August 10th, 2020
We talked to Therese Kaspersen Hadchity, the author of The Making of a Caribbean Avant-Garde: Postmodernism as Post-nationalism.
Focusing on the Anglophone Caribbean, The Making of a Caribbean Avant-Garde describes the rise and gradual consolidation of the visual arts avant-garde, which came to local and international attention in the 1990s. The book is centered on the critical and aesthetic strategies employed by this avant-garde to repudiate the previous generation’s commitment to modernism and anti-colonialism.
Q: What are some of your main goals in this project?
Therese Kaspersen Hadchity: Since the mid-1990s the ‘playbook’ for visual arts practices and criticism in the English-speaking Caribbean has changed quite profoundly. My aim is to describe the moment when the spirit of nation building, which surrounded cultural production in the aftermath of the Independence-era, first gave way to a ‘nation-critique’, and then a rejection (implicit or explicit) of the nation as political goal and analytical frame. I wanted to put a frame around this transition, point out its various – and sometimes contradictory – manifestations, and give it a name (i.e. a ‘post-nationalist postmodernism’). It may ultimately end up having a different name, but I wanted to start the process of portraying and assessing it (albeit at a time when the very desire to ‘map’ and ‘name’ things is regarded with some suspicion). Rather than a densely theoretical account of aesthetic and critical dynamics (which nevertheless does occupy the first section of the book), I have tried to show, at the level of lived experience, how a series of converging factors – critical realignments, institutional failures and external pressures – have produced a new ‘common sense’ in the aesthetic choices artists make, in the way they find exposure for their work and in the way Caribbean works are critically framed, when it goes abroad.
Q: What are some of those factors that motivated this rejection of “nation building”, and therefore the cultural production inspired by it?
Hadchity: Naturally, the decades leading up to and past Caribbean Independence (most territories in the Anglophone Caribbean became independent in the 1960s and 70s) were full of confidence and optimism about forging new nations built on principles of equality and cultural diversity and the lessons learnt from the region’s traumatic history. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, this initial excitement was soon curbed by a toxic combination of internal challenges and external pressures: the political establishment was accused of merely having stepped into the former colonizers’ shoes by way of perpetuating patriarchal authority, elitism, and indeed also racism (in the sense that light-skinned Creole people were given opportunities for social advancement, while darker people were left behind). Populations that were internally divided by the mechanics of colonialism itself, fell prey to an equally divisive political dynamic, where those in power simply took turns to ‘service’ their supporters. In some countries, political rivalries, sometimes with ethnic undercurrents, turned lethal. All of this was coupled with the introduction of neo-liberalism and a new era of foreign policy in the Reagan-Thatcher era, which led to local governments being reined in by Bretton-Woods ‘structural adjustment programmes’. Among much else, this meant that the cultural infrastructure envisioned by the anti-colonial movement never really got off the ground. In most territories, Caribbean artists (in particular those who do not merely cater to tourists and home decorators) have therefore had very little institutional support.
Needless to say, all of this has created an atmosphere of frustration and disillusionment not only with the political system in place, but with the very concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘governance’, which have come to be regarded as easily corruptible and inherently coercive. And with the coming of a new era, which to many is defined by tele-communication networks, globalization and new mobility, many artists have simply walked away from the idea of ‘nation-building’ and invested themselves in the notion of fluid and transnational communities, thus making the previous aspiration of improving and fine-tuning the nation-state seem increasingly redundant.
Q: In the preface and introduction of the book you touch on what motivated you to take this on, could you speak on that?
Hadchity: I had a small gallery in Barbados from 2000-2010, a period during which an older artistic generation was being forcibly retired by the critical establishment. As I said above, the backdrop for this transition was a widespread frustration with the region’s political and institutional failures, and a sense of being ‘left behind’ by the global art world – disappointments, for which the older generation was held partially responsible.
Meanwhile, the artistic and critical generation that emerged out of the 1990s found a way forward, partly in a critical alignment with postcolonial and diaspora theory, and partly, as I mentioned earlier, in the opportunities afforded by new networking technologies. As much as these choices have opened up new possibilities, I felt the need to question the premises and corollaries of these strategies, and this is where the book gets its polemic tone. There is no question that the vision of the ‘old avant-garde’ had stagnated, but my apprehension that the new critical hegemony seemed to satisfy a series of what one might have regarded as conflicting desires, left me in a state of perpetual consternation and propelled me into this study.
What I think went missing in this period was a direction, which might have combined the older generation’s simultaneous spirit of cultural resistance and affirmation with the sharper and more restless critical eye of the younger generation. In a way, my book expresses a yearning for ‘paths not taken’.
Q: Does this mean you believe that these “paths not taken” may have been found through more collaboration between the ways of the new and old generations, rather than the rejection of the old ways way of thought that we saw?
Hadchity: I am not suggesting that a series of very clear and straightforward options were neglected: by the 1990s, Caribbean artists found themselves in a very difficult spot: the visions they inherited from the ‘old avant-garde’ were often quite problematic in their practical applications. Because their conditions were poorly understood in the wider world, Caribbean artists were also stigmatized by a perceived ‘belatedness’ in an international context.
But rather than walking away from the nation-building project envisaged by the previous generation, I think the new generation might have found ways to critique and develop it, rather than embracing a transnational cosmopolitanism, which is equally problematic. In some ways contemporary artists have in fact found ways to improve their conditions – for example by creating their own cultural infrastructures in the form of ‘alternative spaces’ – but there is a risk of such gestures playing into the hands of the current establishment. Some of the aesthetic strategies Caribbean contemporary artists have embraced (i.e. their methods and themes) are, as I try to explain in the book, similarly ambiguous in their political inflection. What I am arguing is therefore that there are aspects of the contemporary movement, which could be considered remarkably convenient for a neo-liberal imaginary and for the global status quo, but I am not suggesting that the new avant-garde is a product of that imaginary.
Thank you to Therese! If you would like to know more about this book you can get your own copy or request it from your local library.Filed under: PUP if(!is_single()) echo "|"; ?>