The Tribune | Weekend | 11
Friday, August 6, 2021
Challenging traditional standards In response to a new two-person exhibition entitled ‘Life’s Balance’ now open at The Brighton Storeroom, in St George, Barbados, the well-known Bahamian artist JOHN COX writes about his and his fellow exhibiting artist Tessa Whitehead’s practices. YEARS ago, I recall a conversation I had with a faculty member at the University of the Bahamas. He was an Anglican priest as well as a professor in the School of Social Science. He explained to me the reason the parishioners processed counter-clockwise while preparing for communion was to pay tribute to the ancestors. This simple yet deliberate gesture during the mass had a specific meaning that no one would ever know without asking or being told. It’s these little moments within traditional customs that reveal so much. I was never good at school or anything that people who were taken seriously were good at. I always needed alternative ways to see and process information and ideas. I remember being terrified in high school that I would fail every test I took and subsequently be labelled lazy or not intelligent. I took US history and was mortified by the volume of content I needed to digest. Not being strong reader, I countered by listening very attentively to discussions in class and took more notes than anyone. So much so that my instructor ended up grading my notebooks instead of my exams. He mentioned that I had paid more attention to his lectures than most and that had to count for something. Thirty years later I see myself relating to my environment not unlike how I remember relating to that US history class. At times overwhelmed and intimidated by the complexity of what is going on around me I still navigate things by paying close attention, listening and taking notes. I feel like both Tessa (Whitehead) and I in many respects see value in keen observation of our surroundings. Our practices overlap in the sense we both produce work as a form of note taking - a kind of exploring and reflecting at the same time. The art world is filled with so many standards of tradition, perfection and excellence.
So much so we can find ourselves erased from the notion ‘perfection’ where the ‘ideal’ replaces the personality. How we know we were here is marked by how we respond to these standards and expectations. It is our flaws that define us, free us and ultimately save us. Tessa’s exploration of her history, environments and tendencies is one that both abandons the ideas of perfection while simultaneously achieving it. Her work, like few others in the region, screams of raw experience, FALLING Figure/ colour, texture, tension, stories from the fight and commentary while paying series (2015) by little attention - at least on John Cox the surface - to any of these things. Her mastery of composition and intuitive gestures suggest a playfulness on top but possess a much deeper commentary on Caribbean life and where she fits and contributes into it significantly lingers in her work. Her work invites/encourages you to take notes on what otherwise would be overwhelming complex. My work looks at history through the lens of this environment in broad and simple terms. I never feel validated by curators or academics, but do think for some, the contributions I’ve made offer a window into an honest human experience. An experience that might allow for one to insert oneself into the make-believe narratives of balance, service and perseverance that my work investigates. Like Tessa, I think we both place value on memory and our own unique experiences to find traction and context within a broader cultural conversation. Narratives and symbols are borrowed from knowledge both observed and told to us. It is our flaws and imperfections that enable us to find meaning in our own histories and experiences. Like the meaning in the counter-clockwise procession in the Anglican mass so do we find religion in falling figures and leafy bushes.
• Tessa Whitehead John Cox: Life’s Balance is open now and runs until the end of August 2021.
US and All of Us II (2019) by Tessa Whitehead