art in all its forms

art in all its forms

12/2/16

Dreaming backwards

Detail from Jasmine Thomas-Girvan's It's Definitely Not a Rose Garden, the Red is the Preferred Scent
SOMETIMES filmmakers shoot scenes backwards in order to give them a dream-like quality. Other times, something might be filmed backwards to achieve a special effect. A falling house was filmed in slow motion and the footage put in reverse in The Wizard of Oz.

Jasmine Thomas-Girvan’s latest show, Dreaming Backwards, makes us time travel. The show is an incantation. Walls of the gallery space are plastered with poems. The room is full, too full. There is little space to be vacant. This is both a curse and a blessing. There is something frenetic in the assault on the senses, the layers of surrealism, the poetry of the elegant forms. The exhibition’s subtitle, The Magic of Breaking the Spell, is appropriate.

What happens to time in dreams? Does it exist within that space? What does it mean to dream backwards? Is it like a film being played in reverse? And if so, is dreaming backwards not a form of moving forward?

The solidity of these objects belie the portals they open to history. Amid these dazzling objects, there are problems and questions. Writer Sharon Millar points to “the human cost beneath the belly of beauty, below the belly of civility.” But the artist takes us back, like a filmmaker might, in order to take us forward. That blood-red resin on the floor is the same blood, spilled centuries ago, now being spilled on the streets of our Caribbean cities. How to break the spell?


Dreaming Backwards
Y Art Gallery
26 Taylor Street
Port of Spain


Back to bat

Embah's Bat, 2015, mixed media


Look up, and you see things flying 
Between the day and the night

      -DH Lawrence, ‘Bat’


THE BLUE devil is nothing without someone to terrorize. Take the audience away, and that menacing flame has little purpose. But this is not the case with the bat. Of all the Carnival characters, it is the one you can imagine standing in splendor on an empty street.

Ashraph’s Bat Show also reminds us how the details make a difference. For example, change the footwear on the bat, and you have an entirely different creature altogether. Consider Jackie Hinkson’s drawings showing the bat wearing office shoes (as they once did) before going barefoot.

Jackie Hinkson, 2016, indian ink

Peter Minshall, once described the bat as, “the most kinetic and alive of all traditional forms. I took him apart and put him back together again, and tried to find out how to make the cloth dance.” He also stated:
The Bat was right for the ‘50s, he’s quaint now because his competition really is Darth Vader. Today it’s movies, television. So we have to learn what the Bat or Robber teaches us – about dancing the mas, about mobility – and not just re-create them, but find their contemporary equivalents. 
(from Carnival: Culture in Action: the Trinidad Experience, pp. 116-117)
The pieces assembled for Bat Show give us the bat in various guises.

Hinkson’s ink drawings show us the bat as though in private moments, rehearsing. Adele Todd stitches bits of bat wings to linen. The late Embah’s bat objects perch like guinea owls in a corner. Peter Doig transfigures them into costumed men. (In Morning, Paramin, Derek Walcott pens a poem in response to Doig’s earlier Man Dressed as Bat (Night), 2008.) In another corner, Che Lovelace paints a poem of movement. Ashraph gives us bat studies with the bat’s watery, sensuous wings enclosing glittery bellies. There is a painting by Leo Basso, Bats dancing in the streets, which disrupts our perspective. An entire avenue is warped. The bats take over.

But it is Paul Kain who paints a bat on the prowl, in the middle of a disco. We can see this bat on the dancefloor: he needs no audience, though we are glad to fall beneath his gaze.



Bat Show
The Frame Shop, Woodbrook.
Closes Saturday.

11/27/16

Olive Senior on poetry and changing the world

Olive Senior reads from Summer Lightning

HOW DO YOU change the world? Poet, novelist, short-story writer Olive Senior has an answer.

It's up to you.

Senior read last night at a special event put on by the NGC Bocas Lit Fest and the Paper Based Bookshop at Medulla Gallery in her honor. The audience was treated to a selection from the author's short-story collection Summer Lightning as well as several of her poetry books including Shell, Over the Roofs of the World and Gardening in the Tropics. There were also readings by writers Barbara Jenkins and Ayanna Gillian Lloyd. I was privileged to be asked to participate and read 'Flying', a new poem written in response to the final story in Senior's latest book of stories The Pain Tree.

The audience was also treated to a Q&A segment between Senior and poet Shivanee Ramlochan, who asked Senior to state her views on the purpose of poetry.

The purpose of poetry is to turn your head upside down. Poetry is there to ask questions of you and to provoke you to have another perspective of things. 

I was writing to discover who I was and as a way of enabling me to achieve sanity and to ask questions about who we were, as Jamaicans. I have grown up with the society. Part of my learning to be a writer was reading what Caribbean scholars were writing.

Senior also emphasized the extensive research that goes into many of her poetry and non-fiction books. This research, though arduous, enriches her writing overall. Her entry-point when dealing with large quantities of information is to find an intimate portal.

Look for the smallest possible thing. 

My life and art are holistic. 

For successive generations, Senior has inspired with her stories about outsiders: orphans, children, women trapped in roles, and men left behind by time.

All my work is about humanity. 

The audience also got a peak at the daily life of the writer, who teaches at Toronto, where she lives. For now.

My day is spent earning a living! I'm an optimist just to stay afloat. 


Shivanee Ramlochan, Olive Senior, the crowd and Ayanna Gillian Lloyd.
Photo by Andre Bagoo

Her father's ghost

Photo courtesy Nadia Huggins



EVER SINCE her father died, Nadia Huggins, 32, has been hoarding things. But not the things people normally hoard like old documents, haberdashery and knick-knacks. No, she has been hoarding memories.

“I am normally the type of person who gets rid of things quickly. But after my dad died, I find that in my work I hoard all these sentimental things,” Huggins says as we chat on a British Airways flight from Trinidad and Tobago bound for Northern Ireland.

“I am always looking for a memory of something, a feeling, something I would have felt once. It feels like you are always trying to chase an impossible memory. There is always some baggage from the past attached to it.”

Huggins is one of the artists whose work was featured in the ground-breaking exhibition Caribbean Queer Visualities staged at Belfast in early November as part of Outburst, the queer arts festival which has been making strides.

One online poster for the show featured Huggin’s photographic diptych Is that a buoy? The eye is drawn to two floating objects. But one of these is a human head, barely discernable, rising from the water. The other is a buoy, floating like a serene planet between sea and sky. We are given little to signal gender, race or anything that might mark the human figure: the artist has muted colour, submerged the form and rendered the face as a silhouette, with the slightest suggestion of eyelashes. We are made to question what we see. It’s a work that challenges us to cross boundaries, something that seems to resonate with Huggin’s own life.

Of her father, who was an architect among many other things, Huggins says, “He was a strange person, he had very unusual habits and ideas. He was very counter to the norms, against what a small island would expect of a person. He used to design his own Carnival bands.”

“He passed away in 2006, he was an alcoholic. He suffered from depression as well. It tied into his feeling of not being accepted. Which is funny because that is something I also battle with: feeling like an outsider, not feeling a sense of belonging in your own home, in your own country.”

QUEER DIASPORA

Huggins was born in Trinidad on January 28, 1984. But her parents moved around a lot including to countries like the UK and Barbados. Eventually, they returned to St Vincent and the Grenadines. Years later, she moved back to Trinidad (which she calls the “New York of the Caribbean”) on her own.

So where is home?

“That’s a very difficult question,” Huggins says. “St Vincent and the Grenadines still feels like home. It’s where all the nostalgia exists right now. Mom is in St Vincent. You never realize a place is home until you leave it.”

Home is a concept that many members of the LGBTI community in the Caribbean – like the rest of the world – grapple with given the economic, social and political barriers to equality there.

Caribbean Queer Visualities deals with this question of belonging. It was curated and coordinated by: David Scott, Erica James, and Nijah Cunningham, with assistance from Colette Norwood of the British Council Northern Ireland and Annalee Davis of British Council Caribbean. The show was put on at the Golden Thread Gallery and supported by Ruth McCarthy, director of the Outburst festival in Belfast.

Nadia Huggins' Is that a buoy?
“I am blown away that we’ve got something of this quality in Outburst,” McCarthy says in a Skype interview, taking a break from her busy festival responsibilities. “This is an important exhibition. We really wanted to create a space where there could be LGBTI persons having a voice; a self-determining space. The theme of our festival is home which is fitting as I think that a ‘queer diaspora’ is really important. So many people leave home in order to be themselves. Many in the UK move to London, for instance. I think queer people leave home at rates much higher than straight people.”

Huggins certainly identifies with the perspective of the outsider. Even if she does not consciously set out to explore questions relating to gender, sex and sexuality, her work implicitly challenges us to ask questions on that level, whether through her stunning self-portraits to her photography work more generally (which often features human forms submerged in yet apart from their landscape).

FREEDIVER

Huggins is ready to free dive. As our flight progresses, she looks admiringly at the cover of an in-flight magazine which bears a photograph of Chizuko Nakamura, 63, one of the last members of Japan’s elite group of tough female divers who, year-round, plumb depths as deep a 65 feet, holding their breath for up to two minutes.

“I’d like to do that,” she says. The idea of free diving might seem a strange thing for her to discuss while we are seated thousands of miles up in the air. But in many ways what Huggins does in her art is just as daring as anything the Japanese ama do.

Melanie Archer, writing in Caribbean Beat, says her work shows, “a keen observational eye, a mastery of composition that heightens the drama of a moment, and atmospheric tones that hint always at an extra layer — something present but not quite said”. Hugh Howey describes her work as “gritty and primal”; “young and mature”; “dirty and innocent”. The Designer Island website says the work is, “sometimes dreamy sometimes gritty but always uniquely Caribbean.”

Is that a buoy? has something most in common with three of Huggins series of photographs: Black and Blue; Circa no Future and Fighting the Currents.

In Black and Blue, boys are pictured on a beach at Canaries, Saint Lucia. They are placed out of focus, rendered as shapes, forms, silhouettes. So rendered, they seem to have been painted by El Greco or sculpted by Alberto Giacometti. The seeming distortion of the human body is a tool used to get us to project our own questions into the frame. What makes us one thing or another? Huggins is at once asking what is distinctive about our own roles and also challenging that idea of the human spirit being boxed into performing the same functions.

From Nadia Huggins' Black and Blue series

In Circa no Future the boys are brought back into focus and the terrain of the coast – that liminal space where earth and water meet – is rendered more clearly. Yet, all distinctive Huggins erasures are still there, be it bubbles that block a face, or shots taken in a perspective that renders the human body distant or anonymous – the human face is sometimes just out of the frame. This time, though, this process of masking is balanced with an epic sense of adventure, as though the heady thrill of having fun in the sea is what matters most: joy that renders individuality irrelevant.

In a sense it was only natural that the artist would next place herself into the frame within this coastal environment that she is so evidently drawn to. It is a space that embodies the pull and tug of currents, both within and without, that she has had to fight. Even in works that look at seemingly tangential aspects of the sea terrain (like The fishermen; Vendors and Pulling the net) there is a sense that what we are looking at is not just what we are looking at. These are remnants of a childhood feast – part of a landscape of freedom.

Along with Fighting the currents, Is that a buoy? is an important moment in Huggins’ body of work, the point at which she presents herself most vulnerably, even if mediated through shadow, water and coastal masque.

“I am trying to come to terms with not being accepted growing up in a place like St Vincent, a small island,” Huggins says of Is that a buoy? as our flight to Belfast continues over the Atlantic. “I have always felt a little bit of resentment for small island society. Growing up I was a tomboy. Going to the beach people would come to me and ask me: are you a boy or girl?”

“It’s this idea of not understanding what you are looking at, who you are looking at. When looking at something at a distance it looks exactly the same.” I think of her side-project, Every horizon looks the same – a website where she invites people to submit photos of the horizon.

From Huggins' Circa no future series

While she seeks to assert the universal within, she also places emphasis on the individual’s uniqueness. She adds, “It’s a discrimination that happens. That’s what it’s about people not spending time to look at you and understand.”

Our conversation is interrupted when a flight attendant comes back to give us an update on the US presidential election (our flight had left Port of Spain before the first results became known, signaling Donald Trump’s victory).

Huggins takes in the information silently and we continue our conversation. She recalls making the empowering decision to shave her head when she was 17 years old, just as she had been diagnosed with alopecia or chronic hair loss.

“Those years were super difficult. I used to get teased a lot, called a zammie or lesbian. At the same time this all came as I was dealing with the fact of being bisexual. With the hair loss, even if I could conceal one thing about me I could not conceal that.”

“I’ve always felt nature had a different idea for me. It kinda forced me into this box of being perceived as wanting to be masculine. I always wanted to be a woman. Whatever that is. I didn’t want to be tied down with labels. I never wanted to meet anybody’s expectations.”


- from Sunday Newsday, November 27, 2016, Spotlight page 3





11/6/16

Postcards to home


Everything blurs. Even its painter.
Derek Walcott, ‘Tiepolo’s Hound’

*


JACKIE HINKSON’S travel sketches show the artist on the move. Though smaller in scale, they give us a chance to see him operate on a global canvas.

“Hinkson has travelled regularly to Europe to study and learn from centuries of art of that continent,” notes a leaflet for the show currently on at the Alliance Francaise, St Clair. “On these trips, as on all others, he packs his sketch pads and his watercolours. The works in this exhibition are a selection from those trips. They are small works, many of them rapidly executed sketches.”


Details from 'View of Florence' (watercolour, 1992); and 'Church 2, Amsterdam, Netherlands' (charcoal pencil, 1977)
Landscapes are difficult to pin down. On the surface they seem straightforward: a mountain here, vegetation there and various human elements. But as with all art, what is being depicted is sometimes not as important as how it is rendered. In landscapes, artists make statements without making statements.

Even when these pieces don’t shout at us, they serve as bridges to the rest of Hinkson’s important body of work. If these sketches are postcards, they are also indirect mementos of Trinidad. We get a reminder of the Hinkson style, particularly his concern with form, light and shadow. The 100 sketches on show have the energy of an artist demonstrating that he’s at home just about anywhere. Why should his subject matter not include scenes from France, Italy, England, Spain?

The exhibition continues at the Alliance Francaise, St Clair, this week.



10/25/16

Naipaul's St James

Photo courtesy John Hill. Hosay in St James, 1950s.

THE JOURNEY of A House for Mr Biswas from the oppressive setting of Chaguanas to St James, Port-of-Spain, is not only about one man's discovery of freedom. The house on Sikkim Street which Mohun Biswas comes to purchase after a lifetime of drifting is a symbol of nationhood. His life story dramatises a movement from an alien, all-powerful hegemony to independence.

And just as the complexities of freedom would be underestimated by the newly free state, so too is Mr Biswas' real estate purchase romanticised:
He had seen the house like a guest under heavy obligation to his host. If it had not been raining he might have walked around the small yard and seen the absurd shape of the house. He would have seen where the celotex panels on the eaves had fallen away, providing unrestricted entry to the bats of the neighbourhood. He would have seen the staircase that hung at the back, open, with only a banister, and sheltered by unpainted corrugated iron. He would not have been deceived into cosiness by the thick curtain over the back doorway on the lower floor. He would have seen that the house had no back door at all. If he had not had to rush out of the rain he might have noticed the street lamp just outside the house; he would have known that a street lamp, so near the main road, attracted flies like moths. But he saw none of these things. He had only a picture of a house cosy in the rain. (565-566)
A House for Mr Biswas was published on the eve of Independence. The wife of the solicitor's clerk who sells Biswas the house is even referred to as "the old queen". This is a book that venerates the dream of Independence, then stares the complexity of post-colonial countries in the face. It remains relevant to a society where even mas bands today evoke strong debate over the role of the past within our present.

Locations within Naipaul's work, while specific, come to have complex symbolic meanings, even if rooted within the writer's personal life. St James is St James, yes, but it is also the whole of Trinidad.

A House for Mr Biswas

However, two recent events have shown the fruitfulness of a psychogeographic reading of the work of the entire Naipaul family. One was the talk given tonight by writer, journalist and filmmaker Robert Clarke, hosted by the Friends of Mr Biswas, which traced St James within the fictional world of VS and, particularly, Shiva Naipaul. The other was September's award of the Forward Prize to Trinidadian British writer, a relative of the Naipauls, Vahni Capildeo for Measures of Expatriation, a stunning book about how national boundaries do not matter.

***

Clarke's engaging talk at City Hall, Port-of-Spain, marked the City's adoption of 26 Nepaul Street, St James, as a national heritage site. He traced fictional representations of St James' streets and townsfolk through books ranging from Shiva's Beyond the Dragon's Mouth, to Vidia's short story 'My Aunt Gold Teeth' (later collected in The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book).

"Aunt Gold Teeth was a family friend who actually existed," Clarke said. "In other words, characters have been altered for dramatic effect."

"But it is in Shiva’s stories that you are invited into his St James, just as you were introduced to the characters of Woodbrook through Vidia’s Miguel Street, written from observations made from the safety of his grandmother’s yard while living at the Capildeo house at Luis Street, Woodbrook."

For Clarke, St James was a perfect setting for Shiva's examination of complex themes relating to racial and religious diversity.
It is Shiva, the third writer in the family, who has left us the best portraits of a fictionalized St James. He spent his formative years there, from the age of one well into his teens and beyond. So perhaps it is fitting that we should begin with him. Or rather, my imagined version of his 5-year-old self: 
From the second story of 26 Nepaul Street, Shiva heard the first rap-pap-pap of the Hosay tassa. He tumbled down the staircase, past the oil portrait of his father, journalist Seepersad Naipaul, snatched a piece of roti from the tabletop bowl, gave Gyp the family dog a friendly kick and bounded into the yard. 

Robert Clarke
St James' status as a microcosm of Trinidad and Tobago society led writer Anu Lakhan, in an introduction to Clarke's presentation, to describe the suburb as, "the most cosmopolitan space in Trinidad." Prof Kenneth Ramchand, chairman of the Friends of Mr Biswas, put it simply, "St James is Trinidad."

***

In opening remarks to tonight's event, Ramchand also pointed out that the Capildeos were a presence at the house at St James, where Vidia spent his last four years before leaving for university. The house had been bought by Naipaul's father Seepersad (who provided the model for Biswas) 70 years ago in 1946. Shiva grew up there, and Drupati Capildeo was once resident.

Life has a way of making neat patterns, though Vahni Capideo's poetry defies such limitations. Her formal recognition last month for a book that brazenly stares at the complexities of migration and belonging forces us to re-evaluate the idea of fixed geography, whether in the world of fiction writers or otherwise.

The poet's books, from her first, No Traveller Returns, right up to her most recent, Expatriation, examine the idea that a person is never where they really are: is everywhere and nowhere at once; resides within a higher integrity - call it soul, call it persona, call it figure. In book after stunning book, Capildeo has shown how as global citizens we deploy far more creative and complex ideas of place. We travel with entire worlds in our heads, in the process dissolving the distinctions between different countries, peoples, norms.
        Dawn's cloth, cut out to try on,
slides light along the Northern Range,
pins pricking scams of sunrise that graze
the iron-pink mountains
that start showing their temper.
Like Indian cotton,
so fragile in its brilliance...  
                                  (Undraining Sea, 55)
Capildeo's poetry processes what, perhaps, her distant relatives fictionalised. A complex transnational life familiar not only to the Naipauls, but all the residents of Sikkim Street.





***

The next event by the Friends of Mr Biswas takes place on November 23, 2016, at 6pm. It is on FEM Hosein, a mayor of Arima, MP, writer and playwright. Venue: Arima Town Hall.

Tonight's lecture was part of an ongoing exercise in which persons with information about cultural ties to St James (whether literary or otherwise) are invited to contact the Friends of Mr Biswas to continue a process of mapping. "Tell us," says Prof Ramchand.