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Paul Kain paints street realities

Published: 
Sunday, May 10, 2015
Yuh Eye Long by Paul Kain. Photos courtesy Soft Box Studios Gallery

Life in T&T not only unfolds against the backdrop of beachscapes and bamboo patches; it also takes shape in urban streets. Paul Kain’s second solo show From the Streets adds another dimension in a picture of tropical existence.

In a sweet mix of languages: the portrayal of body language (a stance, lean, tilt of the human figure in each piece) and the use of T&T vernacular to title his paintings, Kain offers a series of work that oscillates between the humorous and the solemn. 

The oil painting Bad Man Nah Fraid Nobody elicits a smile with its depiction of a man clad only in headphones. He assumes a position akin to Usain Bolt’s signature pose as he stands outdoors in a plastic kiddie pool that is overflowing with water from a standpipe. He is an image of pluck and swag—a superstar in his own world. 

Yet, in the background of the piece, there is an approaching figure of an older woman, perhaps his mother, grandmother or a community matriarch. Her stride looks determined. Will her presence instil fear in this naked, male character in the foreground? Or will he exert his “bad-man-ness” on her? 

Beneath the amusing veneer of this work there is an undercurrent of the tensions and power play between men and women in society.

While viewers might laugh in response to the works on display they do not get to look down on Kain’s characters. The painting Yuh Eye Long might be addressing audiences at the gallery as much as it refers to the figures in the work itself. A black woman with golden tresses stands at the centre of the image. She wears a coral bra with a blue skirt. Her exposed stomach flashes a navel ring. Her gaze is fixed squarely on the viewer. To her left, a girl watches. 

Does the title of the piece refer to the girl’s covetous look or is the yellow-haired woman suggesting that she has what the viewer wants? In other words, is the viewer’s eye long?

The viewer is not given the controlling vantage point of voyeur in this exhibition. Kain’s painted people match the viewer’s gaze. The individuals in such pieces as Boy No Lie Di Ting Was Dis Big But Ah Tell Yuh and Come Nah Baby Yuh Know Ah Does Handle Yuh Doh Study It, lock eyes with the viewer. They do not blink. 

In other works such as Baddist and Transactions, audiences see the strong backs of Kain’s figures as if they have turned in powerful defiance of the viewer’s stare. His men, women and children take on unapologetic postures without posturing and their lack of affectation becomes infectious.

Kain draws on his lived experiences of encounters and conversations with a range of people—prostitutes, pie men, Cepep workers, parlour attendants—while working at a mini mart in St James. His pigments on paper, canvas and hardboard capture the grit of the streets without losing colour intensities altogether and becoming murky. 

The fact that some of the edges of his paper surfaces are torn and that several pieces are displayed with nailed corners adds to a street atmosphere—one redolent of fete posters.

Of note is one painting titled Doppelganger. It is the only one in the body of work that does not come from Kain’s memories of his interactions at the mini mart and it serves as the promotional image for the exhibition’s invitation. It is a picture from Kain’s imagination and it depicts conjoined twins rendered in quick and dirty strokes. Each one holds a balloon. The piece is both crude and playful. Its significance lies in its capacity to anchor a reading of this exhibition. 

Kain does not glamorise the streets nor does he condemn them but he reaffirms, however, that our likeness is not restricted to associations with sun, sea and sand. We might find our twin and see ourselves—both the enchanting and the raw sides—in our acknowledgement of our connection to another reality. 

From the Streets continues until May 23 at Soft Box Gallery, 9 Alcazar Street, St Clair. 

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