By: Katherine Kennedy
There is an undeniable relationship between validity and visibility. As quietly confident, assured or competent as one can be, there is something about gaining recognition that feeds the feeling of being appreciated and understood – of being seen. I already feel slightly uneasy and egotistical trying to articulate this in a way that doesn’t trigger little accusatory voices in the back of my mind hissing ‘vain!’ or ‘insecure!’…concepts that by all logic should be mutually exclusive, but the idea of needing validation from external sources manages to connote both. Maybe a less self-destructive approach is to delve into something relevant to, yet larger than myself, through the honest and brave work of the artists featured in See Me Here: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraits from the Caribbean.
In her critical essay for the publication, Marsha Pearce referred to the introspection practiced by these artists as a “rebranded narcissism,” not founded in selfishness and inaccessibility, but using their own distinct and diverse narratives to implicate a collective self borne from the cultural influences of living in a region that has historically been oppressed and segregated to quash identity, preferring to lend credence to stories told by outsiders. This again places emphasis on extraneous opinions and how they affect our self image; particularly problematic when we are being grossly mis/underrepresented by these projections.
See Me Here confidently answers back to imposed ideas of who we are – and it is not shy about doing so. The cover is bold, bright and loud, featuring work by Barbadian artist Sheena Rose. Before even seeing the piece in its entirety or reading a statement, the strong graphic lines and belligerent expression on the face of the painting’s subject sends a very clear message that the artists are here, ready to speak with clarity and conviction. This is not to say that the stories and messages being told have all reached solid conclusions; on the contrary, as stated in the book’s foreword, the only real certainty is the desire to question “How do we really see ourselves? How accurate is the image we present?”
Part of the process of charting Caribbean identity is that we become the masters of its construction. Vincentian artist Nadia Huggins even has a piece in the book called The Architect (2006). She says in her artist statement, “There is a sense of control and authority over the outcome of the image in the beginning, but in reality it is just the body that I assert control over.” In contrast, for example, to Sheena’s cover piece, Nadia’s photographs use subtlety, employing natural light and muted tones to blend her body into her environment. By exercising control over atmosphere and composition to camouflage herself and create harmony, this makes the anomalies and the uncontrollable variables in the work all the more evident. Emotions laid bare are much more conspicuous than exposed anatomy, and this conveys a truth about expressing identity, even when it is consciously constructed – no one has total control. But as Nadia states, relinquishing this control is also a catalyst to “mend, heal, learn and grow.”
Marsha Pearce calls the work amassed in See Me Here “cartography of self.” Yes, we are placing ourselves on the map to be acknowledged as more than stereotypes, but the fact that we are fighting those views in the first place means we need to look inwards first, cater to our own needs and conduct investigations as artists to test, create or reject limitations of our own accord. To map out and contribute to the discourse about an identity in its formative stages, cultural experimentation needs to be carried out – and what better way to conduct human trials than through self-portraiture.
Source: See Me Here: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraits from the Caribbean. Eds. Archer, Melanie and Brown, Mariel. Trinidad & Tobago: Robert and Christopher Publishers, 2014. Print.
See Me Here is available by request at our library. - FMB