Roundtable 4

Race, Class and Decolonization

April 15, 2021

Legacies from the colonial era continue to inform the social dynamics of Caribbean societies, in race and class hierarchies and social institutions which have often changed little since the official end of colonialism, in terms of the substantial social, political, and cultural changes that were expected and agitated for, often at great social cost. These issues are a frequent source of social tensions and continuous critical debate in the Caribbean and some progress has been made, but the sort of social justice that is really needed remains elusive for many, nor is it always clear what the solutions really are. Add to this the persistent patterns of economic and political dependency on past and present colonial powers and the question certainly arises whether the Caribbean has in fact been decolonized.

In this roundtable, we explored these issues, and other related questions, from a variety of positions and cultural disciplines. For instance, how have Caribbean creative practitioners, in different disciplines, engaged issues of race, class and decolonization relevant to the region and to what effect? How do these issues affect cultural production and its exposure and validation in the Caribbean region? What are the colonial legacies in the Caribbean’s own cultural institutions, in terms of their practices, governance and philosophies, and what needs to be done to challenge and change those? How are these issues perceived by various Caribbean audiences, crucially including those who are not actively engaged with how the Caribbean cultural sector operates, and how does this affect the socially transformative potential, or perhaps the lack thereof, of the arts of the Caribbean? Can the arts, as they have typically functioned in the Caribbean, even begin to address these issues?

Panellists: Pablo Delano (artist and Puerto Rico/USA), Olivia McGilchrist (artist, Jamaica/France), Michèle Stephenson (human rights activist and filmmaker, Haiti/Panama/USA), Phillip Thomas (artist and senior lecturer, Edna Manley College, Jamaica)

Discussant: Shani Roper Edwards (Curator, UWI Museum, UWI-Mona, Jamaica)

Moderator: Veerle Poupeye (lead researcher, CCF Feasibility Study, Kingston, Jamaica)

Pablo Delano opened by providing a background on his ongoing Museum of the Old Colony project - a performative, conceptual “museum” that appropriates the representational tools of official institutions, such as historical documentary photographs, to bring awareness to the socio-political issues under the exploitative neocolonial rule in Puerto Rico. Olivia McGilchrist discussed the development of her artistic practice, and its relationship to her complex identity as a privileged white, Franco-Jamaican who presently lives and studies in Canada. She focused on her present work and research into virtual reality (VR) and asked how can VR, and any type of immersive medium, can serve as a radical alternative space in which social and racial dynamics can be explored and renegotiated. Michèle Stephenson used her film practice, and particularly her new film documentary Stateless, to discuss the need to build of narratives of liberation within the black community. She emphasized that institutional and internal prejudices had to be tackled simultaneously for there to be substantive and sustainable social change. Citing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “the danger of a single story”, Phillip Thomas spoke about how contemporary artists in Jamaica, himself included, have engaged and subverted the multifaceted questions of class, race, and the colonial and postcolonial politics of representation.

Key points in the discussion were:

1. What does decoloniality mean? Reference was made to the work of the Bahamian academic Ian Bethell-Bennett to provide a working definition of decoloniality. It is the on-going act of identifying and tearing down lingering colonial constructs to remake knowledge structures, economies, gender relations, and self-definitions, to make something new, equitable and inclusive out of a legacy of exploitation, trauma, exoticism, and poverty. It was noted that this involved collective action but that it was also a deeply personal process that requires nuance and introspection and that the main goal was to change collective and individual perspectives.

2. Critical caveats for the Caribbean: What is this new thing decoloniality is articulating? Is the vision for decolonization all-inclusive and widely shared? How do we decolonise, in the Caribbean, when we are so dependent on tourism? And very importantly, for whom are we decolonizing?

3. The role of the arts: Considering the long history of cultural resistance in the Caribbean, and its close association with popular political resistance, there was broad consensus that the arts are crucial to the articulation of new, decolonial narratives relevant to the past, present and futures of the Caribbean. The socially transformative potential of the arts was emphasized throughout the discussion, particularly its capacity to reveal and challenge the old, unequal and exploitative racial, cultural and social dynamics and to imagine new and viable alternatives.

4. The decolonized museum: Citing Henry McGie of Curating Tomorrow, it was argued that a decolonised museum practice must have social justice and sustainable development at the forefront of its agenda, and serve as a public forum for engagement with these issues. This is a challenge Caribbean museums need to take on board, especially since many of which have their origins in the colonial period and continue to be informed by unacknowledged colonial ideas and structures.

The video below is an edited excerpt of what was a 2-hour Zoom conversation.