The Artist Sheena Rose Is Reaching Beyond Barbados


A report by Tamara Best for the New York Times.

Almost every room in Sheena Rose’s family home, tucked away on a quiet street here, has played host to her paintings and live performance art.

In 2015, for “A Bit of Gossip, a Bit of Privacy,” Ms. Rose invited both the public and people from the art world to meander through a bedroom, an office, a bathroom and a studio, and watch her, in collaboration with three actors, explore the breakup of a relationship, drawn from her life experiences. The tension between private moments and public life is a recurring thread in Ms. Rose’s work, in which she often explores Barbadian culture, using self-portraiture as the lens.

Some visitors may have found her art a little too personal. “I find that people get uncomfortable,” she said during a recent interview at her home studio. “But they say that it is refreshing because Barbados is a very conservative space.”

“The trick is just to be honest,” Ms. Rose, 31, added. “People want to see themselves.”

After years of creating paintings and drawings in her home studio, and inviting hundreds of footsteps from the public, she is looking forward to a change.

“My parents have been very supportive, but I think we all have outgrown the idea of people walking in and out of our home,” she said, adding that she looks forward to moving into a new studio, which is under construction. Three times larger than her home studio, the space will be hers to use free for a year, courtesy of a patron of her work.

The new studio is an encouraging next step for Ms. Rose, who returned home to the island last year after completing two years as a Fulbright scholar at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she earned a graduate degree in studio art. Her emotional conflict over finding a sense of belonging since returning to Barbados is the subject of one of her performance pieces, “Island and Monster,” which she will perform on Friday at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, known as MoCADA, in Brooklyn.

Ms. Rose said that living in the United States had created breakthrough moments for her career, like group shows at that museum and at Art Basel Miami Beach. Beyond exhibitions, the two years led to a greater sense of identity and purpose as a Barbadian artist, she said.

“When you live on an island that is majority black, you don’t study your skin color per se; it seems normal,” Ms. Rose said. “I used to paint figures without skin color,” she said, adding that she now paints most of her characters black. “It wasn’t just about the skin. It was about claiming, grabbing my history, my culture, and I’m proud of it.”

Ms. Rose first fell in love with art through drawing in sketchbooks as a child. In 2007, during a school trip, a visit to the Whitney Museum in New York and a video installation she saw while there cemented her decision to pursue a career in art. She counts Christopher Cozier, Richard Mark Rawlins and Ebony G. Patterson among the Caribbean artists who have inspired her work.

Like almost every facet of life in the Caribbean, the art market here is heavily influenced by tourism, a billion-dollar industry that underpins many island economies.

“The Caribbean is synonymous with this ‘leave your day-to-day if you’re stressed out and overworked, come and play, drink all you want, lay on the beach, pass the days away,’” said Oshun Layne, manager of exhibitions and programs for the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, an organization based in New York that works to support emerging artists like Ms. Rose. “When you’re coming for leisure, what ends up happening is that the art reflects that nostalgic feeling. You’re not really looking to dig deep enough to see what else is out there — what is going on in the communities that is being reflected in the art.”

In addition to stand-alone art galleries in Barbados, other exhibition and gallery-like spaces are popping up in unexpected spots like the upper levels of restaurants, particularly along the island’s west coast, where there’s a concentration of luxury hotels and restaurants. Many offer a mix of decorative and contemporary work from local artists like Ms. Rose, Terrence Rupert Piggott and Llanor Alleyne.

Still, decorative art reigns supreme.

“Works geared toward the tourist aesthetic are commercially sustainable because they are tapping into this market of people that are coming and going,” said Natalie McGuire, manager of Gallery NuEdge Fine Arts, in Holetown in western Barbados. ”That’s the majority of engagement that the clientele or even collectors at this level have.”

Exhausted by scenes of idyllic island life, Ms. Rose created the “Town” and “Sweet Gossip” series, centered in Bridgetown, the country’s capital. “Town,” a set of largely black-and-white drawings with bits of mixed media, shows citizens navigating everyday moments: shopping, commuting, resting. “Sweet Gossip,” a collaboration with the photographer Adrian Richards and Ms. McGuire, explored the role of gossip in social interactions. The piece consisted of two parts: paintings with images related to the overheard phrases, and a silent performance, accompanied by poster-size versions of the artworks, held in the streets of Bridgetown.

Since 2012, Ms. Rose has created versions of “Town” for Miami, New York, Cape Town and Amsterdam. The popularity of the series has helped build interest from collectors overseas, including the tennis star Venus Williams, who acquired a drawing from “Town” at an auction last year. In 2015, Penguin Press used “Too Much Makeup on Her Face,” a painting from “Sweet Gossip,” as the cover of Naomi Jackson’s debut novel, “The Star Side of Bird Hill,” set in Barbados during the summer of 1989.

The bubbly Ms. Rose, who is passionate about art advocacy, teaches visual arts at Barbados Community College in St. Michael. Still, she is grappling with whether to remain in Barbados or move abroad to a city like New York, which she said was like her second home.

“Some people say: ‘Man, Sheena, you have so much going on for yourself. Why are you studying Barbados so much?’ And I say: ‘Barbados is my home. I can’t help it.’ I have this anxiety of ‘Should I leave? Will things be bigger and better for me?’”

Those questions — and possible answers — will no doubt continue to play out in her art.

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