The Gift: Painted Portraits for Cocoa Farmers
Growing up in Grenada, one of my favourite places to play was in the “cocoa patch” on the lush hillside that our house sat on. The broad leaves of the cocoa trees covered both the canopy and the ground and created a kind of cocoon for my formative years. The taste of the jelly of the raw cocoa is a permanent fixture in my senses; easily recalled and immediately taking me to my hillside respite. When I was a young adult, Grenada established its first chocolate factory, and then another. We have a chocolate factory for every 55,000 people. The affair with chocolate has been long and close to the source. I developed an affinity for agriculture and growing things in my late 20’s and invariably discovered; cocoa farming is hard. The love I have for chocolate, as a product and the appreciation I have for the famers that produce it led me want to integrate an active appreciation for them in my work. Wolfgang Suetzl summarizes Heidegger’s concept of Mitsein and Dasein, “…our specific human existence, our being here (Dasein), always relates us to others. In other words, our existence has the character of being-with-others. Thus, based on Heidegger’s analysis of Being, sharing could be understood as collectivity of cultural forms of being-with-one-another. In other words, we can understand sharing as an economy of Being.” (Wolfgang, 137) This economy of Being is what I am responding to with my project. The work that the farmers do compels me to reference them as part of a very human sense of reciprocity. Painting their portraits, the way they want to be painted, and giving it to them free of charge in an effort to acknowledge that they have already given me something that I enjoy. I am interested in exploring how this particular gift of an art object to the cocoa farmers interacts with the historical body and context of social engagement and gift communities.
Defining the Gift
Defining the project as a whole requires articulating the very specific nature of the gift within this particular context. One cannot begin a discussion of the gift without referencing Marcel Mauss. His seminal work, Essay sur le don in the early 20th century laid the groundwork in examining archaic societies and the nature of social relations through the gift. The gift, according to Mauss, is imbued with power and as an object moves through the social landscape, the gift-giver rearranges the fabric of society. While Mauss lays the foundation for discussing the gift as a social entity, his work primarily deals with cultures where gift giving is a vital mainstay and does not necessarily account for modernity especially vs. market economies. Godbout and Caille, although proponents of Mauss, argue that the gift has taken a different shape in modern societies and a duality exists. “What characterizes modernity is not so much the negation of ties… as the constant temptation to reduce them, in practice, to mercantile status, or to think of ties and the market as isolated from each other, two discrete worlds where the first, if in contact with the second, is bound to be tainted by it and, in the long run subordinated by it.” (Godbout, 162) This duality makes the gift not something that is seamlessly integrated into society but something that is at times at odds with a modern mentality. Georg Simmel helps to rectify the gap between an object that causes social bonds and the market economy that may have made the object possible, “Money (or the market) creates relationships between people, while excluding people themselves” (Simmel 1987, 373) In this instance, the gift is what spills out of the cup of utilitarianism and escapes its original monetary expression.
Giving as a Human Experience
The most useful definition for my work and this project comes from Lewis Hyde and his delineation of the gift as a form of erotic exchange in opposition to rational exchange. “It is this element of relationship which leads me to speak of gift exchange as an ‘erotic’ commerce, opposing eros (the principle of attraction, union, involvement, which binds together) to logos (reason and logic in general)…” (Hyde 2007, xx) This shift in the definition of gift giving removes the gift from a culture-mandated act or a modern phenomenon that is odds with common sense and market transactions. This definition helps us to understand that gift giving at the core is a very human instinct outside of culture or modernity. H. G. Barnett further carries this point with the assertion that the language of gift exchange has procreation at its root. “Generosity comes from genere (Old Latin: beget, produce) and the generations are its consequence, as are the gens, the clans. At its source in both Greek and Sanskrit, liberality is desire; libido is its modern cousin. Virtue’s root is a sex (vir, the man), and virility is its action.” (Hyde 2007, 44) While these words are apparently useful in our language they point to a deep underlying understanding that our existence is due to and made richer by giving.
The Gift as Primary
One of the motifs that arise in the historical context of gift giving is that once put in motion, a gift has life and represents more than the object itself. This representative sort of life a gift holds parallels with the essence of conceptual art where the idea is more important than the finished art object or performance etc. Bill Arning in What We Want is Free: generosity and exchange in recent art affirms that, “The art object today is best understood not as wondrous, but rather as a catalyst for a set of stimulating relationships that make up the art experience.” (Purves, 12) It has been a challenge for me in the course of this project to define exactly what is and isn’t the primary aspect of the work. While I spent hours interviewing and documenting the farmers, I don’t consider the images and video necessarily the primary aspect. I also spent about 8-10 hours on each of the 8 paintings but I don’t consider the paintings or the time spent doing them to necessarily be the primary aspect. I consider the act of giving the paintings, especially in the context of subverting the traditional schema of portraiture and who in society has their portrait done to be primary. Along with the gift, I am interested in what develops as a result of this initial act. This will require follow up interviews and a sort of tracking the life of the paintings as they take on life inside the farmer’s homes. The real essence of the work is the conversations and interactions that take place now that the gift has been set in motion.
In Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop describes the collaborative practice, or socially engaged art thusly, “the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant.” (Bishop, 2) Bishop draws from Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, as does Grant Kester when he summarizes Bourriaud’s argument that the collaborative practice exists in reaction to a commodified and industrialized social reality. Kester summarizes, “the ‘post-industrial’ artist must now create alternative models of sociality to challenge the instrumentalizing of human social interaction characteristic of a post-industrial economic system.” (Kester, 30) Kester emerges as a conceptual ally in my project in the way he distances himself from both Bourriaud and Bishop. Both Bishop and Bourriaud impose a rigid boundary between “aesthetic” projects and activist works. Further, Bourriaud and Bishop maintain a theoretical framework, which concludes that the viewer cannot be trusted to interpret the work of an artist properly. Subsequently there is a deep suspicion for art practices that surrender autonomy to collaborators. (Kester, 33) Kester’s approach is more integrated, “I would argue that a closer analysis of collaborative and collective art practices can reveal a more complex model of social change and identity, one in which the binary oppositions of divided vs. coherent subjectivity, desiring singularity vs. totalizing collective, liberating distanciation vs. stultifying interdependence, are challenged and complicated.” (Kester, 89) This is the conceptual milieu that I am hoping to engage with in my own collaborative process. While there are tangible art objects in exchange, it is the dialogue of the experience that is the real project. Further, there is a real challenge in the assertion that the farmers are the primary audience while at the same time I am framing the farmers within the project in an exhibitory context. The nature of the project, especially in the evolution of the dialogue, is complex and the outcome is, by nature of the project, unknown.
Contemporary Social Practioners in Art
While the field of collaborative, participatory or socially engaged art is growing and the ethos of each individual artist varies, I believe it is important to recognize some contemporary practioners, notably; Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, Thomas Hirshhorn, and Renzo Martens.
Rick Lowe is an American artist best known for his Project Row Houses (PRH). PRH is a community based arts and culture non-profit organization. PRH is a unique experiment in activating the intersections between art, historic preservation, affordable and innovative housing, community relations and development, neighbourhood revitalization, and human empowerment (About). The space is used in an activist sense to transform the environment it is in.
Theaster Gates also transforms the community by reinventing spaces that had been derelict or abandoned most notably through the Dorchester Projects. Gates revitalized these buildings turning them into a center for cultural activity. His work encourages the community to further engage with their own space and interact with an idea of radical hospitality.
Thomas Hirshhorn, most recently known for his Gramsci Project in the Bronx. It is an outdoor building/sculptural space with different areas dedicated to providing free services to the community. The programs offered by the monument are largely educational and aim to give power and agency to the community.
Renzo Martens, known for his film, “Enjoy Poverty”, takes a via negativa approach in his film making by showing photographers in the Congo that they can make money by photographing the atrocities of their every day life. He uses techniques used by Western journalists and photographers in a macabre demonstration of how people make money off of and fetishize poverty. His work illuminates the problems with the way poverty is addressed by using the problem as his curriculum.
In most of these cases, there is a sense of advocacy and a desire to either add to or change the community or environment. The ethos varies and the shroud of generosity of the work is more revealing in some artists than others. Invariably, the substance of the art consists of interaction and dialogue that results from what the artists set in motion.
The Artist in the Work
This paradigm, however, is not without its own set of problems. One question posited by Shane Aslan Selzer to artist Cesare Pietroiusti was, “If a primary audience becomes participatory, how do they view the project? And how does the work translate for those who aren’t in the participatory audience? Can an inanimate object act as a catalyst for furthering specific social exploration or is it completely dependent upon the physical body to bring politics and meaning to its core?” (Purves, 76) Moreover, beyond understanding the way this project is understood and interpreted by the primary audience, the farmers, it is vital to speculate how all audiences understand the role of the artist. Ted Purves, in discussing the generous work of Josh Greene, talks about the temptation of evaluating the artist as part of the audiences’ interpretation of the work. “This temptation might always be strong when the artist is evaluated in place of the work, which is often the case when the artist’s persona and actions are included in the conception and execution of the work. Temptation aside, we will learn more here from looking at the artwork itself, the actual action if only because it helps us to look at the work through the eyes of its primary audience…” (Purves, 32) These questions of interpretation, especially concerning the artist in the work, can ultimately only by answered by the primary audience, the farmers, and will be incorporated in future interviews and conversations.
The idea of representation was very important to me in the course of the interviews. I wanted to stress to the farmers that they were choosing how they wanted to be represented, from the attire, to the pose, to how much of them was in the photo. I was inspired by African l’age d’or photography and work by Laura Heyman in Haiti during the Ghetto Biennale. Her Pa Bouje Ankò series maintained the tradition of l’age d’or photography where the subject had full control over how they wanted to be photographed. Heyman subsequently gave the photos to the subjects. (Beasley, 73) Representation is an important part of my work as it is important to me not to misrepresent the farmers. There are several pitfalls when representing people that fall under fetishization, objectification, or commodification. Fetishization is an excessive and irrational commitment to or obsession with something. Objectification is degrading someone to a mere object. Commodification is turning them into or treating them as a commodity. I believe through the interviews, the process of engaging the farmers and including them in the project, and then the act of giving the portraits away resolves these issues. Further, in the initial planning of the project I was trying to resolve whether to do two paintings each of the farmers, one to exhibit and one to give. This seemed to me to maintain an unfair power dynamic where the subject is still the secondary consumer of the art. By making the farmers the sole owner of the original piece of art it further validates their position as heritage preservers. One of the things that I am sensitive to in the project was the time that the farmers took to talk to me and then the time it took to complete the paintings. I recognize the fact that they took time away from what they would have otherwise been doing to help facilitate the project.
Painting the Portraits
The process of painting the 8 portraits in succession was a very good discipline for me as an artist. The farmers unanimously wanted their paintings to be done in a fairly classical style. I have had some training in painting classically, but in addition; I researched various classical styles in an effort to use the time to settle on a technique that was both effective and intuitive for me. I read about other painters who painted unconventionally in a way that worked for them and I was inspired to use classical technique as a starting point and then eliminated steps that didn’t help or added a different technique when it was useful. The first couple paintings I did the traditional underpainting, then grisaille, and then two layers of colour. I then felt that the underpainting had too much of a darkening effect on the painting and so I integrated the preliminary sketch with charcoal and gesso into the grisaille. This had the effect of having a quick drying grisaille, dark values that were dull, like real shadows, and an overall accelerated method because I could start with thin layers of colour immediately after. The paintings are not varnished and I had to complete them with enough time to dry so that I could roll them up and travel with them to Grenada from where I am living in Dallas, TX. Once arriving in Grenada, I had to build the stretcher bars for the stretcher frames and stretch the canvas over the frames before being able to exhibit and present the paintings.
During the course of the project I moved to the United States in order to be able to make an income especially because the nature of the project was to be giving art away. There is definitely a level of sacrifice involved in the execution of this project. The sacrifice involved in the process of this project, I feel, further accentuates the labour of the erotic exchange according to Hyde’s definition of giving as a human endeavour. Further, in defining it as an intimate exchange, Bataille describes the point of over-sharing, or giving of things as well as information about yourself, moods, stories about yourself etc. as an economy of sharing that is more about being than having. Ultimately, according to Bataille, when we give away more than is safe, this is true intimacy. (Bataille, 69)
This project has several facets that I am hoping will be educational to different audiences.
- By introducing the paintings into the homes of the farmers I am hoping for an organic, implicit, education in art appreciation. I am interested to see what sort of language develops independent of prompting to describe the work and how they feel about the work.
- The last portrait I did, I did from start to finish in Grenada in a gallery where I held a 3-day portrait-painting workshop. This allowed other artists and people interested in art to see my process and to engage with it their selves.
- I have done videos, not only showing the process of the project and information about the farmers etc. but also videos such as “How long does it take to make a painting” where I talk about the fact that each painting has years of experience leading up to it.
- I am interested in expanding the conversation of contemporary art in Grenada and secondarily other audiences in the US and Europe.
Questions at this point
The complexity of the project has caused a lot of questions to arise and eventually I would like to address them all but it is beyond the scope of this paper at this time to explore them. Some of the questions are:
- Is the gift of art and art ownership an effective means to accelerating art appreciation in communities where there is little recognition of “fine art”?
- How does seeing their parents in a painting affect the way the farmers’ children see them? How does it make them perceive agriculture? How does it affect their view of art?
- Do we run the risk of creating a culture of artistic dependency where people lose the concept that art has economic value as well as social and aesthetic value?
- What is the best format to continue exhibiting and talking about the work that the farmers now own?
- What is the societal perception and ultimate efficacy of private vs. public ownership?
- If this project lays the groundwork for the community to think about art and how it pertains to them, what would be an organic next step?
- How can I create a project that incorporates the community as collaborators in a more meaningful or impactful way?
This paper represents the philosophical groundwork and artistic context for my practice and invariably is incomplete. The real body of my research will take place over months and years and will largely anecdotal, as it will be comprised of interviews and stories from the people who are the owners of the artwork. I will be adding to the canon of this work through subsequent projects including the large-scale painting of farmers to be reproduced and shown in public places. This will be to not only further the ethos that the farmer’s are important and should be regarded in society but also to compare reactions and perceptions of this public display and ownership vs. the first stage of the project which was private ownership. I am also considering how I can incorporate my travels into the life of this project, particularly through the medium of chocolate. Whichever direction the project goes from here, I have a continued interest in supporting the work of the farmers and bridging the gap between people who enjoy chocolate and the people that make it possible through their hard work. I think that ultimately it concretizes the concept of mitsein to be completely aware that we are all interconnected and there are truly no faceless labourers. Through this project I hope to not necessarily suggest that as artists we should give our work away for free, but to imbue the idea that we have already been given a lot and it accentuates a more authentic human experience when we recognize it, and respond in kind.
“About | Project Row Houses.” Project Row Houses. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
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Beasley, Myron M. “Curatorial Studies on the Edge: The Ghetto Biennale, a Junkyard, and the Performance of Possibility.” Journal of Curatorial Studies 1.1 (2012): 73. Web.
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Suetzl, Wolfgang. “The Anti-Economy of Sharing.” Else Journal 0.0 (2014): 137. Print.
On Sunday afternoon at Crayfish Bay in St. Mark’s, a most unusual art exhibition took place.
Nestled on the drying trays of the cocoa boucan, eight portraits sat, awaiting their unveiling to a most appreciative audience. Months in the making, the artist, Asher Mains, had painted in the traditional classic oil painting style, images of eight cocoa farmers. The farmers were the audience gathered there, and a few visitors who were staying at the Crayfish Bay guest house. The literati of art were absent, as were the politicians and TV cameras. No fashonistas stood with wine glasses perfectly poised, just hoping someone would notice their shoes. No paparazzi showed up. It wasn’t Art Basel in Miami.
The speeches were simple and direct. After Asher was introduced by his father, Reuben Mains, he explained the purpose of his art project. Then the portraits were handed over to their new owners. There was excited chatter. Children of the farmers suddenly looked at their parent in a different way. After many hand shakes, hugs, kisses, expressions of appreciation, the farmers walked away one by one, carrying their prize.
I left that exhibition with a different feeling than any of the many exhibitions I had been to. It was a feeling that was hard to define. Happiness, yes, but more than that. These farmers, who had never been to the opening of an art exhibition, interacted with the portrait of themselves, but also with the portraits of others. There was critique, long looks, private smiles, pride, satisfaction. They talked about where in their house they would hang it. One person exclaimed that this was something she could leave for her son. Each person expressed simple thanks.
As an artist and gallerist, there is always the pressure of sales, which always comes to a point at the opening of an exhibition. Not so this time. None of the work was for sale. There was no bargaining, offers and counter offers. Each one was being given to the person who the portrait was of.
Its not that the work was free. It came at great sacrifice. Asher Mains, the artist, spent countless hours in the process of making this work. The first step was going to meet the farmers, spending time with them talking, taking video and stills, choosing the pose that would best suit the representation. Then came the lonely time in the studio, with only the canvas, the paint and the brush. For hour upon hour. Eight times. There was no funding or institutions paying for this project. This came from Asher’s thin pocket.
To quote Asher, “I want to turn the art world on its head. Usually art is a commodity collected by the rich, with one of the criteria being to preserve the history and heritage of a people. These farmers are preserving heritage with their daily lives. The cocoa they produce is a product that is highly prized, but they are not. They are barely recognized for their work. I want to honour them them by giving them these paintings. I want to also honour the power of art to be social, that it can change people’s opinion of themselves and their society.”
Maybe the feeling I was trying to define was satisfaction; the art had done its work—it had created a bridge from the known to the unknown. Time will tell. In a few months, Asher will go back to St. Mark’s to see the farmers, to talk to them and find out what it has meant to them and their families to have art in their homes. After painting and exhibiting for 20 of his young years, Asher Mains may now be on the brink of starting a revolution; the creative sector and agriculture powering forward to be the backbone of the Caribbean economy and identity.
At the end of the day Asher expressed his feelings, “This is a beginning.”
Susan Mains, Director of Art and Soul Gallery
George and Tony were unable to attend the exhibition/presentation of the cocoa farmers’ paintings at Crayfish Bay but they were able to pick up their portraits at Art and Soul Gallery in Grand Anse. Here are a couple photos of George and Tony with their paintings!
The time has come! After two months of painting, the farmers will finally receive their portraits this Sunday in Nonpariel. Looking forward to getting some footage of reactions and continuing my research in activating a new community of art owners. In so far as “art” in this sense is referring to a more traditional sense of fine art – these farmers are true preservers of history, culture and heritage in a similar way an art collector is perceived. They live their art through their life and I am privileged to be able to celebrate that with them.
The Gift: Painted Portraits for Cocoa Farmers
Growing up in Grenada, one of my favourite places to play was in the “cocoa patch” on the lush hillside that our house sat on. The broad leaves of the cocoa trees covered both the canopy and the ground and created a kind of cocoon for my formative years. The taste of the jelly of the raw cocoa is a permanent fixture in my senses; easily recalled and immediately taking me to my hillside respite. When I was a young adult, Grenada established its first chocolate factory, and then another. We have a chocolate factory for every 55,000 people. The affair with chocolate has been long and close to the source. I developed an affinity for agriculture and growing things in my late 20’s and invariably discovered; cocoa farming is hard. The love I have for chocolate, as a product…
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