Ewan Atkinson: boy next door

The fictional Neighbourhood invented by Barbadian artist Ewan Atkinson is like a childhood fantasy complicated by grown-up concerns, Allison Thompson writes

Photo by Bart SimsInstallation view of The Nelsons’ New Neighbourhood Reader. Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonFrom The Nelsons’ New Neighbourhood Reader (2010). Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonThe Governing Body, from The Neighbourhood Report. Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonThe Inland Sea, from The Neighbourhood Report. Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonPoster from the Only in Our Imagination series (2015). Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonPoster from the Only in Our Imagination series (2015). Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonPoster from the Only in Our Imagination series (2015). Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonPoster from the Only in Our Imagination series (2015). Courtesy Ewan AtkinsonTravelogue (2015). Courtesy Ewan Atkinson

Who are the people in your neighbourhood?
They’re the people that you meet each day. 

 

A neighbourhood is a familiar place. It’s a community, demarcated by its geographical boundaries as well as the social bonds between its residents and the quotidian rituals that take place within it. Among neighbourhoods made famous in popular culture, Sesame Street is a particularly iconic one, embraced by millions of young television viewers worldwide, with its community of humans and hybrid muppets who share discoveries and challenges along a traffic-less New York City street.

Growing up in Barbados in the 1980s, Ewan Atkinson would return from school to his middle-class residential neighbourhood of Pine Gardens, not far from Carrington Village, the setting for George Lamming’s novel In the Castle of My Skin. But the distance between a village and a neighbourhood is significant. Young Ewan would wait patiently for the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation to resume its daily television programming promptly at 4 pm — and every day the first show was the same: Sesame Street.

“This is not just my story,” Atkinson recalls. “It became every Bajan kid’s story, and we watched long after we passed the age of the show’s demographics. It is embedded in my psyche beyond belief. I was a huge fan.”

There’s a lot to be said for the enduring impact of communal socialisation within a small and conservative space. Before the single-channel television broadcast of CBC, there was Rediffusion radio, which transmitted a single broadcast of classical music and serial dramas into tens of thousands of subscribers’ homes across Barbados, and which could not be turned off; the volume could only be turned down. When Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier visited Barbados in the late 1950s, he commented that homes without the “radio apparatus” were scarce: “In the afternoons, walking through the pathways of St James, issuing from the homes of workers, artisans, or farmers one could hear pieces such as Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, or Rinaldo’s aria and fragments of The Messiah by Handel, a great deal of Handel.” Carpentier went on to speak of public libraries, the local newspaper, and the numerous churches, all signs of the admirable development of the island. Nevertheless, he cautioned that he was not suggesting Barbados was “some kind of Earthly Paradise as depicted by the cartographers of ancient times,” since there was some injustice which had been buried beneath its surface.

The public library and the public schools, community theatre, and of course the church — they all served as cultural conduits, and endure in our shared memories with a sense of nostalgia. Every generation has its signposts.

Fast-forward into the twenty-first century, and Ewan Atkinson has fashioned his own fictional community of characters that negotiate the hidden potholes and pitfalls of paradise. This “staggeringly obtuse aggregate of individuals,” as he calls them, makes up his Neighbourhood, and has consumed his attention for the greater part of a decade. In many ways, the residents are hybrid characters, like Jim Henson’s muppets, marginalised misfits who find sanctuary in the Neighbourhood. Plots and profiles have gradually evolved into interwoven histories and intrigues that riff on a range of sources, from serial dramas and pop songs to literary classics, all intended for popular consumption. And Atkinson is voracious in his desire to sample them all.

The rituals of childhood, particularly the classics of children’s fiction, continue to impinge on Atkinson’s world-view. Alice’s Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred-Acre Wood, and Peter Pan’s Neverland have provided timeless journeys into the elsewheres of make-believe where boys and girls evade the greatest peril of ever having to grow up. It is not surprising, then, that the Neighbourhood characters made their first public appearance in Fiction, Atkinson’s 2007 solo exhibition at Bridgetown’s Zemicon Gallery. Curator Therese Hadchity noted the deliberate “ambiguousness” of the images: “Surrounded by vast expanses of empty space, these places are free of any specific geographical or historical context (though some place-names, as well as Atkinson’s familiar fences and cane-fields, have an unmistakably Barbadian ring),” she wrote. “Their scale and location and the significance of the figures is completely open-ended: we are in the realm not of the existing, but of the imaginable!”

Six years later, Atkinson launched his blog, The Neighbourhood Report, which provides an ongoing platform for developing storylines, fleshing out the histories of established personages, as well as introducing new ones, and gradually revealing the origins and boundaries of the Neighbourhood itself. Like a serial novel or a television soap opera, each post reveals bits of information while impishly leaving other details shrouded in mystery.

Several of the Neighbourhood characters have made cameo appearances in “outside” projects. The Nelsons’ New Neighbourhood Reader, subtitled “Morality Tales for the Discerning Neighbourhood, pages 18 to 27”, is an updated take on the Nelson’s West Indian Readers, former staple textbooks of Anglophone Caribbean schools. Atkinson’s text is a revision purportedly written by the Neighbourhood’s Nelson brothers, and adapted to provide a “more relevant neighbourhood experience.” Relevant to whom? The thinly veiled moral tone of the original reader is upended as Atkinson introduces themes of homosexuality, cross-dressing, and online sex, testing the entrenched — and hypocritical — conservative veneer of traditional Barbadian society.

First exhibited as part of the Caribbean Pavilion at the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, ten pages of The Nelsons’ New Neighbourhood Reader were displayed within a classroom-like installation complete with small children’s tables and chairs and a jar of coloured pencils. Viewers were invited to respond to the exercises following short narratives such as “Planning a Trip” and “The Naughty Dog.”

Atkinson’s interest in involving the viewer in a more interactive way reflects his lifelong fascination with theatre and performance. The Liverpool installation was exhibited again the following year in Barbados at the Morningside Gallery as part of the Black Jacobins exhibition, and in early 2015 as part of the Salamanca Art Centre’s  Colonial Afterlives show in Hobart, Australia. Whether in Britain, Barbados, or Australia, from one end of the colonised globe to the other, the work resonated with viewers, and the invitation to regress to early childhood school days was irresistible. The walls surrounding Atkinson’s pages became crowded with additions from spectators, some responding to the assignments, many of them more intuitive, spontaneous, and personal.

 

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to . . .

 

Where is Atkinson’s Neighbourhood? The location is deliberately obscure. The spelling (neighbour with a “u”) situates it within the realm of the former British Empire. The recurring appearance of palm trees confirms its tropical setting. But in many ways it is the antithesis or inversion of Atkinson’s own Caribbean island, with an “Inland Ocean” (described as a large body of saltwater that sits at the centre of the Neighbourhood). At the same time, the appearance of iconic landmarks and characters such as the Empire Theatre and Mother Sally are embedded in the Barbadian cultural experience.

And if the Neighbourhood characters seem familiar, it’s not simply because they have made recurring appearances: it’s because they bear a distinct resemblance to the artist himself. In this virtual one-man play, Atkinson assumes a wide range of guises, confirmation that this community is a construction of the artist’s imagination.

Only in Our Imagination is the title of Atkinson’s latest project: a series of travel posters produced for the 2015 Havana Biennial that invite the viewer to venture to the Neighbourhood as a desirable tourist destination. Based on the theme “Between the Idea and Experience,” the twelfth Havana Biennial aimed to abandon the “meta exhibition” structure of works situated in a central venue, opting instead for the “interstices” of the city, non-traditional and often outdoor spaces, in an effort “to feel the city and its people.” The invitation to participate seemed tailor-made for Atkinson’s Neighbourhood characters, for it is precisely in the interstices — the small breaks or gaps in the social fabric, the inbetweenness of spaces — where they make their home.

The travel posters were produced in two sets, one in English and one in Spanish, and pasted on public walls in Casa Blanca, a suburb of Havana. They included stickers directing viewers to the Neighbourhood Project website. Described as “a Collection of Information and Esoterica culled from the Neighbourhood and its various inhabitants,” the website provides brief descriptions for each of the characters and locations, as well as links to all of the related Neighbourhood Report blog posts. A new bilingual edition of the posters has been produced for the inaugural Biennial of Asunción in Paraguay (which opened in October 2015), with text in both Spanish and Guaraní, the two official languages of the country.

Atkinson’s fictional world is conjured primarily through images, rather than written language. Nevertheless, with the blog and the posters, text has become an integral part of both the design and the message. The pairing of words and images is presented as self-evident. From the earliest illustrated travel accounts of encounters in the New World, strange flora and fauna along with indigenous peoples were labelled with an explanatory precision which disguised the vagaries and inaccuracies that shrouded Europe’s attempts to market its campaign of empire-building. Tourism campaigns have maintained much of this tradition.

Only in Our Imagination highlights the surreal and performative nature of representations intended to impress and fascinate the viewer. Atkinson’s Neighbourhood does indeed lie beyond the borders of reality, like Neverland or Wonderland; like the tropical paradise of the New World Eden illustrated by sixteenth-century explorers and modern tourism bureaus. The title echoes a popular advertising campaign launched by the Barbados Tourism Board in the 1990s. “Just beyond your imagination” was the slogan used on posters and TV commercials, accompanied by scenes of sea and sand, marketing Barbados as the idyllic tropical paradise, removed from the pressures and demands of reality.

Around the same time, another campaign aimed at Barbadian “locals” announced that “Tourism Is Our Business, Let’s Play Our Part.” The marketing of the country was positioned as the responsibility and business of all citizens, while acknowledging the performative obligations to play along, inherent in the service industries and the staging of fantasy. It was a double-pronged approach aimed at convincing foreigners to come to the island, and locals to welcome them. The imprecise nature of translating the text from English to Spanish to Guaraní and the subtle shifts in meaning that occur heighten the ambiguity of the message in Atkinson’s posters, as well as affirm the challenges and compromises of cross-cultural outreach.

 

One of these things is not like the others . . .

 

Ewan Atkinson has just turned forty years old, not an insignificant milestone for the boy who never wanted to grow up.  He was born in 1975, into an artistic family: his mother Hetty was a dancer, active with the Barbados Dance Theatre, and his father Arthur is an accomplished artist and graphic designer. “Because of what my parents did,” Atkinson recalls, “I was always at exhibitions and rehearsals and performances, and that influenced a lot of what I did. I made puppets and put on shows. I turned a shelf into a stage and got Christmas lights and put on productions for myself. I was not an extra-curricular kind of guy. I liked my toys and I liked my books. And I did always draw. Always.”

Growing up in a biracial family has contributed in some part to Atkinson’s interest in spaces of difference. When asked what impact this had, he replies that as a child it was non-existent. “It was not anything I noticed. That changed around secondary school. But I don’t think I started really thinking about it until college, when it began to colour my experiences as I moved back and forth from one country to another. You become more aware as you get older, as it influences how you see the world and how it might see you. I became quite comfortable in what I started to see as an in-between place.”

Atkinson received a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art, and recently completed an MA in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill. In addition to participating in a number of important international exhibitions, Atkinson has found recognition at home (the National Art Gallery of Barbados has to date acquired fifteen of his works), a feat which at times he has thought might be more challenging, since he stands virtually alone in his willingness to openly address themes of queer visuality.

Perhaps part of what has allowed him to indulge in the fantasy of perpetual youth is his situation within the Barbados Community College, where he works as the coordinator of the bachelor of fine arts programme in studio art. He also recently co-founded the Punch Creative Arena, an initiative that aims to foster creative action. A recent event, “Punch-In”, saw four artists, including Atkinson, commit to three weeks of intensive in-studio collaboration which foregrounded process, interaction, and exchange as an antidote to an environment where artists often work in isolation and lack open critical dialogue. In Travelogue, one of the outcomes of that experiment, Neighbourhood characters and landforms appear within a grid of porthole windows — small samplings, like a map’s key that opens up the possibility of a fuller reading. The significance of reading as a critical engagement with all that surrounds us has grown in importance for the artist.

When asked what the Neighbourhood has come to mean to him after many years of investigation, Atkinson explains that when it started, he defined it as a “head space” because he wasn’t sure where it was going. He also toyed with the idea of making it some kind of failed utopia, but that idea is fading. Instead, it has become a place in which the artist can work things out. “Histories, relationships, language, learning to read — these have interested me for years, and it just gets more and more true as my definition of reading expands. What it means to read — books, people, images — and the idea that how we do that is influenced by everything we have experienced.” Ultimately his intent has not been to “represent the space I live in in my head,” but rather to use the characters who reside in the Neighbourhood to connect with other people who may have shared similar experiences, and encourage the dissection of those experiences. “Putting them on display is a way to either connect with somebody else or draw a boundary, or both.”

It’s the process of coming of age.

 

Find out more about Ewan Atkinson’s Neighbourhood Project at www.theneighbourhoodproject.com