The rightest place | Portfolio

“Art has to transform,” says Blue Curry. The London-based Bahamian artist puts unlikely objects into new contexts, writes Andre Bagoo — and sometimes out of place is where things belong

  • The façade of Ruby Cruel, Blue Curry’s new arts space in a former barbershop in east London. A handpainted sign by Trinidadian Bruce Cayonne is displayed in the front window. Photo courtesy Blue Curry
  • Untitled, Taino lithic crushing tools, softballs, baseballs (2016; collection of Centro León). Made during a residency in the Dominican Republic, this installation juxtaposes prehistoric artefacts with used baseballs that hint at historic US cultural dom
  • Blue Curry at Ruby Tuesday. Photo by Nadia Huggins, courtesy Blue Curry
  • Detail of Untitled, starfish, steel drum, mirrored perspex, silver tinsel (2010). Photo courtesy Blue Curry
  • Untitled, swimsuits, shower heads (2019). Photo courtesy Blue Curry
  • Untitled, combs (2014). Photo courtesy Blue Curry
  • Untitled, customised cement mixer, sun cream (2010; commission for the 6th Liverpool Biennial). Photo courtesy Blue Curry
  • Untitled, strobe light, conch shell (2009). Photo courtesy Blue Curry

Take a conch shell, insert a strobe light. A car tyre, coat with beans. Two starfish, place on an oil drum. A ton of beach sand, ship to an art gallery. This is artist Blue Curry’s way of questioning what belongs where, and maybe who.

“I came to London a little over twenty years ago, on the casual invite of my aunt who emigrated back in the 1960s,” Curry says. “I came for a short visit and never left. I consider London my base, and I do feel that I have become a Londoner, but the Bahamas is still home.”

Curry takes an object from the place where it belongs and puts it into another. It’s little wonder, then, that migration is a key part of his story. He was born in Nassau in 1974. His father had a barbershop in the city’s business district. It became an important setting: a social meeting place that brought together everyone from top Bahamian politicians to fishermen. “A haircut side by side equalised their positions for a few minutes,” Curry says, “and conversations that weren’t possible anywhere else happened there.”

Years later, pursuing that sense of possibility, Curry headed to London, where he obtained a BA in photography and multimedia at the University of Westminster in 2004, then an MFA in fine art at Goldsmiths College in 2009, making an appearance in the two-part BBC documentary Goldsmiths: But Is It Art? (2010).

Art that is compelling is often art that is hard to describe. Even Curry has, on occasion, had difficulty explaining what he’s doing with his sculptural assemblages, installations, and found-object poems. In the 2010 documentary, he struggled to give the filmmakers a mission statement.

“You have this idea of a sculptor or painter just slaving away at this massive canvas, but if the conceptual artist just puts that rock on top of a piece of paper, you can’t see the labour involved with that, and so therefore it’s not an artwork,” he said. “It’s a funny thing to try to explain exactly what a strobing conch shell is saying. What’s happening here? I don’t know.” In the years since, however, others have not been as tongue-tied.

“Dichotomies are at constant play in the work,” wrote Melanie Archer in a 2010 profile of Curry in The Caribbean Review of Books. She detected a sense of fun, alongside an “impossible elegance.” Art critic Carlos Suarez de Jesus positioned Curry’s pieces as balanced on a “tightrope between cultural artefact and tourist souvenir,” while Benjamin Genocchio, writing in the New York Times, described one of the artist’s creations as “satisfying and silly at the same time.”

“I’m less concerned about how people engage with my work, but that they engage, full stop,” Curry says now. “Strong juxtapositions of seemingly contradictory ideas and materials can make people engage. Whatever people take from it — fascination, confusion, anger, delight, amusement — boredom is never an option with my work.”

The ton of sand ends up at the Nassauischer Kunstverein, an art space in Germany. On the shore in the Bahamas from where it is taken, Curry installs a cheeky sign: “This section of beach temporarily on loan for international exhibition. Apologies for any inconvenience caused.” After the show, some, not all, of the material is returned. The entire thing becomes Like Taking Sand to the Beach (2006).

It points to how Curry’s work involves a carnival of symbols. His installations scramble icons of identity. The beach — for some, the quintessential embodiment of the Caribbean as paradise — is reduced to mere commodity. Something that should be immune to the idea of ownership is shipped, possessed, objectified, much in the way colonisation exploited black bodies. Forget seeing a world in a grain of sand, as William Blake did. We are in the realm of the absurd: the colonial nightmare. This theatrical dis-ordering of signs and ciphers emerges as the dominant theme in the artist’s work. 

And so in Curry’s Untitled (2010), two starfish are mounted, as if dancing or in amorous embrace, on top of a painted oil drum. There’s some frothy silver tinsel between them, and mirrored perspex appears to have become their dance floor. The starfish is an easily recognised symbol of the seaside, of the joyful things we associate with the marine environment. Placing two of them astride an oil drum is a harsh juxtaposition that makes us confront the environmental impact of oil rigs and fossil fuel usage on this same marine environment.

The mirror gives you the feeling that the starfish are walking on water — another symbolic gesture, which deepens the sense of their estrangement from where they should be, and adds a teleological twist: are they Christ-like figures about to be sacrificed? The green paint on the oil drum is yet another ironic symbol, green being the colour we associate with nature. Oil itself is natural, even if its harvesting has brought us to a most unnatural climate emergency.

All of these elements bring us to a place where we must confront the dynamics of how smaller states are affected by the actions of larger, multinational entities, whether conglomerates or countries, in their quest to exploit natural resources. That dynamic has been the lynchpin of the relationship between developing and more developed countries for centuries.

If Untitled (2010) is about the interplay of forces within nature and history, Souvenir (2014) is about politics impinging on the human body. The piece is a sculpture comprising four translucent hair combs arranged on a perspex plinth. Combs are representations of how we tame hair to fit our ideas of beauty. In this way, they are also emblematic of larger, more oppressive social ideas. In a world where black bodies are made to bow down to white standards of beauty, the comb is a reminder of the painful process by which a mother might try to iron out the kinks in her black daughter’s curly hair. Curry, who most would regard as white within a Caribbean setting, understands his nebulous place within the racial dynamics of the region: that the combs are colourless becomes a powerful gesture of solidarity. For a residency at Alice Yard in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 2016, the artist would return to this subject, this time making a group of assemblages from colourful afro combs. (Comb sculptures, in fact, have been a longstanding part of his oeuvre, going as far back as 2010.)

Nor do the politics of class escape Curry’s gaze. In another untitled piece from 2010 — many of his works are officially Untitled, and otherwise identified by their materials — he fills a cement mixer with thirty litres of sunscreen. The cement mixer is a symbol of construction work, of builders, of tough, hardy, typically male figures who might have little concern for skincare regimes. The sunscreen is just like the starfish: a symbol of beach-going, leisurely life. The work offers a paradox heightening the estrangement between two class worlds.

The idea of the male is also present in 2019’s Untitled, swimsuits, shower heads, but via its dramatic absence. Twelve bathing suits — another signifier: there are twelve disciples, twelve moon cycles, twelve hours on the clock — are hung on showerheads lined up along a white wall. Bathing suits are, again, symbols of leisure, but here, arrayed in this way, they suggest something mercenary, perhaps prostitution. The artist may see tourism as a negative thing, but there’s also a deep critique of the place of women in society. The limp suits, hung up here, seem fetishlike, on display, lined up for an offstage and (likely) male gaze. Their very proliferation speaks to the absence of women in other more serious realms of Caribbean society. Women are numerous on the beach, but missing elsewhere, such as in the legislative chamber — women make up only about twelve per cent of the Bahamas Parliament. 

“Art doesn’t have to say anything, but it has to do something,” Curry says. “Art has to transform or rearrange material or ideas in a way that hasn’t been seen before. It should complicate the familiar elements of the culture around us, and perhaps make us reconsider our position in it.” Of Untitled, swimsuits, shower heads he says, “I’m asking that these bathing suits, which might seem quite innocuous, be considered in terms of the mental subjugation of Caribbean people. At the same time, because of their ordinary nature as consumer items, they are underestimated as material for sculpture and art, so I am also interested in repositioning them as such.”

Another kind of repositioning is occupying Curry’s attention these days, with his opening of a new collaborative space in London, named Ruby Cruel — an anagram of the artist’s own name. It’s a new dawn in a sense, located at 250 Morning Lane in east London. Besides the obvious symbolism of the address, the space was once the site of a barbershop, bring Curry full circle to his childhood. “I want it to have a unique and flexible mix of uses, including exhibitions, talks, workshops, socials, community projects, and an artist-in-residence programme, to name a few,” he explains. It’s already had its first opening night in late 2019, he tells me. On exhibition when we speak is work by Trinidadian painter and designer Bruce Cayonne, known at home for his distinctive fete signs, usually displayed in public locations. Commissioned by Curry, Cayonne has made a series of hand-painted typographic works experimenting with the nascent Ruby Cruel identity or brand.

“I see Ruby Cruel as a sort of alter ego, or better put, an anti-ego,” Curry says. “It has little to do with my own individual artistic career, and more to do with working with others and creating creative possibilities and networks in general.” Those networks may involve straddling two seemingly disparate but, in fact, heavily interlinked worlds: the Caribbean and London. 

“I get back twice a year, and bounce around the Caribbean quite a bit working on various projects,” Curry says. “In two decades, I feel as though I’ve lived through three different Londons — which is hard to explain — but art, fashion, music, and attitudes have progressed and changed so many times since I’ve lived here. The city is not the same one as when I first arrived.

“Just as there are challenges in operating from a small island space, there are challenges to working in a big city. I’m fortunate enough that I can move between the two. This has become intrinsic to the work I make, and also to my own identity as a Caribbean person.”

Blue Curry and his work stand out wherever he goes, but he clearly also fits in at many different places. The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that by habitually making things seem out of place, by pushing them across boundaries, he makes them belong. Suddenly, they seem in the rightest place, destined for his designs all along.