By Keisha Oliver.
Interdisciplinary artist Lavar Munroe grew up in the Grants Town community of Nassau, The Bahamas, and has lived and worked in the United States for over thirteen years. Munroe’s work exists as a reflection of the environment of his upbringing and presents an ongoing critique on contemporary society and its relationships between the people of the ghetto and the ‘Others.’ He maps and celebrates his personal journey of survival and fortitude from the heart of the ‘Over-the-Hill,’ community whilst confronting broader issues concerning social stereotypes.
Last month, Munroe returned to his childhood home through Milton Street to reclaim a new studio space. Hosting one of few studio visits since re-acclimating himself with this environment, Munroe shares his journey and new body of work for his upcoming show ‘GUN DOGS,’ which opens October 3rd at Jack Bell Gallery in London.
KO: What has been the driving force behind your work over recent years?
LM: It started off with interests in animism and religion with a focus on the pre-historic man. My research led me to critical reading into the work of Carl Jung, Edward Taylor and a few others. I then looked into the broader themes of mythology and religion and tapped into Joseph Campbell’s writings on modern mythology. I came across a term he invented called ‘monomyth,’ or ‘the hero’s journey’ and this concept is the premise for much of my recent work.
KO: What is the hero’s journey to you?
LM: I’ve deemed myself in many ways as a societal hero, but not in an arrogant sense. A lot of people who I grew up with have either passed away, are in jail, or on drugs and most persons I come in contact with rarely believe that I live on Milton Street. Not only in The Bahamas, but internationally, if I were to bring someone to this space, they wouldn’t believe I called it home. I pride myself on being from the ghetto and challenging the stigma and stereotypes associated with such places. The space speaks of humble beginnings and oftentimes the presence I have as an artist is nearly grandiose. Exhibition time is like show time, so it doesn’t really level off in many ways. I think for that reason it baffles many people. Even though I’ve grown up in this community, I’ve always been fortunate.
KO: What has been your journey toward success? How do you think living and developing your career in the US has impacted your practice as an artist?
LM: I always intended to become a successful artist. By the time I was ready to be successful in the US, I was already successful in The Bahamas. My career as an artist started just before pursuing my studies at Savannah School of Art & Design (SCAD), when I was an art student at The College of The Bahamas. At the time, I had my first studio through Laird Street, a space where my friends and upcoming artists Elkino Dames, and Jackson and Bernard Petit would spend summers painting. Elkino and I would often take my aunt’s car and head East or West to knock on random doors with hopes to solicit my work. Every weekend, we were sure to sell at least one painting. These sales along with my early exhibitions allowed me to develop a following of local supporters and art collectors.
Once I left for SCAD, I began a trend of bringing work home during my breaks to sell. I’ve always had this drive not solely to make work, but to make a living from it. After my undergrad studies, I worked as an illustrator for 3 years and decided to shift my focus toward digital work, which I did for a year. Later, I enrolled into grad school at Washington University in St. Louis and the rest is history.
KO: Is this new studio experience very different from what you are accustomed to in your Washington D.C. studio?
LM: The main difference between my studio in Nassau and Washington is presence. This studio is more of a communal space, something that is new for me, because in DC there is more of a sense of isolation: just me and the work. The most traffic I have is studio visits with curators, but these are very strategic. In Nassau, my studio exists in a residential community where people are more likely to pass through randomly. At first I was uneasy with it, but with time I realised it would be selfish of me not to open up and share what I’m doing with people who are genuinely interested.
KO: Given your involvement in Junkanoo over the years, how has this art form played a role in your creative process?
LM: It is very rare for me to want to speak about my work in the context of Junkanoo, because it’s expected for me to speak about it. Yes, I borrow from Junkanoo, but each material has its purpose. Cardboard for instance is the root material of Junkanoo, but when used in my work I’m thinking if it as a material by which the upper and middle class transport items like furniture and appliances. They then excrete the cardboard into the world where for homeless people it becomes a living space, a bed or toy; and this is what I’m really interested in. So it’s nothing to do with Junkanoo at all, although I am borrowing from how they construct objects.
KO: Is your work most concerned with form, concept or process?
LM: It’s about the concept of the material. I’m always thinking about alchemy, the trickster, the shape-shifter and making something valuable that’s not valuable. So the work is a critique on the buyer or collector, who can afford the luxury of art. It looks at how wealthy people can ignore the homeless guy. My work also asks the question: How can we make regular materials we ignore every day perceived as valuable? Is it simply by spraying it gold? Is it—like we say in Junkanoo—by adding a few tricks? I’m asking the questions of myself, my audience and of my collectors. I’m also thinking of the material as one that doesn’t last a lifetime.
KO: Tell me about the body of work you are creating for your upcoming show ‘GUN DOGS’?
LM: I’m now looking a lot at Greek mythology. I’m most interested in their use of dogs. These myths often focus on wars, which involve dogs attacking humans or gods. The painting I’m working on at the moment uses an ancient Greek vase as inspiration. It depicts a dead dog with a person standing over it, but this is still an early stage. Usually, I start off with a point of reference and it grows into something else.
This collection of paintings and sculptures is multi-faceted, investigating the presence of hunting dogs. Starting from the period of slavery where they were used to attack and capture the oppressed. Thinking about dogs in law enforcement, who are trained to pursue the criminal and civilians who are randomly attacked by dogs. The work is confrontational. Then again most of my work is.
The title ‘GUN DOGS’ kind of gives the audience an entry space into a deeper conversation. Yes, they are attack dogs, but who are they attacking? The success in the work happens when questions are being asked. I think the work will be pointed to ‘the hunted’ so the audience may feel like the victim or they will associate themselves with or be compassionate with victims of such attacks. Compassion, guilt and fear are all things I feel are tied to this work and much of my recent work. It humbles people. In this case knowing what it is to be confronted by dogs by looking at a painting. All of these things are intentional moves I’m making to critique a larger conversation. My intention in this work is to spark dialogues related to notions of “animal as totem,” and to question the term “To Protect and Serve,” as it relates to those deemed in authority.