Five Caribbean artists in the brave new digital world

Artists are always eager to experiment with new tools, so it’s no surprise that digital media offer them a creative playground. Nicole Smythe-Johnson surveys how Caribbean artists are exploring digital possibilities, and introduces five young creatives shaping the ways we experience digital images

From artist David Gumbs’s Unconscious Geographies installation (2016). Image courtesy David GumbsImage courtesy Di-Andre Caprice DavisBinary in 11 (2015). Image courtesy Di-Andre Caprice DavisLSD Glass (2015). Image courtesy Di-Andre Caprice DavisDreamy Garden (2014). Image courtesy Di-Andre Caprice DavisPhoto courtesy David GumbsFrom Unconscious Geographies (2016). Photo courtesy David GumbsFrom Unconscious Geographies (2016). Photo courtesy David GumbsFrom artist David Gumbs’s Unconscious Geographies. Photo courtesy David GumbsPhoto courtesy Ronald WilliamsParty Shot (2013), digital collage. Image courtesy Ronald WilliamsThe Brand (2013), digital collage. Image courtesy Ronald WilliamsThe Savage (2013), digital collage. Image courtesy Ronald WilliamsSwagga (2013), digital collage. Image courtesy Ronald WilliamsPhoto courtesy Rodell WarnerGermille, Aruba (2013). Photo courtesy Rodell WarnerGermille, Kevin (2013). Photo courtesy Rodell WarnerGermille, Robin (2013). Photo courtesy Rodell WarnerPhoto courtesy Sheena RoseCharacters and personas from Sheena Rose’s Instagram soap opera series. Photography courtesy Sheena Rose

As with every other field of human endeavour, the computer and information technology have revolutionised art at so many levels that the digital is less a genre or medium than a methodological approach. The more obvious changes are in film and photography. You don’t need to be a photographer to perceive the rapid transition from the complex process of film photography to the more instant and user-friendly digital point-and-shoot, through to today’s selfie-stick–crazed smartphone world. At the last Sundance Film Festival, critics raved about Tangerine (2015), a film that was shot entirely using three iPhone 5S devices. But film and photography are only the tip of the iceberg. Other artists use memes and gifs as media. For example, Internet artist Anthony Antonellis’s Facebook Bliss (2015) is a webpage that rewards the user’s clicks on a button marked “Bliss” with ever increasing Facebook notifications.

Nowadays, artists use digital tools at every stage of creation. Painters like Jamaican Deborah Anzinger and African-American Fahamu Pecou use software like Photoshop to work out compositions before they turn to the canvas. Others, like Barbadian Versia Abeda Harris and Jamaican Ikem Smith, use animation software to create dream-like alternate universes. Jamaican illustrator Taj Francis creates reggae artist Protoje’s album covers with a stylus and tablet, and Bermuda’s James Cooper creates stunning 2D and 3D collages with his digital photographs. With the use of 3D printing in architecture, fashion, and even the culinary arts, there seems to be no end to the possibilities opened up by the collaboration of artistic intent and digital technology.

We might be tempted to think this is all a strictly recent development, but digital art is not especially new, either. As far back as 1967, artists were experimenting with the first computers and their room-size processors, like the ER 56 computer with a memory capacity of only four thousand words. Almost as soon as there were advanced tools to experiment with, there were artists ready to give it a shot.

In an archipelagic and diasporically transnational community like the Caribbean, digital art also has important practical benefits. Digital works can often be transmitted cheaply and quickly via the Internet. No surprise that in April 2016, after a heavily subscribed open call, the National Gallery of Jamaica unveiled the work of forty-one artists from across the Caribbean in Digital, the first exhibition at a major museum in the region to focus exclusively on digital art.

So it’s clear that digital art is no obscure niche, or passing fad. In the following pages, explore the work of five young creatives pushing the boundaries of new media, and changing the way we experience digital images.


Di-Andre Caprice Davis

Born 1986 Jamaica

Kingston-based Davis describes her work as “an adventure in a second life exploring its outer limits with digital imaging tools.” Moving from her interest in geometry, dreams, and psychedelic imagery, the self-taught artist produces mostly abstract still and moving images. Using Adobe Photoshop and an app called Glitché, Davis creates patterns that are distinctly digital in aesthetic (synthetic colours, glitch forms) but simultaneously recall the microscopic or molecular. She exhibits them as prints, on tablet and television screens, and using projectors. They are at once out of this world — as generated, manufactured, and essentially ethereal as it gets — and curiously illustrative of the essence of our world, the minutiae not perceivable to the human eye, but what it’s all made of nonetheless.

In recent years, Davis’s work has received increasing attention. After the Canopy Guild show at the Kingston art space NLS and the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Jamaica Biennial in 2014, she was one of ten artists selected for the NGJ’s Young Talent 5. There she exhibited an installation of ten gifs (on framed tablet screens) and ten prints. Like all of the artists featured in these pages, Davis’s work will be included in the NGJ’s upcoming Digital. Her work will also be included in Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol, UK, in June.


David Gumbs

Born 1977 Guadeloupe/St Martin

Gumbs studied at the Visual Arts School in Fort-de-France, Martinique, and majored in interactive multimedia conception at L’ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris. In his own words, his work “investigates the spectator’s perception and mental landscape.” He speaks of “mental archaeology” and a process of uncovering unconscious memories and associations through movement, colour, and the body. Using projectors and a range of software and other technologies, Gumbs creates interactive digital environments that respond to the viewer. His layered images are generated from auto-drawing exercises and natural forms such as conch shells, which he then programmes to move in response to the audience’s movement and sound.

His last solo show, Unconscious Geographies at the National Theatre Tropiques atrium in Martinique in January 2016, was an installation comprised of monumental wall and floor projections and immersive soundscapes. Visitors were invited to blow into a conch shell, while a visual representation of the movement of their breath unfolded before them in a large-scale projection.


Ronald Williams

Born 1990 Barbados

Though he completed his BFA at Barbados Community College only in 2013, Williams has already made an impact in the Bajan art scene, through his participation in various exhibitions and his much-talked-about contribution to Fresh Milk’s Adopt-A-Stop initiative. His digital collages make use of the silhouette as a symbol of the black body, referencing icons like the ubiquitous Usain Bolt logo and Nike’s Michael Jordan–inspired Jumpman logo. Williams’s silhouettes are not empty, however — they are filled to the brim with digital images scanned from magazines and posters. “The figure is a central theme in my work,” he notes, “and as such, the silhouette of a human body acts as a blank canvas. In a sense, the act of constructing the collage based on the silhouette is representative of the way ideals, fantasies, and realities are projected onto the black figure.”

His reasons for using digital media are also practical. “Since I require only a power source and a laptop to create a piece, my ‘studio’ space becomes compact, but also almost boundless, as I can produce almost anywhere at any time. It also offers me a meticulous level of control — I determine how every fine detail is displayed, and as such there are no accidental or spontaneous marks to be found in a final piece.”


Rodell Warner

Born 1986 Trinidad

“My work is the result of my examination of life — the tensions of relationships, the illustration of possibility, the availability of surprise,” says self-taught artist and graphic designer Rodell Warner. “That much of my work is digital is an effect of the world being infectiously digital.” Using Photoshop, Warner translates elements from nature into complex images and gifs that try to assess the impact of the digital on how we see, think, and interact. In Warner’s work, flowers become other-worldly fluttering butterflies, and forests become fractal faces. The works do not so much represent their subjects as seek to reveal what is already there, made more visible via the digital.

Warner exhibits his gifs online regularly via initiatives like the Bi-Way Art Foundation’s The Wrong 2015, an online digital art biennial. He has also exhibited prints and projection installations, most notably Year of the Snake (2013) at the art space Alice Yard in Port of Spain and Canopy Guild (2014), a collaborative project at NLS in Kingston. On other occasions, projecting his images onto the living canvas of collaborators, as in the photographs above, Warner creates complexly layered portraits that play at the meeting place of the analog of human skin and the digital of his imagination.


Sheena Rose

Born 1985 Barbados

Rose draws on everyday situations, pop culture, stereotypes, history, and urban spaces to produce work in a range of media, including drawing, animation, painting, performance, video, and photography. She is heavily influenced by travel, especially her time spent as a Fulbright scholar in the United States, and her past trips to South Africa, Suriname, Belgium, and various parts of the Caribbean. Earlier works like Town and Sweet Gossip re-create urban street life, quoting from overheard conversations and gossip. There, Rose places herself in other locales, drawing herself into large imagined streetscapes in Town (2010), and recreating the urban buzz of her hometown in the ongoing Sweet Gossip series.

In her more recent works, Sheena herself is the changing element, while her environment stays the same. Performance was always a part of Rose’s work — for instance, the posters she created for Sweet Gossip were paraded around the very same Bridgetown that inspired them. And Rose has long used digital projections of herself and others as the basis of her graphic line drawings. But she takes her use of both forms to a new level with her Instagram soap opera series. The fifteen-second performances feature Rose playing various characters, including Miss Foxy, Georgie, Diamond, the overthinking artist, and the curious curator. The pieces explore body politics, gender and sexuality, race, and representation in bite-sized, playful episodes.

In 2015, Rose was invited to be a part of an initiative of the UK’s Turner Contemporary Gallery and the Venice Agendas via an app called Periscope. She presented a fifteen-minute performance in the character of Diamond via the Periscope platform, which viewers all over the world could tune into live.