THE ART OF BEING DIFFERENT

The London-based Institute of International Visual Arts has earned a reputation for working with Caribbean artists. Maggie Lee investigates its role in promoting Caribbean art and talks to chairman Stuart Hall about plans for the future

Detail of Dick, Head, and Roses (1998), by José Luis Lopez- Reus. Photograph by inIVADetail of Here, Hear, and Hair (1998), by Che Lovelace. Photograph courtesy inIVAMaggie Lee. Photograph courtesy inIVAMother’s House in South Africa (1968), acrylic on canvas, by Frank Bowling. Photograph by courtesy inIVAThe Cowrie Necklace (1993), silver gelatin print, by Albert ChongWorks on Process (1977), by Steve Ouditt. Photograph courtesy inIVA

If the purpose of art is to force you to re-evaluate what you
think, then inIVA (the Institute of International Visual Arts, based in London)
successfully meets the challenge. Imaginative and daring, inIVA — dedicated
to contemporary visual artists, whatever their preferred medium — has quietly
acquired a reputation for pioneering new ideas, techniques, and art-forms.

It has also acquired a reputation for engaging with artists and critics
from the Caribbean as well as the British Caribbean diaspora. The roll-call
of Caribbean-connected artists involved in inIVA’s activities over the last
decade is impressive. The eclectic list includes the celebrated Guyanese
painters Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling and the Jamaican Albert Chong,
alongside newcomers such as Steve Ouditt from Trinidad and Esterio Segura
Mora from Cuba.


Another link with the Caribbean is the chairman of inIVA’s board, the world-renowned
Jamaica-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who stresses the importance of
engaging with the work of these diaspora artists. “It’s important to recognise
that, here in the UK, the story of the black diaspora is as much a part
of being English as anything else,” he says.

Hall is about to see one of his dreams for inIVA realised, a dream that
he hopes will continue to benefit the endeavours of artists from all parts
of the world, and open up further opportunities for Caribbean talent. After
ten years, inIVA is in the final stages of fund-raising to build a permanent
gallery in the East End of London. It is intended to be a momentous landmark,
one that will enable the Institute to host exhibitions and events in its
own premises and strengthen its brand around a physical identity.

These plans have drawn scepticism from some quarters, most notably some
London-based art critics. They argue that the city is already awash with
institutions — such as the Tate Modern and the Serpentine Gallery — that
adequately support contemporary artists and satisfy visitors’ appetites.

Hall is undaunted by this view, and unequivocal about the value inIVA
brings. “InIVA’s origins lie in celebrating difference and identity,” he
says. “Over the last ten years we’ve created a vehicle that helps artists
and curators from all corners of the world, who are often marginalised by
the larger institutions, break into the mainstream. Our aim is to help artists
to internationalise their work.”

 

Isaac Julien, an inIVA board member and internationally acclaimed
filmmaker with St Lucian roots, shares similar sentiments. He explains: “First,
a purpose-built contemporary museum and gallery is long overdue in London.
And wonderful as Tate Modern and the Serpentine are, let’s remember that
Tate Modern was a former power station and the Serpentine a tearoom. Second,
inIVA is creating a unique space where the works of a full range of artists
from diverse national and cultural backgrounds can be exhibited — where
the next generation of up-and-coming black and culturally diverse artists
can display their work and enter the commercial gallery system.”

Even inIVA’s critics agree that, for a small and largely publicly funded
organisation, it punches well above its weight. When the Institute was founded
in 1994, with support from the Arts Council, its aim was to acknowledge the
diverse cultural contributions and perspectives of artists and thinkers from
Britain and across the world. Gilane Tawadros, the founding director of
inIVA, explains that the organisation fufils two unique purposes. “Not only
do we catalogue the works of contemporary visual artists from diverse cultural
backgrounds and promote their work to new audiences,” she says, “but we also
act as a catalyst for change through the presentation of new ideas and experiences.”
In its first decade, inIVA has staged, nationally and internationally,
60 travelling exhibitions as well as publishing the works of contemporary
visual artists. A third of these projects have involved artists from the
Caribbean or its diasporas. “There is a strong umbilical connection between
the people of the Caribbean and Europe,” says Hall. “It spans nearly 500
years of history that is compounded by huge post-war migration and the presence
of Caribbean people in Britain.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, a range of relationships
has developed between inIVA and Caribbean artists. These have culminated
in retrospective shows, touring exhibitions, and artists’ residencies in
the UK.

Hall continues: “If you visit the independent galleries in Trinidad and the
National Gallery in Jamaica, you’ll see new work and exhibitions throughout
the year. It’s work that, sadly, rarely surfaces outside the Caribbean. It’s
ironic that as, over the last 20 years, the eye of the art world has become
global, it still seems to miss out half the globe, bypassing artists from
developing nations.” InIVA attempts to address this imbalance, providing
a space where work that is often far off the radar screens of the major institutions
and art commentators can be seen.


Enduringly experimental, inIVA has demonstrated a flair for collaboration
and imaginative commissions, as illustrated by the first major retrospective
of the work of the late Aubrey Williams, one of Guyana’s most influential
artists. Opening at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1998, the exhibition went
on tour to the National Gallery of Jamaica and, a year later, the National
Gallery of Barbados.

In 1998, inIVA also launched enTRANSIT in collaboration
with Trinidadian artist Steve Ouditt and Trinidad-based Caribbean Contemporary
Arts. It was the first in a series of sister Internet sites created to open
up new channels of communication and exchange between international artists,
curators, and critics. “I often describe inIVA as a sort of cultural venture
capitalist,” says Tawadros, “taking risks on artists and ideas that are not
yet part of the everyday language of the contemporary art world.”

Risk-taking has also paid off in the realm of publishing. Nine years ago,
inIVA produced Beyond the Fantastic, the first collection of critical
writing on contemporary Latin American art to be published. This book, like
other inIVA publications, is now entering the mainstream, about to be reissued
by Phaidon Press.

But perhaps the exhibition Veil, which launched at the New Art
Gallery in Walsall in February 2003 and later toured the UK before moving
to Sweden, best exemplifies the inIVA experience. Conceived long before
the events of September 11, 2001, by the French Algerian artist Zineb Sedria,
the show explored the cultural significance of the veil in a range of artists’
work. It attracted an audience of 30,000 when it first opened in Walsall,
and a wide range of visitor comments.
“We didn’t do the show to be provocative,” Tawadros explains.
“We did it because we recognised that artists are often like social researchers,
picking up major cultural shifts in society. Young Bangladeshi women said
that this was the first time they had been in an art gallery and had seen
work that talked to their experience. A young white woman said that when
she came to the show, she began to think of the veil in a new way . . . We’re
not talking to one audience, but to a whole range of people. And it’s vital
that we embody this spirit in our new building; it’s not just about creating
a physical space, but about creating a space for dialogue across audiences.”

Despite all these achievements, the Institute has not been widely profiled,
earning the description “invisible inIVA” from some critics. Building a permanent
gallery to house its work, and that of Autograph, the Black Photographers’
Association — both organisations chaired by Stuart Hall — is meant to address
this problem.


Lady Sue Woodford-Hollick, chair of London Arts, is confident that with a
lottery grant of £5 million inIVA will be able to build on its success.
“Over the years, inIVA has rewritten what it is to be an international visual
arts organisation,” she says. “It’s all well and good creating wonderful
buildings, but at the end of the day they are only as good as what goes into
them.”

The lottery award will be released and building work commence in the East
End once inIVA has raised an additional £1.6 million. Not since the
construction of the Hayward Gallery on the banks of the Thames forty years
ago has public money been raised to create a new building to house contemporary
collections and research. For British architect David Adjaye, engaged to
design the new gallery, Rivington Place (it takes its name from its location),
“It’s an exciting opportunity to invent a new façade for a civic building
that not only serves as a gallery, but also as a place to meet and gather
and exchange ideas and thoughts.”

Architectural ambitions aside, fund-raising is a task that constantly
consumes and invigorates Gilane Tawadros and Stuart Hall. Although Hall
is optimistic about the long term, he acknowledges that there are challenges
in the short term, one being the tendency of donors to fight shy of capital
projects.

Hall and Tawados are assisted in their task by an illustrious cast of
board members that comprises international artists, scholars, and curators.
These include Henry Louis Gates, Jr, of Harvard University and Thelma Golden
of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Many are there on account of Hall’s vision
and leadership, which they describe as pivotal to inIVA’s survival, success,
and growth.

Gates, who describes himself as enamoured with Black British culture,
says he wants to “make sure the new building is not only accessible to communities
of colour but also to the art world and the broader segment of British society.”
He has ambitious educational aspirations, and would be delighted to see inIVA
become a “must-visit” place for schoolchildren on par with the British Museum
and the Tate Modern. He also hopes that UK institutions “will step up to
the plate as they do in the States” to provide funding.

It is no coincidence that inIVA’s board is made up of individuals who
are continually thinking about questions of culture and diversity within
academic institutions and the media. After all, these are, as Hall explains,
“people who are concerned with making sense of the changes that are happening
in our world, for whom the question of difference and of negotiating difference
is absolutely key, and far more complex than the traditional binary concept
of ‘us and them’.”

Tawadros acknowledges that the board provides an intellectual platform
for what is essentially an artist-focused organisation. She believes, individual
achievements aside, that the board’s distinction lies in its active and passionate
engagement with inIVA’s projects, and the time and support members are prepared
to give.

Invariably, there are critics who, in the perceived climate
of political correctness in the UK, argue that inIVA is masquerading under
the label of internationalism and diversity to disguise the fact that it
is a home for black art. It is a charge that fails to raise Tawados’s ire.
As she calmly explains, “The colour of artists has not been our central preoccupation.
Our work is about getting curators to look at different types of work and
recognise their importance and significance. Some of the artists we work
with don’t have commercial representation or, in the case of older artists,
their work has not been systematically catalogued nor continuously financially
supported. We’re not about ghetto-ising artists or creating a cultural apartheid
— it’s about re-writing the canon.”

And, looking to the future, Stuart Hall is resolute. “I hope that our
new gallery will provide more opportunities for us to support young talent
from the Caribbean and honour artists who are midway through their careers;
that we’ll continue to bring artwork of international interest in from the
margins of invisibility and into the mainstream.” If Hall has his way, perhaps
it won’t be much longer before the contribution of Caribbean artists is
recognised more widely on the global stage.

A decade of difference

inIVA events and publications involving Caribbean and Caribbean
diaspora artists

1994    Wall and Case Works, inIVA’s
inaugural exhibition: contributors include
Aubrey Williams and Sonia Boyce

1995    inIVA collaborates with the Whitechapel
Art Gallery on a discussion of
new Cuban art titled Art and
Post Utopia

1995    Mirage: Enigmas of Difference and
Desire:
inIVA and ICA London present
multimedia work by eight artists;
contributors include Sonia Boyce,
Isaac Julien, and David A. Bailey

1995    Forty Acres and a Microchip:
in collaboration with the Digital Diaspora,
inIVA hosts a conference at the
ICA London; contributors include
Keith Piper, Trix Worrell, Stuart
Hall, and Paul Gilroy

1995    Artist-in-residence programme launched
in collaboration with Unesco and
Gasworks Artists’ Studio; Esterio
Segura Mora from Cuba spends three
months with Frederick Omega Ludenyi
from Kenya at Gasworks and
their residency culminates in the
exhibition Birds and Fish: In the Freezer

1996    Albert Chong presents a talk at inIVA,
in parallel with the exhibition
New World Imagery: Jamaican Art

at the Hayward Gallery

1996    The Aubrey Williams Seminar takes
place at the October Gallery

1996    Recordings: A Select Bibliography

of Contemporary African,
Afro-Caribbean, and Asian British
Art is co-published with
Chelsea College of Art and Design

1997    Trinidadian artist Steve Ouditt writes
Creole in-Site, an online
diary for inIVA’s website

1997    Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the
Harlem Renaissance
, organised by
the Hayward Gallery in collaboration
with the Corcoran Gallery of
Art in Washington, DC; contributors
include Isaac Julien and Paul Gilroy

1997    Dialogues Across the Black Atlantic
I & II
; contributors include Frank Bowling

1998    enTRANSIT, the brainchild of
Steve Ouditt and Gilane Tawadros, is launched
on the Internet in collaboration
with Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA), Trinidad

1998    The Unesco-Aschberg Bursaries for
Artists offer Che Lovelace (Trinidad)
and José Luis Lopez-Reus
(Venezuela) three-month residences at the
Gasworks Artists’ Studio

1998    The first major UK retrospective of
Aubrey Williams’s work, organised in
collaboration with the Whitechapel
Art Gallery; the exhibition tours to the
National Gallery of Jamaica and
the Barbados Museum

2000    Steve Ouditt is artist-in-residence;
residency culminates in the
Creole Processing Zone
exhibition

2003    inIVA publishes Fault Lines: Contemporary
African Art and Shifting Landscapes
in
collaboration with the Forum for
African Art and the Prince Claus Fund Library;
artists include Frank Bowling

2003    inIVA presents the premiere of Horace
Ové’s film on John La Rose,
The Dream to Change the World

2004    inIVA presents Janine Antoni’s film
Ready or Not, Here I Come at
TheSpace@inIVA