This week’s Hot Seat features Deborah Jack, a St. Maartener whose interdisciplinary art has drawn attention to culture, climate change and colonialism. Her work connects to the Caribbean and modern-day issues. Read her inspiring story below.
Please introduce yourself and your work.
My name is Deborah Jack from Cole Bay. I am an interdisciplinary artist who works with photography, video and other materials. I work with multichannel video installations and other lens-based techniques to construct narratives or stories. I consider myself a conceptual artist, which means the ideas behind the work are equally as important as the technique, sometimes more. I focus on cultural memory, history and how that can be embodied by nature, the land and seascape. I also use satellite images of hurricanes,
Capturing nature and its ever-shifting meeting points opens up a transformative and redemptive space… an in-between, a place of liminal fluidity where I explore the notion of shores and coastlines – the physical edges of an actual and metaphoric island, much like the smaller Caribbean islands like St. Maarten where one is always aware of its edges.
The work is the result of my investigation of the tension that exists in spaces that are at once sites of trauma and sites of healing. I am intrigued by the concept of the “re-memory” (renewed or remembered memory) coined by the writer Toni Morrison, memory as a trigger and a means for exploring the dismembering of the histories, cultures, traditions, families, and personal memories of my community/self.
My overall art practice, which deals with cultural memory and narrative, has taken a more direct turn towards climate change, coastal erosion and the rise of Atlantic hurricanes. How climate change, environmental activism, and disaster economics have transformed themselves into what seems to me like colonialism in a new skin. These are some of the more pressing issues and questions facing St. Maarten and her relationship to the Netherlands, a country that is also vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. I use symbolism and metaphor to engage with types of subjects.
How did you get into the art world?
I got serious after I took classes in photography and painting while at college. At the time, you couldn’t get a scholarship to study art, so I majored in communications and took all my electives in art courses. In the ’90’s, I was a founding partner of AXUM in Philipsburg after working with Mosera in his art gallery. I took part in exhibitions like Art Invasion and even represented the island at CARIFESTA.
I felt like I had hit a dead end in terms of what I wanted to achieve, and so I left my job as a civil servant, in what is now DCOMM, and went to pursue my Master’s in Fine Art. I was awarded a Graduate assistantship at the University at Buffalo, which gave me teaching experience. After that, I was curated into a few exhibitions in the US and around the world and kept building from there.
Can you tell us more about your current exhibition and how the project came about?
Well, my most recent solo exhibition was a 20-year retrospective in New York City. Pen & Brush is a 128-year-old institution that is dedicated to supporting women artists. The curators reached out to me about staging this exhibit. They’d been watching my career through the years and believed in the work I was doing and wanted to put their support behind it. They did a lot of research and several studio visits where they looked at all the work I’d made in the past 25 years.
After that, we decided to focus on the past 20 years and the exhibition in this timeframe. It was an interesting and enlightening process, especially when they selected work that wasn’t what I had expected. They selected a few projects that hadn’t gotten a lot of exposure, and in some cases, they showed bodies of work that had been shown, and selected lesser known pieces from popular series.
In the case of my current group exhibition in NYC and an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the curators were familiar with my work and contacted me.
What is your favourite thing about your profession?
My favourite thing about my profession is conceptualising a new project and seeing where the images and ideas take me; what I learn when researching some aspects of new work. I also enjoy filming and editing. I’m usually out in nature – and that is always a satisfying feeling.
How does your Caribbean background influence your work?
It is a very strong influence. The images and the theories supporting my work are inspired by great Caribbean thinkers, like George Lamming, Kamau Braithewaite and Glissant. The geography of the Caribbean Archipelago, the sea floor and the topography of the islands are central to my practice. I see the archipelago as a counter to continental thinking, which to me is landlocked and tied to a fixed way of thinking. This functions differently to the fluidity of our islands, as our relationship to the land is tied to the sea.
How does your work relate to modern-day issues?
Well, since I work with hurricanes as a symbol a lot in my work, this leads to a direct connection to climate change. To me, there isn’t a more pressing modern-day issue. It is an existential issue for our region, and so my work is looking at those shared vulnerabilities we all have in the planet. So much of this is tied to our history of the exploitation of our natural resources which include human beings. So the residual effects of this in this region manifests in more powerful hurricanes which are fuelled by a warming planet.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from the history of St. Maarten as well as her present. I read a lot and believe in being constantly curious. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to know more about everything. I grew up with encyclopaedias – and in a time before 24-hour cable channels – I would page through them. Right now, I’m looking at black holes and looking at research around storm surge. These things are scientific, but for me the fun part is thinking outside the box and coming up with narratives around them that expand our understanding of what’s around us.
What would you advise your younger self or other people looking to get into a similar profession?
I would tell my younger self to maybe be a bit more confident or better at expressing that confidence. I think I was confident in what I wanted to do and was quietly stubborn about doing what I needed to do. Every time there was a setback or obstacle, I met it head-on and figured out a way to move around or through it.
I think that would be my advice as well to young artists. I would add that you cannot be afraid to fail. Stay curious and continue to push your craft and ideas. I think it is easy to be overconfident where you don’t think you have anything to learn. You must be willing to take steps back, take constructive criticism and move forward. You should never rest on your laurels – always keep pushing yourself.
I think in today’s culture, we can get caught up in “likes” – and work becomes a popularity contest. These don’t really mean much and do not help you grow. It leads to complacency and that is the enemy of progress. You are better off seeking actual mentors and people who aren’t going to stroke your ego.