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The Cazabon firestorm

Published: 
Sunday, October 30, 2016

The controversy that erupted last week over the 2017 portrayal by Brian MacFarlane of his Carnival band Cazabon: The Art of Living was most instructive. The section of the band called La Belle Dame and Garçon de la Maison, which showed a dark-skinned man in suspenders and trousers alongside an elegantly dressed Caucasian woman caused considerable disquiet.

The controversy ranged from criticisms by the family of the famed painter, Michel-Jean Cazabon, and Cazabon’s biographer, Geoffrey McLean, as well as Kafra Kambon. McLean expressed the view that the family felt they should have been consulted because of the negative connotations being expressed about the painter, while Kambon had no problem with the portrayal but was offended by the use of the hashtag #knowyourplace to accompany the photo caption for the costumes.

The works of Cazabon were recently given prominence by the personal attention of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to the purchase and repatriation of ten Cazabon paintings from auctions in London late last year.

In addressing the opening ceremony of the Cazabon Legacy Exhibition on August 20, Prime Minister Rowley expressed a wide range of views about the value of the Cazabon acquisitions to society. He said those who are uninterested in their past are not worthy of independence. He asked his audience to embrace the Cazabon paintings because they will help us to understand where we have come from and where we are as a people. He said he thought 95 per cent of schoolchildren would not know who Cazabon was and this was embarrassing. 

He told the gathering his particular favourite was the painting about the Race Day in the Savannah because it captured the stratification in the society at the time. He expressed the hope the exposure of the society to the paintings of Cazabon could have some impact on behaviour in the society because he was concerned there was an outpouring of barbarism.

With those comments, Rowley raised the profile of the relevance of Cazabon to our society. Why Cazabon? Is there no one else in our historical past to whom Dr Rowley could also turn to evoke the consciousness in the society that he is yearning for?

The T&T Guardian reported on August 22 that “49 paintings depicting T&T’s iconic landscapes, nature, people and buildings were unveiled to guests. Some of the names in the collection include Old Woodbrook Estate, Pine House, House in Trinidad, East Indian Girl, Dry River, Port-of-Spain, River Scene and Maracas River.” 

Cazabon lived during the period 1813 to 1888 and his scenes captured a wide diversity of urban and rural life at all strata in colonial Trinidad. He died ten years before the formal union of Trinidad and Tobago in 1898. He is very much a Trinidadian phenomenon in depicting Trinidadian life in the 19th century. He lived during the time of slavery and its abolition in 1834 and the start of Indian indentureship in 1845.

He captured that society through his paintings and MacFarlane was attempting to portray the society at the time of Cazabon by using his Carnival band for this purpose. In doing so, he evoked some emotions that clearly demonstrated he had stepped on many toes. He decided not to proceed with the section called La Belle Dame and Garçon de la Maison. 

The offending section was an accurate period portrayal if one was limiting oneself to just the portrayal alone. However, Kambon’s observation about the hashtag #knowyourplace seemed to resonate with many people.

MacFarlane sought to use poetic licence with his production and walked into a firestorm. The reality is that the race and class structure Cazabon portrayed in his paintings captured a colonial Trinidad that has only changed to the extent that a large middle class has been created. However real power to dominate and control what society thinks, trades and speaks has not moved too far from the canvas of his day.

Kambon’s disquiet at the hastag #knowyourplace is indicative of a mindset of resistance that searches for equality, but urban elites of varied races and cultures and their colonial mindsets reinforce many inequalities of the past on the basis of their superior class status today. Many of the so-called nouveau riche elements who have acquired their wealth in the post-oil boom years still yearn for the validation of those in that class bracket who preceded them and with whom they now rub shoulders by virtue of their wealth.

Cazabon could not capture that because some of his subjects would not have been eligible for such prominence in his day. What MaFarlane did was to evoke an emotion that refused to accept a knowyourplace hashtag that recalled subservience.

The entire episode demonstrates how sensitive the society is to any discussion about race and class. The Rowley revival of Cazabon opened a vista for the continued portrayal of Cazabon. The poetic licence of MacFarlane opened a wound which led to his own editing of Cazabon.

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