|La Vaughn Belle in her studio in Christiansted, St. Croix, photo by Wyatt Gallery|
"Day three involved a tour through a small vernacular cottage in Free Gut, a part of Christiansted where free Africans lived during Dutch colonial times. The space is owned by Tobago-born artist La Vaughn Belle and will be featured in her forthcoming documentary, The House that Freedom Built. The small cottage, a work of art as much as a work in progress, was serving as a quaint studio for Belle. The small abode stood in stark contrast to the previous evening’s Mango Hill Greathouse. There was no concerted follow up discussion regarding the polarized nature of the two locations or how the island remains economically polarized, while serving as a clear microcosm for wealth disparity in America; perhaps because it’s only appropriate to deconstruct the nature of white privilege when you’re not directly enjoying the fruits of it.
Since 2011, Belle has been uncovering the complex and tumultuous history of the small cottages and is quite vocal about the prevailing obstacles in place for black members of the Caribbean community to take out bank loans in order to purchase land and property. Much of the funding for her artwork and the documentary comes from various artist grants. It should also be noted that Belle had to personally contend with a deeply embedded drug addict who had been squatting there, even weeks after she officially owned the space. I found her compassionate tone regarding his removal and ultimate fate to be quite touching. Once Belle was able to enter and fully evaluate the amount of work that was needed to bring the space up to code, a new, ongoing internal conflict developed for the artist concerning the erosion of the house’s original architecture and the need to replace it with new materials not directly linked to its historical roots.
Belle walked us through a series of unfinished paintings featuring zoomed-in images of the blue patterns often found on “chaney,” a Virgin Island slang term for fragments of European fine china, unearthed in the dirt by children who would use the fragments as faux money (china+money=chaney). Belle has become so fascinated with these fossilized artifacts of fractured European decadence that she traveled to Denmark to examine the country’s preserved collection of colonial fine china, dating back to the 17th century. She was flatly denied permission to see the china, as major institutions are not always enthusiastic about exhuming their various skeletons, however pretty they may be.
One of Belle’s more impactful pieces was a sculpture featuring various fossilized fragments of the surrounding coral reef, which slaves and eventually free men, bloody feet and all, would use for the foundations of their Free Gut housing. The gray coral was piled and encased in a see-through Plexiglas pedestal. Belle’s studio visit fell directly on the heels of our “Harvard erected by slaves” discussion in the van. This unassuming work, inside this humble structure, illustrated the idea, and rather powerfully, that no matter how far we thrust into the future as a collective Western society and bury our transgressions in the past; we must push ourselves to fully comprehend, as transparently as possible, both the real and metaphorical foundations of our homes, communities, and institutions, whether they be academic, economic, or governmental. Despite Belle’s hospitality, and perhaps due to her extensive and ever-flowing knowledge regarding the space’s history and her warm but penetrating eyes, the walls started to creep in on me, and I had to step outside and take five with the island’s numerous little lizards. "
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