La Vaughn Belle is best known for working with the coloniality of the Virgin Islands, both in its past relationship to Denmark and its present one with the United States. She works in a variety of disciplines that include: painting, installation, photography, video and public interventions. Borrowing from elements of architecture, history and archeology Belle creates narratives that challenge colonial hierarchies and invisibility. She has exhibited her work in the Caribbean, the USA and Europe in institutions such as the Museo del Barrio (NY), Casa de las Americas (Cuba), the Museum of the African Diaspora (CA) and Christiansborg Palace (DK). Her art is in the collections of the National Photography Museum and the Vestsjælland Museum in Denmark. Her work with colonial era pottery led to a commision with the renowned brand of porcelain products, the Royal Copenhagen. She is the co-creator of “I Am Queen Mary”, the artist-led groundbreaking monument that confronted the Danish colonial amnesia while commemorating the legacies of resistance of the African people who were brought to the former Danish West Indies. The project was featured in over 100 media outlets around the world including the NY Times, Politiken, VICE, the BBC and Le Monde. Belle holds a MFA from the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba and an MA and BA from Columbia University in NY. Her studio is based in the Virgin Islands.
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, painting, 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.
Michael: I am interested in the notion of counter narrative and counter archiving within your artistic practice. Much of your work interrogates the relationship between object and subject, and within much of these works, you include material objects such as pottery, patterns and stones to uncover various stories and subjectivities. How would you define your artistic practice, and can you speak more to this interplay between object and subject as a means to reinterpret various narratives and subjectivities within Caribbean history and storytelling?
La Vaughn: My artistic practice is first defined by a belief in art as a means to develop knowledge, a platform for thinking and a space to create dialogue. That being said, my work is also greatly defined by my positionality as an artist from the Caribbean and more specifically an artist living and working in the US Virgin Islands, a place that has changed colonial hands seven times, the longest being Denmark and the last being the United States. The Caribbean as a place has always been defined by this tension between object and subject struggling to redefine oneself against the European imaginary of “possession-ship”. As a part of this struggle we seek to belong to ourselves and project our own imaginary onto ourselves. My work tries to do this by looking first at the materiality of the colonial project- the buildings, the furniture, the pottery, the documents, the photographs, the paintings, etc.-and to reinterpret them based on my subjectivity. In that way my work usually involves a lot of research and various forms of narrative. This research will also dictate the form of the work, whether it be a sculpture, a painting, a plate or a photograph.
Michael: What do you mean by “redefining oneself against the European imaginary of ‘possession-ship’”?
La Vaughn: Well, we have always been looked at by Europe and to a large extent North America from a boldly proprietary nature. They often see the Caribbean as an imagined space in which one could exact their will. We are often viewed from a position of being a possession. This literally happened in the Virgin Islands where we were sold to the the United States in 1916 and then transferred in 1917. This was done without the consultation of the people living in the former Danish West Indies although Danish citizens got a chance to vote on what to do with us. They were citizens, we were possessions. We actually had no citizenship after the sale for 10 years. This has greatly impacted us both literally and symbolically, both historically and in present day.
(Excerpt from Visualizing Vocabularies of the Counter Archive: A Conversation with La Vaughn Belle By Michael K. Wilson October 2017, Interviewing the Caribbean)