Q & A: Charles Campbell

[Many thanks to AICA Caraïbe du Sud for bringing this item to our attention.] Photographer, video producer and creative director of Vancouver Review Media Mark Mushet (GalleriesWest) conducted an interview earlier this month with Charles Campbell, an artist who explores the resilience of the African diaspora and his own roots in Jamaica. Here are excerpts:

Born in Jamaica a half century ago, multidisciplinary artist Charles Campbell has exhibited worldwide, often using interventions and performances to explore aspects of Black history, particularly those connected to the Caribbean. Campbell, a former chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, is now based in Victoria, where he also finds time to work for change in Canadian art institutions as an educator, writer and activist.

Campbell’s exhibition, as it was, as it should have been, on view at Vancouver’s Wil Aballe Art Projects from Oct. 24 to Nov. 21, includes pieces connected to ongoing projects that involve community, performance and a deep dive into Jamaica’s history and culture. His paintings and prints, along with a sound installation and sculpture, relate to themes of migration, where boundaries are challenged and new futures imagined.

A second project, Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos, is a $100,000 public art commission at the Victoria International Airport. The piece features beautiful wooden vessels inscribed with the words of American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, who speaks to ideas about paradise being connected to home. Airborne, the vessels float high above the airport’s departure lounge, which, needless to say, is much quieter than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Campbell’s work is immediately intriguing and invites further investigation. [. . .]

The Actor Boy paintings being shown at WAAP are lovely. They look like kinetic confections of some kind. They put me in mind of earlier eras of pattern making for domestic decoration. I can’t quite place it and I know there’s much more to it. They are connected to a series of really interesting and literally boundary-pushing performances in Kingston, Jamaica. Can you tell me how they are related and what we should look for in these works?

I guess I should say that I spend a lot of time inhabiting my own fictions. In the trajectory of my work, the Actor Boy paintings represented a move from using motifs related to the brutality of slavery and the plantation system to images that referenced cultural resilience. Actor Boy is a character in the Jamaican carnival celebration Jonkonu, a trickster that lampoons the character and proclivities of his overseers. 

The paintings repeat an image of Actor Boy produced in 1837-38, shortly after emancipation, by the Jamaican artist Isaac Mendez Belesario and turn it into a sort of blossoming floral motif. I was thinking about this excessive, raucous, creolized cultural expression as a threat to the plantation system, something that seeded revolts and a time when the slave population was demonstrably more than property, beasts of burden and units of labour.

The paintings became a vehicle for me to reflect on the times immediately before and after emancipation in Jamaica. After spending months with the image, I started imagining Actor Boy on the streets of Kingston and tried to imagine seeing present day events through the eyes of someone who embodied the hopes and aspirations of the recently emancipated slaves. That became the seed for the Actor Boy persona and performances.  [. . .]

The piece Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago strikes me as a set of maquettes for a futuristic development merged with the topography of a landscape. How did you get from the reality of a place that was a redoubt of escaped slaves to this futuristic vision? Will there be further iterations of this work? What were your decisions around scale and how the piece would be experienced by the gallery goer?

When I think about the future, adherence to the systems that are failing us is not going to get us through. Black and Indigenous communities are already living post-apocalyptic lives and we need to reorient ourselves and pay heed to the experience and knowledges that we’re developing as we engage in the slow process of reconstruction. 

The Maroons’ survival was predicated on their knowledge and relationship to the lands they inhabited and they were strongest when they acted as decentralized yet interdependent communities in their fight against the British. Maroonscape 1 proposes this as a model for the future. It’s scaled to appear as an architectural model, something that could be built, but it’s the underlying concepts that I want to build on, and the centrality of our relationship to the lands we inhabit. 

This piece is the first in the series. Maroonscape 2 debuts at WAAP and is a soundscape that codes the birdsong of species endemic to Cockpit Country into Paradise, which is a passage from Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’m working on Maroonscape 3 now. It enlarges forms similar to those in Maroonscape 1 to a more human scale for a public sculpture garden. 

I hope to turn it into a gathering place for the Black community and a space for talks, performances and workshops that can explore some of the themes and issues present in the work. The Maroons, as communities of escaped slaves, operated under a violent colonial regime and represent resistance and resilience, but the bargains they struck to retain their freedom include compromises and complicity with the system of oppressions. There is a lot to learn from and think about here and I hope to dig into these issues more deeply in future projects. [. . .]

[Charles Campbell, “Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago,” 2019 (photo by Mateo Serna Zapata).]

For full interview, see https://www.gallerieswest.ca/magazine/stories/q-a-charles-campbell/

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