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Art of the times: A look back at T&T’s 2016 art scene
What happened in T&T for the year 2016? Was there a prevailing mood? What were the key concerns and points of view? Dutch-American historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon notes: “The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market.”
With Van Loon’s statement as a guide, a look at some of the visual arts created/exhibited over the past 12 months gives insight to the social climate. The retrospective survey offered here is not an account of every artwork displayed in the public domain. Instead it plugs into and shares a number of patterns or repeated points of focus seen in works presented for 2016.
Minshall and film team Abigail Hadeed and Maria Govan put a spotlight on several matters including that of gender politics. Minshall’s depiction of The Dying Swan was a man dressed as a woman, performing on the pointed toes of moko-jumbie stilts, in the King of Carnival competition. Hadeed (producer) and Govan (director and writer) shared their film Play the Devil, in which the protagonist grapples with his manhood and homosexuality against a context of religion, masquerade, economics and patriarchy. With Carnival as a common thread, these artists stirred viewers to consider what it means to take on the role of “man” or “woman”—what it means to play or perform in and across gender boundaries.
Joshua Lue Chee Kong and Shawn Peters invited the public to look beyond an idyllic veneer. Lue Chee Kong’s exhibition Paradise and Peters’ Down, Down The Rabbit’s Hole underscored a nightmarish reality seething beneath a surface script of sun, sea and sand in sweet T&T.
Works by Wendy Nanan and Adele Todd explored a fine line between opposing forces. Nanan’s papier mâché sculptural forms with their spiraling shells foregrounded ideas of birth and death as allied energies in a generative cycle. Instead of an ending, death can be interpreted as a beginning, as part of a process of renewal. In one sense, her work served as an index for reassessing the state of T&T and contemplating opportunities for transforming demise into new life.
Todd’s exhibition Black Guard offered embroidered images of T&T’s security personnel in a national colour palette of red, black and white. With figures often occupying a small part of her fabric surfaces, Todd’s compositions carried large negative spaces; what might be considered unguarded, vulnerable spaces. Yet those spaces were rendered in a vibrant red—a hue that represents the vitality of T&T’s land and its people. Her images put vulnerability and vitality in tension with each other. While Todd’s art celebrated those who take on the task of keeping people safe, it also pointed to the idea that a line can be quickly crossed and a protector can become a rogue or blackguard. Todd used delightful wordplay: black guard and blackguard to underscore her concerns.
If Minshall, Hadeed, Govan, Nanan, Todd, Lue Chee Kong and Peters pointed out certain ways of looking at the local milieu, such designers as Kriston Chen, Agyei Archer and Debbie Estwick offered their own way of seeing. Instead of casting their gaze outside the region for inspiration, these designers looked within, using the fete signs by sign painter Bruce Cayonne as the stimulus for innovative offshoots.
Chen used Cayonne’s hand-painted lettering to produce a digital Fete font in uppercase characters while Archer designed the font Cayonne Sans. Estwick repurposed Cayonne’s discarded signs, cutting them up into smaller pieces that now serve as covers for notebooks.
Along with looking within, some artists opted to look back. Carnival masquerade designer Brian Mac Farlane launched his 2017 band Cazabon: The Art of Living, with designs steeped in the era of the 1800s. According to Mac Farlane “the time of Cazabon was the most beautiful.” Using such market positioning strategies as “#KnowYourPath,” “#KnowYourPeople” and “#KnowYourPlace” the designer offered a vision of what he referred to as “glory days.” However, images of such costumes as the plantation houseboy and beautiful woman—modelled by a black man and white woman—provoked outrage among a number of members of society.
How then to look back? Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s exhibition Dreaming Backwards: The Magic of Breaking the Spell gave an answer. Her work took audiences on a journey in time across a span of centuries, addressing colonialism in a way that was not mawkish.
While Mac Farlane called for people to know their place, the team at Alice Yard set their tenth anniversary celebrations in motion with their Out of Place project.
The initiative was conceptualised by Alice Yard’s co-director Christopher Cozier and Bahamian-born, London-based artist Blue Curry who lived and worked at the Yard during the month of September.
Out of Place (an ongoing project) is driven by a number of questions including how to shift encounters of visual objects and actions from formal places such as galleries and museums to more public spaces.
A key ethos arising from the Out of Place project was that of collaboration.
Blue Curry partnered with doubles and sno cone vendors, a barbershop, espresso bar and dentist’s office among other people and locations in Port-of-Spain, bringing attention to creative experiences and strategies in everyday life.
“Blue Curry Specials” included a unique hair design, free toothpaste with a dental cleaning, a taxi ride at a discounted price, and doubles spiced with Blue Curry’s recipe for pineapple sauce.
A sweet, collaborative venture was also found in new work by Cocobel Chocolate.
Isabel Brash introduced chocolate bars in five flavours, with packaging featuring a commissioned drawing by Brianna McCarthy.
The year 2016 provided moments to see connections, reconsider social constructs, plumb fertile ground, destroy illusions, stare down depravity and consider time past, present and future.
What is envisioned for 2017?
In what ways will local artists respond to the world around them?
What will they help society see and understand? A new year is often an opportunity to recalibrate sight.
Marsha Pearce is a cultural studies lecturer at UWI, St Augustine, and writes on art for the Sunday Arts Section.
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