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Writing the Black Atlantic

Thursday, June 26, 2014
Although Courtney Martin is foremost an art historian, there is much of the creative artist in her approach. PHOTO COURTESY ALICE YARD

Despite World Cup fever, a respectable gathering of avant gardistas came to Alice Yard, Trinidad’s boutique-size centre for experimental arts in Woodbrook, to hear art historian Dr Courtney Martin talk about her curatorial experiences, earlier in the month.


Martin, an assistant professor of art history and architecture at Brown University, with a doctorate from Yale, is one of a rare species—a black art scholar, one of only a handful in America. She is further distinguished as one of the very few art historians specialising in 20th-century British art.


Originally scheduled as a short curatorial residence at Alice Yard back in January, her trip was literally snowed off, when blizzards closed down American airports, so it was a measure of her interest in the contemporary Trinidad art scene, that she made it, having first visited for the Galvanize series of shows and events in 2006. 


Martin also mentioned conversations over the years with one of Alice Yard’s directors Chris Cozier and working with Trinidadian artist Nicole Awai, as curator and catalogue writer, on her prestigious 2011 Vilcek prize-winning show, Almost Undone, as further connections with Trinidad. 


From another intriguing perspective, Trinidad has a place in Martin’s research into post-Second World War British art, a period defined by decolonisation and postcolonialism which has radically transformed monolithic British culture into the diversity of its former imperial constituents.


Introducing her curatorial practice, Martin contrasted her own interest in small-scale productions, (allowing for interaction/dialogue between her and the artists and a space for projects to develop organically) to the norm for museums to mount large-scale ready-made shows. 


Though she didn’t explicitly state it, Martin’s curatorial style seems to embrace elements of chance, spontaneity and juxtaposition, the willingness to transgress or simply elide genres (painting, sculpture, sound, text)—central features of avant-garde art, since the early days of “found objects” and collages. 


The first show she curated—Tract—focused on the dialogue between painters and sculptors, with artist Louis Cameron producing a piece composed of broken mirror and glass shards, which was singled out as the defining work of the show—despite the fact it was a complete departure from what he’d originally proposed. 


Martin stressed the importance of trust between curator and artist, which as her experience with Cameron demonstrated, provided the space and support for experimentation. 


While she insists that she is foremost an art historian, there is much of the creative artist in her approach. She epitomises the new breed of “curators,” a far remove from the conservative “keepers” of cultural artefacts we usually associate with the title. 


The new curator acts as collaborator (with artists) and mediator (with cultural funders, museums, galleries, the media and the public) as well as conceptualist and sometime catalogue essayist. 


Anyone in the audience still harbouring notions of art history and production as ethereal activities, divorced from the complexities, challenges and mundanities of the real world, would have been disabused by Martin’s admission that she spent her second internship at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) photocopying—mostly the catalogue for an upcoming Matisse exhibition. 


The experience was valuable, not only for teaching her about working from the bottom up, but also for the knowledge she gleaned from the catalogue itself.


One of the major shifts in how the function of the arts is perceived resulted from 20th-century Modernism and the avant-garde assault on Eurocentric bourgeois values. 


Only toward the end of the 20th century was there any real understanding of the seminal role of Africa and indeed the “Black Atlantic” in the Modernist project. 


Ironically, western modern art owes much of its genesis to the so-called “primitive” arts of Africa. 


Rather than being another product for consumption, decoration or manifestation of the status quo, art became a revolutionary activity, appropriated by both Bolshevik and Mexican activists. 


Art as action, critique, commentary and experimentation, characterised the avant garde. Distinctions between high and low culture were, in some cases, literally exploded. 


These ideas of art as active, interventionist, critical, remain central to the work of contemporary artists, particularly in developing societies, like T&T.


The idea of “art as a conduit for activism” and social justice informed several of Martin’s curatorships. She discovered Martha Wilson’s collection of artists’ books in the old Franklyn’s Furnace in Tribeca, New York, one of the loci where “the avant garde was being lived but not written about.” 


She secured funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation to purchase the “third copy” of every book in the collection (having convinced Yale to buy the first two copies) and copies were made so that individual pages could be slotted into clear glass pockets, capable of “going on the road” to form a travelling collection, The C Series.


Working with Nicole Awai, recipient of the prestigious and lucrative Vilcek Prize (established to fund deserving exceptionally-gifted immigrants) extended Martin’s conception of curating, when Awai invited her to write the catalogue, as the Vilceks failed to understand that having a show was not simply the case of “showing work.” 


­­­­Martin is emerging as one of a new cadre of art historians/curators whose writings provide invaluable insights into the often recondite and confusing field of contemporary art.


Significantly her specialisation—British contemporary art—focuses on two non metropolitan–born artists: Guyanese-born painter Frank Bowling and Pakistani-born Rasheed Araeen, conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator, a trained civil engineer. 


These two highly-respected artists and thinkers have been integral to the shift from early 20th-century monolithic British culture, to a postcolonial diversity and plurality. 


Currently working towards a Danish-based show of post-minimalism, with 14 international artists “some of whom did were they weren’t supposed to,” Martin concluded her lucid talk responding to questions about the value of art history and culture generally both in education and society at large. 


While some may have doubted her pragmatic “Culture matters to people,” (in our T&T official context) which she qualified by pointing out the number of financiers on museum and gallery boards of directors, few could dispute her proposal that art history “is one of the better humanities,” involving as it does not just art and history but also a working fluency in several languages.


If Martin’s visit allows her to see the pitch, which Awai alludes to in her work and to meet with our own avant-gardistas, Alice Yard must be commended once again, for refusing to accept state indifference to the contemporary arts and promoting dialogue and opportunities for its local practitioners.


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