Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe: “From a place of love”

Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe, artist, yoga teacher, and founder of Groundation Grenada, on the connections between personal memory and collective history — as told to Nicole Smythe-Johnson

Photograph by Sabriya Simon, courtesy Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe

Movement is intergenerational in my family. I was raised between Grenada and the United States, living in each for a few years at a time, depending on my parent’s studies or my own. My mother, a Jamaican born in Brooklyn, met my father when they worked together at the Ministry of Mobilisation during the Grenada Revolution. As a teenager, she moved to Grenada with her family because of the milestone in global radical politics that the revolution represented.

If I give in to my romantic side, I would say that the context within which my parents fell in love is the reason social justice is at the foundation of all my work. The realities of inequality, trauma, and violence are never far from my mind — but neither is our incredible potential for love and revolution.

I remember the thought process that led me to embrace calling myself an artist. It was the moment I realised that art is a form of research for me, of processing and communicating my perspectives. As an undergraduate at Smith College [in Massachussetts], majoring in anthropology with a focus on visual culture, this realisation gave me permission to lean into my artistic practice. So much so that I eventually switched my major to studio art.

Artistic production, like research, is always about perspective. This begins from the moment we choose the initial question. Creating art is a process of inquiry for me, an avenue to pursue questions about the ways the political affects the personal. Within a global context of compliance, questioning is critical. Inquiry unearths a rich pool of knowledge, submerged below the flashing lights and gloss of mainstream culture.

As a multidisciplinary artist, I build on concept. I select the medium that I think best expresses my perspectives in that moment. I produce video, photography, new media, performance, and installation pieces that take an intimate approach to examining the encounter between self and society. I’m drawn to the visceral ways that we process our lives.

This preoccupation with bodily, emotional experience is rooted in my yoga practice. Through my work as a yoga teacher, I see how we harbour memory in the fibres of our bodies. This interest in memory carries through to my postgraduate research, which focused on cultural memory and the Grenada Revolution. Memory is also a major part of May Nothing Stay Hidden, my project for my recent residency in Jamaica at [the contemporary art space] NLS. It began when my grandfather shared one of his earliest memories with me.

The piece comes out of conversations with my maternal grandfather. We are very close, and our relationship, for me, has always been a space for open communication. I can be myself. It was interesting, though, because for him, a lack of that very same openness characterised his early experiences. He was born in Jamaica, and like many Caribbean children, his mom left him with relatives to work in the States. During therapy in his fifties, he began to work through his memories and process the extent to which secrets and the unspoken had informed his sense of self at an early age. I don’t think his experience is unique — in the Caribbean, we often avoid airing our dirty laundry at the cost of leaving our wounds untended. This project begins there — creating an installation with found cupboards, old negatives from my great-grandmother’s camera, and recordings from my conversations with my grandfather.

I wanted to explore multimedia installation more deeply. I’d also been seeking opportunities to travel to Jamaica and build deeper connections to the creative and yoga communities there. The residency at NLS, with accommodation at TrueSelf Centre of Being, a donation-based yoga studio in Kingston, facilitated this intention to perfection.

I was met with a warm welcome. In fact, I was surprised to see that because of my existing connections to the Kingston artistic community, a number of people I met were familiar with my work. It was also wonderful that I arrived just in time to attend the opening of the 2014 Jamaica Biennial. My video pieces Off Track Moving Forward (2013) and Bottleneck (2014) were both exhibited as part of the show.

 

My work as an artist and community organiser are inextricably linked. Creating space for voicing our own truths is fundamental to my understanding of social justice. When my partner Richie Maitland and I first started dating in 2009, one of the foundations of our connection was our strong sense of solidarity, not only with each other but also with others. Groundation Grenada is the action collective that we started in our first summer together, drafting its manifesto in the shade of a skinup tree while eating mango and yogurt. Groundation continues to grow from a place of love, and I think that people can feel that. It is an interdisciplinary movement developed out of the knowledge that multiple approaches are needed to create change.

Groundation collaborates locally and internationally on a number of initiatives related to anti-discrimination advocacy, constitutional reform, education, environmental justice, and art-based community development. We have hosted five artists from Trinidad, Guyana, New York, and Aruba through our artist residency programme. Residents engage our community through workshops in areas like performance art and creative writing. Groundation is also a co-founder of the Mt Zion Library, a community library in St George’s, created in response to years of the National Library being closed in Grenada. The response has been overwhelming — membership grows weekly and local authors have been coming in and donating their books.

Most recently, we have partnered with the Caribbean Film Academy, Audiovisual Association of Dominica, ChantiMedia, and SASOD Guyana to launch the Caribbean Film Project, an initiative which aims to showcase the talent of unknown and emerging filmmakers in the Caribbean. The initiative focuses on assisting in the production of films from countries which have been underrepresented in the current Caribbean filmmaking renaissance — Dominica, Guyana, Grenada, and St Kitts and Nevis — as well as Caribbean filmmakers in the diaspora. It began with a script competition which was open for entries in January and February 2015. The winner from each country will receive mentorship and support to create the final film.

My recent experience in Jamaica was reaffirming, and has given me a burst of inspiration to take on a new year. I have been working on my website and blog at www.malaikabsl.com, and the response has been really positive. I have also been slowly learning how to say no, so that I can nurture the amazing initiatives I have the honour of being a part of.

  • Charine

    Insightful. Really good read. Keep pushing forward :-)

    • Malaika BSL

      Thank you Charine!