Closing the Gap

Beyond straightforward ideas that come to mind when I think about politics, a more general association I make is one of conformity; governance as it applies to a set group, and ways of asserting some kind of control within it. But how do we define groups of people, and how do we negotiate the politics around the inevitable intersections between these boundaries – what are the politics of simply belonging and existing? The Caribbean is a region constantly struggling with these notions, on the one hand having the multitude of cultures present here flattened and simplified by external gazes, while on the other still struggling with nationalistic divisions that may prevent us from finding affinities between the shared history and contemporary issues we grapple with.

In March 2016, there were two artists in residence at the Fresh Milk Art Platform – the multipurpose, nonprofit contemporary art space where I work in Barbados – from other Caribbean territories: Sonia Farmer from the Bahamas and Alex Kelly from Trinidad and Tobago. Fresh Milk has always operated locally, regionally, and internationally, but this was the first time we had two regional residents on the platform at the same time, and there was something both unique and unifying about the conversations that surfaced regarding certain realities in our countries.

The impact of our colonial pasts is ever present, »…expressed in our industries and infrastructure and shared ghosts« [1] as Sonia put it; notably with respect to tourism and the tenuous relationship we have with it in Barbados and the Bahamas.

The shortcomings of the educational system shared by Barbados and Trinidad, as well as several other Anglophone Caribbean countries, became especially interesting to Alex, with its failure to foster or expand critical thinking comparable to »…sitting in a rocking chair, moving vigorously back and forth, but making no progress.« [2]

However, as well as finding kinship with one another, differences were also highlighted. One seemingly innocuous term in particular became like a running joke during the residency: how Barbadians use the word »gap.«

A »gap« in Barbados can loosely refer to a side-street or path off of the main road, and until recently I genuinely thought this was a universal use of the word – at the very least regional. But neither Sonia nor Alex were familiar with it, and after subsequently asking a number of people from different countries, we haven’t discovered anywhere else that recognizes that meaning except Bajans. [3] This led to a strange fascination with the word, and frequent questioning of when something was or was not »a gap« …because although my local friends and I were very clear that not every road was a gap, we could not provide enough clarity on when or when not to use it, and insisted you just »had to know.«

It’s a small peculiarity in comparison to other cultural markers I could identify, but for some reason it stood out to me. Maybe it’s because of the common meaning of the word; its connotations of creating distance and coming between two objects, ideas or worlds. It simultaneously represented a cultural gap between Barbados and other countries, while funnily enough drawing a cross-cultural reference for me stemming from time I spent in the UK during university. Anyone who has been there and traveled by train or the underground has been met with the constant mechanical refrain of »Mind the Gap« as they embark or disembark bustling carriages.

Sometimes it seems like »Minding the Gap« is all we are programmed to do across the board, one way or another. We are expected to acknowledge the ocean between our landmasses, language barriers, nationalities and all other manner of dissimilarities which indoctrinate us into seeing inequality rather than diverse experiences. While she was in Barbados, one person mentioned to Sonia that they »don’t consider The Bahamas a part of the Caribbean.« This is not the first time or place she has received such a comment, and although not meant in malice, it is indicative of this segregated mindset. For me, this is why the work that Fresh Milk and other progressive arts spaces in the Caribbean undertake is so important.

In the four years I have worked with Fresh Milk, we have had more than 40 artists in residence from over ten countries: some local, some regional, some part of the Caribbean diaspora, some with multicultural lineage, some with no prior connection to this archipelago – but all entering with open minds and eager to learn and engage.

Additionally, Fresh Milk has partnered with Caribbean arts entities ARC Magazine, where I also work as a writer and editor, and Aruba-based space Ateliers ’89 to co-manage the regional residency and exhibition Caribbean Linked, which brings together young artists from the Dutch Antillean, Anglophone, Francophone, and Hispanic Caribbean to live, create, and exist together annually. Despite being involved with this program from the beginning from an administrative point of view, I will be joining the residents for ten days in 2016 on the ground in Aruba for the first time, and I can’t wait the be immersed in this foreign yet familiar space with other curious creatives seeking compatibility with one another.

Forging meaningful regional and international bonds interrupts the monotonous back-and-forth mentality that Alex critiqued in his work, attempting to build bridges across these perceived chasms rather than shore up our borders. In this way, I see residencies as an act of resistance in themselves, going against the unfortunate trend that is spreading across much of the world in order to support mobility, freedom of expression, and cross-cultural pollination.

My personal art practice, which I have begun to revisit lately alongside my work at Fresh Milk and ARC, includes a wide range of global experiences in an almost autobiographical way. The work I’m currently doing considers the politics of movement and identity, and having the right to interrogate that without becoming disconnected from your roots.

In spite of being born and raised in Barbados, surrounded for the most part by the Bajan side of my family and feeling legitimately invested in the culture and the country, my multiracial ethnicity and dual nationality has always created a »gap« in others’ ability to see me as truly belonging. My background is regularly scrutinized by acquaintances and strangers alike, who guess (without prompt) that I am anything from East Indian to Brazilian to Columbian to Mexican – never Barbadian, or rather Barbadian »enough.«

I’ve been asked before why I don’t make art specifically addressing my racial ambiguity, as that might be seen as »making a statement,« but the simplest answer is that I don’t feel the need to delve into that; society throws my race into question more than enough. Instead, I’ve always found myself gravitating toward using surroundings and environments in my practice.

My latest pieces have been looking at some of the cities I’ve been fortunate enough to visit in the past few years, such as London, São Paulo, Rome, Paris, and Stuttgart. I have used maps to trace road networks of a 21-mile diameter – the length of Barbados – around a focal point in each location. Reproducing these maps and layering them with one another, as well as objects with which I can make bold, carnivalesque patterns and intertwined shadows, has allowed me to create cultural mosaics using this imagery. Shadows have always intrigued me in they are both immaterial echoes and yet distinct creations in themselves, reminding us that nothing is ever strictly one dimensional.

I’ve only just begun playing with these road networks, formerly using mostly the silhouettes of buildings in my tracing of experiences and space, but the maps excite me with their possibilities. Their branching, webbed appearance reminds me visually of the roots I am trying to plant, or veins pumping life through my explorative process.

I’m not so naïve that I’m not aware of the historical affiliation between mapping and imposition/conquering, or to realize that even my easier access to these places due to my British passport (though the ramifications of that may hang in the balance post-EU referendum) while fellow Caribbean citizens are subjected to tedious visa procedures implicate power imbalances. But I remain aligned with a region traditionally on the aggrieved end of these restrictions, and with that understanding in mind, my interest still lies in insisting that what binds us is stronger than what separates us.

When I layer the 21 miles of routes and arteries on one another, a complex and even confused image emerges. But I find it to be somewhat beautiful, even as it becomes tangled and closer to a solid mass. I wonder how many »gaps« – the Bajan and the general meaning – I have merged in this layered geographical lattice.

If I am able to find the area of Barbados in every place I go, and resident artists continue to see parallels between their own situations and those in my country and region, perhaps there is still a way to »close« rather than “mind” the gaps that arise in the face of adversity.

  1. Jump Up Sonia Farmer in her blog kept during her Fresh Milk residency:
  2. Jump Up Alex Kelly in his blog kept during his Fresh Milk residency:
  3. Jump Up Colloquial word for »Barbadians.«