I explore my experiences of growing up in post-independence Trinidad in the Sixties. This was a time of significant social change that saw the dismantling of old colonial structures and the removal of barriers for black and mixed-race people like myself. Alongside the civil rights movement in America, this moment saw the start of cultural reconstruction that expanded the rights of black people. These histories inform my identity and my art.
My practice is rooted in historical research that interrogates the complex legacies of colonialism. I have worked with sound, moving image and installations that incorporate a wide variety of evocative and symbolic materials such as sugar, blue soap, wood, beading, wallpaper and hessian bags.
Previously, I have examined vernacular architecture in relation to Caribbean and British history and the ways in which imperialist powers enforced their civilising project as a form of cultural subjugation. Primitive Matters: Huts, 2010, pairs small sculptures of ad-hoc, wooden houses against an imposing projected image of the ‘Magnificient Seven’, a series of large pseudo-European style homes previously occupied by religious leaders, wealthy merchants, and plantation owners. The work is typical of my approach, merging difficult and oppositional imagery to make an emotional and intellectual demand on the viewer.
In other installations I have incorporated Victorian wallpaper, which was often used to inculcate and market sound moral values to a mass audience. I use it to subvert and undermine its original intentions. Also, in White Shadows: Presence and Resistance, 2015, I expand on this exploration of enslavement and empire. It encompasses suspended casts made from sugar that recall Barbadian chattel houses. Over time, the sculptures deteriorate and lose their form, with the sugar dripping onto the floor. The image of these small movable houses recall the plantation era and the insecurity of their occupants. The work incorporates the imagery and material of slavery, invoking its violent memory and presenting it as an open wound.
The installation BLUE POWER, 2018, explores my childhood memory of the colour blue. From blue bottles on sticks spread throughout vegetable fields in Trinidad to Reckitts Blue, a blue soap used to wash white laundry, the colour is deeply symbolic in Carribean culture and is thought to ward off evil. Blue crops up in many myths and religious ceremonies. The installation — which takes the form of a memorial — explores the concept of protection and hope amid the current difficulties and drug problems that pervade the island.
This theme is further developed in the work through a mass of small paper origami boats that signal the desperation of migrants who continually risk their own lives to cross international waters. We see these stories unfold everyday on our screens and the installation speaks to these entangled frustrations.
Taken collectively, my practice merges historical narrative, memories, material and mythology to question the role of the artefact, encouraging audiences to create new interpretations. It asks the public to face the ongoing, and layered, colonialist traumas and its legacies.
Karen McLean lives and works in Birmingham, UK