Better Spent: Gender and Energy in the Caribbean

Marsha Pearce

Discourses point to a new energy crisis, not only in terms of the world’s growing population, our overconsumption of fossil fuels and climate threat, but also in the way daily life is increasingly characterised by emotional, spiritual, [N1] and physical depletion.

Experts in the fields of psychiatry and work-life balance observe, “human beings aren’t designed to run like computers: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time…demand is outstripping our capacity” (Schwartz 2011) and “geopolitical realities grind us down” (Orloff 2004). We are anxious and exhausted. 

Yet, the #lifeinleggings movement against gender-based violence, launched in the Caribbean in 2016, and the recent case between gay rights activist Jason Jones and the state of Trinidad and Tobago, which resulted in the overturning of a law banning same-sex intimacy, are reminders that an old energy dilemma persists— one tied to a politics of difference. Audre Lorde offers a picture of this enduring power dynamic. Writing in the 1980s she shares:

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future (1984, p.115). 

What if we no longer had to assume responsibility for the actions of others? What if women were not at fault for rape and other forms of violence meted out to them? What if definitions of masculinity were expanded? What if we lived freely in non-binary or genderqueer terms? What if everyday existence was celebrated with pride? What if we could better spend our energy? Better Spent: Gender and Energy in the Caribbean is inspired by Lorde’s words. Through contemporary art, this exhibition imagines a free state in which energy is liberated for use in self-making; for redefining scenarios of being. The curated suite of images features work by six artists: Morel Doucet, Nadia Huggins, Ryan Huggins, Joiri Minaya, Kevin Osepa, and Sheena Rose. These creative practitioners hail from the French, Dutch, Spanish, and English-speaking Caribbean – artists living within the insular Caribbean territories and the diaspora. 

Morel Doucet’s ceramic piece The Death of Venus (A New Republic) counters meaning in the fifteenth-century painting The Birth of Venus by Italian artist Sandro BotticelliIn Botticelli’s work, a naked, white Venus approaches the seashore on a shell propelled by a wind god. In a gesture of modesty, she covers her breast with her hand and bundles her long, flowing hair to conceal her genitalia. Venus is “a welcoming and feminine figure in art history” (Witwer 2017). Botticelli paints her proportions in “accordance with a canon of harmony and ideal beauty…includ[ing] the measurement of an equal distance between the breasts, and between the navel and breasts, and between navel and crotch” (Hagen & Hagen 2003). In so doing, the image of Venus perpetuates a Western template for constructing norms of womanliness. 

Morel Doucet
The Death of Venus (A New Republic), 2019
Slipped cast porcelain ceramic 12 x 12 x 7.5 inches
 Photo by Pedro Wazzan
 Courtesy the artist

Doucet’s work depicts the end of such classical constructions of identity. He deploys the shell as a devouring device that swallows European standards—a significant action, given vestiges of colonialism in the Caribbean that still govern behaviour and values. His ceramic shell is also a physical body or outer flesh budding with new meanings and possibilities, as symbolised by the leaves and flowers. This shell, however, is one layer in his understanding of a more complex ontology. He grounds the shell/body with a pattern and shape beneath it, layers representing the mind and spirit. With these combined elements, Doucet offers a nuanced, multidimensional rendering of being. Additionally, his invocation of a new republic stirs ideas of equality and a shared sovereignty, prompting a freer context for living.

Joiri Minaya
Containers, 2017
Photo documentation from performance at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY
Archival pigment print, variable dimensions.
Photo by Emil Rivera, performer Cristina Álvarez
Courtesy the artist.

Joiri Minaya also negates traditional ideas associated with womanhood. Her Containers series features female performers in bodysuits, which represent the preconceived, societal molds they are expected to fill. The tropical-patterned suits allow for an overlapping of constructions of the landscape with a fashioning of gender. Her still images, taken from performances at public gardens, capture poses dictated by the shape of the suits and reveal the artist’s concerns with notions of socialisation, assimilation, (in)visibility, and fitting in. At key moments, the performers exhibit their agency by using their energy to remove the bodysuits. These powerful acts of release are bolstered by recorded voices, which Minaya plays through hidden speakers at the performance sites. An excerpt of the audio is included with her still images here. A voice declares: “I’m not the landscape…I’m framing the composition…I’m only here to work. I’m here to entertain you, but only during my shift.” These words signal a consciousness of frameworks of performativity and their boundaries. Freedom is attained in this awareness and a shedding of limits. 

Containers, 2017
Photo documentation from performance at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY
Archival pigment print, variable dimensions
Photo by Emil Rivera, performer Eilen Itzel Mena
Courtesy the artist
[N2] 

While Minaya engages acts of taking off gender “containers,” Ryan Huggins explores practices of “putting on.” He makes strategic use of masks in his paintings. His strutting, lounging and posing bodies direct their energies to visibility politics. These androgynous figures are free of the metaphorical closet. Masking is not used in these works to hide. Instead, it is a means of creating hyper-visibility. It is a tactic of standing out. Masking also forestalls easy, fixed definitions and categories. “Masks stop the eye of the observer on their opaque surfaces. They force us to puzzle over the meanings of the substitute face” (Szczesniak 2014). Huggins’ images therefore stir questions and open up signification.

Ryan Huggins
Billy I, 2019
Oil-based media on canvas 220 x 50 cm
Courtesy the artist
Billy II, 2019
Oil-based media on canvas 220 x 50 cm
Courtesy the artist
Billy III, 2019
Oil-based media on canvas 220 x 52 cm
Courtesy the artist

This openness of identity is embraced in photographic work by Nadia Huggins and is portrayed as fluidity. In her image, the body appears to surrender its solid form as it throws itself—in a leap of trust—into the watery depths. Energy is used in a process of transformation. The figure’s head, shoulder, arm and torso become a liquid blur. The bubbles consuming the legs and feet aid in the anticipation of a full metamorphosis. Sheena Rose also casts her gaze upon water to inform her image making. Her drawing titled Cathartic features human forms with fish heads. Rose incorporates the wrasse, a fish often found among coral reefs. Most wrasses are protogynous hermaphrodites: functioning first as females and then becoming males. Her reference to fish also has special resonance in conversations about gender and identity when considered linguistically. For example, in the Jamaican context, “fish” is a derogatory term for a homosexual man. Bounty Killer’s dancehall song quickly comes to mind: “Man a bad man so we no friend fish.” Rose weaves other symbols into her work. She plays with clothing, subverting norms of dress and therefore moving the dividing line between notions of “man” and “woman.” Her depiction of figures with a muscular physique are drawn from her memories of a visit to a boxing match. She reflects on expressions of masculinity and the ways these articulations might be disrupted and re-imagined.

Nadia Huggins
Circa No Future, 2015
Digital photograph
Courtesy the artist
Sheena Rose
Cathartic, 2019
Pen and Ink on acid-free paper 9 x 12 inches
Courtesy the artist

Kevin Osepa also thinks about how he can rewrite expressions. He considers the pejorative language used in Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, specifically the terms pòls kibrá (broken wrist) and pinda (peanut), which refer to homosexual men. In one of his photographs he stacks peanuts to form a pyramidal shape. In another image, his lens focuses on the bend of a wrist. This bend or arch appears as the point of a triangle or mountain peak, when attention is paid to the negative space created in the bottom segment of the photograph. Triangles are symbolic of strength. Furthermore, triangles pointing upward are said to represent male energy. Osepa’s images attend to his interest in appropriating and reinterpreting these terms in empowering ways.

Kevin Osepa
Altá di Pinda, 2018
Analog photograph
Courtesy the artist
Kevin Osepa
Pòls 2, 2018
Analog photograph
Courtesy the artist

Together, the work by these six artists are unapologetic in their channeling of energy. Rather than a concentration on enlightening others, the artworks demonstrate an energy that is better spent on redefining selves and realities. If the “naturalized knowledge of gender operates as a preemptive and violent circumscription of reality” (Butler 1999) then imagining a free state, in which that knowledge remains open for revision, allows for a breaking of the confines of what we consider real, true, and legitimate.

References

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1999.

Chevalier, Jean-Marie and Patrice Geoffron, eds. The New Energy Crisis: Climate, Economics and Geopolitics. Hampshire: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2013.

Hagen, Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen. What Great Paintings Say, Volume I. London: Taschen, 2003.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom: Crossing Press, 1984.

Orloff, Judith. Positive Energy. New York: Harmony, 2004.

Schwartz, Tony. “We’re in a New Energy Crisis. This One is Personal.” Harvard Business Review, March 22, 2011. Accessed August 5, 2019  https://hbr.org/2011/03/were-in-a-new-energy-crisis-th.html

Szczesniak, Magda. “Blending In and Standing Out – Camouflage and Masking as Queer Tactics of Negotiating Visibility,” View: Theories and Practices of Visual Culture 5 (2014).

Witwer, Olivia. “The Search for an Identity: The Merging of the Past and Present to Form a Future in Italian Culture.” Honors Theses, 2017 https://scholar.colorado.edu/honr_theses/1476

Marsha Pearce is a scholar, writer, educator and curator based in Trinidad and Tobago. She holds a BA in Visual Arts and a PhD in Cultural Studies. Pearce is a lecturer and visual arts unit coordinator at the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. She has worked as the Senior Editor and Art Writer for ARC Caribbean Art and Culture Magazine and is a Consulting Editor for Moko Caribbean Arts and Letters Magazine. Her research and critical writings about visual culture have been published in several art catalogues as well as peer-reviewed academic journals and books. Her most recent curatorial project is a collaboration with the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Pearce co-curated the exhibition titled The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean, which is installed at PAMM until June 2020. 

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