As we see the world reaching its boiling point politically, socially, and environmentally, it is sometimes difficult to know where to place ourselves as such a small nation with a limited influence in the world.
However, there is a certain strength to be found outside this spotlight: we are not a global powerhouse, but we are guerrillas; we are grassroots, itinerant, we are organically growing and shifting communities. Most importantly, we are accessible, magic even, and we are real, despite the manicured image we constantly perpetuate and reform to sustain our life-blood, the insipid tourism industry.
These grass roots and our rhizomatic network of interconnectedness in the Caribbean region helps us to look at what Edouard Glissant, the late Martiniquais poet and philosopher, refers to as the poetics of relations. Glissant speaks to the rhizomatic, the way that we know and relate to each other and ourselves in this complex and ever-renegotiating region.
This uninhibited, gung-ho approach shows itself in the homegrown art centres in the region, with Popopstudios International Centre for the Visual Arts (ICVA) here in Nassau being a pioneering example.
Fresh Milk in Barbados, Alice Yard in Trinidad, Tembe in Suriname, Beta-Local in Puerto Rico, L’Artocarpe in Guadeloupe, NLS in Jamaica, Ateliers ‘89 in Aruba, and our beloved Popopstudios ICVA, are all thriving and making great strides in promoting a sense of cohesion, support and inclusivity in their respective art communities. More often than not, spaces like Popop use their limited resources, working within quite modest means, and still prove capable of producing a calibre of work and workspace that is as rigorous as it is vibrant.
To see the potential in these conditions, one can only hope for spaces like this to flourish, as Duke Wells, the Managing Director of Popop shares his hopes for the future. “I would like to see Popop continue to be at the forefront of the art community in The Bahamas by providing an environment that acts both as an incubator for young emerging artists and a creative refuge for our more established artists. We need additional funding so Popop can thrive, not just survive.” And thriving it is indeed.
In its 17 years of existence, the studios and gallery quite literally take residence in a historic home, boasting 2 acres of land to accommodate artworks inside gallery spaces along with ample natural areas to support outdoor works. Popop is nestled in the middle of Chippingham, an area known for its history, the studio itself is a stone’s throw away from Fort Charlotte and Ardastra Gardens.
The space feels like home for more than just its founder and Creative Director, John Cox. The sense of community has continued to strengthen over the past decade, and Cox is excited to see the space hit new strides this year with its 21-strong community, including creative workers young and old alike. The youngest being the high school and college residency award winners, and the most wizened include none other than our national treasure, Kendal Hanna, who celebrated his 80th birthday this year.
Popop is a breeding ground for diversity with creative practitioners working across a vast and varied spectrum of practices. There are painters - abstract, contemporary, realist; there are sculpture and installation artists; there are jewellery makers; there are artists working in photography and film. The space has become a sort of microcosm of artistic experimentation with a vibe that challenges and inspires its denizens, be they new arrivals or long-standing members of the Popop family, who have seen its growth over the years and stayed along for the ride for this new trajectory.
Cox shares, “We are at this Shiva-like moment where everything is getting destroyed to be ready for the moment of rebirth.” We have always been a region of shifting tides and learning to adapt, so it seems fitting that our art scene follows suit and goes through the peaks and troughs of life as we all learn to find our footing.
Continuing Cox iterates, “I think that we are a part of a regional infrastructure that recognizes similar needs and as a result of that kind of collective recognition of what the creative community needs at the time, it affords us the opportunity to share and learn from each other’s experiences, successes, and failures. When you look at all the other regional initiatives that have been underway the last decade, it is interesting to have these parallel experiences and it brings you much more together.”
Though we often feel so tied up in our national narratives, there are points where we become more cognizant of our Caribbean pride. We all share common histories shaped by a particular moment connected to colonisation and these shared experiences help us to explore affinities and likeness, leading to awareness. We are a Caribbean family, and our art communities hold much more of a sense of kinship than people might realise.
We are a country and region that can often make ourselves hard to love, but it is the faith of those who refuse to allow us to wallow in our sense of self-dissatisfaction that helps give us hope, as Cox says: “I do believe in the region. I know it can be burdensome, it can be seen as a shackle to some, or something that boxes you in, but I also think it can give you an opportunity to find a unique voice, because the Caribbean is a unique space that’s under-negotiated, and people don’t quite understand the complexity of it. I feel like the world gets the CliffsNotes for the Caribbean, even though we celebrate the extended versions for North America and Europe. I kinda feel like it is time for us to get the extended version of ‘us’ and these grassroots institutions are at the root of that.”
Back in the ’70s, the artist Daniel Buren infamously challenged the deified and romanticised notion of the studio - the place where art was toiled over by the lonely, tortured artist, before being plucked up from its place of birth and growth and into the seemingly clinical white cube style gallery. Buren made a proclamation for doing away with the studio and, at the time and in Western art society, it made sense to produce more site-specific, space-specific work.
However, in looking at the loving and challenging nature of Popop, the way that its studio community builds up and helps to critically inform each other away from the limiting and perhaps inappropriate ideals and laws of more classically western-style art institutions; the studios at Popop are not spaces to simply make work and build a practice in a solitary manner.
The spaces at Popop are a think-tank and vehicle for producing, informing, and shaping the Bahamian art ecology, helping us to make sense of it, and providing an exciting space for free thought and experimentation.
The studios are the gallery, the gallery is a studio, and the studios and grounds are home.