Stretching The TropicalJuly 9, 2015
Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to participate in this debate about The Tropical.
As an artist, creative activist, and founder of a social practice project in Barbados, I engage with and observe many artists from the Caribbean who are active agents in re/claiming The Tropical archipelago. These reclamations make the space real beyond the flat renderings to which many have become accustomed, thereby building an intellectual foundation in the arts from within the tropical zone.
Many of the region’s fragile, small island developing states are utterly dependent on tourism, and with it, the inherent fixed notions that reside in the imaginations of millions of that region as a tropical realm of escape, desire and leisure. While regional governments rehash increasingly weary marketing campaigns, others might consider that the tropical trope needs structural adjustment. Many artists subvert these uncritical positions, offering analytical reflections that unpack familiar tropical disguises, providing wide-ranging perspectives on The Tropical that run counter to nostalgic, colonial renditions of the tropical paradise.
My coordinates are 13.1667° N, 59.5500° W, situating me as a tropical person within the insular Caribbean. Living and working in a torrid zone, replete with romanticised and sentimental notions about The Tropical, my practice and that of many of my contemporaries subverts inherited, ubiquitous tropes of cultural tourism and by extension, The Tropical.
An example in my own work is the installation Barbados Just Beyond My Imagination (2006). The title, adapted from the Barbados Board of Tourism’s marketing slogan “BARBADOS – Just Beyond Your Imagination”, presents countries of the Caribbean archipelago (minus Haiti & Guyana) as sand traps locked into a sea of perfectly manicured green grass, with no sign of water. The flagpole bears the ironic title of the work, making reference to ways in which the region continues to develop playgrounds for visitors, re-inscribing the Caribbean as an exotic paradise offering the best resources to only those who can afford it. Land formerly developed as sugarcane plantations is now cultivated as tourist repositories, transforming fields of sugarcane to even sweeter tropical getaways.
Blue Curry is a London-based Bahamian artist. His work Cement Mixer (2010), comprises an aquamarine-coloured, customised cement mixer filled with 20 litres of sun cream. The scent elicits memories of a tropical beach. Cement Mixer speaks to the construction of a region as a play park, churning out all-inclusive getaways to a tropical paradise. His satirical interpretation removes the sunscreen from the thin skin of the tourist industry, exposing marketing devices seared with rudimentary notions of what The Tropical denotes.
Non-privileged voices are continually entering the contemporary arts arena, offering counter-narratives not in resistance to, but as subversive interruptions of recurrent typecasts. For some, their visual disruptions simply recognise and affirm the heterodoxy of our lived realities, while for others they resist having to address the Caribbean in terms of The Tropical in the first place.
As we closely observe contemporary practitioners peeling away the surface of banal interpretations of The Tropical, my sense is not that the “Other” is being primitivised. Rather, ordinary lives become exposed without the filters of advertising propaganda and reductive slogans to make where we live real, revealing nuanced portrayals and stretching The Tropical to accommodate our own multidimensional significance.