Despite being born and bred in Trinidad, Tracey Chan is always being told her art isn’t Caribbean, because it doesn’t show trees or flowers.
“I’ve had that problem since I was small,” she says. “People say, ‘Why don’t you draw Rastamen?’”
Her colleague Stacey Byer wants to challenge those stereotypes of Caribbean art.
“I think painting beaches and boats and sunsets is fine, but you can be a Caribbean artist and do other things,” she says. “I do a lot of work that’s emotional, and a lot of abstract expressionism. If I wake up in the morning and eat pancakes instead of bakes, that doesn’t make me less Caribbean, so I think sometimes art is like that too. I can do pancakes and I can still be Caribbean.”
Byer is a Grenadian painter and illustrator who focuses much of her work on local folklore, and Chan, a multi-media artist and animator, is now also based in Grenada.
Painter Suelin Low Chew Tung also migrated to Grenada from Trinidad & Tobago, in 1989. She says that apart from Carnival, visual art is not considered a necessary part of the regional cultural environment. It’s rarely present in public spaces, and even if government ministries, public or private-sector organisations hold exhibitions or competitions, the work isn’t documented, and is never seen again.
“By and large,” says Low Chew Tung, “the institutional and political ambivalence about the importance of visual arts, to document our history and as an important contributor to the economy, is reflected in the ad-hoc state of the visual arts community.”
With few exceptions, she believes, “The art scene here does not truly tell us who we are or might become, as very few of our artists question identity, individual or collective memory – from personal indifference or ignorance, I could not say. Many of the works produced are for buyers who want scenes of the Carenage or images of colourful villages or markets.
“But there are a few who paint what they see from their windows, what they live every day, documenting life in Grenada in an honest contemporary format.”
Byer and Chan are trying to encourage those artists. Last year they staged an exhibition, Women Make Art (WOMA), at the Arts Council gallery in Grenada’s capital, St George’s. A groundbreaking event, it was the first art show in the country to feature solely locally-based female artists. It also sought to challenge accepted notions about local art, as well as the function of art in the island’s society.
The show, which Chan and Byer hope will become an annual event, featured 41 artists, about half born in Grenada or nearby islands, and all of whom now call Grenada their home. Over 200 people attended on opening night in March, during which a fifth of the artwork was sold. Some of the proceeds were donated to the Breaking Barriers project of the Grenada National Organisation of Women, which helps victims of domestic violence become self-sufficient.
Byer and Chan say one of their main motives in staging the exhibition was to encourage local artists to embrace their talent, despite the low status accorded to the visual arts in Grenada, and the low-key nature of the local arts scene.
“We used it as a platform to bring on younger artists who we think are a little shy in displaying their work,” Byer explains. “We featured some artists who haven’t begun to develop a body of work and think about their process yet; they love art, and maybe they’ve been drawing for a few years, but they are a bit casual about it.”
Last year’s range was broad, from Amanda Hage’s mini-portrait of a woman listening to music on headphones and Ayhana Bowen’s ink-and-bleach representation of an oriental deity, to large-scale digital photo prints by Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe and digitally manipulated work by French immigrant Geraldine Le Leannec. There was also a massive installation by Susan Mains (a noted artist who runs a local gallery), and a large painting of a fishing village by established British-born artist Judith Jarvis.
Following that exhibition’s resounding success, various plans are being mooted for the future. “We are thinking of doing male artists next time,” Byer suggested, “or having male and female artists collaborate. We would also like to mix art and music, to do some sort of public performance, and not just be an exhibition. And we thought it would be great if we handed WOMA over to another island… maybe Dominica can do WOMA next.”
“We just want to try different things,” Chan concluded. “We don’t want to get static.”