Tavares Strachan: "My goal is to create a generation of makers and thinkers"

On the occasion of the third chapter of CIFF's "Northwind Triology", Kristian W. Andersen, Director of NorthModern, invited the artist Tavares Strachan to exhibit his unique sculptures, photographs, and video installations in an immersive exhibition space at CIFF in Copenhagen. On the same occasion, Strachan unveiled a collection of six unique bomber jackets that were handmade in the Bahamas. We met the artist who guided us through his exhibition and discussed sustainable fashion, empowering communities, and using space exploration as a basis for his contemporary art pieces.

Tavares Strachan and Kristian W. Andersen at CIFF's "Northwind Trilogy" exhibition in Copenhagen. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

On his exhibition at CIFF – and his obsession with space exploration.

I really wanted to tell a certain kind of story that generally never, never gets told – these sort of invisible stories. It's something that I'm very much obsessed with. And so, in 2008 I had this idea to build a space agency in the Bahamas. And I was very much just interested in exploration because the Bahamas is a small island; it's 21 by 7 miles, so it's tiny. As a kid, you always kind of dream to get off the island – and how does one escape the island, you ask? By space exploration, that's what I thought. Eventually I went to Russia – so a lot of the footage that you see in my exhibition is from my training in Russia. I'm currently, technically, a cosmonaut. But in order for me to build a space agency in the Bahamas, I thought it would be important to do all this research, to know what it would be to have a space agency. So, within the context of this particular exhibition, the idea was that when you walk in, you would get a sense of the baseline reasoning that underscores a lot of the work that I'm interested in.

On the meaning of his exhibition's most-intriguing piece – the skeleton.

The skeleton is a hollow glass tube filled with neon. (Ed: What Will Be Remembered in the Face of All That is Forgotten is a sculptural neon work by Tavares Strachan made between 2014 – 2015.) What is exciting about neon is that it is electrified gas – so what you're looking at is actual energy! The reason why you see the motion through the clear glass is because the gas is trying to escape. So, we're looking at actual physical energy, and this is why I love working with this material. The sculpture itself is actually a homage to Robert Lawrence, who was one of the first astronauts of African descent. And he was working in America and he never got to go into space. While I was working on this sculpture, I was completing a collaborative project with the company SpaceX. In fact, I made an object in honor of Robert Lawrence that was launched as a satellite into space on December 3rd of last year. So, while this piece was being installed, that object was being launched into space. Now it's in orbit. We actually made contact with this object and are now communicating with the satellite! So much about art-making is about making something from nothing. I'd like to bring these stories that are more or less considered as "nothing" to the surface.

Tavares Strachan's exhibition at CIFF's "Northwind Trilogy" in Copenhagen. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

On founding B.A.S.E.C (Bahamas Air and Sea Exploration Center), his Bahamas-based space agency.

A year after my training in Russia, I went back home and really wanted to build a kind of community project where people – students, adults who didn't have any access to science and technology – would have some access to it. So, I rented a small building and I would invite all these scientists from all over the world to come in to do all these experiments. One of the first things I wanted to do was build these rockets from glass and use sugar cane – because we produce a lot of it in the Bahamas – as a fuel source. I photographed and exhibited these rocket launch pictures for us to think about one or two dimensions of what the space agency is interested in and one or two of the kinds of things that we can do, especially working in a place that has a more or less limited access to technology. So, I wanted to use as much as I could use that was close to us and accessible. The use of glass to me is very important because I was trained as a glassmaker, so a lot of the glass that you see in my exhibition is a reference to my interest in glass as a material.

Tavares Strachan's exhibition at CIFF's "Northwind Trilogy" in Copenhagen. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

On recognizing the fashion and design potential of his body of work.

Like most things in B.A.S.E.C., I wasn't necessarily making them to show to a public – they were meant for friends and family members. So, this idea of working in this particular fashion-related context is very new to me. Even when I think about these bomber jackets, they feel more like a sculpture to me than like fashion. I have a certain love for particular kinds of narrative, and the bomber jacket, despite the fact it's wearable, is coming from the same kind of place. So, there's a kind of internal logic about each piece: I really wanted to use each piece as a foil for a kind of storytelling. Each patch that is embroidered on a bomber jacket is actually a symbol of a specific mission of B.A.S.E.C. In this context, sustainability is a main pillar of this project: I'd rather make a few jackets instead of an entire collection, that are produced in a sustainable way and made well enough to withstand the elements and time.

On his initiation to fashion and craftsmanship.

One of the more enlightening – and frustrating – things about my childhood was being with my mother while she would run some errands when she was working as a seamstress. We would spend hours in garment stores, fabric stores, buying material and textiles. As an 8-year-old boy, it was simply unnerving! In parallel, when I was growing up, my mother always loved helping people and so when I explained to my mother the idea of designing bomber jackets for a space agency, she thought I was insane, but she said, "Let's do it."

Tavares Strachan at CIFF's "Northwind Trilogy" exhibition in Copenhagen. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

On establishing community values and empowering people through fashion design.

One of the keystones of this particular project is about changing the dynamic within our community in the Bahamas. How can we expand ideas? How can we expand thought in a place that actually wants to be really homogenous? I wanted to focus on thinking about ways in which we can change people's thinking about production in a small community. Most if not all the fashion you find in the Bahamas is imported. So how do we produce things locally on the island? Not only that, but how can we use only people from the island – people who sometimes still believe that you couldn't produce anything of high quality in the Bahamas? So, this particular bomber jacket capsule is a true statement of empowerment and quality. The other side of this project is that my mother is very much interested in helping women who have had a hard time. We only have women who work and produce the jackets in our facility – it's a place of empowerment, it's a place of teaching and learning, it's a place of healing. This is kind of how I like to think about designing in general, specifically these objects, but also in the studio, whether it's the studio in the Bahamas or the studio in New York. My goal is to create a generation of makers and thinkers through these projects.