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Of Cazabon, Maslow and cultural heritage

Published: 
Sunday, December 27, 2015

“Much of the visual treasures of the region lies outside of the Caribbean,” writes Patricia Mohammed in her book Imaging the Caribbean. Her statement comes to mind in the wake of the Government’s recent acquisition of paintings by Michel-Jean Cazabon via auction in the UK and the ensuing responses. A key word in Mohammed’s observation is “treasure.” What does T&T deem valuable? How is value understood?

One understanding of value is that of exchange—what is paid for an object. The paintings’ exchange value, during what Governor of the Central Bank of T&T, Jwala Rambarran has officially described as a recession period for the country, automatically raises concern. Public servants have been told they must wait for their back pay, and yet a huge sum has been marshalled to secure images by a 19th century Trinidadian artist. How can this dissonance be reconciled?

Public ire can be appreciated when viewed through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow was a North American psychologist who proposed a theory of various levels of human motivations or needs. Biological needs occupy a fundamental space: food, shelter. Safety needs are next: security, stability. When these needs are satisfied an individual then looks to a need for belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. When basic needs are not met, how can a people be expected to hold “old images” dear?

Yet, Maslow’s framework is not set in stone. There are several adapted versions. One showing Wi-Fi as the most primary human need—usurping food and air—has been circulating on the Internet for some time. That version may be regarded as amusing but nestled within the humour is a sobering commentary about changing necessities, about the potential for shifting what is seen as requisite and the new weight or value given to aspects of life.

This reference to Wi-Fi raises another understanding of value: use value. This type of value speaks to the function of an object, in other words, what it does. T&T is still grappling with the use value of artworks. Except for a convenient touting of creativity within the enterprises of Carnival and tourism, the society is still to be nurtured to see what art can do for it. While art is a personal and collective space for exploring, subverting, building, masking, revealing and resolving ideas, meanings and emotions, it remains, in large measure, on the margins of a hierarchy of needs in T&T.

How might T&T reformulate that hierarchy to include the arts? The acquisition of Cazabon’s paintings points society in a direction of much needed focus on art and cultural heritage or inheritance—on the subject of the legacy of tangible and intangible elements of T&T’s being and becoming.

Their purchase also underscores the specific concept of patrimony, that idea of ownership and belonging to a particular people. Again Mohammed’s words are significant because she notes that a number of visual objects created by Caribbean people lie outside the region.

Shouldn’t Cazabon’s work reside here? Or, should the pieces have gone to homes and institutions in other parts of the world? These questions linger in the midst of another heralding of the end of the oil era. T&T’s legacy cannot be solely based on the vagaries of the oil and gas markets. It is therefore vital to reconsider what can be safeguarded and made accessible for future knowledge makers and interpreters. Among those concerns are paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, buildings and oral traditions.

If inheritance matters, as the buying of Cazabon’s work suggests, then the Government cannot stop at a purchase of art and the mounting of an exhibition. A broader and sustained programme of engagement is crucial in T&T. Effort should be directed toward stimulating what historian Simon Thurley calls a heritage cycle, which begins with (and returns to) the fostering of an understanding of art. Through understanding people then come to value art and by valuing art they will want to care for it. Caring then transitions to experiences of fulfillment and the fuelling of a thirst for greater understanding.

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