In Conversation with Nadia Huggins: Going Below the Surface

Photographer and artist Nadia Huggins, who lives and works in St. Vincent, talks with the Dominican curator Yina Jiménez Suriel about the role of the ocean in the imagination of new worlds and about the role of fire and violence in creation from the Caribbean. See full interview and Huggins’ work at C& América Latina.

Nadia Huggins, was born in Trinidad and Tobago and grew up in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where she is currently based. Huggins has been exhibited in group shows in Canada, USA, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Ethiopia, Guadeloupe, France, and the Dominican Republic. In 2019, her solo show Human Stories: Circa no Future took place at Now Gallery, London. Her work forms part of The Wedge Collection in Toronto, The National Gallery of Jamaica and The Art Museum of the Americas in Washington DC. Her work has been included in several publications. She is the co-founder of ARC Magazine and One Drop in the Ocean, an initiative that aims to raise awareness about marine debris. [. . .]

Yina Jiménez Suriel: I began to relate to your practice in 2016 when you did the Fighting the Currents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Santo Domingo, as part of the Photoimagen photography festival. What you put forward in the works that were in that exhibition made me wonder how you arrived to art.

Nadia Huggins: It started off in a very organic way, I began noticing that within my own practice I had not yet explored aspects of the sea underwater with a camera and wanted to investigate that a little deeper through my lens. I purchased a point and shoot underwater camera and I would swim every day and just try to capture different aspects of the sea and my own body through this experience. Over time I started building up a repetition of images that helped me to formulate a narrative that I was then able to work from. I found that the metaphor Caribbean parents would use, “Don’t fight a current, just go with the flow”, spoke to the idea I wanted to convey in my work. So I began building a project off of that idea – I was able to organically merge two images together to create the Transformations series based on hundreds of images I was mixing and matching to create the final 11 pieces.

YJS: I am currently developing a project on artistic practices in the insular Caribbean that, since the first decade of the 21st century, have moved towards “nature”, understood as the place from which to think and create meanings to subvert existing colonial and neocolonial logics in the region. In your photographs, which I also examine there, you point to the ocean as a space to imagine presents that are radically different from the current ones. Could you share with us some of your reflections on your relationship with the ocean?

NH: My point of departure really began with an interest in looking back at an island from the perspective of being offshore. When you remove the burden of social constructs that seems to dominate our narratives while maneuvering our bodies through the land, you’re forced to focus on the elemental and core aspects of yourself. The question I kept asking as I would swim would be “What is it that makes me human?”. I think this really created an overarching idea that I was able to work from. The ocean is a space that we are not designed to survive in. So I think instinctively because our bodies are so hyper focused on figuring out ways to stay afloat and to survive it eliminates all the other constructs which occupy our minds, especially on land. The transformation happens naturally in this case. For me, I definitely feel a much greater sense of calm and focus when I am submerged, the experience is usually very meditative for me and my awareness of myself is usually at its peak when I am in the water.

YJS: I think a lot about that idea that “the Caribbean began in fire and continues in water.” When the La Soufriere volcano in St. Vincent erupted on April 9, 2021, after 42 years of inactivity, I thought about your work. You have been relating to this volcano for a while through photography. What do you think when you see it active and experience the implications of the eruption?

NH: I think seeing the eruption really solidified the idea that creation begins in violence. I’ve been trying to understand island formations and in some ways I’ve been trying to document and create a record of the way nature takes shape on an island, so that future generations will have some sort of reference to a time in our current geological history of the nascent stages of these new formations. After all, our islands were once underwater and through millions of years of geological formations we now exist above sea level. A lot of this thinking also spilled over into the way I was trying to perceive the work I was doing underwater. There is something really interesting about looking back at an island while floating offshore. It’s that understanding that below the sea level are parts of the island that we do not have access to, that are the base of these island formations that eventually build up and create enough land mass for us to settle on. It’s that direct connection to the earth’s core that we cannot see, a very violent and inaccessible place even deeper below the bottom of the ocean that connects us to the rest of the world and informs the shape of our islands. With each explosion that causes an accumulation of ash and rock, this shape is manipulated in very slight ways on a map, but significantly affects where rivers flow and informs the ownership of new land boundaries and the use of these lands in the future. [. . .]

[Shown above: Nadia Huggins’ “Transformation.” Digital photograph 2015; and “Ash Column from Second Eruption of La Soufrière Volcano, St. Vincent, Seen from Troumaca Bay,” April 9, 2021.]

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