Under the Shade, I Flourish: The Art Revolution in Belize
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Pop culture shapes our reality. But who gets to decide what pop culture is in the first place? It turns out, we do. New Suns is a column dedicated to artists who are building our common future.
Jorge Landero is a painter. He likes to start working at three or four in the morning, after a cup of milk. His open-air studio is a concrete floor walled by a hedge of bamboo, and is frequented by his German shepherd, Max, who cannot be deterred from lapping water out of the paint cans.
Max, Kerry Johan Landero, and Jorge Landero. Bullet Tree, Belize. Printed with subjects’ permission. Photo by Monica Byrne.
Landero says he started painting after years of hating his masonry work. “It was so fucking hard. Nobody bought me a brush…[But] my life was going to be doomed if I was not going to be an artist.”
Now, he paints bright, beautiful canvases that hang in offices, banks, and resorts all over Belize. When Prince Harry visited the country in 2012, a resort owner touched down by helicopter to pick out a gift for him.
I ask Landero, “How would you like to see Belize change?”
“You cannot change Belize,” he says immediately. “The world is always going to be this way.”
While he and I talk, Landero’s nine-year-old son Johan puts down his own painting on the table. It’s a beautiful waterfall scene. After we praise it, he grins and disappears back into the house on a secret errand.
The national motto of Belize is sub umbra floreo: “I flourish under the shade,” which refers to the native mahogany tree, harvested to depletion in the 19th century by British colonial corporations. I learned this when I first traveled to Belize in 2012. My mother had taught there as a Jesuit volunteer when it was still called British Honduras. She’d always wanted to go back, but never got a chance to before she died, and so I went for her.
I thought I’d visit her old high school, see the ruins and beaches, and never return to Belize.
Instead, I found myself buying a plane ticket back as soon as I got home.
Every time I go, now, the country has shifted, like frames in a stop-motion film. Belize is seeing an unprecedented spike of development since they took back their land from the British in 1981. Add to this that Belize is tiny — only 340,000 residents, comparable to the population of my hometown of Durham — which makes it feel like a very large neighborhood. Everyone knows someone in every place. Everyone is within a few hours’ drive.
Because of this, the national conversation about identity is, by necessity, an intimate one. That includes the conversation on colonial incursion, which now wears a different mask: cruise ships parked like tanks offshore, tourists descending like locusts, and land disappearing to foreign buyers at prices that almost no natural-born Belizean can afford.
Artists in the country are navigating these pressures, which compound the choices all artists already have to make between expression and survival. Tourism is the biggest industry in Belize after agriculture. Some, like Landero, coexist happily with the tourist gaze, painting toucans, jaguars, and Mayan ruins, a visual language of pleasure common to Belizean and tourist alike.
But younger artists, many of them women, are answering those pressures in the exact opposite way: to deconstruct, destroy, and build something new in its place.
“There’s not a bone in my body that wants to paint [toucans],” says Briheda Haylock. “The new generation is slowly uprising in Belize. So the art needs to be different.”
At 24, Haylock is too young to have seen the days of British Honduras. That may be a good thing. She recalls a conversation with an older couple who felt the country was more structured in colonial times, and now, is chaotic. “That’s because we’re questioning ourselves,” she explains. “Before, we didn’t have the ability to.”
Haylock’s first solo exhibition, Society Killed the Teenager, highlighted the rates of suicide and depression among youth in Belize, especially LGBT youth. Her piece My Only Sin is Being a Woman tackled the basic insanity of violence toward women, simply for being women. All are taboo subjects. But as Haylock says, “If you plaster change everywhere, change is gonna come. I think that’s what art is. I think that’s what artists do.”
From My Only Sin is Being a Woman by Briheda Haylock. Reprinted with permission.
The gallery where both exhibitions took place — The Image Factory, a waterfront space in Belize City — has become the mother hive for young artists in the country. Along with classes, labs, workshops, exhibitions, and performances, they produce Baffu, an e-magazine read all over the world. The title comes from the Kriol saying “If yuh noh di baffu, yuh di gamma” — meaning, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you make it up.
Now on its fifth issue, Baffu is a treasure chest of visual and literary outpouring from Belizean up-and-comers, none of it made with tourists in mind. Some of the pages are shots from artists’ notebooks, spiral binding and all. Other pages are screenshots of Facebook blowups about the Belizean art scene. The front cover of Issue 4 is a close-up of a friend’s stomach, shaved and stitched, after he caught a bullet in gang crossfire. The back cover is the exit wound.
Several issues feature Rony Jobel, who, after seeing a show at The Image Factory last year, started painting with crayons, markers, coffee, ink, bleach — anything he could get his hands on. Now he’s made over three hundred abstracts, which are in demand by the few serious collectors in Belize. “When I’m in the mood,” he says quietly, “I’ll paint maybe ten. When I’m not in the mood, I’ll paint maybe four or five.”
Shernell Whittaker is also a prolific contributor. In Issue 3, she draws a woman who — from the chest up — strikes a sultry pose familiar from Belizean beer ads. But from the chest down, she sports a spider necklace, huge penis, and two middle fingers.
Drawing by Shernell Whittaker, text by Katie Usher. First published in Baffu, Issue 3. Reprinted with permission.
The accompanying text is by Katie Usher, who’s been working with The Image Factory since she was a teenager. She dislikes the national motto sub umbra floreo. To her, it evokes the tendency for painful things to be kept hidden in the dark, where they’re more difficult to see. “A lot of what we do at Image Factory is shed light on things. I try to flourish with the lights on.” As for tourist gaze, Usher says, “Most of the time, I don’t even consider it. I’m interested in deconstructing black female stereotypes.”
Any stereotype exists in a specific cultural context. What makes Belize unique, she says, is the ethnic diversity unparalleled almost anywhere else in the world — there are significant Mestizo, Creole, Mayan, Garifuna, Mennonite, Taiwanese, Indian, and Chinese populations, all existing in relative peace. But Usher also points out that naming and separating ethnic groups is itself a colonial strategy to control a large population.
Populations dealing with postcolonial trauma replicate that strategy in times of stress. For example, when a Creole man built atop the southern ruin of Uxbenka and was detained by Mayan villagers, Usher was dismayed by the anti-Mayan backlash she observed on social media. In protest, she put on a huipul — a traditional Mayan top — and stood outside the Supreme Court with her hand raised.
“As Belizeans say,” she says, “‘Wi dah one.’”
Katie Numi Usher on the steps of the Belizean Supreme Court, Belize City. Photo by Kareem Clarke. Reprinted with permission.
And then there are artists who fall somewhere on the spectrum. If an artist isn’t interested in protest per se, how does one articulate a visual language of pleasure that is truly their own, and not that of the colonizers? Must paintings of Belizean natural wonders serve the tourist gaze, or can they serve their own creators? As Usher explains, “Colonization doesn’t give you an identity. We were English subjects, but not English people. So you constantly have to find out who you are.”
Artist Rachelle Estephan — a childhood friend of Katie Usher’s, as it turns out — is wrestling with these very questions. I took the chicken bus to meet her at a bar in the bush off the Western Highway.
Amigos Bar. Western Highway, Mile 32, Belize. Photo by Monica Byrne.
Her work, like Jorge Landero’s, also features lush colors and wildlife motifs — understandable, given that she works at her parents’ nature preserve, Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. She painted a jaguar for one of her first exhibitions. But at the opening, she began to hate it. “It just irritated me…it was trying to conform to something that people want. Every time I saw it, it became something I didn’t want to look at anymore.”
But both nature and beauty remain precious to her. And she resists having to justify their value, especially when angst and protest are celebrated as being more “serious” kinds of art. [Listen to Rachelle talk about this more here.] “I’m seeking a visual sort of contentment,” she says, “a feeling of ease and comfort and peace…Art is super symbolic to me, of not clinging, not being controlling, letting other people be free to interpret things, and not having it corrode what it really means to me. Those things are a struggle for me. And that’s why I want to do them.”
Untitled, by Rachelle Estephan. Reprinted with permission.
There are still other ways to honor Belize’s natural beauty that don’t serve the tourist gaze. In the western mountain region, Jonathan Urbina works as a conservation biologist. Years ago, he began collecting feathers in his field notebook. Why feathers? “A feather’s just an evolutionary wonder. It’s simple as that,” he says. “They can decay and decompose into nothing, [but] I just can’t let it go to waste. I’d rather pick it up.” He’s made gorgeous individual framed works, as well as a clock finished entirely with ocellated turkey feathers.
His obsession makes an intuituve kind of sense. As a conservation biologist, Urbina has a front seat watching Belize’s land disappear. Huge tracts of land get bought and bulldozed in a matter of weeks. There’s only so much he can do.
Meanwhile, his art consists not only of the finished product, but the slow process of collection. His masterpiece — housed at the Belize Zoo — was fourteen years in the making. Nature sets his pace, not people: all of his feathers are sourced in the wild; he nevers kills birds, and never steals feathers from a birds at the zoo. He claims the reasons aren’t just ethical. He says, “Feathers from captive birds lose their aesthetic.”
I ask Jorge Landero the same question in a different way. How does he see Belize in a thousand years?
He again insists that he can’t change Belize. But then he seems to reconsider. “You can change your kid’s life to change Belize,” he says, indicating Johan, now folded up in the chair under the bamboo. “My baby is drawing. It’s so beautiful.” Johan then presents me with an excellent drawing of fish floating over coral reefs, indicating that I should keep it.
I insisted on paying him five dollars for it. And then wondered if I should have just accepted it, instead.
Untitled drawing by Kerry Johan Landero, age 9. Reprinted with permission.