Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, has organized a multimedia celebration of contemporary West Indian culture that includes videos, films, live music, readings, and a wide ranging art exhibition. Entitled Rockstone and Bootheel: Contemporary West Indian Art, the exhibition (through March 14) was curated by Real Art Ways director of visual arts Kristina Newman-Scott and arts consultant Yona Backer, both natives of Jamaica. Together they have assembled a lively representative selection of edgy art from the English-speaking islands of the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago.
Rockstone and Bootheel is a colloquial expression meaning “to take a journey” and takes its title from a song by Jamaican musician Leebert “Gibby” Morrison. Indeed, West Indian dance hall music, reggae, and Carnival customs infuse the exhibition, which features 39 artists in all manner of media. Hartford reportedly is home to the third largest West Indian community in the U.S. (after New York and Miami), so Rockstone and Bootheel should have great resonance there.
What you will not see in Rockstone and Bootheel are any of the lovely Homeresque Caribbean landscapes so popular with tourists. No breezy watercolors of azure seas, salmon beaches, and swaying palm trees. Rockstone and Bootheel is not export art, it’s art to the bone, the authentic expression of the native culture of the Anglophone islands, former British colonies still struggling with issues of colonialism and identity.
About the closest thing to a conventional painting you will find in the exhibition is an oil on canvas by Phillip Thomas, a young Jamaican artist now working in New York. Entitled “The N Train,” the painting is a New York subway scene populated by a passing parade of people of Afrikan descent in colorful, historical costumes, an image of diaspora.
Many of the works in Rockstone and Bootheel are visual journeys of self-discovery as well as self-expression. Jamaican-born Ebony G. Patterson, for example, creates mixed media images that explore and embody issues of skin lightening, gangsta stereotypes of masculinity, and the cosmetic elements of homosexuality and Catholicism. Lawrence Graham-Brown, an openly gay Jamaican artist, assembles sculptures that are emblematic of history and liberation, such as “Ras Pan Afro Homo Sapiens,” a torso mannequin wearing a military tunic covered with currency and political buttons.
A far more subtle evocation of cultural identity, and to me the signature work of the exhibition is a digital print from the “Powder Box (Schoolgirl Series” by Marlon Griffith of Trinidad. “West Indian working class women are known to apply baby powder to their bodies as a symbol of cleanliness,” explains the Real Art Ways press release. Griffith creates stencils, some geometric shapes, others of fashion logos, that he uses to apply baby powder to the skin of school girls, and then he photographs them. The idea, the act, and the image become one, an ambiguous expression that is ultimately an indictment of how a dominant culture impresses itself on the self-image of the oppressed.
[Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford CT. 860-232-1006.]