DETROIT — The Travel Agent squints at her screen and asks what you’d like to do on your trip to Paradise. She offers few suggestions, but seems prepared to accommodate almost anything you can come up with. After each answer, she types busily into her computer — a teal iMac, a perfect parallel for the formerly omnipresent and now anachronistic role of a travel agent in current-day society.
This is one of three characters developed by interdisciplinary artist Jova Lynne, implemented in an ongoing body of work that dissects Caribbean island identity — both from the standpoint of distant fantasy, and from Lynne’s more personal connection to her family’s Jamaican roots. Likewise, the Travel Agent is both a generic archetype and a figure more personal to Lynne, whose mother was once employed as a travel agent in New York, where Lynne grew up.
“My mom was a travel agent when I was a kid,” said Lynne, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I grew up in a travel agency and would listen to my mom talk about all these trips [with clients]. Hearing her sell these ideas of travel and paradise, versus when we would go to Jamaica to visit family — it was two very different things.”
The schism between the vivid fantasy and exoticism of travel narratives and the more quotidian lived experience of frequent trips to Jamaica perhaps explain Lynne’s need to fracture her expression into distinct characters. The Travel Agent has been performing live travel bookings in sessions out of a month-long installation, Paradise Travel Company, at Popps Emporium. In addition, Lynne has also done live and video performances in the guise of The Tourist, and created an ongoing photo series of physical “souvenirs” made by a character called Paradise (the Architect). Though the characters are easily distinguishable, interact differently with the island, and have distinct performance personas, all of them have contradictory elements and questionable authenticity — there is no “real” Paradise, so to speak.
“Paradise is really a utopian possibility, a made-up place,” said Lynne. “My goal isn’t to critique Jamaica. It’s not to say don’t travel to the Caribbean — the island is so dependent on tourism that I don’t even know what that would look like. Creating Paradise is really just supposed to interrogate an idea of what utopia is, so we can look at colonialism, and we can talk about fantasy.”
Of course, selling an ideal is not only a travel concept, but speaks deeply to the experience of being a woman, and the different manifestations of her characters leverage woman-ness and objectification in different ways. Lynne’s Travel Agent is campy and sales-driven, wearing a wide-shouldered blazer even more dated than her iMac. She is ready to book clients based on their desires, as outlined in a questionnaire that visitors to the installation are asked to fill out upon arrival. The walls of the agency are lined with Lynne’s photographs, featuring Dutch still life-like tableaus of vivid tropical fruits and odd, handcrafted objects, like branded sunglasses, rendered in ceramic, so as to make them not-sunglasses. If you wander behind the desk to gain a vantage point on her screen, you will find that the Travel Agent is not booking anything, but merely typing “PARADISE PARADISE PARADISE” into a document, with a Shining-like fervor.
This has created a couple of uncomfortable interactions for Lynne during her live performance series, with residents of the neighborhood who have unwittingly entered the space excited to book a real vacation.
“It was all older Black women who thought it was a real travel agency,” said Lynne, who refused to break character to clear up the misunderstanding.
The Tourist not only examines the exchange proposition between visitors to the Caribbean, but implicates Lynne as a tourist herself, even in a place with which she has a cultural connection. She appears detached, almost sullen, in these images and performances.
“I was born in America,” said Lynne, “and though my family went back really regularly, and I know Jamaica really well, I’m still American. I walk on the street in Kingston, and I look American … When I’m in the United States, I don’t feel like an American as much as I do when I’m there.” The Tourist seems largely preoccupied with consumption. Lynne poses in trees drinking from coconuts, or sits on a balcony eating bananas, creating divisions between herself and the island. Lynne previously evoked this notion in using Tourist performances to construct actual walls out of cinderblocks, before posing before them on lounge chairs, but has retired that element of her Tourist performance, since Trumpian notions have created a different set of associations with wall-building.
Lynne has been working within the “Paradise” theme for nearly three years now, beginning with an examination of rotting fruit and coconuts, combined with video projections and 1970s industry advertising, which Lynne characterizes as the golden age of Jamaican travel promotion. Paradise (the Architect) is Lynne’s mutation on the native-imaginative spirit of the island, and the largest recent concentration of work featuring images of Paradise was presented as part of her graduate thesis from Cranbrook Academy of Art (Photography ’17). Paradise as a character deals with the fetishization of the body — both literal female body, and the island-as-body — and the thesis presentation
Her current work has also expanded to incorporate machetes as an iconic tool and weapon in Jamaican culture, but also as a symbol of self-protection. In an upcoming installation of sculpture and photography to be included as part of the SculptureX regional symposium, Lynne will present a series of hand-crafted machetes, each designed for six different queer-identified Jamaican women, whose portraits have been taken by Lynne on various trips to Jamaica. The exhibition, titled Soft Thrones, opens August 27 at the University of Toledo Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, located on the campus of the Toledo Museum of Art.
Clearly, for Lynne, these notions of tourism, mirage, and utopia are a rich trove of source material in examining some very big themes about bodies, identity, labor, capitalism, and fantasy. As her trifurcated and complicated performance personas prove, there is no straightforward answer to the questions raised about what lies at the heart of our desires, and to whom we are selling ideas of paradise.