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Paying tribute to Colleen Lewis

Katherine Kennedy interns as an art writer with ARC, a non-profit print and online contemporary arts publication concerned with the Caribbean and its diasporas. ARC ran this review of Katherine’s about the Fresh Milk VII event. Musings from the Milking Parlour is happy to share this month’s guest column with Katherine Kennedy.

FRESH MILK VII: The Opening of The Colleen Lewis Reading Room and a Review of ‘A Negation of Preconceptions’

FRESH MILK has been taking leaps and bounds in ensuring there is a dynamic space in Barbados for artists and all interested persons to gather, share information, and foster creativity by hosting events and promoting animated discussions. The latest of these events was FRESH MILK VII held on Sunday July 15, which not only launched the Robert and Christopher Publishers book Pictures from Paradise, but also marked the official opening of The Colleen Lewis Reading Room on site, as well as showcasing a selection of photographs in the exhibition A Negation of Preconceptions, curated by arts writer Natalie McGuire.

Colleen Lewis was born July 12, 1962 in Canada, and first met artist and founder of FRESH MILK Annalee Davis when she enrolled as a mature student at The Barbados Community College. During Sunday’s opening remarks, Annalee told us fondly of the friendship that developed between them, and the love and enthusiasm they shared for the arts, mentioning Colleen’s own collection – which included many of Annalee’s works.

Alongside her expansive art collection, Colleen possessed a wide and comprehensive assortment of books accumulated during both her history degree in Toronto, and after she enrolled at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus to pursue a Masters in Cultural Studies.

Colleen passed away on September 6, 2006 in Barbados. It was her wish for Annalee to have the majority of her library, and Annalee notes that as you flick through the pages of many of the books she donated, you will find the comments she and Colleen wrote in them together. These are bittersweet reminders of the good times they had, poring over the pages and sharing thoughts and information, and Annalee says as she reads them, “… time and space collapse into a continuum of love and friendship”.

Although Colleen has passed on, her passion for life and learning is timeless. As you make yourself comfortable in the Reading Room, which looks out onto the St. George countryside, and browse through some of the 710 publications currently housed in the library — about half of which were given by Colleen — it is safe to say her desire to share and build on knowledge is very much alive thanks to Annalee’s entrepreneurship.

It is her hope to keep expanding the library, and anyone who wishes to make donations to the Reading Room is invited to do so. Additionally, Annalee is keen to support any activities people may wish to set up such as a book club or reading session; anything which will create interest and discussion in this inspiring venue.

In the space preceding the Reading Room, A Negation of Preconceptions is currently on show, featuring the work of Grenadian artist Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe, Trinidadians Tracey Chan and Rodell Warner, and Barbadian Mark King, all of whom work with the medium of photography. The title of the exhibition is a line from a poem by Eugene Meyer in response to the famous art gallery 291, founded by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who played a pivotal role in getting society to accept photography as a form of fine art and pioneered the Photo-Secession movement in the early 20th century. Like those in this movement who sought to overthrow opinions of what art had to be, the artists being exhibited use photography to undermine people’s expectations of what Caribbean art must conform to.

I spoke to Natalie McGuire about her selection of work to be included in the exhibition, which complements the photographs in Pictures from Paradise, creating a tangible link to it without mirroring it completely. It is a small sampling of inter-regional artists who masterfully tackle this theme, and Natalie made excellent use of the space she had, the photographs displayed relating well to one another despite each artist’s distinctive style.

Natalie mentions that, in spite of this undercurrent of rejecting Caribbean stereotypes, the work is not necessarily actively responding to them. The artists are not taking the offensive; they are merely trying to represent what is real to them in their immediate environment, showing their side rather than a product of tourism.

For example, Malaika Brooks-Smith-Lowe runs a Caribbean women’s photography group called Ground Glass Collective, of which Tracey Chan is also a member. The group’s mission statement says it is “dedicated to creating a supportive environment for the growth of our individual approaches & ideas … sharing our stories, critiques and new visions for the future”. This reiterates that it is not about fighting a construct that outsiders have created of us – it is about addressing the topics of women in the Caribbean on a personal level, which will in turn lead to a change in the region from within.

Malaika’s photographs in this exhibition reflect this theme of exploration of identity. The piece Untitled (2011) is a self-portrait, but her ghost-like appearance suggests she is not fully anchored to the world she lives in. It is as if this search for her identity has not yet been resolved. Her pieces Handle with Care and All Dressed up and Nowhere to go (2011) are similarly showing a certain lack of identification, the faces being hidden or indistinct in both.

It is interesting to observe that each photograph features a different woman, although it is hard to tell because of the nature of the pieces. This move away from individuality, this idea that one woman is every woman, brings up the notion of Malaika speaking not only on her own behalf, but depicting the Caribbean woman on a whole. It is why groups like Ground Glass Collective become so important to Malaika – to find a way for us to support one another and solidify this identity as we discover our true selves.

Tracey Chan’s chosen subjects are not people, but birds perched on telephone lines. Trinidadian tourism often includes brightly coloured “tropical” birds, but the stars of Tracey’s series Upon Us (2011) are not remarkable or majestic; they are the kind of common place image you can see walking down the road. This is what she wants to bring to the fore, these urban birds as metaphors for Caribbean people.

Our day-to-day life is not exotic, every scene is not a postcard. Even the angle at which these pictures are taken was that of someone glancing up, no pretence to be anything other than a glimpse out of daily life, which contradicts the lives we are portrayed by the media to live. Like Malaika’s images which unify Caribbean women, these images also hold a link to all Caribbean people, making them relatable while still making their statement about our reality.

Rodell Warner similarly uses an image that we could encounter just walking down a street, but while Tracey’s images are not linked to a specific location to give them a more universal feel, location is key to understanding Rodell’s work. Lady Chancellor Road is in an elite neighbourhood in Port of Spain, and as such his pieces Lady Chancellor’s Secret II (2010) and Lady Chancellor’s Secret XI (2011) act like an expos? of this area.

The large photographs of used condoms become even more highlighted by the inverted colours, making them especially bold. This mixture of “high” and “low” society has a dual effect, negating the outsider’s Caribbean stereotype we have been referring to all along, as well as tackling West Indians’ own views of our culture.

These elite neighbourhoods or gated communities are often revered to an extent by Caribbean people, and Rodell has knocked these “perfect” places off their pedestals. We are, as has been the whole point, made to look at ourselves from an insider’s perspective and consider what stereotypes and assumptions we may actually be making about ourselves.

Another inside look at Caribbean culture comes from Mark King’s series Call And Response (2012). This is a tongue in cheek look at the severity of religion in Barbados, and signs similar to those Mark has put up on poles for the purpose of his project can be found around the island – minus the graffiti. The series is not meant to be opposing religion directly, but crafting a humorous ‘what if’ situation with these messages that we are bombarded with.

It is light hearted in a sense, but still questioning the strict, black and white view of religion that is enforced in our society. It is worth noting that these signs were left up after being photographed, but were removed almost immediately by a third party.

This underscores the entire point of the satirical series — many people here are not comfortable with anything remotely challenging or questioning their steadfast views when it comes to religion. Aesthetically, in the set up of the exhibition, real nails were used to display Mark’s work unlike the thin pins used for the others, bringing an element from the subject matter into the actual display of the image.

FRESH MILK accomplished yet another well put together, multifaceted and thought provoking event, to which there was a tremendously positive response in all regards. A Negation of Preconceptions ran July 15 to 27, and sessions in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room may be booked by contacting Everyone is invited to come out and participate in these events – become part of this driving force celebrating contemporary art throughout the Caribbean.

Katherine Kennedy is an artist and writer. She graduated from Lancaster University, UK with a degree in Creative Arts; her combined major of Fine Art and Creative Writing helped develop her keen interests in both visual and literary pursuits.

She has won multiple awards for her artwork and writing in her home Barbados, and has exhibited internationally in London. Since returning home, she has remained immersed in creativity, completing a local artist residency, contributing to ARC Magazine of Contemporary Caribbean Art by writing for their online forum, and most recently working with The FRESH MILK Art Platform Inc.

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