Touching Down with Charles Campbell

Artist Charles Campbell explores the resilience of the African diaspora and his own roots in Jamaica

Multidisciplinary artist Charles Campbell has exhibited worldwide, often using interventions and performances to explore aspects of Black history, particularly those connected to the Caribbean. Campbell, a former chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, is now based in Victoria, where he also finds time to work for change in Canadian art institutions as an educator, writer and activist.

Campbell’s exhibition, as it was, as it should have been, was shown at Vancouver’s Wil Aballe Art Projects in the fall of 2020 and included pieces connected to ongoing projects that involve community, performance and a deep dive into Jamaica’s history and culture. His paintings, prints, sound installation and sculpture, all relate to themes of migration, where boundaries are challenged and new futures imagined.

A second project, Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos, is a new public art commission permanently on view at the Victoria International Airport. The piece features beautiful wooden vessels inscribed with the words of American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, who speaks to ideas about paradise being connected to home. Airborne, the vessels float high above the airport’s departure lounge, which, needless to say, is much quieter than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. Campbell’s work is immediately intriguing and invites further investigation.

“Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos,” 2020 wood and stainless steel hardware, installation view in the lower passenger lounge of the Victoria International Airport (photo by Calum Campbell)

MM: Airport commissions are a big deal. They are places loaded with opportunities to make a powerful welcoming (or departing) statement. Your piece Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos at the Victoria airport seems to fit so perfectly into the space – above the fray, an armada of floating boats. I’m wondering if you could speak about the choices you made for this. And were those choices made in light of it being in the departures area rather than the arrivals area?

CC: The passenger lounge seemed like an interesting place to consider how time operates and how we interact with it on different scales. It’s a place that’s in-between departing and arriving, one where we may flash through or spend hours.

Throughout the work’s conception, I wanted to make a piece that could hold multiple notions of time, and would unfold depending on how one encountered it. The vessels have both a push towards the past and the future – they’re ships and canoes, they’re the body of migratory birds, seed pods, they’re space ships. Initially, the array appears chaotic, but then, as you spend time with it, the pattern begins to reveal itself.

For me, the piece alludes to the moments when our seemingly random individualized actions combine to create something larger. It’s the way ocean winds become hurricanes or stardust combines in the white fleshy fruit of an apple – a swirling, unpredictable moment when multiple temporalities collide to form something beautiful, frightening, fleeting and/or eternal.

The decisions were all about getting these ideas to operate materially – tuning the toroidal array and the spacing of the vessels so the overall pattern could move in and out of focus, finding the balance between lightness and weight, movement and stillness. A ridiculous amount of time was spent deciding on the cable and bearing system the work hangs from and refining the assembly process for the vessels.


Charles Campbell, “Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos,” 2020 wood and stainless steel hardware, detail of installation in the lower passenger lounge of the Victoria International Airport (photo by Calum Campbell)

MM: Parable of the Sower is written in Morse code on each of your vessels, so the work is very subtly and literally coded. Can you tell me what significance these poems have in this context?

CC: There are a few things going on here. Firstly, there is this idea that Victoria exists in a bubble and projects itself as a sort of paradise – a place outside of time, a city of gardens, heritage buildings, tea rooms, etc. Butler defines paradise as home: “One’s own people, One’s own world, Knowing and known, Perhaps even Loving and loved.” And the poem goes on to talk about how we are all cast from paradise: “Into growth and destruction, Into solitude and new community, Into vast, ongoing Change.”

So in part, the reference to Butler pushes against this idea of an insular Victoria, apart from global events. It affirms a notion of paradise that is about our connection to people and place, and the necessity of engaging with change.

The passage also touches on my own biography and that of many people who have roots in the African diaspora – the multiple migrations we have endured, how we exist in solitude or form new communities, and the forces of growth and destruction that accompany us.

In the context of the airport, I hope the poem is a sort of welcome to people being pushed and pulled by global events, an invitation to find home, and a statement that we’re embracing the changes that come as newcomers arrive in this community. For members of the Black creative community that hold Butler in such high regard, quoting her is also a way to say: “We’re here.”

MM: It’s literally above most people’s heads. How are people expected to decode these pieces for the deeper dive?

CC: The poem will also be engraved in the floor beneath the piece, so it will be legible for people who take the time to look.

MM: COVID-19 delayed the unveiling of this project. What are your reflections on the global stoppage of travel and the themes you explore?

CC: COVID drove home some of the issues I was dealing with in the piece and really highlighted how we’re connected to global events. When I was making the work I was thinking a lot about the refugee crisis and the forces that combined to produce mass migrations: climate change, geopolitics, movements of capital, information networks, racism, Islamophobia, colonial legacies, local conditions, the list goes on.

And then there is this small, West Coast airport that caters to tourists and business travellers, but is also a place where a lot of wealth and power moves through, a place embedded in its own colonial legacy, that has its own problems with racism, poverty and homelessness. I was thinking of how the forces at play in my city relate to global events, of the refugee families that disembark at YYJ to settle in Victoria and the fossil fuel exec that may board the same plane after penning a deal with the provincial government.

But still there was an assumed distance between local events and these extreme global manifestations. The fruiting of chaos was elsewhere. Now it’s everywhere. The growth and destruction that Butler talks about are so much more evident now, as are the forces of change.

I installed the piece at the height of the lockdown and the only people in the airport were my installation crew (my two oldest kids actually), myself and a raft of security personnel, all at their stations checking bags and waving wands as if all this was normal. I admit to thinking that maybe the piece is redundant now. Maybe the hurricane has already passed through.

Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy I,” 2009 mixed media on canvas (courtesy of the artist)

MM: Your Actor Boy paintings are lovely. They look like kinetic confections of some kind. They put me in mind of earlier eras of pattern making for domestic decoration. I can’t quite place it and I know there’s much more to it. They are connected to a series of really interesting and literally boundary-pushing performances in Kingston, Jamaica. Can you tell me how they are related and what we should look for in these works?

CC: I guess I should say that I spend a lot of time inhabiting my own fictions. In the trajectory of my work, the Actor Boy paintings represented a move from using motifs related to the brutality of slavery and the plantation system to images that referenced cultural resilience. Actor Boy is a character in the Jamaican carnival celebration Jonkonu, a trickster that lampoons the character and proclivities of his overseers.

The paintings repeat an image of Actor Boy produced in 1837-38, shortly after emancipation, by the Jamaican artist Isaac Mendez Belesario and turn it into a sort of blossoming floral motif. I was thinking about this excessive, raucous, creolized cultural expression as a threat to the plantation system, something that seeded revolts and a time when the slave population was demonstrably more than property, beasts of burden and units of labour.

Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy IV,” 2009 mixed media on canvas (courtesy of the artist)

They also became a vehicle for me to reflect on the times immediately before and after emancipation in Jamaica. After spending months with the image, I started imagining Actor Boy on the streets of Kingston and tried to imagine seeing present day events through the eyes of someone who embodied the hopes and aspirations of the recently emancipated slaves. That became the seed for the Actor Boy persona and performances.

The most important move was to position him not as someone from the past but from one of the alternate futures made possible at the time of emancipation. He thus became a time traveller able to move between different temporal streams and represents a whole set of possibilities that are difficult to imagine from our present perspective.

In the Kingston performances you mention, Actor Boy tasked himself with understanding and disrupting the city’s social stratification by orchestrating a series of creative engagements between “uptown” and “downtown” Kingston – geographic designations that routinely stand in for class and racial distinctions between rich and poor.

Charles Campbell, “Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago,” 2019 mat board and wood (Photo by Mateo Serna Zapata)

MM: The piece Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago strikes me as a set of maquettes for a futuristic development merged with the topography of a landscape. How did you get from the reality of a place that was a redoubt of escaped slaves to this futuristic vision? Will there be further iterations of this work? What were your decisions around scale and how the piece would be experienced in a gallery setting?

CC: When I think about the future, adherence to the systems that are failing us is not going to get us through. Black and Indigenous communities are already living post-apocalyptic lives and we need to reorient ourselves and pay heed to the experience and knowledges that we’re developing as we engage in the slow process of reconstruction.

The Maroons’ survival was predicated on their knowledge and relationship to the lands they inhabited and they were strongest when they acted as decentralized yet interdependent communities in their fight against the British. Maroonscape 1 proposes this as a model for the future. It’s scaled to appear as an architectural model, something that could be built, but it’s the underlying concepts that I want to build on, and the centrality of our relationship to the lands we inhabit.

This piece is the first in the series. Maroonscape 2 debuts at WAAP and is a soundscape that codes the birdsong of species endemic to Cockpit Country into Paradise, which is a passage from Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’m working on Maroonscape 3 now. It enlarges forms similar to those in Maroonscape 1 to a more human scale for a public sculpture garden.

I hope to turn it into a gathering place for the Black community and a space for talks, performances and workshops that can explore some of the themes and issues present in the work. The Maroons, as communities of escaped slaves, operated under a violent colonial regime and represent resistance and resilience, but the bargains they struck to retain their freedom include compromises and complicity with the system of oppressions. There is a lot to learn from and think about here and I hope to dig into these issues more deeply in future projects.

MM: The times seem to be, finally, very urgent on a global scale with environmental and social justice issues really at a “now or never” point. I worry about art that is either too subtle and coded or it all needing to become agitprop. How do you determine where to situate your work? I see direct and engaging performative work that engages community and these beautiful, inviting slightly puzzling pieces. 

CC: I really admire and see the need for work that is direct and to the point, but still find myself insisting on the right to remain somewhat opaque. I often create work that tries to hold together things that can’t really be held together, and as tightly as possible.

Fundamentally, we exist in excess of our representations and can’t be reduced to our “identities” and this excess and irreducibility is the richer matter of life. Resisting the urge to be reduced to a fully comprehensible or consumable entity is itself political.

The counterpoint to this is that I’m interested in telling stories and examining, creating and shifting relationships. I see this as a process of creating meaning around the artwork. It’s the park bench where two lovers first kissed, but the park bench still eludes meaning. In these urgent times we need a space to puzzle through uncertainty.

MM: As a garden variety first-generation Anglo Scots import, I find Victoria to be overwhelmingly colonial in flavour, to the point of cartoonishness. I hope that is changing. Do you find there is fertile ground for connection around Caribbean and other histories? The Victoria News referred to you as a “world class” artist. I thought we were beyond that kind of terminology now, but in the end, does it matter anymore where we create art?

CC: I have to laugh when I hear the term “world class” – it always reads like a declaration of cultural insecurity.

The ground in Victoria is beginning to shift, but for a long time I felt there was an absolute refusal to see any of the issues I dealt with in my work as relevant to here. Victoria’s identity as a liberal, all-white, colonial enclave is breaking down though. There is some very strong Indigenous leadership here and once you start digging into colonial history, the Caribbean isn’t very far away. The Douglas and Trutch families both had slave plantations in the Caribbean, for example.

The demographics are also shifting and there is now a critical mass of people interested in tackling this place’s colonial history head on and contesting the art world’s whiteness and modernist amnesia. Some of the leaders in the effort to decolonize the arts in Canada are also based here so the conversations can be very rich, even as the city keeps projecting its colonial facade. That said, we all know that artistic opportunities are not distributed equally throughout the globe. There are centres of wealth and power and places with a lot more cultural confidence than here. For my part though, I’m happy making work here.

(A version of this interview originally appeared in Galleries West in October, 2020)