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Ashraph’s textured mas

Published: 
Sunday, October 4, 2015
Detail of Ashraph’s Black Indian Head ring.

“The black Indian chant out in a rage, next thing they on de Savannah stage.” This line from David Rudder’s song De Long Time Band is inspiration for the recent exhibition by artist Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran. Rudder paints in word and rhythm a picture of a band of revellers—including the dragon man, midnight robber, jammette and black Indian—who descend on Port-of-Spain with a mission to return the force to a Carnival that has seemingly gone soft. In his latest body of work, Ashraph extracts the black Indian from that image.

Silhouetted heads—a motif in a number of his past work—return in his new series. The head remains for Ashraph a visual symbolic vessel for ideas and in this show the head, or rather the face, in particular, becomes a site for exploring encounters between materials: grease, glitter, clay and flesh in the black Indian tradition of smearing, masking, embellishing and empowering the self with various substances.

In his presentation he offers a black Indian masquerade band in three sections: a line of black heads hung on one white wall of the gallery; black heads set against square, matte-black canvases; and black heads affixed to long, rectangular canvases that have been painted in such a way that variegated hues peep through black surfaces.

Ashraph renders each head as a motley arrangement of lace, upholstery fabric, sequins and pearls, all washed in black. Yet, when these textured pieces catch the light, it is possible to discern a hint of pink, a twinkle of green, a murmur of red and undertones of gold. To this already multi-layered composition, he incorporates another dimension. He adds objects to the heads, among them sterling silver rings with wood and bone, pendants in ebony and earrings fashioned with carnelian gemstones. These objects-cum-jewellery reinforce notions of adorning the body and many are reminiscent of the wire-bending craft associated with Carnival costume making.

Unlike the character in Rudder’s song, there is no feeling of a raging black Indian in the overall mood of the works, yet some individual pieces display an attitude of irreverence. In one piece, the artist arranges rectangular bracelets on a black head so that they appear to be an open mouth and a tongue hanging in a rebellious gesture. In another piece, he uses red, undulating coral strategically, teasingly, flirtatiously as it sticks out at the viewer. 

Ashraph’s pieces are not fearsome warriors. They do not resonate with the power and energy of a long-time band. The magical chants of his black Indians cannot be heard. The works seem too precious; too controlled—though that restraint works well with respect to his sparing use of feathers, which delightfully saves the work from being too literal and expected. He succeeds, however, in underscoring the complexities, nuances, diversity and depth to be found in blackness—in highlighting the contact among the Europeans, the Native American Indians and runaway African slaves, which is said to have birthed black Indian mas in the Americas. 

In his play with the juxtaposition and melding of different forms, his black Indian whispers—echoing the words of the late Jamaican cultural scholar, Rex Nettleford—we are not one-dimensional. We are textured.

Ashraph’s Black Indian closed yesterday at Y Art Gallery, 26 Taylor Street, Woodbrook.

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