Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2016
Leon Wainwright Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011. 208 pp.; 20 b/w ills. Paper $30.95 (9780719085949)

Theoretical literature on Caribbean art is rare, which is why any book that is published on the topic deserves particular attention. In Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean, Leon Wainwright explores the state of transnational Caribbean art in five chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Arguing for a greater consideration of the Caribbean in the writing of a new transnational art history, he looks at the contributions of Caribbean artists to modern and contemporary art. Key theoretical threads throughout the book revolve around questions of spatiality and temporality—including belatedness, anachronism, and contemporaneity—that have affected the abilities of Caribbean artists to be canonized or defined as “modern” or “contemporary.” In a variety of case studies, Wainwright convincingly lays bare how accusations of being “out of date” or “in the wrong location” have shaped and limited artists in the Caribbean and its diasporas. The book’s focus is on the Anglophone Caribbean, especially Trinidad and Guyana as well as their diasporas in Britain and—to a lesser extent—North America.

In chapter 1, “Painting in the Aftermath of Painting,” Wainwright discusses the life and work of British-Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams, a founding member of the Caribbean Artists Movement. Williams, despite the predicament of often-discrepant expectations that artists faced in the Caribbean and Britain, wrestled between nation-building and a modernist autonomy of art practice, and became a respected artist in both places. Wainwright, who has worked on a number of curatorial and research projects involving Williams, implies that this may be so because Williams pursued his own path by mixing abstraction and figuration. In addition, he maintained connections to the Caribbean and traveled to the United States while mostly living in Britain, which enabled him to connect spaces across the Atlantic that, as Wainwright remarks, art history had treated as essentially disconnected. In this way, Williams succeeded in merging the conflict between “modern centre” and “belated province” in his own experience, thus standing “on their mutual temporal ground” (36).

Wainwright’s claim, however, that Williams was practicing in the “aftermath of painting” (36) in the Caribbean because sculpture, especially monumental and public, was given higher priority during decolonization needs to be substantiated further. Generalizations like these are problematic as the Caribbean, and even the Anglophone one, is a very heterogeneous region. Looking at Jamaica, for example, the sculptor Edna Manley certainly was a key figure in the nationalist art movement, but it was painters like Barrington Watson, Eugene Hyde, and Karl Parboosingh who dominated the Jamaican art scene around independence in the 1960s. The public commissioning of monuments experienced an upsurge in the 1970s with the National Heroes Park project in Kingston, but it would be wrong to say that painting suffered as a result.

In chapter 2, “Varieties of Belatedness,” Wainwright uses another British-Guyanese artist, Frank Bowling, to effectively demonstrate the importance of time, belatedness, and provincialism in art historiography, concepts that are key markers of the book. A student of the Royal College of Art and member of the Young Commonwealth Artists Group, Bowling was first drawn to Pop art and then turned to abstraction after moving to New York in the 1960s. Throughout most of his career, he was associated “with the belated outsider,” which, Wainwright explains, “remains a stubborn obstacle in his yearning for canonical inclusion” (79).

Chapter 3, “Mutual Temporal Ground,” examines the contested concepts of “diaspora art” and “diaspora aesthetic.” Wainwright identifies two positions in the particular context of Britain in the 1980s, when young black artists increasingly expressed political and social concerns and staged the first “black art” exhibitions. In the first instance, “diaspora art” is regarded as separate from the “European canon” as in the exhibition Black Art An’ Done (which took place at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 1981, and was organized by the exhibitors themselves, who included Keith Piper). Wainwright describes the exhibition as “made by black artists to speak to a black community and address ‘black issues’” (96). For Wainwright, “diasporic aesthetic” takes on a more comprehensive approach and is exemplified by Rasheed Araeen’s demand for an inclusion of “Afro-Asian” artists into the story of (British) modernism (100).

Regarding the concept of “diaspora aesthetic,” Wainwright is critical of “the way that methods of cultural analysis have been applied to the art of the African, Asian, and Caribbean diasporas” (108). The “diaspora aesthetic” idea, he believes, is problematic “when it is invoked to elucidate actual works of art” (108) which then inevitably become interchangeable to serve a larger project: “In such a scheme, representation threatens to render the notion of aesthetics obsolete, so that artworks become nothing more than media; encoded signs (of nation, ethnicity, culture, or diaspora) ready to be decoded” (109).

Perhaps the strongest chapter is the fourth one, “Emotional Chronology,” which examines the contemporary art scene of Trinidad. Wainwright successfully employs the painter Shastri Maharaj (born 1953) to demonstrate the marginalizing experience of an artist with an Indian background in the context of “the hegemonic status of African diaspora identities” on the island. It is illuminating to follow the account of Maharaj’s artistic development. Trained abroad in post-conceptual techniques and critical approaches to painting, he adjusted his style to realist figures and landscape scenes upon his return to Trinidad. Hoping to be accepted as an artist of national importance, he would include references to Hinduism and other themes of his East Indian heritage to fulfill expectations and to please his audience. The official policy of employing culture as a chief agent of decolonization triggered what Wainwright calls an “emotional field” of expressing “Indianness” (124).

Despite the post-Independence program of “unity through diversity” that encouraged artists to publicly declare ethnic differences (124), Maharaj renounced his focus on “Indian” motifs when the political power shifted from an Indo-Trinidadian party to an Afro-Trinidadian-dominated party in 2002, and he lost the loyal patronage he had enjoyed since 1995. His case illustrates the contentious and changing demands for ethnic difference and their visual construction in Trinidad, a phenomenon Wainwright describes with the term “emotional chronology” (125).

Chapter 5, “New Provincialisms,” engages with ideas of race and the “African diaspora” and their representation in art exhibitions in Britain in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In general, the predominant concept of “diaspora” in art history, Wainwright criticizes, was largely U.S.-defined, and, as a result, neglected the heterogeneity, special history, and social conditions of the Caribbean and Britain. In three case studies he explains varying curatorial approaches that seek alternatives to placing blackness or race at the core of art practice. His first example is the exhibition Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary (Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2005). Aiming to showcase the African diaspora as a “shared community of art and visual production” (149), curators David A. Bailey, Petrine Archer-Straw, and Richard J. Powell included works from the United States, Britain, and Jamaica. Despite this mix, Wainwright is concerned that in the exhibition local meanings of blackness were heavily subsumed by a largely U.S.-based definition. Wainwright brings up the Small Axe Collective with its journal and curated online space as a “firm alternative to U.S.-based understandings of art and blackness” and intention to “disrupt a rendering of the Caribbean as a provincial zone” (157). It would have been useful for Wainwright to provide a more in-depth analysis of the Small Axe Collective and additional information on their projects, however. Other related examples Wainwright includes are the exhibition La Fantasie (Trinidad, 2008) and the work of Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier.

In his conclusion, Wainwright calls for a change of “the structures of art historical remembrance themselves and to expose its arbiters of value” such as the “emphasis on the nexus of temporality” or “spatiality of art’s histories” (173). He ends his book on an optimistic note about the reception of art and artists of the transnational Caribbean. “Their presence challenges the sort of centralised power and the related provincialism that is conventionally associated with the art system and art history” (174).

A demanding read, Timed Out provides a good balance between theory and insightful analyses of artworks and artists’ biographies, and this is certainly a major strength of the book. The danger of any text that aims to assess “Caribbean art”—as suggested in the title and in various comments and conclusions in the text—lies in the region’s diverse nature. Wainwright’s examples are taken from only two countries, namely Trinidad and Guyana, and their diasporas in the Atlantic world. While there are certainly parallels to developments in other countries of the region (especially in the Anglophone Caribbean) that share a similar history of decolonization, nation-building, and transnationalism, it is difficult and maybe impossible to draw conclusions that befit the entire region.

The book is handsomely designed, but one wishes the publisher had invested in color instead of only black-and-white images of at least some of the key works. Yet this small shortcoming does not devalue the volume’s important contribution to Caribbean art history. In addition, Wainwright successfully strives to stretch the book’s relevance beyond regional studies by revealing the Caribbean as a constructive example to rethink the writing of art history in terms of the roles of temporality and space.

Claudia Hucke
Lecturer, Department of Art History, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Kingston, Jamaica