George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Friday 6 July 2007
No.107: Antigua and Barbuda
Alex Horne - 6th July 2007
Now that I live in the countryside with fresh air and plenty of space on the pavement, I often wonder why so many people choose to live in London. Why, for example, would someone decide to move to the capital from somewhere as tranquil as Antigua and Barbuda?
Rachel is an artist. She recently got her degree in Fine Art from the London College of Art and we met for a cup of tea (her idea and my first of the project, surprisingly) on Tottenham Court Road, a place that certainly doesn’t have either of the two qualities mentioned in the first sentence.
She showed me pictures of her work. I’m no art connoisseur so excuse this layman’s description but they are physical pieces; attractively rusting metal and stretched canvas (calica to be exact) combined and deliberately weathered with sea water to create three-dimensional works of art that you want to touch as well as gawp at.
Obviously you won’t really be able to picture them from that so imagine a sail, drawn tight across a metal bar and left in the sun by the sea for several years. Or some debris smoothed by tides, swept on to the shore and again, dried out by the sun. Those are the things they reminded me of. I liked them a lot and tried to tell her so but fear I sounded a little insincere. I think I said, ‘oh, they’re lovely’.
‘Are they to do with boats?’ I ventured. ‘A lot of people say that’, she replied, both rescuing me and making me wish I’d said something a bit more incisive and original.
She never really told me what they were actually meant to be. Maybe they’re not actually meant to be anything. You never know with art these days. Well, I never know. Each of the pieces is untitled (a classy touch in my eyes. I’d love to write an untitled book, song or film). But she did say that they definitely reflect her childhood in Antigua.
‘There’s no way I would have used salt water and rust without having grown up seeing it everywhere. It’s amazing – when I went out on the boat (her family used to ‘camp out’ on the sea all the time, she told me) and a towel flew into the sea, we’d dry it on the deck and it’d get as stiff as a board. There’s a reflection of that in there somewhere. And I’m interested in lines because of the waves on the ocean. Yes, a lot of it is to do with the ocean and where I’m from. Whatever art you do, it’s all about your personal journey, about you and who you are. Well, that’s the case for me anyway.’
I asked her if Antigua is as idyllic as I imagined. ‘Oh yes’, she said. ‘My room is on stilts. Everything is open and outside. When we have hurricanes we have to bring everything in – the table, tv, chairs, everything’. Even the storms sound fun! ‘You wouldn’t believe how much I miss it – the weather, the atmosphere, my friends – just going to someone’s house and chatting about boys…’
Rachel first left the island aged sixteen to do her A-Levels and an Art Foundation course in Farnham. It didn’t go very well. For two years she tried to be a dancer instead. But then she sprained her ankle went back to art, unexpectedly ready to take it more seriously.
Although at first, she told me, she didn’t know quite what to make of her degree. ‘It was 20% thesis, 80% practical, and ultimately all you had to do was create two pieces of work in three years. It was incredibly independent. But that’s why it was great in the end. They just fed us names of all these artists and we had to react. If you want to make it as an artist you have to push yourself our there.’
I told her what Antonio from El Salvador had told me about London’s uniquely eclectic design scene, generated by the city’s exceptional cultural mix. She said it was the same with art. ‘My mum runs an art gallery in Antigua and all the stuff is pretty similar. It’s all beautiful. Things you’d put up in your house, lovely stuff. But everything here is so different and varied.’
‘Like your stuff’, I said crudely. ‘You couldn’t put that up in your house. Unless you had an enormous house. I mean - you couldn’t put it up because it’s big, not because it’s not beautiful. I do really like it. It’s great. But it’s bulky. You couldn’t get it in my house. But I wish I could. It’s really nice…’ This went on for some time.
Luckily, Rachel didn’t really need my approval. Just last week she’d been invited to display her work in the Barbican and had come for tea with me today straight from a meeting with her new ‘employers’. It’s a huge opportunity. She’ll be a part of a major exhibition opening in October. And she was tingling with excitement.
‘I miss my friends. I don’t have many good friends here. I grew up with them in Antigua. There your friends are everywhere. And the rest of my family are there too. But with all of this going on here I think I might just stay in London a while longer. There are just so many opportunities.’
And I guess that’s why people decide to come to the capital from somewhere as tranquil as Antigua and Barbuda.