Traces: a path toward understanding Caribbean bodies

Art Shape Mammoth
Jan 12, 2018 2:15PM

A review by Jessica M. Rodríguez Colón

Jeanne Proust & Sandra Stephens, Breathing Skins

video installation and photography, size varies, 2017

On December 15th, 2017 opened the multi-media exhibition Surface Traces at the Yashar Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. This exhibit traces the connections between four female Caribbean artists and their ideas and notions about hybridity while questioning how one’s hybrid subjectivity relates to one’s history and memory? It is a trace from the inner and personal to the surface and its relation to others.  

The exhibit invites the audience into a journey where the relationship between disjointed body parts and its connection to the self is presented, or like the title suggests, where it is traced. Upon arrival, before entering the gallery, one encounters Condensation & Displacement, by Jeanne Proust and Sandra Stephens. Condensation & Displacement is a video installation projected over the gallery’s window. The projection presents the close up of a light skin human face as if it was breathing directly into the window fragmented by its 4 x 4 lines that divide the video, providing a human face that can be encounter as a whole, or by its parts. The video installation can be witnessed from the cold New York winter on the outdoors of Greenpoint Avenue, or from the warmer inside of Yashar Gallery. It explores both, the displacement of the self by the placement of the video, but also by the placement of the audience while observing the act of breathing by another individual.  

Upon entering the gallery space, one attempts to trace the commonality between the pieces, something that organically comes once we observe how each artist deals with questions of selfhood through the body or and its everydayness. Oneika Russell delivers to us a series of drawings, paintings, and explorations about the relationship of the Caribbean body, breaking and shining new light over the stereotypes of Caribbean people, mainly Jamaicans. On the works On Paradise and Beach Life, we see the silhouette of full dancing bodies, where the facial expressions are absent, leaving to us many interpretations, including the state of mind and emotions of the humans to which these bodies belong too. These can be seen as a parallel that plays with the anonymity of Caribbean people outside of the stereotypes portrayed in the media and by tourist's publicity.  

This anonymity and body relationship is also present on the pieces created by Sharon Norwood. Norwood presented three sets of work which originate from the traces of her hair, the hair that unintentionally falls everywhere she travels or moves. The pieces create a lovely metaphor for the unknown or unacknowledged traces of the self that are left everywhere we move, is the absent body but is also the residue of time traced by the hair that is left behind. On her series titled Split Ends and Guess who’s coming for dinner, or rather tea III; the everydayness element of the objects invites us to imagine the body that could potentially use and feed themselves from the traces of that who can be seen as other. In these case that other being the black individuals whose hair is left behind. Her dialogue about the perception of the self, time and Caribbean identity continue on the pieces Hair Stories, framed drawings on postcards, and in her collaboration with Sandra Stephens for Hair Matters. Hair Stories is a series of drawings of her hair with black ink over white paper creating room to lose oneself in the possible story behind  each hair. While on the framed drawings on postcards Norwood is directly inserting herself within classic paintings where neither she nor other Caribbean artists can find themselves represented, these drawings are done with white ink over color paintings 7” x 5”, reminding us of souvenir postcards from a museum.  

At the center of the gallery’s exhibit we encounter two video installations by Jeanne Proust and Sandra Stephens, Fall on Hold and Breathing Skins, both of which play with video projection through the glass onto a final intended surface. Fall on Hold is a video projection that goes through a chandelier to create the floor projection; it invites us to reflect on the ideas of distortion and perception of that which is other, and consequently on the perception of the self. An everyday object like a chandelier is transformed and questioned when seen on the projection on the floor; the object above and its projection below, allowing the audience to place themselves in that in-between the appearances of the object and the object itself. Breathing Skins also explores that in-between space between the skin as a breathing organ and our perception of breathing and our perception of the skin. These video projections go over three plexiglass and digital prints panels, after a few minutes of immersion into the video one can even notice an attempt to sync one’s breathing to that of the video.  

The traces created by these artists invite us to question our ideas about perception, the body and time while placing themselves in a conversation that traditionally had displaced Caribbean bodies and voices, more particularly female voices. These conversations go from philosophical ideas to the art market all the way to the understanding of post-colonial female Caribbean identity. The traces of our Caribbean bodies go from our everyday actions and objects to our  bodies and its relation to those who see us as other; all the way to inserting our voices into the dialogues.

Art Shape Mammoth