Tilting Axis Curatorial Fellowship 2018: Bahamian, Natalie Willis, awarded!

By Dr Ian Bethell Bennett

As people who view art from outside, we are usually blind to all the moving parts that make art and bring it to us.  We tend to think when we hear the term “public art”, for example, that this springs organically from the artist who is simply in his or her studio being creative.  As Bahamians and members of an incredibly conservative mindset, we see art as something that will always leave our children poor and disadvantaged, so we discourage them from becoming artists; we discourage them from becoming writers.  Yet, at the helm of much public art are leaders who make public art happen. They put things in place. Art does not usually simply spring up out of nothing and nowhere, though it can still be organic.

We need people to facilitate the art, bring it to the public, frame it in productive ways, and produce spaces that allow art and artists to flourish.  Some of these people are curators.  Curators organise, manage, understand the nuances, intricacies, needs, challenges and possibilities of art and collections.  We do not usually see this side of art.

In the Caribbean, art has bloomed over decades, especially in countries like Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico as well as the Dominican Republic.  Haiti is famous for its art; yet we, as Bahamians tend to diminish Caribbean art and its value.  When curators gets a hold of a body of work or a group of ideas the job they do to birth an experience is amazing.  Especially when it comes to telling a story through and with the art.

Curating a space is as important as the art that goes in it.  Creating a narrative through spacing, organizing, timing, physically hanging works, colour scheme and mood, all accentuate how the art is allowed to speak and how the public sees the art or receives it.  The process is not passive. As a part of this science, artists or art enthusiasts study for many years to learn how to tell stories with art and how to manage art collections. 

The latter is an essential part of any business and does not come automatically.  Without good management, businesses and organizations collapse.  Further, they lack the vision necessary to transcend the mundane, which is what most people want, yet do not know how to achieve.  Good curatorial practice allows a show to succeed by highlighting the art’s and artist’s strengths, playing with light, and bringing up undertones that show another level of artistic expression along with previous hidden or underexposed stories. Tilting Axis the annual creative industries meeting is a forum and project dedicated to placing importance and resources to develop this nascent partition of the arts industry.

Tilting Axis is a roving meeting, pivoting on a Caribbean axis from which all other coordinates are viewed, understood and measured, facilitating more and more alliances. It was co-founded in 2014 by Annalee Davis and NAGB Chief Curator, Holly Bynoe. As the website notes, “Tilting Axis has grounded its concerns in the Caribbean as a part of a wider creative ecology, and the health, evolution and advancement, a primary objective of its annual meetings held inside and outside of the region.”

So, Caribbean art is highlighted, which is essential to how Caribbean art, as a genre constructed of other genres, brought together to create a multifaceted and complex Creole identity allows the local, regional, and international to speak out, to be curated through different eyes and experiences.  This year, Tilting Axis offered a curatorial fellowship, the second since its inception.

“As a direct outcome of the Tilting Axis meeting held at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands in May 2017, the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT) Art Galleries at Black Studies has come together with Tilting Axis to offer a Curatorial Fellowship to an emerging curator living and working in the Caribbean”.

University of Texas at Austin, is a mecca for art, Latin American Studies and many other programmes, and so, with mentorship provided Professor Eddie Chambers and Lise Ragbir, the winner benefits on so many levels.  Grand Bahamian artist and assistant curator at the NAGB, Natalie Willis, whose talents, obviously, speak loudly, won this opportunity, announced on Friday, June 1st during the meeting held at Centro León in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

The Fellow was selected on the basis of a letter of interest stating how this opportunity and access to collections and archives would inform and develop their curatorial practice, and why they think they would be a good candidate.  This is the second fellowship awarded by Tilting Axis, the first going to Jamaican curator, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, whose project afforded research and travel across the region and to Scotland in a process of documenting alternative curatorial forms.

Willis is overjoyed, shocked, and intimidated by this opportunity and finds it simultaneously exhilarating and frightening.  She will be working with Chambers and Ragbir and as a part of the Black Studies Programme to expand her curatorial practice from “purely Caribbean and Caribbean Diaspora to the Black Experience in the wider context including the US”.  She will draw on the Christian Green collection, heavily focused on Haitian Art, with the general breadth of the Black Diaspora.  Willis will produce an exhibition at the Warfield Center in 2019 that demonstrates her curatorial skills that the Fellowship is designed to hone and widen.

Willis’ research will push her view beyond the discussion of nationalism as foundation of identity into a more complex, syncretic, polymorphous understanding that Joseph Roach examines in Cities of the Dead (1996) and Antonio Benítez-Rojo argues as the repeating island; though similar and repeating, the syncopation is also unique.  Willis will use these concepts to draw out the uniqueness and overlappings of art and in art of the Black Diaspora.

Willis offers:

 “Translating the multitude of voices at this crossroads into discernible chorus can most often only be done by acknowledging just that, the buried and sedimented layers of the sound of Blackness over time. Just what sound do we make, what is the sound of Black noise?”

This mouth and language, tool and production, will prove an interesting show for us who seek to understand experiences beyond the borders of the nation, (always artificial; always determined by someone else’s politic of power and identity).  While we inhabit the space of nation, we also inhabit the space of the transatlantic slave trade and exploitation economy that depopulated and repopulated an entire region, and altered the processes and experiences of colonial powers thought impervious to their dealings. Willis expects to begin her Fellowship in autumn 2018, and will be situated in Austin for a month. 

We look forward to catching up with her, seeing the tools and productions of her learning. Perhaps these are the kinds of opportunities that the University of The Bahamas, in collaboration with the NAGB, can build on as it takes its art programme and library to the next level in order to attract international and regional researchers and art enthusiasts.  Tilting Axis and UT Austin provide a marvelous model for benefiting Bahamian talent and developing serious and deepening national, regional and international linkages.

Natalie Willis, 2018 Tilting Axis Curatorial Fellow. Image provided by Willis.