Saturday, April 27, 2024

SOLO EXHIBITION: Even so, there is a terror in the air


APRIL 27 - JUNE 8, 2024


RECEPTION & DIALOGUE: Saturday, April 27, 5 - 7:30 PM.
DIALOGUE | 5 - 5:30 PM.


Even so, there is a terror in the air marks the first solo exhibition of La Vaughn Belle at Pentimenti Gallery. 

La Vaughn Belle embarks on a journey to reimagine the Caribbean landscape in the aftermath of catastrophic histories. At the heart of this exhibition, La Vaughn presents her ongoing series of collage works on paper titled Storm (How to Imagine The Tropicalia as Monumental). Drawing inspiration from the relentless forces of hurricanes, seas, and lands, Belle transcends the notion of destruction to embrace the regenerative potential of these natural phenomena. Through salvaged materials from her storm-ravaged studio, Belle weaves together torn fragments to evoke the resilience and tenacity of Caribbean inhabitants. This series serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of the region, inviting viewers to contemplate new geographies.

Additionally, Belle presents her compelling series Swarm, which delves into the archives of the Danish West Indies. La Vaughn alters the photographs by making hundreds of cuts and burns. The amorphous interventions bend the time and space of staged and constructed images during the colonial era. Her marks disrupt the conventional narratives of social status and wealth represented through the imagery.

La Vaughn Belle's Even so, there is a terror in the air exhibition challenges viewers to confront the complexities of history, nature, and memory. Through a rigorous interrogation of the past and a visionary exploration of alternative futures, Belle extends a compelling invitation to engage with the current dynamic and process of decolonization. 

La Vaughn Belle received her BA and MA from Columbia University, New York, NY. She received her MFA from the Instituto Superior de Arte, Havana, Cuba. She has exhibited her work in museums and institutions such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA; Museo del Barrio New York, NY; Casa de las Americas Havana, Cuba; the Museum of the African Diaspora San Francisco, CA; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark; and more. Her art is in the collections of the National Photography Museum Copenhagen, Denmark; Vestsjælland Museum, Denmark; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt, Germany; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond, VA. She has received numerous grants and awards including the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, 2019, and the Danish Arts Council Project Distinction Award, 2023.

For all inquiries, please contact us at or +1 215.625.9990.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Interview: Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts

This is an interesting interview for many reasons. I talk about my journey to becoming an artist, what excites me about my practice and about the work in the show "Masterclass" at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts in St. Croix that ran in March 2023. The interview has some wonderful detail shots of my work in the show, Storm (how to imagine the tropicalia as monumental-as in a lament). 

I don't often talk about career lows. To be honest I didn't even like being asked that question and kept trying to reframe it. I'm sensitive to ways that artists and Black women are put in positions to perform struggle.  I knew the interviewer that was hired by the musuem quite well as we worked on my TV show Artist See Artist Do together, so I felt pretty comfortable pushing back on the some of the questions that were asked. In the end, and perhaps because of our rapport, I answered the question with the vulnerability it inspired even though at first I rejected it. 

Sunday, April 30, 2023

La Vaughn Belle, Constructed Manumission, 2017; handmade wooden houses; installation at meter, Copenhagen; courtesy of the artist, Photo credit: I Do Art 

 Excited to share some new scholarship about my work by Julia Micho Hori for the Avery Review. She puts my work in conversation with works by Hew Locke and Kara Walker in a brilliant essay entitled, "Caribbean Counter-Monuments: A Visual History of Dissent".

TWO: Incendiary Architecture

We learn that we have ancestors that we can talk to. We learn that they can talk back and guide us. We learn too that there are systems that must be burned or destroyed.9
—La Vaughn Belle

"La Vaughn Belle is a US Virgin Islands–based artist who draws on the fictions and frictions of a variety of forms within a broad colonial materiality: architecture, furniture, pottery, archival documents, photographs, and paintings. Belle has worked within the genre of more conventional monumental forms, as exemplified in her collaborative project with Danish-Trinidadian artist Jeannette Ehlers, I Am Queen Mary (2018). This 23-foot-tall statue of Mary Thomas—leader of the 1878 St. Croix labor riot and notably the subject of the first public monument of a Black woman in Denmark—depicts her on a massive stone plinth, seated on a throne. She wields a torch in one hand and a cane knife in the other, memorializing the transformation of these tools of labor into instruments of rebellion. First exhibited at the Copenhagen Workers’ Museum and now installed outside the city’s former Danish West Indian Warehouse, the figure is poised to cut and burn, illuminating the ways in which monuments silently instrumentalize power.

I Am Queen Mary contributes to a rich transatlantic dialogue with the visual and material archives of slavery and global Black liberation. The statue’s composition and instruments draw inspiration from (and give further dimension to) the iconic 1968 portrait of Black Panther Huey P. Newton seated in a rattan peacock throne, wielding a shotgun and a spear. The coral stone of the plinth, set and framed in concrete, lays bare both the historical depths of the enslaved labor that extracted it from marine deposits to build empires and the supposed neutrality of the pedestal as a formal convention of monumental display. With these gestures, I am Queen Mary unsettles and undermines the monumental tropes it utilizes.

In a contrasting approach to the same historical event, Belle’s Constructed Manumissions(2017) employs a set of several small, hollow, foundationless wooden structures that exist precariously between scaffolding and houses. These pale forms exhibit the ornate building embellishments made popular in in the town of Frederiksted, St. Croix, during its reconstruction after the labor revolt of 1878. During the uprising, in which plantation workers protested deplorable wages and working conditions, nearly 100 people were killed and 50 plantation houses burned to the ground. Almost 900 acres of sugarcane were destroyed. Caught between dual processes of destruction and unfinished regeneration in space and in memory, these storied structures thus commemorate the revolt. They also reference the designs of working-class and free Black communities who negotiated their freedom in the colonial era through the cultivation of sovereign domestic space yet remained aware of the need for mobility as a survival strategy.

Resisting the durability of the chosen materials and construction associated with conventional historical monuments, these small wooden structures memorialize itinerancy and impermanence. Made without frames or glue, they are held together with small metal pins and their own weight, representing autonomy and fragility at once. Their capacity to endure rests on a continuous cycle of disassembly and restoration. They are also constructed entirely from the fretwork designs ordinarily featured as architectural ornament (e.g., roof gables); here, the embellishments form the structure itself, “standing alone” as substantive and self-sufficient manifestations of imagination, planning, and technique. At the same time, the negative space between the ornate planks evokes the houses’ uninhabitability; their shelter is provisional, bordering on precarious.

In these terms, Constructed Manumissions also spatializes the promissory note of manumission, in which the enslaver was empowered to grant some individuals freedom without challenging the governing premise of slavery. Manumission was a means for advocates and beneficiaries of slavery to manage the public optics of the plantation’s ruling racial economy in the name of mutuality and respect. Belle’s piece reveals the hollowness of this gesture—a house that cannot shelter from the institutional superstructure of slavery is not an inhabitable reality but merely an ornament.

In another series, titled Cuts and Burns, she extends her dialogue with architectural fretwork as encoded language in the built world, employing the ornaments as stencils to burn ghostly inscriptions onto scrolls of paper. This material testimony recalls the agricultural techniques of the machete and the fire used to cut cane and burn its waste in the process of rum and sugar production, here reappropriated as tools of resistance. Written methodically in ash, the scrolls record the uprisings of the unfree not as reactive, randomized eruptions of violence in the landscape but as collectively organized systems of dissent. Resembling the ebb and flow of waves, the markings move in many directions and though contained in a pattern, they record many irregularities, emphasizing the particular within the collective.

From a distance, the long scroll reads like an official ledger, contract, or declaration, with each hole recording an absent presence in the archive. Up close, populated with scorched clusters of orderly violence, the holes mimic the tomblike blueprint of the slave ship—one of the most widely deployed abolitionist images circulated among Whites to give form to the unimaginable conditions endured by enslaved captives. While powerful, such representations also teeter uncomfortably at the edge of violence as spectacle. Perhaps responding to the dehumanizing dangers of this kind of display, the replacement of drawn bodies with etched burn marks sets fire to the archive of slavery. Bereft of the voices of the enslaved, the burn marks reconstitute the archive as a corpus of present absences. Placing these surfaces under the microscope and enlarging their gestures, patterns, and narrative capacities, Belle’s incendiary architectures reimagine the edifices, instruments, and testimonies of Black survival and protest. The multiply coded fretwork necessitates the close reading of the built world—passages in both space and historical narrative."

To read the full article on Avery Review please see the link.

Friday, October 28, 2022

There is a part of my artist bio I rarely share, but should.

There is a part of my artist bio I rarely share, but should. My father was a priest. I don’t always know how that word translates to others. Perhaps you have images of a stoic man in dark robes. Maybe you think of a man shouting behind a cast of soulful singers. Maybe you imagine that I grew up very restricted and that my father was closed-minded or dogmatic. In artist bios we often start off talking about what our work is about, the media we work in, where we went to school, where our work has been shown and written about. We often leave out our personal lives and histories even though these will often tell you more about what kind of artist I am and why I make the work I do.

I spoke at Wagner University this week. It is a breathtakingly beautiful campus overlooking a body of water in NYC that houses one of the most famous statues in the world-the Statue of Liberty. I had to cross over to the borough called Staten Island in a ferry that glided so smoothly on the river’s surface that at times I wasn’t sure it was moving. I saw wild turkeys for the first time. They, like many animals during the pandemic, had a chance to repopulate during the years humans locked themselves inside. They now make regular group appearances. I am told a cluster came close to the window behind me during my talk. After seeing them up close I have decided that they are beautiful stately birds and I’m uncertain why we eat them. It feels a bit like we are eating peacocks. 

At Wagner I gave a fuller version of my talk, “How to Escape Colonial Nostalgia”. After the lecture there was a line of students who waited to talk with me. It was the first time this has happened.  Later, one of the professors who attended the lecture via Zoom called her colleague that invited me to share that she thought my talk was the best artist talk she had ever listened to. Sharing this may sound a bit like bragging, but here is where I want to bring back my father.  I want you to know this part of my artist bio. My father was a gifted priest which means he was a gifted storyteller. He knew how to light up the characters in the Bible by connecting them to the stories of his own life and the lives of people in the community. He read the Bible in the original languages and studied the ways it was put together and transmuted throughout the years. He could be stoic and did have a booming baritone voice, but he was also the kind of priest that would slap dominoes on a table while drinking rum. He was riveting.

He was a weaver of tales. I knew this before I was even born, because I heard his sermons from the belly of my mother as she sat in the pews listening to him deliver the sermons she sometimes helped him write or transcribe.  I am told that my grandfather, my father’s father, also preached at times even though he was mostly a carpenter. I share this because we come from lines. I share this as a reminder that we all are a living accumulation of ghosts. I am honored that I can continue the oratorical traditions of my family and that during my artist talks I can light up my work with the stories of how they came to be, how they connect to the past, our sense of place and self. I’ll be speaking again at a class at Pace University and a public conversation with Dr. Erica Johnson on Thursday, October 27th at 7pm at the Scandinavian House. If you are in NY I would be delighted by your attendance. If you work for an institution that is in a position to invite me to speak here is a link to a.pdf you can share to begin that process.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Por El Viento y La Corriente (Becoming Wind and Current)



Por el Viento y La Corriente (Becoming Wind and Current) is a site specific project developed by La Vaughn Belle (b. Tobago, 1974. Lives in Christiansted, St. Croix. USVI) in Loíza as the result of research linking a history of maritime marronage of the hundreds of enslaved Africans who fled the island of St. Croix by creating dugout canoes or hijacking ships in their search for freedom. The title stems from the words of the governor of the then Danish West Indies in the early 1800's commenting on the northern trade winds and the ocean current that assisted those escaping to Puerto Rico by sea. Among the results of the project are this installation created with floating coconuts whose shape takes inspiration from descriptions of the physical tribal markings bore by fugitives who escaped bondage included in advertisements seeking their return as property. These markings, scars that reflected a cultural identity and heritage, are a lasting reminder of the uncrushable spirit of these freedom-seeking people. The coconuts, as the raw material for the sculpture, evoke the equally maritime migration of this plant, which originates in the Indian subcontinent, and was introduced to the Caribbean by Europeans in the 16th century, as well as its culinary, artisanal, and spiritual aspects. This sculpture is installed amongst mangroves, a natural sanctuary that was historically used as a maroon route. The piece is conceived as an offering to this history and those men and women.

Another aspect of the project consists of a video art piece that serves as a poetic investigation on the history of marronage and its implications today. Commissioned by MAC en el Barrio, a program of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, in collaboration with COPI (Coorporación Piñones se Integra, Inc.).

Friday, February 14, 2020

VISCO (Virgin Islands Studies Collective) co-authored article on the Queens of the Fireburn

This article is written in what can be described as the “post centennial” era, post 2017, the year marked by the 100th anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States. 2017 marked a shift in the conversation around and between Denmark
and its former colonies in the Caribbean, most notably the increasing access of Virgin Islanders to the millions of archival records that remain stored in Denmark as they began to emerge in online databases and temporarily in exhibitions. That year the Virgin Islands Studies Collective, a group of four women (La Vaughn Belle, Tami Navarro, Hadiya Sewer and Tiphanie Yanique) from the Virgin Islands and from various disciplinary backgrounds, also emerged with an intention to center not only the archive, but also archival access and the nuances of archival interpretation and intervention. This collaborative essay, Ancestral Queendom: Reflections on the Prison Record of the Rebel Queens of the 1878 Fireburn in St. Croix, USVI (formerly known as the Danish West Indies), is a direct engagement with the archives and archival production. Each member responds to one of the prison records of the four women taken to Denmark for their participation in the largest revolt in Danish colonial history. Their reflections combine elements of speculation, fiction, black feminist theory and critique as modes of responding to the gaps and silences in the archive, as well as fining new questions to be asked.
in the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. Their reflections combin
e elements of speculation, fiction,
black feminitist theory and critique as modes of responding to the gaps and silences in the archive, as well as
finding new questions to be ask

See promo video below:

Here is a sample from my section of the article. I felt like I was the last leg on a relay team that comprised of the dream team. #ironsharpeniron

  1. A Queen by Another Name: Susanna Abrahamson aka Bottom Belly
I Am My Own Empire: Susanna Abrahamson aka Bottom Belly 
Queen Susannah and the Bottomless Imaginary of a Black Queen
Queen Susannah and the Bottomless Imperial Imaginations of a Black Queen
La Vaughn Belle

My mother named me after a queen. She told me she had seen the name of a carnival queen in a newspaper in Trinidad and had liked it. I had forgotten to ask her if she had seen the name and held on to it, claiming it from then to be mine. Was I in her belly yet? Was I even a thought yet? Were there qualities about this queen she hoped I would embody? Or was it just the name, it’s look and it’s sound that drew her to place it upon me? My mother is no longer here for me to ask her these questions and it didn’t occur to me until much later in life that these were questions I might have even wanted answered. Hence this compact story of how I got my queen name was something I did not always know. But what I did learn very early on growing up in the Virgin Islands, first on St. Thomas and later on St. Croix, is that our queens were different from the ones in storybooks that lived in castles. Those queens were born. Our queens are made. Whether they be queens of pageants, carnivals, labor revolts or slave rebellions, through your own fashioning, determination, your own work and imagination you could lead yourself into a realm and become the kind of queen that was impossible to dethrone and impervious to invasion. Our queen means: you are your own empire. You rule yourself, your body, your destiny and even when that wasn’t entirely true due to history and circumstance, you believed it to be true, you moved as if it were true because you understood that life is the realm of fiction anyway.