La Vaughn Belle & JEANNETTE EHLERS: Artists, "I am Queen Mary"

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La Vaughn Belle & Jeannette Ehlers are the sensational artists behind "I am Queen Mary"

La Vaughn Belle is a multidisciplinary artist from the Virgin Islands. For years her work has responded to questions surrounding the coloniality of the Virgin Islands, both in its present relationship to the US and it’s past one to Denmark. Her work borrows from elements of architecture, literature, history, archeology and social protest to create narratives that challenge the colonial process.  She is best known for her work reinterpreting the material artifacts of colonialism to create an alternative archive. She has exhibited her work  in such institutions as the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, El Museo del Barrio, NY, Arts of the Americas Museum, Washington, DC., the Royal Library of Denmark and the Centro de Wilfredo Lam, Cuba.

What do I do best?

My visual acuity. I see connections between things, concepts and people and as an artist I build metaphors and layers into my work that allow for multiple entry points.

What makes me the best version of myself?

I am like the “Little Engine That Could”- I think I can , I think I can , I think I can- and I am very determined with that belief.

What are my aspirations?

What I desire most is to develop to my fullest potential as an artist and to have harmony with other aspects of my life while doing so.

My Biggest Success?

The public art project “I Am Queen Mary” with Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers is to date the biggest professional accomplishment of my life. It is a monumental project in every sense of the word. It is a two-story sculpture in front of the Danish West Indian warehouse in Copenhagen that challenges the forgotten history of those who survived and resisted Danish colonial rule. It’s a project that highlights various resistance histories in the African diaspora and centers them in the historical figure of Mary Thomas, a sugar cane worker on a plantation in St. Croix. She, along with three other woman, demanded better living and working conditions and together they led the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. Queen Mary, the title she was bestowed by the people for her leadership, sits on top of a plinth made of coral imported from the ruins of colonial structures in St. Croix. They were harvested by enslaved Africans that were sent into the ocean to cut them out and use them as the foundations of most of the buildings.

This detail, however, is often invisible as what we see on top of the coral stone foundation are the bricks imported from Denmark. So by importing the one and a half tons of coral stones to Denmark and situating a rebel queen on Copenhagen’s harbor front we are making visible their labor, strength, courage and humanity. Each evocation of the title, “I Am Queen Mary” asks the viewer to question their relationship to this history. Having this project go from an audacious idea to a reality has been thrilling.

My Most Challenging Moment?

“I Am Queen Mary” began as two separate projects. When Jeannette asked me to collaborate and merge them into one it was a difficult decision for me at first. I was worried about what kinds of compromises I may have to make in a collaboration. However, it was one of the best decisions. It made the project stronger and gave it a more complex dimension. We decided to not only merge our two projects, but our two physical likenesses in the figure of Queen Mary. We created a hybrid of our bodies, nations and narratives. I have learned a lot through the process of working with another highly motivated and extremely talented artist. We have different strong suits in our skill sets and we worked well together as a team.

My Motto?

Do it afraid-meaning I acknowledge fear in situations and have learned to work with fear and not let it hold me back.

My Favorite People/Role Models?

I have a pretty amazing crew of three feral girl children who inspire me everyday with their fearlessness, self-assuredness, untamable joy and immense capacity to love and forgive.

My Favorite Places/Destinations?

Any salsa club in the world is my favorite place. I learned when I went to art school in Cuba and I fell in love with dancing salsa, or timba as contemporary Cuban salsa is called. Wherever I travel I look for a salsa club. I can go to any city in the world and find a home in some conga beats and fellow salseros. But my other favorite place is a beach on the south shore of St. Croix called Hay Penny. It’s about a mile long and has three sections: one, when you first enter that is very shallow and crystal clear, you walk a little further and its deeper and all the way to the end there are cascades of rocks and larger waves. But although I love it because its beautiful, it’s really my favorite because of all the memories I have made there. I used to ride my bike with my brothers there as children, my father took us there every Saturday to give my mother a break, I’ve had beautiful romantic experiences there, been to countless birthday parties and bonfires there, seen octopus, dolphins and all manner of sea life there, and when things have been rough it is the place I go to seek solace. My whole life history is on that beach.

My Favorite Products/Objects?

I wear a machete pendant. The machete is a tool for work and a tool for rebellion. It’s a symbol of who we are as Caribbean people, our survival spirit, full of resilience and resistance. I rarely take it off.

I also really like band saws, Ruby Woo MAC lipstick, am a little obsessed with orchids at the moment and cannot live without hair gel.

My Current Passions?

My current, past and future passion will always be making art. It is the thing I do and not remember to eat or go to the bathroom and will forgo sleep for.

JEANNETTE EHLERS:

Jeannette Ehlers is a video, photo and performance artist based in Copenhagen, Denmark. For years she has created artworks that delve into ethnicity and identity inspired by her own Danish and Caribbean background. Her pieces revolve around big questions and difficult issues, such as Denmark's role as a slave nation—a part of the Danish cultural heritage, which often gets overlooked in the general historiography. She has exhibited and performed in such institutions as AROS, Aarhus, Denmark, the Museum of Latin American Art, Los Angeles, the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, the McKenna Museum of African American Art, New Orleans, Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, Denmark and the Pérez Art Museum, Miami .

What do I do best?

I think I am good at following my visions.

What makes me the best version of myself?

When it comes to my work  I am very disciplined. I’m also good at listening to my intuitions, reflecting upon them and following them. Being disciplined, intuitive and reflective is a good blend I find.

What are my aspirations?

I aspire to be the best I can be for my kids and to accept myself for who I am.

Art and life is intertwined. My work means a lot to me. Art means everything to me. I aspire to keep working with what I love.

My Biggest Success?

My kids are my biggest success, no doubt about that. However in my professional life I feel recently I have had a personal breakthrough with the work I’ve done over the last 10 years challenging the Danish colonial amnesia. Denmark was a colonial nation for more than 200 years with colonies in the Caribbean, today known as the US Virgin Islands. This part of Danish history is not at all embedded in the national identity, which is highly problematic. The blind spots and general lack of colonial consciousness shape the mentality here, causing great ignorance towards global issues like racism and white supremacy.

My work is right now culminates in the two-story collaborative public sculpture project

I Am Queen Mary with the amazing Crucian artist La Vaughn Belle. It is a tribute to historic, contemporary and future resistance movements against colonial power structures. It will be one of the only public sculptures in Copenhagen depicting a woman. On top of that it is depicting a black woman. This is so empowering. I Am Queen Mary will establish a space for black people to go and see us represented in public space in a positive way. It will break the silence around the Danish colonial past and it will be an educational space where people can reflect upon modernity and the implications it has for our global society. At the same time, I Am Queen Mary is marking the strong historical connection between the US Virgin Islands and Denmark.

The project works on several levels and will hopefully initiate conversations across generations, nations and continents.

La Vaughn Belle and I have had an incredible journey collaborating on this, sometimes working between two continents with several hours of time difference and lots of other challenges. But we are both driven by a strong passion and engagement in what we do and that is a huge satisfaction.  It’s been a great and enlightening journey for me and in that regard I feel we are contributing with some important (artistic) knowledge production within the black diaspora.

I’m very proud of our accomplishments.

My Most Challenging Moment?

In the creation of I am Queen Mary there have been many challenging moments. It’s been an ongoing project for the last four years, a process that has taken many shifts and required difficult decisions along the way. On top of that it is a loaded project that tends to raise many demanding questions, practical as well as cultural. To continue working on the project even though it sometimes seems unmanageable is a huge challenge.

My Motto?

I don’t really have a personal motto but I always try to go for what feels right and listen to my inner voice.

My Favorite People/Role Models?

I’m surrounded by many wonderful and passionate people – in my personal life as well as in my business relations. I have a great international network. It’s incredibly inspiring.

My Favorite Places/Destinations?

I love to travel and I do it quite a lot due to my work. I really enjoy exploring new places, but I also really love going  to my country home outside of Copenhagen where I can relax from my busy life in the city. Additionally, Trinidad and Tobago, my father’s native home, are favorite places of mine. I absolutely love the vibrant vibe on the islands. I recently came back from a short trip there visiting family and introducing my kids to carnival. I always feel so alive and inspired when going there. It’s my second home.

My Favorite Products/Objects?

My soundsystem and artworks

My Current Passions?

Music and dance have always been my greatest passions. Still are.