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Olivia McGilchrist Talks Art, Artistry and Inspiration
Olivia McGilchrist returned to the island of her birth, Jamaica, in 2011 and since then her pursuit of an understanding of her identity has graffitied itself onto the Jamaican artistic landscape to great acclaim. In 2012 she was named the Under 40 Artist of the Year and recently copped the Best New Media prize in the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival 2013 for ‘Native Girl’ - which is included in the New Roots: 10 Emerging Artists exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica. She talks to Susumba about her art, artistry and inspiration.
Susumba: It’s a cliched question, so please forgive me, but when did you know you wanted to pursue art and did you ever reconsider that decision?
Olivia McGilchrist: It's clearer now than ever before that I want to focus on my work as an artist. In school, then art school, I drew, collaged and enthusiastically discovered the magic of the darkroom. Then it was video editing, and now large installations. It's been a gradual build-up with a few twists and turns, but all my other professional experiences have mainly proven useful.
The doubts and questions are incessant, and I also need to earn a living, but it's crystal clear now.
S: The Jamaican visual art scene seems to be particularly vibrant at present. What do you think kindled this energy as well as the greater interest in veering away from traditional art?
OM: The last few years here have been very interesting in terms of the diversity of work exhibited, but I have only been back since 2011 so it's hard for me to give a fair view on how this came to be. It does seem that many contemporary artists are much clearer about what they are saying or portraying through their work, across the different mediums. The economy might have something to do with it - and I mean worldwide. 'Non traditional' is a tricky term - but I do feel that artists are starting to question their mediums some more, yet maybe not always in sync with the audience locally.
S: Your current work projects the alter ego ‘Whitie’. Tell me about her and how does she differ from Olivia?
OM: I like your spelling of 'Whitey', it goes to show how little I still know about this character. She was created as a 'stand in' for me, but I'm still getting to know her. I can't tell you much more right now, but her presence in the work should hopefully be self-explanatory.
S: The River Mumma character has also come out of your work. Is she too an alter ego or does she represent a broadening of your interest in exploring femininity and identity in the Caribbean landscape?
OM: The last part of your question is the answer! She is definitely not an alter-ego, and I'm still learning about the many stories and symbols associated with her. Studying her is one of my approaches to better understand Jamaica today-as an artist and a feminist.
It seems that whether we want it to or not, when you live on an island, geography becomes particularly tied to identity, an idea that your work has explored.
I absolutely agree, the contrast between my perception of land & identity has shifted a lot since moving here from Europe, and London in particular. Yet I still know so little-and would love to spend much more time going around the island, speaking to more people and hearing all the untold stories about this fascinating spot.
S: Last year you were named Under 40 Artist of the Year. Was this a noteworthy point in your development as an artist?
OM: Yes, it was a pleasure to be encouraged for my work, and I also enjoyed the interaction with the other artists.
S: Do you have achievement goals for yourself and your art?
OM: My goal is to create the next piece, then the next, and the next, improving with each production and installation.
S: In 2012, you participated in the Film Focus as a part of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, do you see your art as a kind of documentary filmmaking?
OM: A very personal kind it would be. I'm inspired by documentary films and it was a great experience to attend the workshop last year, both in terms of the facilitators and the other participants. My productions tend to move into a dreamlike space very quickly though. This might change, but I can't say when.
S: How would you define inspiration and do you depend on it?
OM: Everything and nothing, it's so personal and subjective. Then I produce the work because it has to be done. Inspiration can feed itself- and daily life, average TV series and gleaned conversations in public spaces are always good.
S: What drew you to this combined installation of video art, photography and live performance that is now so prevalent in your work?
OM: The awe-inspiring effect, but then I sound conceited. I guess I would like to direct plays, operas, movies. Create a scene for life to unfold and then just let the viewer make up his/ her own mind about what is happening. Another space. A dream-space. We spend so much time awake, there is hardly any time to dream.
S: I’m not trying to get you into trouble, but if you had to name 5 - 10 visual artists (dead and contemporary) in the Caribbean whose works intrigue you, who would those be?
OM: Ebony G. Patterson, Marvin Bartley, Leasho Johnson, O'Neil Lawrence, Marlon James, Phillip Thomas, (Jamaica), Lavar Munroe (Bahamas), Manuel Matthieu (Haiti), Michele Isava, Rodell Warner (both Trinidad) are all my conteporaries (and I know most all of them apart from Lavar Munroe)
There are many others, but if you take just one from Jamaican history: John Dunkley's Banana Plantation (c.1945)
S: What are the new directions, if any, that you will be exploring in your new works?
OM: More Jamaica, more Caribbean, more from the Americas (the continent). More video, more live events, more installations. Watch this space. (and probably more Whitey)