Hiding and Seeking with Tonya Wiles
‘tongue’ 2008. Porcelain wash basin, leather, tongue. Dimensions variable.
I initially saw Tonya Wiles’s work at her first solo show, which opened at the Zemicon Gallery in Bridgetown on June 7, 2009. One week later, I attended her talk at which, according to Tonya, she wanted to “explain” her body of work to the Barbadian audience.
Her exhibition Hide and Seek played with established local norms about viewing art in a gallery space. I asked Tonya how different it was for her to locate her work in Barbados versus situating it in the UK, where she had spent the last three years. She felt that given the greater exposure of a UK gallery culture predisposed to understanding contemporary work, returning to Barbados forced her to ask the question, “Is art viewing universal?”
She wondered if the work made sense in a Barbadian context, and we spoke about how the work functions differently in the two spaces. UK-based viewers might be well exposed to, and therefore more comfortable interacting with, objects like Tonya’s in a gallery space, whereas in the Barbadian context the work reveals a tension. Hide and Seek exposed the conformity of a small, conservative, insular island society that prefers to know the rules of the game before playing. Members of the audience, Tonya told me, not sure what to do with her work, sought explanation from her before engaging or participating.