Hot Links 06: Amanda Coulson

Our editor Brian Fee interviewed Amanda Coulson for the sixth edition of “Hot Links”. Amanda is the Director of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas and she co-founded the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York.

– Tell us about yourself.

As my husband might say, I’ve lived several lives. So my story isn’t that straightforward.

My father is Bahamian and my mother is American, from New York, but I grew up mainly in London (The Bahamas was still a colony when I was born and my Dad had been sent there for work). I came to Nassau very regularly when my Dad moved back after Independence (1973) and my mum stayed in the U.K. I went to primary and high school in London, followed university in Paris—which is where I discovered my interest in art—and ultimately emerged out of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts’ MA programme as a very classical art historian, specialising in 16th-century Italian painting, especially from the Veneto region.

My first job out of grad school was at a very stuffy art dealer’s in New York, which was definitely not my scene at all. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Los Angeles—this is now 25 years ago, so before there was the contemporary art scene that there is today in L.A.—because my husband at the time was an actor, and I got involved in film production. This is where I learned how to plan complex events, work with electricians and carpenters, put together a budget and all the other things an art history degree won’t teach you but would come in handy for me later …  While I lived in L.A.—being embedded in the film industry—I became more interested in film and photography, so I started collecting photography from all periods, which is how I drifted into contemporary art and added to my knowledge base.

When my marriage ended, I left L.A. and moved back to London and then Paris, where I worked at contemporary art galleries. Simon Lee was an old friend from university in Paris and he was just setting up his first gallery in London—11 Duke Street—and I worked there briefly and some other spaces. I finally settled in Milan in the late ‘90s, where I worked at a gallery that specialised in photography and got to work directly with some amazing people, Tazio Sechiarolli (the original paparazzo), Mario Giacomelli, Ettore Sottsas, the estate of Luigi Ghirri, and international photographers David LaChapelle, Malick Sibidé, Peter Beard, Nobuyoshi Araki, Aziz+Kucher, Joel Peter Witkin, Martin Parr, and Larry Clark, to name  only a few.  It was while I was with that gallery, Photology, representing them with a booth at the old Art Chicago (on Navy Pier) that I met my current husband, Uli Voges, who was on the fair’s committee at that time and who also had a stand with his contemporary art gallery out of Frankfurt. We then had some further contact when one of his artists, Finnihs photographer Pertti Kekarainen, exhibited at Photology and we started what was a fairly old-fashioned courting ritual, writing very long letters to each other.

I was still living in Milan, by now writing and editing for the tema celeste contemporary art magazine, and this was really before email as we know it today—the dial up modem took 5 minutes to connect, so you didn’t send short one-liners, but a proper letter, so it was really like snail mail still. Cellphones were extravagant expenditures and cheap Easyjet flights were also non-existent, so Basel—3 hours drive south from Frankfurt south and 3 hours north from Milan, became our meeting point—nothing to do with the art whatsoever, just its centrality!

Eventually I moved to Frankfurt and continued working as an art journalist, freelance, covering exhibitions all over Germany, but also wherever I travelled in Europe, for magazines like Modern Painters, Art News, Art Review, Lapiz, tema celeste, and Frieze. This is when I also began curating and—still going home regularly to The Bahamas—watching how the scene was developing here and thinking how we could create a window onto what was happening.

Then we had an extremely busy few years—2003 saw the birth of our first daughter, Emmy; in 2005 Basel became even more important to us, as we founded the art fair VOLTA with colleagues Friedrich Loock and Kavi Gupta; in 2006, our second daughter, Daisy, was born. When she was just a few weeks old I curated a show at the Nassauischer Kunstverein in Wiesbaden called “Funky Nassau: Recovering an Identity” which was the first major international exhibition of contemporary Bahamian artists outside The Bahamas and included the artists Dionne Benjamin Smith, John Beadle, Lillian Blades, John Cox, Blue Curry, Michael Edwards, Antonius Roberts, Heino Schmid, and Clive Stuart.

Between the mid-’80s to the early aughties, the scene back home had been really developing quite fast—with various artist groups like “B-C.A.U.S.E.” (Bahamas Creative Artists United for Serious Expression) and Opus 5 (loosely inspired by Africobra), artists like Max Taylor, Stan Burnside, Jackson Burnside, Brent Malone, Antonius Roberts, John Beadle, Monique Rolle, Clive Stuart and more, all became quite prominent with a new style and direction of work that was really escaping from the tourist trope of lovey landscapes; PopopStudios—an artists’ studio house, which really acted as the generator and supporter of most younger local practitioners—was founded in the late ‘90s, by John Cox with his close colleagues, Jason Bennett, Heino Schmid, Blue Curry and Michael Edwards; and, finally, the nation got an art institution, The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), which was founded in 2003.

 “Funky Nassau” was exhibited at the NAGB, after its stint in Germany, and I travelled home with baby Daisy for the opening. That was my first formal introduction to the museum’s Board of Directors and when Dr. Erica James, the founding Director of the NAGB, was leaving to take up her position at Yale University, I was contacted as a potential candidate … I came back home at the end of 2011 with Uli and the girls, and for the last 8 years have been continuing to bud on Dr. James’ strong foundations…

– What is your connection to the Caribbean Art Initiative?

Albertine Kopp and I had been colleagues at VOLTA … and when she moved to work initially at the Davidoff Art Initiative, I was already based back in The Bahamas. Obviously, there was an immediate connection, as I could give a viewpoint from the region and it was really exciting for me to see a major international corporation taking an interest in the Global South. I worked alongside that initiative as a nominator for several years and then when Albertine decided to take the initiative independent, I of course gave my full support.

– What does “cultural exchange” mean to you?

For me it’s actually spending time in one another’s spaces. It’s very hard to understand the viewpoint and inner workings of a space or a mind without putting yourself squarely in that person or place’s skin. Travel and time are the only ways to really immerse oneself—and be able to share of oneself—in another culture or with another group of people. Despite being word travellers, many of us still harbour deep unconscious biases that we are hardly able to even acknowledge until we have had an experience that helps us look more clearly at ourselves.

– What is one unique perspective or element about the Caribbean that you would like the global community to know better?

Oh dear…only one? I suppose mainly that we are an extremely diverse spaces—racially, linguistically, culturally—but also in terms of who we are. We are not all jet ski operators nor do we spend our days sitting under a coconut tree getting high at the beach. We don’t all say “Hey mon, no problem.” We have cities and a variety of industries and we are writers, poets, scholars, architects, artists, lawyers, bankers, doctors, nurses… and to look at us as a one-dimensional “paradise” space is really offensive.

– And finally, describe something that is “hot” to you.

A “hot” Bahamian artist right now is Lavar Munroe. Awesome artist (we just did a mid-career with him at NAGB and produced a beautiful catalogue) and a lovely human being as well, who lives in the States but still keeps a studio here in Grants Town, where he is from (the inner city). Something REALLY hot though is Dino’s conch salad. Dino’s is the best beachside conch stand in New Providence, on West Bay Street, just down from Gambier Settlement. Conch salad is one of our national dishes (fresh from the ocean raw conch, diced with bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, goat pepper (scotch bonnet) and fresh squeezed sour orange juice). Some places make it “mild” for a tourist palate, but a Bahamian paalet is very different (super spicy or super sweet) so even when you order it mild at Dino’s, it burns your tongue off. You definitely need an ice-cold Kalik or Sands (Bahamian beer) to wash it down.

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