists, expanding the reach of the idea that contemporary art is viable in Barbados, not just abroad.

Part of this shift in consciousness can be credited to BCC’s visual arts BFA programmes, where established artists like Ewan Atkinson and Annalee Davis are faculty members — five of the seven artists in our portfolio are alumni. Allison Thompson of BCC suggests that subtle alterations within the programmes’ structure seem to be encouraging development of these students beyond graduation. These include overseas trips every other year to expand students’ experience of art worlds outside of Barbados: this year they visited the Havana Biennial.

Younger artists are also asserting their presence in the Barbadian art landscape through informal networks. Projects and Space, a group founded by artist Sheena Rose, aims to conglomerate all the creative circles in Barbados into one gathering. It is entirely artist-driven, with an aesthetic of “art for all,” as seen in their 2011 Plywood Project, where artwork on small blocks of plywood was exhibited in public spaces around Barbados. And FRESH MILK is a critical thinking platform founded by Annalee Davis, which focuses on contemporary creatives across all disciplines generating discourse on art in Barbados and within the Caribbean. It hosts discussions, film screenings, exhibitions, text launches, lectures, and workshops, and already has a significant local, regional, and international following. These artist-led initiatives, alongside regional entities such as ARC magazine and the Trinidadian space Alice Yard, connect these practices from Barbados to the rest of the Caribbean.

Online networking is an important aspect of these young artists’ exposure. With the main galleries in Barbados still selling art as a product of tourism, it is up to the artists themselves, working with and through non-profit platforms and publications, to present to audiences the vast amount of contemporary work now being created, and encourage the continuation of critical creative thinking.

Simone Padmore
22 • Christ Church • Barbados Community College

“I hope to inspire and give people a sense of the other side of Caribbean art, rather than the stereotypical perception that many people have of our art.”
Padmore’s most recent body of work correlates hairstyling with architecture, looking at both as outlets for identity construction. Faces peer out to the viewer through an array of intricate imagery, executed in ink and paper. Staggeringly designed hairstyles integrate with architectural materials, and the line between the two blurs. In 2012, Padmore — who also produces work under the name Simone Asia — completed a residency at FRESH MILK, creating two iconic pieces of work, exhibited on site. “After leaving school, we have difficulty continuing to produce our personal work,” she says. “We no longer experience the same creative flow or energy generated among our colleagues. I think the FRESH MILK platform is providing great opportunities for young artists in Barbados.”

Alicia Alleyne
26 • St Michael • Barbados Community College

“My inspiration stems usually from actual material I’m working with. The physical properties of a material or a particular technique can become the basis for a body of work.”
Alleyne usually works in oil paint on paper, but she has experimented with more tactile materials, such as glitter and sand. Her work has made abstraction newly relevant to contemporary art in Barbados. Her boldly coloured shapes juxtapose contained geometrics, the edges splattering over on one side while sharp lines remain on the other. These pieces could also be seen as a comment on the art scene in Barbados: why should young artists be restricted to commercially popular mainstream imagery? Why can’t they go outside the lines, expanding critical artistic thinking? Alleyne has exhibited in a number of local spaces, including FRESH MILK and Aweipo gallery. She is also an active member of Projects and Space and volunteers at FRESH MILK events.

Matthew Clarke
25 • St Michael • Barbados Community College

“I grab inspiration from all around, but mostly current affairs, historical events and happenings, research, and other artists as well — and life experiences.”
A Barbadian comic book series? Comics, especially in the sharp-lined renderings of graphic novels, have always had an international aesthetic. The landscapes are generic cityscapes, and the language is predominantly standard English (or Japanese). Clarke takes this foundation model and molds it to recognisably Barbadian scenery. Fantasy creatures lurk among ZR vans and women in Kadooment costumes. The metropolitan cityscape is replaced by a more modest Bridgetown. Action plotlines are sprinkled with Barbadian social issues, making the books appealing and familiar to a Caribbean audience, while maintaining the ingredients to be internationally appealing as well. In light of the popularity of graphic novels at this year’s AnimeKon expo in Barbados, Clarke is part of a following keen to promote a distinctly Caribbean version of the genre.

Versia Harris
21 • St James • Barbados Community College

“It’s important for me to continue to expand mentally, to always challenge everything that I hear, read, or see, and question all that I think I know. If I can continue to develop my mind, then my art will follow.”
Harris’s latest body of work consists of a hand-drawn animation sequence and accompanying stills — charcoal on paper — whose Swan protagonist deals with issues of self-esteem. With references to Walt Disney animation, Harris’s character wrestles with conflicts of her own appearance against idealised Disney princesses. This points to a wider commentary on preconceived ideas about Caribbean women’s appearances, and the blurring between reality and fantasy in society’s expectations. Harris — recipient of the 2012 Lesley’s Legacy Foundation Award for Most Outstanding Student at BCC — is a member of Projects and Space, a regular volunteer at FRESH MILK events, and a volunteer at the 2012 Inclusive Museum Conference.

Mark King
29 • Christ Church • Academy of Art University, San Francisco

“Those who feel compelled to create are producing some great work, which has been a great motivator for my practice. I get a sense that we’re all in this together.”
King’s photograph portraits capture structured moments. Although he manifests scenes of and for his subjects, the end result always contains an element of spontaneity, of self-unawareness. This also extends to non-living subjects. His Call and Response series consists of altered and then photographed signs found on Barbados roads, proclaiming “Jesus Is Coming.” King adds captions as responses to the statement: “Wait Here” or “Look Busy.” He undermines the preconception that religion has to be intimidating, and makes it good-natured, in a quiet revolt against the idea of the God-fearing model Barbadian. King has completed residencies at the Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium and more recently Alice Yard in Trinidad, and teaches at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus.

Katherine Kennedy
20 • St Michael • Lancaster University

“My work has been linked to ideas of home and culture. I became interested in the changed perspective of someone who has seen and been influenced by new things, and how that affects their return.”
In a 2012 residency at FRESH MILK, Kennedy exhibited an installation piece looking at displacement and identity in the Caribbean. Brightly coloured circles were suspended from the ceiling, overlapping to form a bold abstract shape. Each disc contained a silhouette insert of a famous international landmark, and when light shone onto the installation, a stunning kaleidoscope of buildings was projected onto the wall behind. “I would like to continue with this theme of reinsertion,” she says, “and trying to assert a place in society. Not only from a personal perspective, but from the standpoint of art itself being inserted into society.” Kennedy was recently selected for an artist’s residency in Vermont, starting in 2013.

Sheena Rose
27 • St Philip • Barbados Community College

“My inspiration first came from my personal experiences living in Barbados . . . daily problems, overheard conversations, stories from newspapers or stories that were told to me.”
The combination of inked hand-drawn scenes and transferred photo images or newspaper print makes Rose’s animation and still works iconic. Since graduating from BCC in 2008, she has stretched herself across a good chunk of the world, participating in residencies in Trinidad, Suriname, and South Africa, and her Town animation series, featuring depictions of urban life, has been exhibited from Martinique to Kentucky, most recently in the Caribbean: Crossroads of the World exhibition in New York. She’s also mastered the art of self-promotion through online social media, using Tumblr and Facebook to generate a solid fan base and connect herself with regional and international art communities.