Travel Notes While Rome is Burning – Part II

 

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Anti Vietnam War art at the Whitney’s An Incomplete History of Protest

Part I of this blog post can be found here. Below now follows part II.

But let me return to my reflections on my New York City trip. My first full day was spent in the world of Outsider Art, a world which has always both attracted and troubled me—attracted, because it provides exposure and validation for extraordinary art that would otherwise remain invisible and marginalized; troubled, because of the lack of self-reflexivity in the usually well-meaning patronage that surrounds it, which is often overly missionary, purist, and “from the top down,” and thus re-inscribes and even fetishizes the very same marginalization it claims to challenge (and I am using the term Outsider Art as a catch-all for what has been variously called Folk, Self-Taught, Intuitive and Outsider Art or Art Brut—examining the issues arising from these concepts and terms is something for another blog post).

My day started at the Anne Hill Blanchard Uncommon Artists lectures at the American Folk Art Museum, which three presentations on self-taught art from the Caribbean: with Barbara Paca speaking on the Antiguan painter Frank Walter; Nancy Josephson on the Haitian “drapo” or Vodou flag tradition; and Jamaica’s own Jacqueline Bishop on the Jamaican painter Kemel Rankine. The three lectures were supposed to have been followed by a demonstration by Sane Mae Dunkley, an outstanding exponent of the rag-mat tradition in Jamaica, but she had passed away unexpectedly just before New Year. At the request of Jacqueline Bishop (who, I should disclose, is a friend), I presented a short tribute to Sane Mae Dunkley and placed her work in the contexts of popular fibre art and recyclage traditions in the Caribbean.

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Sane Mae Dunkley – Tapestry “Joseph Coat of Many Colours” (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

It was my first visit since the American Folk Art Museum returned to its earlier Lincoln Square facility, in a building it shares with other organizations. I had the opportunity to look around for a bit before the lectures started and I must say that the rather dreary, institutional look of the present galleries does no justice to that museum’s amazing collections and exhibitions. I sure miss the days when this museum was in its own, purpose-designed building on 53rd Street, adjoining MoMA, which was a pleasure to visit, although this location proved to be financially unsustainable (and the building, which was of architectural interest, has now been demolished to make way for MoMA’s latest expansion—a fable of the art world in its own right, but well).

Frank Walter (1926-2009), whose work was featured at the inaugural Antigua Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, is certainly a very interesting artist, who should be better known in the Caribbean, and Barbara Paca, a NYC based art historian and landscape architect (yes, she combines both professions), must be credited for her relentless work in bringing his work and life to international attention. I would however have liked to see more critical reflection on how which Walter, who was black, positioned himself as a descendant of the plantocracy who privileged his European, German roots over his African ones, and how he is now in turn similarly positioned in the emerging narratives about his life and work. I was also concerned about the manner in which his work is now mobilized to raise awareness about mental illness, since this seems rather reductive and may skew the interpretation of his work as symptomatic of certain pathologies.

Nancy Josephson, an American artist who is herself a Vodou devotee, provided insights into the individual styles and techniques used by various drapo makers, which usefully challenged the notion that there is no innovation or originality in such art forms. Her discussion was however essentially descriptive and, again, lacked the contextualization, criticality and self-reflexivity that would have made the analysis truly useful. Jacqueline Bishop, finally, placed the work of Kemel Rankine, a St-Elizabeth-based sign painter who also produces figurative work, in the context of Jamaican visual culture and folklore.

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Travel Notes While Rome is Burning – Part I

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Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City for a few days. I arrived in the city on the day of the Women’s March, January 20, too late to see anything, let alone to participate in the march, but still early enough to have to get out of my taxi to walk to my hotel, since the blocks around 6th Avenue were still closed for traffic—a minor inconvenience. What the Women’s March represented, or sought to represent, as a way to challenge current political developments however set the tone for what was on my mind during my visit, so here is part one of some of my preliminary musings. (I also did two studio visits, with Simon Benjamin and Shoshanna Weinberger, who will be the subjects of forthcoming blog posts.)

One of my key interests, as a curator and art historian, is the role of art in society, and particularly the role of art in social change and times of crisis—a big question in the Caribbean context and, for all its contradictions and contentions, one of the driving forces in the development of art in the region. The question of what art can do, or must do, in times of crisis is sharply posed today. Throughout the world, worst-case scenarios are playing out, politically, socially and environmentally, and a lot of the things many of us have taken for granted are under active threat. This includes the viability of our political and governmental systems, social injustices and tensions that seem to be worsening, despite the social justice activism and changes of recent decades, and even the very sustainability of human life on this planet.

Historically, the worst of times have often produced compelling art, and have caused artists, cultural institutions, and others in the art world to reflect on the role of art in such moments. In the late 1930s, as dark clouds were gathering over Nazi Germany, Bertold Brecht wrote his poem To Those Who Follow in our Wake and asked: “What times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many misdeeds?” Brecht’s poem confronted artists with their social responsibilities and the capacity of art to question things and to raise consciousness when the times call for it. I am not suggesting that other artistic choices have no legitimacy, even in times of crisis, but whether art, as a form symbolic intervention, can make a real, tangible and positive intervention into the socio-political dynamics of its time is an important and urgent question. And I added the word “positive,” because we also have to be mindful of the dangers of propaganda, which can be mobilized to promote the mindless acceptance of detrimental political ideas, as is illustrated by the tragically effective propaganda machine of Nazi Germany.

1024px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe pitfalls and contradictions have been there from the moment art started asking social and political questions: the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, who was active during the turbulent times of the Counter-Reformation, for instance, has conventionally been represented as a subversive critical voice who heroically risked his personal welfare to lambast the Spanish Habsburg rule of Flanders. His Massacre of the Innocents (c1565-67) places the biblical story in the context of 16th century Flanders and was overpainted extensively, presumably after the artist’s death, to soften some of its more gruesome and specific details. It is generally accepted that the painting makes reference to the Grand Duke of Alba, a Spanish diplomat and general who was sent to Flanders to quell religious and political dissent with harsh repressive actions, a rule of terror which resulted in about 18,000 executions. Yet representatives of Habsburg rule in Flanders, such as Cardinal Granvelle, were also among Bruegel’s main patrons and the question arises of whether artists who benefit from the power hierarchies of their time, in terms of patronage, can also legitimately and effectively talk back to power.

This question is not unimportant today, since the proliferation of high-profile art fairs and spectacular record auction results has reinforced the role of art as a luxury commodity, to be acquired by “high net worth” and “ultra-high net worth” individuals in a market that is controlled by powerful brokers, dealers and benefitted from by a few lucky artists. The hype and celebrity cult that presently surround the art market is an integral part of the current cultural climate and, despite its aspirational qualities, seems to be symptomatic of a world in which the socio-economic divide is widening rather than shrinking. While this suggests that the art world is fiddling while Rome is burning, art is also more politicized than ever.

Many artists are making powerful statements, implied or explicit, about our troubled world; cultural institutions are politicized as never before, in various ways and for better and for worse; and the critical reception of art, from critics and general audiences, is equally politicized, instantaneous, and increasingly contentious (as the responses to the recent unveiling of the Obama portraits perfectly illustrate). And, because of social media and other live online resources, art and the debates that surround it travel faster and more widely than ever, worlds beyond what would have been the reach of the likes of Pieter Bruegel, when access to art was almost exclusively moderated by ownership and high social status. Ironically, thus, the political side of today’s art world is mediated by the same mechanisms of circulation that produce and sustain the art celebrities and art market hype, and the manner in which those two worlds interface and collide raises new questions about whether and how art can be a catalyst for meaningful social change in the current context.

Part II of this blog post can be found here.

On Making Things

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My father, Karel “Karlo” Poupeye, ON4PU in his radio shack, c1953 (Maria Poupeye-Roose family archive – all rights reserved)

My father was a ham radio amateur. His call sign was ON4PU. He was a technical engineer by training and made almost everything for his hobby himself, from scratch. He made his own radios, his own antennas, for use at our home and for his car, buying components from old army stocks and other, more random sources. It did not always make us popular with the neighbours, the big ass antenna in the garden, the occasional interference with their radios and TVs (although my father volunteered to install whatever it was that was needed to stop the interference in their devices – I believe it involved a diode).

My earliest memories are of playing in his “radio shack,” while my mother was out shopping on Saturday mornings. It was a small room in our attic, chock-full of radio-related stuff. I would play on the ground with boxes with radio components and other fascinating objects, while he was busy on the radio. My first visual memory is of two world maps on the wall of his shack. I must have been about two years old then, since he apparently had two maps while we were briefly living in a particular house when I was that age. In our later home, he only had one map.

I was mesmerized with him endlessly repeating, “CQ, CQ,  ON4PU,” into his microphone, like an incantation, inviting other ham radio amateurs from all over the world to chat with him. The calls involved all sorts of other abbreviations and coded phrases and most were with total strangers – a world in itself, limited to the initiated and the technical. It was quite difficult to get a ham radio license at that time, since there was a stringent technical exam, and he had the greatest contempt for CB radio amateurs, who did not have to meet those technical standards and did not use the prescribed call codes.

Ham radio was my father’s window on the world, much like social media today. My father kept a record of his calls in his log book, and on his world map – I wish I could find both now, and know how far his network really reached. While it was an almost exclusively male world, there was a curious lack of judgement in these conversations, quite unlike social media and, no doubt, other aspects of my father’s own life. He was as excited about talking with a ham radio amateur in Nigeria, as with an American army man in Fort Bragg – strangers who found each other and managed to communicate, although usually only fleetingly, over their shared passion.

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Picnic with the Dacosta Pinto family near Lisboa, c1972 (Maria Poupeye-Roose family archive – all rights reserved)

Even our vacation travel was shaped by this global fraternity, as my father would only travel to countries where he could get a visiting license (Franco’s Spain was out of the question, for that reason). After he finally managed to get permission to drive through Spain with his radios in the car, albeit without being allowed to use them, we had two amazing, month-long vacations in Portugal where we were hosted by fellow radio ham amateurs. I remember an amazing picnic in the countryside near Lisboa, eating spicy foods from East Timor (the daughter-in-law of our host, a Mr Dacosta Pinto, was from there). Our family vacations were surely not ordinary. When I moved to Jamaica, my father tried for to make contact with ham radio amateurs here but never succeeded. I even identified and visited a ham radio amateur in Hope Pastures, but to no avail. They never found each other.

Not that living with my father was easy. He was a brilliant man, fiercely intelligent and perceptive, and technically gifted, but he was no match to his own demons, his self-doubts, his explosive temper, his addiction to alcohol. Everything I wanted to do in my life involved passing a test of wills with him and I was as determined as he was to get my way, which led to many conflicts. My father died of a stroke a few years after I moved to Jamaica, just short of his 58th birthday. I have made my peace with our history, although I wish that he had found greater peace and balance in his own life, and his relationships with others. But I also recognize that I am my father’s daughter and that I learned a lot from him, if only how to channel my own demons more productively. But I also learned how to stand up for myself and for what I believe in, even if it goes against the tide or involves talking back to power.

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Eddie Harris shantie (2017)

And my father also gifted me with a deep admiration for people who can make things, for the inventors and the creatives among us, who can make something of great beauty or utility (or both), whether it is out of practically nothing or with high end materials and technology, using their intellect, their imagination, their talents, and their skilled eyes and hands. It is this admiration, I believe, that shaped my interest in art, as a form of invention, which involves both imagining and making things and communicating through them.

It makes me as interested in the shanties of Eddie Harris, which are made from found and recuperated pieces of wood or bark, or the rag mats of Sane Mae Dunkley, as I am in the visually mesmerizing, interactive video installations of David Gumbs or the incredibly intricate, symbolism-laden paintings of Jan van Eyck – gifted and passionate inventors and magnificent artists each of them. And while ham radio allowed makers of things like my father to communicate  in real time across space and culture, art allows people to communicate across space, culture and time. We became human when we started making things like that and it is what ties us together beyond difference and conflict, and allows us to look beyond, into who we are, where we came from, and how we can shape and re-shape the world we live in.

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Cueva de Manos, Argentina, c11,000-9,000 BC (image source: unesco.org)

[Updated with photos of my father and the picnic with the Dacosta Pintos on August 21, 2018]