Conch Shells and Nomadism

Lately I’ve been introducing a bit of collage into my practice as another way of materially thinking through these ideas on nomadism and mobility of the self. There’s something about that process of layering things and juxtaposing them in a 2D form that is rather appealing.. and it’s becoming increasingly popular for diasporic artists. Yinka Shonibare in particular had some beautiful ones at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park a few years ago and it got me thinking about how Other artists, particular those from the Black Diaspora or Caribbean, can use collage and embellishment as a technique in their work.. particularly looking at artists like Ebony G Patterson who overload on pattern and beads in their work to overwhelm but also to hark back to the craft pasts of the Caribbean.

Ebony G Patterson’s Bling Funerals

I was trying to think of a way to get through this idea of portability of the self and the ideas of internalising and carrying a sense of home with you… and what better to use as a metaphor than a conch shell on your head! Admittedly, it came about because I thought it would be rather funny.. but as it turns out, it was quite a serendipitous experiment. What started as Queen Victoria (coloniser extraordinaire) with a shell on her head became a way to put portable homes on people’s heads. It all sounds very simple, but it was a fun studio experiment that turned out to gain a bit more momentum and gravity than I thought. The conch shell is a very common visual marker in the Bahamas, in fact, many of us feel that conch is ‘our thing’. And, given the nature of their populations depleting and the discourses around sustainable fishing in places like the Caribbean, the conch-shell heads seem to speak on several levels. In some cases, the conch shells can be seen as the portable home-on-your head idea that I was originally getting at, but in others it can appear to be swallowing up the figure it is meant to protect: a bit like how Bahamians consume conch but instead its the reversal, perhaps the conchs are getting a wee bit fed up!

But, in all seriousness… In addressing nomadism it seems important to say why, as a theory, it is so important to me thinking about my work and its relation to theory. Whilst I find nomadism a very empowering theory for thinking about the self and place and how artwork is interpreted, with the way it encourages following different lines of flight and undoing dominant representation… I can’t help but feel that there is a tension between this empowerment and the nature of it being theory and an institutional concept, tied to western institution. It brings up a tension between these two parts of my self in my work that I grapple with, but rather than viewing it as a problem, I prefer to see my dual position of being western and non-western as a privileged position wherein I can connect these two seemingly opposing sides (that is, the creative act and the theory/institution that helps us to talk about it). It proves to be a point of rupture in some way, where the west/non-west binary is broken but also reconnected in a different way. I think is partly why I enjoy looking to theorists like Braidotti, an italian woman who has lived a very nomadic existence herself and who takes this idea from the Western white-male canon, and takes it into her own as a feminist theory.

“In the contemporary political context, difference functions as a negative term indexed on a hierarchy of values governed by binary oppositions: it conveys power relations and structural patters of exclusion at the national, regional, provincial, or even more local level” (Braidotti, 2011). Nomadism can serve as a way to think through and disrupt power struggles and hierarchies. In thinking about problems of lack of access for Caribbean artists and the Other in the art market, it helps to disrupt this by disrupting the binary oppositions: much like I tend to in my own interstitial existence!

I have yet to find another artist who properly engages with nomadism as a tactic, and as an interstitial subject it’s a very liberating and empowering stance, albeit a bit idealistic at points, as it focuses less on lack/trauma and more on ontological becoming and mobility.

“Nomadic theory… expresses a process ontology that privileges change and motion over stability.” It implies a transcendent way being, and whilst I acknowledge its romantic and idealistic notions in regards to the pragmatics of everyday life and its structures, it’s still an empowering stance to take on it at least some small part.

For Braidotti, “nomadic thought rejects the psychoanalytic idea of repression and the negative definition of desire as lack… It borrows instead from.. a positive notion of desire as an ontological force of becoming.” This reiterates Carter’s ideas on material thinking and the ontology of the work and how it is a positive force to be used, and for me, illustrative of why it is important to research the creative process.

Nomadism is “dynamic and outward-bound & nomadic thought undoes the static authority of the past”. In this way, it doesn’t help to heal the cultural/collective memory of the colonial past that Britain and the Bahamas share so much as it helps to accept it and go beyond it in the same way that Harraway discusses how feminists “unmasked the doctrines of objectivity because they threatened our budding sense of collective historical subjectivity and agency and our ‘embodied’ accounts of the truth.’ (Donna Harraway, 1988) These approaches allow for artists dealing with these hard cultural issues and pasts to account for their experiences in a much more honest and less traumatic way. However there are artists who deal with trauma in entirely different ways…

Adel Abdessemed is an Algerian artist whose work often deals with violent imagery. He has lived quite a nomadic life and moved around much of his life, and it is this movement and shift that I find I have in common with him and with the displaced/floating nature of his work. His work often appears in-transit and it is this nature of living in the interstitial that resonates with me. It is a very modern experience and speaks volumes about the nature of our globalizing world.

He claims that he doesn’t want to know about an artist’s background, he just wants the work to speak for itself. And this is another area we differ in because whilst I understand the importance of a work being able to ‘speak for itself’ I don’t know to what extent we still have ‘autonomous’ artwork since art’s cultural turn of the 70s and the ethnographic turn of the 90’s. The work does speak for itself but, as the agent of its production and as a practitioner dealing with culture, when art and culture exist in the same time-space neither can be removed from the other and we cannot be removed entirely from the work – even if we only exist as trace in it, there is always a fascination after-the-fact with the artist’s biography.

“I do not live between two cultures. I am not a postcolonial artist. I am not working on the scar and am not mending anything. I am just a detector … In the public sphere, I use passion and rage. Nothing else. I don’t do illusions.” – Adel Abdessemed

While I can now completely understand Abdessemed’s ideals and rejection of the ‘post-colonial’ marker, and how he doesn’t want to ‘mend the scar’ of cultural memory; I can also see that his nomadic stance is entirely different to my own. Whereas he rejects any national identity, I seem to just claim many. Where he rejects an idea of home and sees himself as a vessel of sorts, a ‘detector’, I see myself as having many homes and speak from personal experience, from my own situated experience. I don’t have ‘roots’ as such to take with me, but I have rhizomes! That Caribbean displacement and ‘lack of origin’ doesn’t give me roots, but it allows me to establish myself in various other related cultures and locales, it provides the potential for rupture. Unlike Abdessemed, I seek to elucidate things rather than ‘mending’ the trauma of the cultural memory of colonialism. I didn’t quite realize it at the time but I think that’s why the lights were so important to me.