Paid partnership with Visit Cayman Islands
“We’re teaching these kids that they can do anything!”
Education and empowerment with Nasaria Suckoo Chollette
Main image: The Aunties – acrylic enamel on canvas
Si Willmore spoke to the accomplished poet and actor, and prominent member of the Cayman Islands art scene. A member of the local collective Native Sons, her work explores themes of race, female empowerment, and the loss of Caymanian cultural traditions.
“When I was little, I would always express myself artistically,” starts Nasaria Suckoo Chollette. I would write a poem or draw a picture about whatever I was feeling. I was always that ‘one child’ in the family! All of my siblings are in finance, law, or politics. I’m the one artist!”
Nasaria wanted to first study, and then teach, theatre and so moved to the US for university, earning a MA in Educational Theatre. “While I was in college – being the typical broke college student! – I would paint things, to give to people as birthday presents.
“I didn’t call myself an artist but when I got back to Cayman, my old schoolmate Ray approached me and said, ‘We have this group called Native Sons. Do you want to come join us?’.”
“I was always that ‘one child’ in the family!”
Native Sons was formulated to create art ‘from the inside looking out’, with an authentic Caymanian experience and aesthetic. “At that time, the arts here weren’t inviting Caymanians to be a part of it, so we had to do it on our own,” she continues. “I had a safe space to develop because I had ‘big brothers’ – most of them were guys; there’s one other girl besides me – who would help each other, critique your work, and give you guidance.”
She notes that although Native Sons was a safe space, it also pushed her forward: her ‘brothers’ had already held an exhibition and she didn’t want to get left behind. “We were innovating and we didn’t even realise it – we were planning and running our own shows. It was amazing. Having that nucleus helped inspire me to become an artist,” she recalls.
Female strength and empowerment
“My work speaks about social situations, looking at things I feel that the world needs to pay attention to,” Nasaria explains. This includes the role of the woman in society, people who are disenfranchised or marginalised, and the repercussions of enslavement – all difficult things to talk about, and of course issues that affect people all over the world and not just on the Cayman Islands.
I ask her what made her want to address these stories through art. “It’s just something that’s within me,” she replies. “I cannot take the easy way out, even if it’s going to hurt someone. My motivation is to do the right thing. I believe a society cannot move forward in a healthy way if we’re not having conversations about these things.”
During her childhood, Nasaria saw instances of domestic violence within her neighbourhood: “The police would come and say, ‘Well, this is between a man and woman’ and they would just drive away,” she recalls. Nasaria remembers times when she felt she was being treated differently to other people, but didn’t understand why.
“It’s just something that’s within me. I cannot take the easy way out.”
“We weren’t taught about slavery and racism. We were told it didn’t exist here. But I was thinking ‘No, you kidnapped people and you put them on a ship and brought them here, and took away their language and their religion.’ There was no explanation for that in our history.”
On finding her voice, she is grateful for her time at Howard University in Washington, DC: “It is traditionally a ‘black university’ – not ‘black’ as in the people, but as in the education,” she says. “They teach you the truth: what happened, and who created what – stuff I’d been missing all my life.”
After her education, she came back to the Cayman Islands and saw these educational concepts in real life. “Now I have names for the things I had experienced before,” she adds.
Thus, the first part of Nasaria’s career as an artist was investigating how history applied in her hometown – and perhaps unsurprisingly received backlash. “I have seen people, either proactively or subconsciously, trying to kill the conversation even now.”
She wrote a play on the subject of domestic violence and somebody told her she was ‘starting problems between men and women in Cayman’. Her reply? “I don’t think I’ve started it. It’s been going on for a long time, to be honest.”
Understanding and education
“I want us to talk so we can understand each other,” she continues. “There are two ways to look at it. You could go ‘full force’, raging and upset, and make a big deal about it. Then you have people in two different corners, and that doesn’t work. Or you continue to challenge it. I have tried to do that in a professional manner, but at the same time saying, ‘No, that’s not good enough’.”
It’s clearly resonating and interest in her work is still spreading: “There are a number of people who know my work and come up and talk to me,” she says. “They’ve figured out my face and when they see me, they’ll stop me and say, ‘I love your work!’ – it’s inspiring.”
“Kids are saying, ‘I never thought I’d see you!’ because in their heads, artists are people they cannot reach out and touch.”
Even schools are on board: in the past, children would learn about American artists in school. Nowadays, they are being taught about Native Sons.
“Kids are coming up to me in the supermarket and saying, ‘I never thought I’d see you!’ because in their heads, artists are people they cannot reach out and touch. It’s really rewarding because I’m an educator at heart.”
Nasaria acknowledges that life has come full circle: the voice and support that Native Sons gave her is now what she is giving to the next generation: “We’re teaching these kids that they can do anything! It’s not about where you’re from, but it’s deciding what you want to do and making it happen,” she smiles.
Caymanian cultural traditions
“Caymanian heritage and culture is unique. It’s really important to me and it’s in my work,” Nasaria says. She notes that traditional crafts like rag rugging (making rugs out of scraps of cloth), thatching (making rope) and crochet are disappearing. “You can’t do it fast enough to make a living,” she observes.
Another such art is midwifery. Nasaria has made a short film about the subject as well as collaborated with a group of artisans to create a commemorative quilt: “Each square of that quilt is going to tell a different part of the story,” she explains. “For example, to bring on labour, the midwives used special techniques and herbs, and a big bath of hot water. They weren’t trained; it was all instinct. Most of them will say they’ve only lost one or two children in their whole career.”
These aspects of Caymanian heritage are exactly the topics Nasaria hopes to discuss, and celebrate, in her art. When the quilt exhibition is debuted, each square will provide a visual to spark further conversation: “There’ll be so much more to explain than you can put into the quilt,” she explains. “And the ladies will be there, to get an opportunity to have their work seen as fine art because it’s always put into the craft category, which is not respected as much unfortunately.”
Perhaps that’s what her art has been about all these years – making sure that the world knows that there is something special about Caymanian culture and that it gets the celebration it deserves.
On a similar geographical note, she urges visitors to seek our lesser known parts of the islands: “Get out into an area that’s not as populated and just meet the people of the Cayman Islands. Learn about us, ask about our history. We’re extremely inviting people!”
“We have a special, unique, culture to share with the world – you just have to look for it!” she concludes with a smile.
I, for one, am keen to start looking.
Need to know
The art scene in the Cayman Islands is flourishing, with more than 150 nationalities represented on the islands of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
Local talent includes the bright and bold colours of Shane Aquârt AKA Dready and the traditional ceramics of the 3 Girls & A Kiln collective, while British talent has also arrived in the form of Jason Kennedy and David Bridgeman.
A £40 million renovation of the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman in 2021 created a space for works by more than 40 Caymanian artists such as John Bird. Beachside hotel Palm Heights hosts a residency programme for artists and musicians; recent participants have included dancer and choreographer Gabe Stone Shayer (a soloist at the American Ballet Theatre).
To better understand the evolution of Caymanian art, check out the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Visit Cayman Islands. With 71,000 friendly locals to greet you, the Cayman Islands can be found in the most carefree corner of the Caribbean.
All three of the islands have their own personality, from the barefoot elegance of Grand Cayman, to the adventurous spirit of Cayman Brac to the tranquillity of Little Cayman.
For more information and suggested itineraries, go to visitcaymanislands.com.