By Lindsey Turnbull
The latest exhibition to open at the National Gallery is entitled ‘81 Degrees West: Cartographic Explorations in Contemporary Caymanian Art’, and is a fantastic exploration of the connections between art and cartography (making and interpreting maps). The exhibition charts the subject stretching from ancient times into the digital era of GPS and satellite technology. Touching upon Cayman’s maritime history and seafaring traditions, 81 Degrees West focuses on the ways in which both map making and navigation have shaped the Cayman community from initial discovery and first settlement through to the Cadastral survey of the 1970s and the rapid developments that have dramatically transformed the Caymanian landscape in recent years.
Lead curator William Helfrecht said this was a project he and the team (National Gallery Director Natalie Urquhart, Jamaican curator Veerle Poupeye, an author on Caribbean art, and Daneila Granados) had been working on for some time.
“It’s an interesting way to explore thematic territory beyond the visual arts,” he confirmed, stating that the exhibition, in keeping with many other National Gallery exhibitions, touched on ideas such as Caymanian history and social themes.
“This was an opportunity to look at maps themselves as visual artefacts… but also to explore in both literal and symbolic ways the field of cartography more broadly and how it has influenced and inspired visual artists in Cayman,” he advised. “It’s not so much an exhibition about maps; it’s more about this field of the cartographic and what that means within the space of visual culture.”
He went on to say that maps and mapping had been intertwined with some important but also contentious topics, such as the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and the somewhat romanticised view of exploration, and this exhibition touched upon weightier and loaded implications of that period of exploration.
A mixture of original and copies of historical maps greets the visitor, telling the history of European exploration and colonisation of the Caribbean through the documents. Combining historical maps of Cayman and the wider Caribbean dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries alongside artworks that respond to, or draw inspiration from, the visual and symbolic language of mapping, the exhibition showcases original and facsimile copies of some of the earliest known chartings of the Cayman Islands, including the Cantino Planisphere of 1502, as well as objects borrowed from the Cayman Islands National Museum, the Cayman Islands National Archives, the British Library in London, and several private collectors.
Several artists directly utilise the iconography of maps and their material traces in the fabrication of their work, notably Bendel Hydes, whose early works incorporate collaged fragments of nautical charts within the abstract surfaces of his paintings.
“One of the things we start exploring as we move through the exhibition is how the artists start to respond and engage with this topic in more and more symbolic or metaphorical ways,” William explained.
Bendel Hydes’ work was, in a way, the inspiration for the entire exhibition because his work was so grounded in these narratives of Cayman’s maritime history, he said.
John Broad uses maps on which to paint traditional Caymanian figures and he explores the juxtaposition of the historical subject matter superimposed upon contemporary maps, exploring how the landscape has changed. Others have adopted a looser and more expansive interpretation of the subject, among them Brandon Saunders, Simon Tatum, and Kaitlyn Elphinstone, all of whom repurpose processes that are symbolically related to map-making, as the basis for creative exploration.
Pushing the mapping boundaries, Al Ebanks (who is more associated with abstract work) has created ‘Walking on Shedden Road’, which is a meditation on home and where he was raised. He created his artwork from memory, exploring the sense of place and connection that people have in Cayman, particularly as the painting has been created from memory so recognisable iconic buildings are not in the exact order, and some, such as Patterson the Farm Soldier’s God People Market do not even exist anymore. Nasaria Suckoo-Cholette’s complex collage painting uses symbolic motifs to explore Caymanian culture, creating a somewhat jarring feeling of the juxtaposition between nostalgic images of historical cultural motifs and a pattern or network of roundabouts and roadways which are so ubiquitous now but so alien to the older ways of life, William said.
The exhibition features 19 established and emerging artists including: Cameron Bridgeman, David Bridgeman, John Broad, Kerri-Anne Chisholm, Randy Chollette, Chris Christian, Al Ebanks, Davin Ebanks, Kaitlyn Elphinstone, Kathryn Elphinstone, Latoya Francis, Bendel Hydes, John Reno Jackson, Iain MacRae, Chris Mann, Linda McCann, Brandon Saunders, Nasaria Suckoo Chollette, and Simon Tatum. It has been made possible by support from Davenport Development Ltd., along with several artworks generously being loaned by the Cayman Islands Museum, The Cayman Islands National Archives, and several private collectors.
81 Degrees West is now open to the public and admission to the Gallery and the exhibition is free. Opening times are Monday to Saturday 10:00am – 5:00pm.