Artist Statement

I see my art practice as an investigative tool, as a way to engage in dialogue, a platform for thinking and a means to develop knowledge. My work has evolved from figurative and symbolic explorations in painting to a variety of modes that include drawing, video, performance, installation and public intervention projects. Therefore, the emphasis of my work does not lie in the medium, but in creating a space to explore social contexts and collective narratives. History, film, soap-operas, fairy-tales and mythology all inform my work in that they are both narrative modes that I use as well as sites of investigation. I look for the narratives inscribed in various objects and places and find ways to add to them and at times subvert them. Because I live in the Virgin Islands, a place that has changed colonial hands seven times, the longest being Denmark and the last being the United States, I am particularly interested in the colonial and neocolonial narrative and how it shapes identity, memory and reality. (return to website)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Press: ON THE POLITIKEN ARTICLE THAT CAME OUT ON MARCH 9, 2017

On Thursday, March 9, 2017 just a day before my exhibition, "Ledgers From A Lost Kingdom" opened in Copenhagen, this article appeared in the Danish newspaper "Politiken". The reporter had interviewed me on the Monday, March 6. It was a unique interview. I quickly realized that the angle would be around the Centennial of the sale and transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the US. She had been writing about these issues over a year and a half she told me. However, this particular interview was very different. We had as you could say "a moment" and it's captured pretty well in the article. Below is the article as it appeared in print in DANISH the ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

However it is the impact the article had and the overwhelming response that it received that was truly a surprise. Since it's print I have received dozens of messages, emails and even personal apologies. There were several people who came to the opening to embrace me and apologize.  I even witnessed my first hate blog post about me. It seemed that the tone of the article and the timing penetrated something in the Danish collective consciousness. Of course I wished that the interviewer focussed a bit more on my art, however I realized that the reason she was interviewing me was because of my art. It's what gave me the platform to speak, so I am grateful. It was a very Danish framing of the article, this question of whether or not they should apologize for their colonial endeavor of slavery. For me as is discussed in the article my response if very measured: an apology is appropriate. In the context of our conversation I spoke first about people in the Caribbean reckoning with how they got there, understanding the history that placed us in these islands in the Atlantic ocean. I describe when that process started happening for me as a young girl and the pain that understanding brought. I also say that everyone needs to have this process of reckoning in how they played a part as a part of the healing process. This is where the reporter questioned me if everyone should apologize, to which I answer yes, as everyone needs to participate in this reckoning. I was concerned when I saw the title of the article- "Artist from St. Croix to the Danes: Indeed, I believe everybody should give an apology"- taken out of the context of our conversation I knew when I said that it would be controversial, or at least perceived as such. However, the reporter does a good job of putting it back inside the context of our conversation. So of course it got many people to read the article and then I believe allowed them to participate in the conversation with us. It's really something to read.




ENGLISH



Article from Danish newspaper Politiken
Artist from St. Croix to the Danes: Indeed, I believe everybody should give an apology
Denmark should do away with its ' colonial loss of memory ' and its slave past, the artist La Vaughn Belle from St. Croix believes, who now opens a solo exhibition in Copenhagen. It is necessary for us to heal past traumas, she says. Otherwise are allowed to affect the present.

CULTURE 9. MAR. 2017 AT 09.40.

After heavy rains they come up. Of the ground, on the beach, in the gutter. Old shards of white porcelain with blue flowers. Small blue fluted china relics of the colonial era, from the days when the three Caribbean Islands Saint Croix, Saint Thomas and Saint John were under the Danish colonial rule.

The broken fragments are what is left of the fine china, Danish plantation owners from the end of the 1700-century, had sailed to their big houses on sugar plantations, so they could eat in style, while slave-made women, men and children toiled in the fields outside. In brutal, inhumane conditions.

The local people call the fragments chaney  – a mixture of china and money, for previously children in the islands collected china fragments and used them as play money.

LEDGERS FROM A LOST KINGDOM
The exhibition ' Ledgers From a Lost Kingdom ' by La Vaughn Belle opens Friday March 10.
It can be seen in the exhibition house Meter, Henrik Rung's Street 25, CPH. up to 17. June

So the artist La Vaughn Belle tells, who lives on Saint Croix, and which she uses in her art.

“They are everywhere. And it is an interesting metaphor of colonization. Small stories that continue to return. As if they never intend to disappear”.

La Vaughn Belle is in Denmark to prepare for her solo exhibition ' Ledgers From a Lost Kingdom ', which opens tomorrow at the exhibition house Meter at Nørrebro (Copenhagen). She is also to participate in several other exhibitions, events and debates in the context of the 100th anniversary of the sale of Danish West Indies to the United States, and now she and I are sitting in a white-painted workspace in the National Workshops for Arts, which she has been given access to.

This is the third time La Vaughn Belle is in Denmark. And the three stays have given her the experience of a country which is still marked by colonial ways of thinking.

Unlike you, we do not have the opportunity to forget the 250 years since the Islands were Danish colony. That time affects every aspect of our lives

La Vaughn Belle believes that all Danes should take a reckoning with the past. She does not demand anyone, but she thinks it would be appropriate if we give an apology for Denmark's participation in slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean.

In her art, La Vaughn Belle is fascinated by how colonial tools and structures can be transformed, so that they can be used in resistance, she says.

“China is a symbol of wealth. The rebels went into the big houses and smashed the china and all the fine things that plantation owners had bought for money they had earned on the slave-made’s work. So, that narrative is in it as well“.

Around her neck hangs a necklace with a pendant of silver and wood. It is a knife like those the slave-made field workers used to chop sugar cane with in the plantations. And which at the same time were the knives, the slave-made workers used as weapons, when they resisted.

The first time La Vaughn Belle was in Denmark, in 2008, she visited the Royal Copenhagen's House in the main pedestrian street in Copenhagen. Here she found a chronological exhibition of historic china plates that went all the way back to the 1700 's.

Photo: Jens Dresling
La Vaughn Belle in her art has used the small pieces of colonial china that pop out of the ground on The U.S. Virgin Islands after a downpour.

 At that moment I understood that these pieces of china, which I had known since my childhood in the 1980’s on Saint Croix, were pieces of a larger story. It was an overwhelming experience, and it made me think about how we in the Caribbean have neither access to our full African, European or indigenous people’s identity. What we have are fragments. Which we have had to put together in order to create a new society “.

At the exhibition, La Vaughn Belles shows works that are arising out of the idea of how to create alternative ways to document history. When Denmark sold the colony of Danish West Indies to the United States in 1917, we took all of our documents with us.

“ Our archives were taken. My art works are counter archives, alternative ways to remember. Which also document the things in history that have been suppressed in the colonial archives, for example, the stories of resistance “.

Danish Colonial mindset

During her three visits to Denmark, it has shocked La Vaughn Belle, how little the Danes know about the time when we were colonial masters in the Caribbean. We suffer as a nation from a “ colonial loss of memory “, she says.

» When I meet people, and tell that I am from Saint Croix, there are many who do not even know what it is. You do not know of the history “, she said.

And it is not only with ordinary Danes, she is experiencing memory loss. Also, the institutions fail, she says.

“ The first time I was at the National Museum, I was actually shocked. It is, of course, where you are telling your national history. And then you put in 250 years of history in three small cabinets? This is really a part of history, you are failing to relate to “.

Last year Videnskab.dk made an April fool, where the magazine wrote that due to a special clause on sales treaty Denmark would be able to buy Danish West Indies back in the context of the 100-year of sales to the United States. As is this year.

“ When I was in Denmark last summer, several people were referring to that April fool and said: “ I believe in fact that we intend to buy you back. “ They had bought the joke, thought it was true, La Vaughn Belle says.

“ I had it like this: Sorry, buy who Who is it you intend to buy? However, what would justify you to do that? The impudence, the arrogance, the superiority, it is an expression of, it is really insulting. It showed me how many Danes are still marked by a colonial mindset. Otherwise it would be impossible to think like that “.

Last Friday, La Vaughn Belle attended a debate, which among other things was about immigration and integration in Denmark. It was a revelation for her, she says.

“ I could understand from the debate that many in Denmark believe integration is all about that the people who come here, must be just like you. They must adapt to you. It is a mindset that is centered around the Danish culture as superior. But listen, a meeting between people goes both ways. When you and I are sitting here facing each other, we should move each other .

The rebels went into the big houses and smashed china and all the fine things

The realization of the slave era

La Vaughn Belle thinks it would be good for all Danish citizens to visit the Islands in the Caribbean, where she lives.

“ Unlike you, we do not have the opportunity to forget the 250 years when the islands were Danish colony. That time affects every aspect of our lives. The history is impossible to forget. From the Danish names of towns, to when you are down at the beach and looking up sugar plantations, lying as ruins “, she says.

“ And we are still colonial citizens. We are Americans, but not real Americans. My children are in elementary school, where they learn more about American history than of the Virgin Islands ' own history. We have inherited a colonial political system that works poorly, and which makes it hard to improve things. There are so many aspects of our society that do not function “.

During the first visit in Denmark, it was a very different society, which met her.
“ I thought: Whoa, wait, everything is working here! The health care system, education system, your transportation system. The Western countries have exploited resources all over the world and been able to build a very comfortable society. And at the same time, I experience this unwillingness to acknowledge how you came here. It was not just your work, it was several hundred years of subjugation and exploitation of other people and their resources “.

What La Vaughn Belle experiences as a colonial loss of memory and displacement, testifies of a country that is far from the Denmark, we want to see us as, she says.
“ Denmark is projecting an image of itself as a progressive country, a country of science and a fair country. You have a conviction that you as a nation do things because it's the right thing to do. But would it then not be the right thing to recognize that you have harmed someone in the past? “.

La Vaughn Belle understood herself for the first time, that she was a descendant of slave-made Africans when she as a 12-year-old read the book ' Roots ' by Alex Haley.

“ That book made me understand why my family was landed here in the Caribbean. And it was a sorrow to me. I cried, so my eyes were about trundle out of the head of me while I was thinking about the men and women before me who have been alienated and disenfranchised slaves. 
I could feel their pain. A pain, I did not know was in me '.
The world of whiteness

Her parents did not speak about slavery when she was a child and grew up in Saint Croix, where her parents had moved to from Trinidad and Tobago, when she was quite small. But at school, she had a teacher, a white American who drew the narrow space on the floor in which the slaves were assigned on board slave ships from Africa. Then he asked the children to lie down, shoulder to shoulder, and just notice the room. And then imagine how it would be to lie there for several months without being able to move. The experience set out in her as a profound realization.

Although La Vaughn Belle has dealt extensively with colonization and racism, through her yearlong practise with art, her own daughters of 8, 6 and 4 are still influenced by the past, she says. The family lives in a suburb of Christiansted on Saint Croix, in an area where there are the greatest number of black residents. Anyway, she has experienced that the daughters have wept over their curly hair.

“ Those are some of the things you go through as a black child. You want, that your nose is different, that your skin is light, that your body is different. We internalize the hierarchy between the races, which was established in the past. And when I see my daughters think like that – it is so hard for me “.

In the same way as La Vaughn Belle as being an artist herself has delved down into history, she believes that the Danes have a need to face our past as slave owners right into our eyes. 

“ I mean, of course, that the Danish Government must apologize for slavery and colonialism. It is in its place. But, then, I believe, in fact, everybody should say sorry. I believe everyone should make it work inside themselves so past trauma can be healed, and the present can be free from them “.

A lot of people think that we should not say we are sorry for something that happened many years ago.

“ No, but that is, because they cannot see, that the colonial times are still impacting the world , we live in. With its injustices and odd structures. The world is centred around whiteness and western culture. Still. And you are in need of healing too. Because it is the same brutal mindset, which can make possible the brutality of slavery, that, is impacting your relationship to immigrants today, I believe. That is how I see it.” she says. 

“ Denmark carried out some actions in the past, that were really harmful. And which are still causing harm. The natural is to apologize. “

Okay. Then I wish to say I am sorry to you, while we are sitting here. I wish to say that I am sorry for Denmark’s participation in slavery and the slave trade.

La Vaughn Belle is looking down at the table that is between us. Then she says quietly:
“ I accept your apology. “

After that the atmosphere is changed. 

Do you think it is contributing to heal our mutual historical past, that I said, that I am sorry?

“ You know what ? I have actually never experienced before that someone did that directly to me. “

It was not something , I had prepared myself to. 

“ Yes I believe this is contributing to bring healing. Actually, it felt like a sincere recognition. It became as a stage with you and me here. I felt that you had listened to that which I had to say - and that you could see the pain, I have talked about. Because I could see the same pain in your eyes. And I believe that is the encounters we need in order to change things.” Says La Vaughn Belle. 

Listen up, when my daughter is looking out into the world she asks me: " Mummy, why do they never show pictures of people who look like me? " She wants to be a model and cannot see anyone who has curly hair like hers. What answer can I give her? It is because they do not think that you are beautiful? That I cannot say to her, she is 8 years-old. But I do not have to tell her that, because she knows that. 

While we have been talking the sherds from a handful of blue-white chaney have been laying at the table. Like small stories of a past, that keeps popping up.

La 
Vaughn Belle sighs.

When people say colonialism is something of the past, I say: “ Excuse me, but have you looked out into the world? It is the same structures we are living under today. On both sides. “

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