La Vaughn Belle: big art from a small place

For artist La Vaughn Belle, coming from a “small place” — St Croix — doesn’t restrict her imagination or her ambitions. David Knight, Jr, investigates the social impact of Belle’s questioning artistic practice

Artist La Vaughn Belle. Photograph QStudio LLC. www.qstudiovi.comThe derelict cottages on East Street in Christiansted which artist La Vaughn Belle is restoring to make studio space. Photography courtesy La Vaughn BelleWe Live in the Fragments (2014, oil on masonite, 36 x 48 inches). Photography courtesy La Vaughn BelleShards of “Chaney,” the colonial-era ceramics that inspire Belle’s new series of paintings. Photography courtesy La Vaughn BellePhotographs documenting Belle’s participatory performance work The Planter’s Chair (2011). Photography courtesy La Vaughn Belle

On one of the historic backstreets of Christiansted, St Croix, artist La Vaughn Belle is chasing a dream she’s had for as long as she can remember. For the first time in her career, Belle will soon have a studio space of her own.

The rewards will have been hard won. In 2011, Belle purchased two small eighteenth-century vernacular cottages on East Street, in a neighbourhood known as Free Gut. Like many similar structures in the area, the cottages had fallen into neglect and were in danger of becoming ruins. Belle saw an opportunity to give the buildings at 18B East Street new life. And so began her adventures in historic home restoration: all un-level surfaces, chicken infestations, and outhouse archaeology.

The creative mind never stops asking questions, making connections, even when faced with something as practical as measuring ceiling beams. So it’s fortunate, but not surprising, that for La Vaughn Belle, the creation of an art studio would become something like a piece of public art in itself. As she began working with local scholars to uncover the history of her East Street property, Belle became overwhelmed and enthralled by the history of Free Gut. Here, during the Danish period in St Croix, free people of African descent built a thriving community, created a distinct style of architecture, and began to develop social narratives that challenged colonial power. Before she knew it, Belle had become an advocate for the preservation of the neighbourhood. “Currently, the area is full of dilapidated and abandoned buildings, abandoned not just physically but psychologically,” she said in testimony to the US Virgin Islands Legislature in 2012. “They represent a part of our collective social amnesia of a part of our history that we have chosen to forget. But why?” It’s one question among many that Belle is currently exploring in a documentary entitled The House That Freedom Built, the release of which will coincide with the completion of her restoration project.

Belle’s use of the social landscape of Free Gut as both a subject and a canvas speaks to something fundamental about her as an artist. For Belle, the border between everyday life and artistic practice is undefined. In the humanities classes she teaches at the University of the Virgin Islands, she often focuses on public art, and around Christiansted you can find various pieces created by Belle and her students. These projects, she feels, provide a way for young people in St Croix to engage with their environment in an inquisitive way, and to leave their own marks on it. Belle is a believer in art as something with more social value than the pictorial renderings that, as many Caribbean critics are quick to bemoan, are often the region’s dominant visual export.

Her work makes a strong argument that “small island” art should be as much about deconstruction as it is about decoration. She is fascinated by the things we often take for granted: the cultural artifacts, practices, and locations that make our homes distinct. In this way, Belle’s investigations remain grounded in everyday life in St Croix. But despite a self-professed interest in the provincial, her work fixes its gaze outwards. Informed by a Pan-Caribbean heritage (her parents moved to the Virgin Islands from Barbados and Tobago), an international education in New York City and Cuba, and the multi-layered history of St Croix (the island has changed colonial hands seven times), Belle is very much in dialogue with the world.

 

A tension between the cosmopolitan and the local is a key feature of our times, and one might be forgiven for pointing out that, in small communities, critical discourse does not always flourish. In such an environment, contemporary artists can easily become frustrated by censorship, a lack of an audience, or both.

But La Vaughn Belle’s work contains nothing of this sort of cynicism: her environment is an abundance, not a lack. “The Virgin Islands is an amazing place to make art,” she recently wrote on her personal blog. “We are this small place in the [Jamaica] Kincaid sense of a small place, like many islands in the region. We are full of contradictions, insularities, and strange obsessions. We are still navigating our ‘coloniality’ in a post-colonial world.”

Pointing out that Belle’s self-described “strange obsessions” arise from a “small place” is not to say that they don’t address big issues. In 2011, at an exhibition at Whim Plantation Museum (one of St Croix’s most famous colonial-era great houses), Belle used video, performance, and installation to ask probing questions about power, identity, and ownership. In a video piece entitled Somebody’s Been Sitting in My Chair, Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed, Belle herself wanders through Whim great house, a modern-day Goldilocks in a stranger’s home, curious about how her presence and identity as an Afro-Caribbean woman interact with the space in its present context. The video ends on an ambiguous note, with the artist escaping out of a window. In a performance piece at the same show titled The Planter’s Chair, Belle got her audience involved, asking individuals to sit in the estate’s antique planter’s chair and strike whatever pose they wished. The photos that Belle took of the performance are a fascinating document of the ways in which different individuals locate themselves within the histories that the museum puts on display.

Belle’s explorations of the contemporary are equally probing. In a 2010 video work titled Moving Pictures, Belle re-edits footage from Hollywood movies shot partially in the US Virgin Islands: Trading Places, Weekend at Bernie’s 2, The Shawshank Redemption, The Island of Dr Moreau. By rearranging images and altering soundtracks, she creates different emotional responses in the viewer than the ones originally intended, ones that perhaps suggest alternate storylines. Although video work is a relatively new artistic practice, Belle’s technique is as old as creolisation itself, rooted in a vernacular tradition. In the case of Moving Pictures, the language of Hollywood is re-contextualised and undermined. Images becomes surreal, plaintive where they are intended to be authoritative, stirring where they are intended to be humorous.

Lately, aside from finishing production on her documentary and restoration projects, Belle has returned to painting, the medium she most often worked in early in her career. In May 2014, she debuted a piece that she plans to be the first in a new series. The work is abstract, its composition referencing patterns that are commonly found on shards of colonial-era ceramics known in St Croix as “Chaney.” Chaney shards “surface often after a hard rain and serve as reminders of our colonial past and fragmented Caribbean identities,” Belle explains. “I want these works to serve as a type of map, a chart, a way of piecing together the fragments.”

The language is familiar: here Belle echoes Derek Walcott’s words that “Antillean art is the restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary.” Belle knows that these fragments — whether pottery shards, vernacular cottages, or scenes from Hollywood movies — cannot be fit together into a predetermined form. She simply believes in the new possibilities that are born from loving all the pieces, from admiring their imperfect re-assembly.