Annalee Davis: “Beach as Plot”


In this article (PREE 5) artist Annalee Davis draws a thread between the one-dimensional notion of tourism as the panacea for small island economies (with a particular focus on Barbados), and the potential role of contemporary visual art and artists in offering other lenses through which we can see ourselves and consider our contexts.

The world today feels unfamiliar from what it was mere weeks ago. The COVID-19 pandemic is a remarkable moment, in that it offers the Caribbean an opportunity to transform our reasoning and usher in more humane policies to benefit the collective. Rather than assume that it is only our leaders who have the best ideas or that we abdicate responsibility to the free market, we might use this opportunity to agitate for and contribute to more progressive thinking in shaping our societies. As this crisis unfolds across the region, the very real threat to food sovereignty and the fragility of our economies is glaringly apparent, patterned as it has been for centuries on shortsighted modalities that have not always served our best interests.

My aim in this article is to draw a thread between the one-dimensional notion of tourism as the panacea for small island economies (with a particular focus on Barbados), and the potential role of contemporary visual art and artists in offering other lenses through which we can see ourselves and consider our contexts. COVID-19 will infect this text. How can it not? [. . .]


[. . .] I left the meeting asking if it is even possible for us to have a seat at the table and engage in dialogue when greed, corruption, and fears about struggling economies prompt reactionary decisions which disregard science, the environment, and strategic engagement. Extractive economies threaten the future of mankind, while those with blinkered vision assured by private wealth, ignore the fact that if they continue to treat the Earth and small nations as resources to be consumed and exhausted nothing habitable will be left.

With all the signs of global environmental catastrophe and in the midst of COVID-19, are we as a postcolonial nation asking what a future tourist economy would look like in the context of hotels emptying out? As elsewhere, Barbados’ tourist sector, accounting for 40% of the island’s employment, has ground to an unprecedented halt. Barbados has terminated commercial flights while trying to maintain limited connectivity to import food, medicine and supplies. In relation to the question of food sovereignty, Barbados-based Forbes journalist, Daphne Ewing-Chow, suggests that COVID-19 might provide CARICOM with opportunities to become more independent and bolster our security nationally and regionally by investing in agricultural technologies and fostering intra-Caribbean food trade. [. . .]

What can the artist do in such a situation? [. . .]

Since 1989, I have been exploring issues related to Barbados including its plantation history, which has irrevocably altered the landscape, and continues to impact the contemporary socio-political environment. Since the nineties, I have made works addressing the radical transformation of the land from plantation to hotel and the weary packaging of the Caribbean as an exotic paradise. I am privileged to have exhibited most of the following works in various international contexts, yet I would appreciate being able to exhibit my works in the local context, since it was this context which inspired all of them.  My practice considers the Caribbean as a site of (dis)ease, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and mastering of the landscape via monoculture (sugar and then tourism). I consider the heterogeneous nature of Barbados against more simply constructed narratives and forgetting by examining present-day remains of the plantation.

For many contemporary visual artists working in the Caribbean, there’s often a chasm between local audiences’ awareness of current creative production and pressing ideas artists are working through, simply because it doesn’t get exhibited at home. There aren’t adequate spaces for visual art to be shown in Barbados or platforms where our artists can contribute more vigorously to national and regional consciousness and dialogue. We are left with the more commercial, tired, and stereotypical images perpetuating outmoded notions and tropes of who we are, adding little to present discourse. What this means, in practical terms, is that these alternative ideas are not considered during crises such as COVID-19 because they haven’t entered public consciousness. [. . .]

[. . .] CLR James believed in the collective power of human beings to transform society and be masters of their own future. How might this COVID-19 moment allow us to choose differently and work towards greater social justice and equity as collective leaders shaping our own futures? COVID-19 is forcing everyone to reexamine our/their lives. It shows up in cracks in healthcare systems, poor eating habits contributing to a prevalence of NCDs given exorbitant costs of fresh produce, and the escalating precariousness of many in our societies who don’t have savings and whose future remains uncertain.

What can we learn at this time, through the lens of the arts, a sector the world is (ironically) drawing on now more than ever? In the Caribbean The Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival has offered one free film in their #WatchAMovieOnUs programme from March 28th till April 10. On April 5 the Bocas Lit Festival premiered their Bios & Bookmarks, an online reading series with Caribbean authors on their Instagram Live and The National Gallery of the Cayman Islands recently put their permanent collection online. The Barbados Museum and Historical Society is offering a weekly feature of one portrait from their current exhibition The Black Presence: Activism and Agency in a Different Age. The arts are feeding our souls during lockdown. Hopefully we will remember the value of the arts and artists to our society, alongside that of the health care workers, supermarket workers and all the others we rarely notice, when we walk out of our homes sometime in the future.

At no time should we embrace plans that relegate our citizens to small plots of sand. Artists, filmmakers, and writers need their voices to be heard while activists and concerned citizens must agitate for sustainable livelihoods and equity. We ought to do this if only so that when all the windows-to-the-sea have disappeared and there isn’t a beach we can go to for our own recreation and service, future Barbadians don’t ask why we in 2020 did nothing to protect what is ours. In combing through the archives, they might come across the dissenting voices of those few who tried to ring the bells of concern, to no avail.

[Photos above: Detail from Annalee Davis’s “Sweet Island Cookie Cutters”; Hyatt Ziva Town Hall Meeting, Copacabana Beach Club, Bay Street, Bridgetown, Barbados. January 2020.]

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