art in all its forms

art in all its forms


'Call Me By Your Name' bears sweet, fleeting fruit


Timothée Chalamet

Youth has no shame, shame comes with age.
- Andre Aciman

APRICOT season is brief. It lasts only one month from mid-June to mid-July. Similarly, the relationship at the heart of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino's ravishing new film which sets the innocence of first love against the color of the countryside and the 80s.

It's Italy, 1983. Visiting 24-year old American student Oliver (Armie Hammer) causes ripples, impressing with his very sexy etymology skills, lounging poolside in shorts, skipping dinner and cavorting in town after dark. Seventeen-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) tries mightily to be repelled. He complains to his mother about Oliver's refrain of "later" at the end of every conversation, is vexed that Mafalda is never informed when the guest is going to miss dinner, and bristles when girls in town are drawn to the stranger. Yet he doth protest too much. His repulsion thinly conceals a deep fascination. Something stirs, ripens.

Armie Hammer

Guadagnino's last two films I Am Love and A Bigger Splash were stylistically audacious stories in which older characters come of age. Both involve people who are out of place, who struggle to overcome barriers to their happiness. So too here. Just as the older matriarch in I Am Love fights her fascination with her son's young friend, Oliver keeps his distance. Elio submerges his impulses as well, but in a less conscious  and more confused way. But everything rises to the surface in an understated, yet sensual night-time scene.

Not under-stated is the already infamous apricot sequence, a kind of remix of the American Pie/Jason Biggs moment. It's a scene that comes straight out of Aciman's novel where even there it was so warped and overdone as to be utterly plausible and certainly unforgettable. Guadagnino turns something unfilmable into something human. He understands the power of the impulses guiding his characters and cleverly maintains the novel's use of apricots as a leitmotif throughout. If the fruit is sweet and irresistible, it is also difficult to grow, fragile and fleeting.

Some of the initial scenes with Hammer are too opaque, with little indication of Oliver's inner turmoil. Fans of the book might enjoy this as dramatic irony, knowing full well what is about to take place. Others with little knowledge of the story might be put off by the deus ex machina effect when the couple finally pair.

But there are more than enough good things carrying the film forward, notably its depiction of provincial Italy of the 80s. Sufjan Steven's soundtrack is also eerie, intense and beautiful. At the same time, Guadagnino opts out of some of the stylistic gimmicks in his previous films. The result is a simple, yet deeply affecting movie, with a stand-out performance by Chalamet. In the end there is a twist in this James Ivory script which makes us realise the buried subject of the movie might not be the two lovers after all but someone else.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.


A House for Mr Baldwin


In 1979, James Baldwin set out to write a book that would tell the story of America through the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But by the time Baldwin died in Paris in 1987, 'Remember This House' was still unfinished. Raoul Peck's bristling and poetic documentary I Am Not You Negro - which screened to packed audiences here at the Berlinale this week - seeks to give us the final chapter.

The film has the urgency of Baldwin's vision. That vision argues for the end of race: a worldview that is humanist above all. The documentary fuses archive footage of the novelist and poet giving interviews and lectures with records of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and more recent events such as the Rodney King beating, Ferguson, and the litany of racist police killings that continue to rock America. In the process, Peck produces something of a curse poem: its invective is stirring and meant to provoke.

Missing is an examination of how Baldwin's sexuality was just as integral to his philosophy as his race. When the author of Giovanni's Room calls on us to love our brothers and sisters, he is not only asking us to remove the barrier of skin colour. He wants us to build a house that truly encompasses all. The film was up for one of the Berlinale's LGBTI awards, but it makes only passing reference to Baldwin's sexuality and the enormous impact it had on his relationship with his publishers, agents, the black community as well as his own output as a writer. Of Malcom X - who had a profound impact on him - Baldwin wrote:
I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable, from love.

Malcolm X

The nature of Baldwin's literary achievement as well as his relationship with key literary figures such as American poet Langston Hughes are also not mapped. Complexity is curtailed.

Where I Am Not Your Negro shines is in its sophisticated examination of cinema as a reflection of a society in which things have gone array. Peck's provocative juxtaposition of jejune Hollywood musicals and comedies with images of lynched black bodies could be dismissed as a cheap gimmick were it not so true: both were often contemporaneous. Forget the American dream. This is American Psycho.

The narrow focus on America should not be mistaken as an indictment of race relations in one country alone. Baldwin lived all over the world and the whole point of his argument for brotherhood is one that also implicates any society where race has been allowed to dominate the narrative. This, by necessity, includes the global entetprise of colonization, premised on racial superiority, the implications of which reverberate today. The film also feels more than timely in the age of Trump and at a time when Europe is struggling to grapple with a refugee crisis inflected by race.

'We had many other Trumps before this one,' Peck said at Thursday's screening in Berlin. 'We share the same history. It's a problem of the whole society. You cannot say you are innocent after seeing the film.'

Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary is like one of Baldwin's strongest sentences: Nothing can be changed until it is faced.


FILM REVIEW: Black Orpheus (1959) - Carnival goes wrong

Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice 

THIS IS a film that navigates worlds. And in the process encounters choppy waters.

Marcel Camus' 1959 classic—which screens tonight at the Big Black Box as part of the TT Film Festival's Carnival Film Series—has been praised and dismissed in equal measure. The film won a Palme d'Or, an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe. But it has also drawn criticism. Though it gives us a riot of colour, one colour seems to dominate its gaze. At first, we appear to view the lives of black people as outsiders, with everything rendered quaint, charming, exotic. On the strength of just the first half of the film, Barack Obama once criticised its depiction of "childlike blacks", rendered as, "the reverse image of Conrad's dark savages".

There is something disheartening about the first act of the film which manages to gut Carnival of much of its subversion. The scenes of revelry are often unconvincing; performers look trapped in a pantomime in which they have been told they must simulate the ruction of the masquerade. Mas is meant to be art that is worn on the body; it is the one art form that demands incorporation into the world of its audience. But when the camera captures black masqueraders performing satire in European-inspired costumes, the project is reduced to a spectacle now presented in Technicolor for an applauding Global North.

But that's just one side of the equation in this problematic yet sublime film which follows a doomed love triangle.

At a time when black people in Hollywood films were largely relegated to "mammy" roles, Frenchman Camus gave us black people who were relatively complex. Death and love, characters were allowed to fear both. True tenderness unfurls amid the film's cardboard cut-outs. And here is why the film is still relevant, flaws and all: we are still in need of stories that show how much all races are vulnerable, black, white or otherwise. If the depictions here are artificial, it is only because all art must oversimplify.

And though we may have misgivings about the authenticity of what is being depicted, we cannot deny the film's visual power. Camus makes every shot count. Fabric, nature and even fruits in a market stall form part of his kaleidoscope. Symbols are deployed: a bird in a cage; three trams passing each other. The use of mise en scene is memorable. We often move from intimate domestic settings that tell us about characters to wide shots of Sao Paulo, showing us disparities of wealth already well-entrenched at that time in Brazil. Sound is carefully controlled, emphasis is placed on voice and music, the outside world is muted to add menace to footfalls during climatic scenes. Though at times the actors are boxed in by the arc of the story, they still effectively move us, bridging a crucial gap.

The film's climax is predictable to those concerned with the Orpheus legend. Even so, you cannot help but be roused by the film's central segment. Here, Carnival is imbued with both beauty and menace, its contradictory qualities perfectly captured in an extended sequence which begins with a festive parade and ends with a shocking development. The haunting last act brilliantly merges pathos with social commentary on crime, class and marginalisation.

Here is a film that tells us something about Carnival that is often glossed-over: it is the moment when society reveals its true colours.

BLACK ORPHEUS; screen play by Jacques Viot; based on the play Orfeu da Conceicao by Vinicius de Moraes; directed by Marcel Camus; produced by Sacha Gordine. At the Big Black Box, Murray Street, Woodbrook on February 4 at 7pm. Running time: 100 minutes.
Orpheus . . . . . Breno Mello
Eurydice . . . . . Marpessa Dawn
Mira . . . . . Lourdes de Oliveira
Serafina . . . . . Lea Garcia
Death . . . . . Adhemar da Silva
Hermes . . . . . Alexandro Constantino
Chico . . . . . Waldetar de Souza
Benedito . . . . . Jorge dos Santos
Zeca . . . . . Aurino Cassanio


'My role as a writer'

The University of the West Indies last week convened an unprecedented three-day academic conference aimed at exploring the ways in which Jamaican sexualities, gender identities and queer practices are expressed and experienced beyond the discourse of violence. The following is an address at the conference delivered by novelist, poet and essayist Kei Miller. 

Novelist, poet and essayist Kei Miller at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, on Saturday.
Photo by Andre Bagoo.

Let me start by just saying how pleased I am to be at this conference. I just want to support the idea behind it; the necessity to talk about LGBT lives in the Caribbean outside the discourse of oppression and victimisation, especially where that narrative is so easily consumed by sometimes well-meaning outsiders and insiders who then, unwittingly perhaps, refuse to acknowledge any other possible narrative, who roll their eyes or who dismiss as naïve and overly romantic any counter-story, any counter-narrative that points to ways in which LGBT people in the region experience hope, belonging, comfort, community, or even joy in the Caribbean.

I know, for instance, several Caribbean writers and scholars make it a point, for instance, to refer to our African ancestors as “the enslaved people” and not as “slaves”; the importance, more than just semantics, is to give agency, to acknowledge the ways in which black people did not participate in their own oppression. It is similarly important, I think, to do the same for queer lives in the Caribbean – people who sometimes and on some days live loved and wonderful lives.

And none of this reduces the absolute urgency to talk about and to tackle homophobia when and where it exists. These narratives must happen concurrently: a discourse about homophobia and what happens beyond it.

I have not titled this paper but I have tried to think through the brief for this panel, of the role of art, the role of the artist, the role of the writer to community—even risking all the preciousness that we call upon ourselves when we begin to think about our functions or our roles. So in this paper – and at some risk to myself because Jamaica is a small place – I want to return to a public conversation that I had with a Jamaican journalist and poet Mel Cooke.

On the face of it, it may seem that I was picking an argument with Cooke because of his homophobia. And that is pretty much true. Cooke’s homophobia is demonstrated in the article we will talk about. It was all the more dangerous because it was the kind that would not acknowledge itself. It was genuinely not aware of itself as homophobia. His discrimination was a close cousin to much of the racial tensions in America today, which is to say it was a series of micro-aggressions. His homophobia was casual homophobia. And when confronted, he eagerly pointed to the ways in which he had been an ally; in which he had openly condemned the more obvious and violent forms of homophobia in Jamaica.

Mel Cooke’s article, ‘Bye Bye, Boom Bye Bye’, published on 4th June, 2015, recounts a disturbance. The disturbance, though happening very clearly in Cooke’s own psyche, he locates instead in the body of a man he encountered at a furniture store in Jamaica. His problem with the man, according to the article, was not that the man was very possibly gay. His problem was a kind of gender performance that he found so outlandish, so preposterous that it reduced the man into being a jackass and a caricature of his own self. This is how Cooke’s article begins:
I was in Courts on Constant Spring Road, St Andrew, in December when I saw it. There were two of the things, but one was especially itty. It wiggled up the steps to the store's upper level behind a store employee. It wiggled, it simpered, it held its handbag in the crook of an arm with the wrist especially limp. It preened and smoothed down its hair and reveled in an oddly bronze complexion and surreptitiously glanced around to see the effect on those who were around. 
It was disappointed. No one batted (and that is a pun, in case you missed it) an eyelid.
There is much irony that is lost on Cooke. He says no one batted an eyelid. This pleases him. Everyone simply went about their shopping refusing to be drawn into the intended raucous that Cooke assumes this man, this person was trying to create. And yet Cooke is writing an article in a national newspaper about the incident. Sir, someone did bat an eyelid. But more than that Mel continues.
What did I do? What anyone interested in observing human behaviour would, naturally. I followed back a it. And upstairs I saw a person reclined in one of the chairs on display, pouting as he looked at his telephone, which he was suddenly very interested in now that there was no potential audience for the it which he had projected.
The ironies pile up one atop the other. There was no potential audience for this man’s performance of gender and yet Mel follows him through the store. Sir, there was an audience.

Like so many of us who sit easily in our privilege, it does not occur to Mel that following a man through a store to gawk at him is an act of aggression. His article goes to some length to rob this man of personhood; of his humanity. Yet, the writer allows himself to follow because it is what “anyone interested in observing human behaviour” would do, naturally. There is not time enough here to talk about what is meant by that word naturally; what behaviors are credited or discredited as being natural or unnatural in this scenario.

Mel’s position is a popular if not profoundly un-thought position in Jamaica. It announces itself in several ways: me nah have problem with battyman so long as them don't come to me with itme no care what people want do in their bedroom so long as they don’t push it in my face; as long as they don’t brazen with it — as long as they act natural, heteronormative — man must act like man, woman must act like woman. It should be acknowledged that this particular strain of homophobia is just as present in gay people. “Straight-acting” is used as a strange compliment. Does “white-acting” serve as a similar compliment? “No fats”, “no fems” etc. etc.

When the man gets bored of his own flamboyance, according to Mel, he resumes his personhood. Mel writes:
The costume was the same, but the persona totally different—deflated and different. Simply a person, different from me but certainly not intent on and failing to disrupt sensibilities.
But I want to suggest here that my argument was certainly about a sort of homophobia but it went beyond that. And at its heart I think this was one Jamaican writer talking to another and at stake was the role of the artist, of the writer, who writes out of and back to that community. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few years. What is the role of the Caribbean writer? And trying not to fall into a kind of silence because of this fear again of the earnestness that the answer to such questions might provoke. I’ve been thinking about this particularly because I’ve been challenged to think about it in a series of  conversations I’ve been having in different countries in different times but always with a particular writer I very much look up to: the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace.

Most recently this conversation happened about four weeks ago in Haiti. Lovelace always calls me to account for my generation of writers. Writers who he thinks lack the cause and the urgency that his generation of writers had. Earl will tell you that he had independence, nationalism, black power to fight for. And what do you have?

I try to tell him that if we seem cynical about these things it is not because we don’t believe in the fight but we now know who are excluded from these projects, who were left outside of nation and black power, including LGBT people, and we try to think of a Caribbean that might include more.

I am appreciating these conversations with Earl because … it was one of his novels that made me certain about what the role of the writer was. It was his novel The Wine of Astonishment, which tells a story about a community in Trinidad under threat—their way of life, their traditions, even their mannerisms are under threat by authorities who would have them act differently, behave more normally. To be themselves they have to meet in secret. And the law is now against them as well. This is a Spiritual Baptist community and a racist law was introduced to silence them. The leader of the church sees the damage the law has done to his flock. He knows that sometimes, when laws are so profoundly unjust, they must be broken.

In the chapter when he does this, when he breaks the law, he gives one of the most amazing sermons I’ve read in literature. He comes to his congregation in a state of repentance saying the problem was not just the law but him as well. He had failed because he had failed to tell them who they were. And in drawing out this sermon from him, the congregation shouts, “Tell us preacher! Tell us who is we!”

That to me was a community calling to its writers. Tell us writer, tell us who is we.


I know that is a high and holy presumption: of telling people who they are, offering them both a plodding banality and the incredible magic of themselves, of their personhood. But if we cannot offer them personhood, then at the very least we should do no harm. We should not take personhood from someone.

So for Mel Cooke to reduce this person to an it that was, for me, the most profound betrayal of one’s role as a writer, the greatest evil one could do on the page. Not only did he not tell this man who he was, but he would tell him that he was not.

Cooke’s failure was a failure of imagination: that this man who appeared as a story existed only as a spectacle. Performing only under his gaze, this man had no agency, no history, no ambition, he was nothing.

I think my job as a writer and pseudo-academic would be to remind this man of another unjust law in Jamaica that had to be repealed as well. In 1859, the poor people of Jamaica could take no more of the unfair toll that they had to pay on the main thoroughfare. For three nights they rioted, destroying the toll-keeper’s house and the tollgates at Savanna-la-Mar . The Falmouth Post described the rioters as, “ruffians, some dressed in female attire”. The Rebecca Riots of 1859—men dressed as women, fighting for justice.

My role as a writer is to tell the man at Courts that he belongs to that tradition. That even here he is rooted in a history of resistance and triumph. That he is a warrior. That in every nuance of the word, he is fierce. That he belongs. That he is beautiful. That he is a person.


Miller spoke on the panel, 'Coming Out, Coming Home', alongside artist Simone Harris, festival director of Belfast's Outburst Queer Arts Festival Ruth McCarthy and yours truly. The panel was put on with the support of the British Council and was chaired by artist Annalee Davis, Caribbean arts manager of the Council. You can watch the full panel at J-Flag's Facebook page here.

You can read more about the Beyond Homophobia conference here.


Supporting the art of art criticism

A moment from the recently-concluded Bocas Lit Fest/British Council art criticism workshop at the UWI, Mona. 

THE JOB of the artist is to see. And the job of the critic is to do exactly the same.

That was one of the key principles underlined at the recently concluded Bocas Lit Fest/British Council Caribbean workshop held at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica.

The workshop, held from January 8 to January 14, was a rare opportunity for participants to view the practice of art writing through the eyes of Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s books editor. Journalists and writers from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas and  Dominica were given practical examples of how visual art criticism can be approached; examined how literary texts can be analyzed; saw how formats can be adapted to suit the rapidly evolving landscape; and discussed challenges common to all critics whether they write for small journals or big-circulation newspapers.

There were field trips to the National Gallery of Jamaica and the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts; panel features with publishers and editors; lunches during which we mingled with islanders; and intense workshop exercises. In one instance, writers were given free rein to pluck an artwork from the National Gallery’s impressive collection and to write on it. Then, back at our base at the beautiful UWI campus at Mona, our writing was subject to an extensive surgery.

“A lot of criticism is re-assessment,” Armitstead said, “bringing in new intelligence as it comes in.”

“The goal of art-writing is to see more,” added Gean Moreno, curator of programs at ICA Miami, who led the visual arts component of the workshop.

I was one of the participants. Not only did I get new insight into craft matters, I also gained a renewed appreciation of criticism and its role: its power to provoke opinions and, thereby, enhance our democratic freedoms. This is an art that ties us all, whether we come from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas or Dominica. To nurture art, the art of criticism itself has to reach new levels.


Get more information on the Bocas Lit Fest and the British Council Caribbean.


BOOK REVIEW: Morning, Paramin

At the book launch of Morning, Paramin last December at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille. Photo: Andre Bagoo

A POEM contains time. Its effects rely entirely on a progression through words, lines, stanzas, developments, regressions, erasures—whatever materials are deemed fit.

A poem also contains time because it can look to the past. And it sometimes looks back in order to bring news to the present. Implicitly, the entire project of poetry looks to a future, in the same way all action assumes some kind of tomorrow.

Yet, sometimes it feels like time has paused in a poem: as though what is being presented is a fine photograph or painting. For a moment, WH Auden’s clock stops. A poem can be timeless, even if every fiber of its being is made of time.

In Morning, Paramin Derek Walcott confronts this vortex head-on. The book is an extended sequence of ekphrastic poems done in response to the paintings of Peter Doig. You might think the idea of a poet having to respond to a set image is limiting, but in fact such a stricture can give the poet more freedom. The result, in this case, is an ease and fluidity in Walcott’s lines. While the poems are sometimes mindful of process, they feel fresh and free even when deploying formal conventions. Famously, a book closes at the end of White Egrets. This new book triumphantly defies that.

In the new work, which was launched last week Wednesday at Doig’s studio space at Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, the paintings are not illustrations. Nor are the poems slavish replications of every stroke of the painter. In fact, sometimes Walcott takes the poems to unexpected places given the images. For example, in ‘Metropolitain’, the poet finds a tone that seems counter to the darkness of Doig’s painting ‘Stag’.

“Drunk is drunk anywhere,” Walcott memorably states. The Nobel Laureate gives us one of the greatest tributes to booze in poetry, calling Stag, “the loveliest of beers”. (Carib appears in another poem, but only as a symbol of tabanca.) There is a prose poem (the outstanding ‘100 Years Ago (Carrera)’), and poems that seem somewhere between rondels and sonnets contemplating another line but not needing one. Two poems are four lines long. Brevity is required for vastness.

Gradually, the book reveals its true subject matter: love and loss. Walcott once again looks to the past: dealing with a figure named Margaret, a likely reference to the poet’s second wife. The pair divorced, she died in 2014. The most fevered poems deal with her, such as ‘In the Heart of Old San Juan’, ‘Santa Cruz III’, and ‘Paramin’ where the poet declares, “when I join her it will be Paramin / for both us and the children.”

Yet these tender moments are offset by other tones. In ‘Man Dressed as Bat’ Walcott finds exhilaration and comedy at one moment, but then states, “What a sad thing a man dress like a bat. / Crip, cripple it!” The violent intolerance to the bat is not adequately accounted for in the poem. In ‘Mal d’Estomac’ and ‘Abstraction’ Walcott, the author of Tiepolo’s Hound and himself a painter, enters the guise of critic, analyzing modern art and Doig’s style.

If Walcott looks to the past, he also looks to a present with Doig. In ‘Grand Riviere I’ Walcott remarks of the landscape, “This lowering green emptiness is what you love / as hard as Peter Doig”. The poem ‘In the Arena’ casually describes Doig as, “a good fella”, adding, “You can tell a / good painter by how much he loves a place.” In ‘Peter, I’m Glad You Asked Me Along’, Walcott states, “Everywhere is wrong / as all forms miss perfection, hence the mask / in which the whole society is based.” He adds, “this craziness is just where we belong.” The effect is similar to what occurs in Catullus’s love poems to Lesbia, where anyone who acts as a portal to the object of the poet’s love is also loved. In ‘Lapeyrouse Umbrella’ Walcott writes, “What she has forgotten you learn every day, Peter.… / She sleeps in that country where there is no time, / as my pen and your brushstroke blend in the one metre.”

Readers will come away with a newfound appreciation of both artists. Walcott’s astonishing poems underline the complex power of Doig’s paintings which have a limitless range in terms of subject matter and technique. One minute we are down the islands at Carrera, the next we are skiing on a mountainside. At times the colours are as bright and vivid as a sign by Bruce Cayonne, at others, muted, oozing dark chemistries.

Doig’s best work finds de Chirico-like surrealism in the everyday. Examples include a heart-sign in a basketball court, a man walking with a pink umbrella next to the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, odd-looking boom boxes casually arranged at the side of the road, and, more recently, the yellow and green structures at the Port-of-Spain Jail, where the painter has utilized Rastafarian iconography in an audacious series of oil paintings.

But it is the sense of Walcott’s gaze – at the paintings, at his life, at his friend – that comes over most powerfully in this book. In the most haunting poem of the sequence, ‘Window Pane’, the poet looks to the future and writes, “all that lies ahead is the blank page / of winter no matter how well I write.”

Morning, Paramin, 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374213428, 120pp)
Available at PaperBased Bookshop

- from Newsday, December 28, Section B, page 1


Speaking in parables

Photo: The Golden Thread Gallery

JEAN-ULRICK Désert is familiar with Leviticus. He used that Biblical book as the title of a series of works on paper in 2008. For a new piece shown as part of Caribbean Queer Visualities in November, Désert returns to the Bible, this time referencing Matthew 7:6, with its edict, “do not cast pearls before swine.”

Désert fills a room with pearlescent balloons and hangs rainbow-coloured garlands that replicate the edict in different languages, including patois. The atmosphere is celebratory, yet ambivalent. There are also chains dangling from the ceiling. We look up to the roof at the seminal balloons, adjusting our body as we enter the room.

“The Bible is used as a strategy against the LGBTI community,” the artist says as we chat over dinner in Belfast where the show was staged. “I am reacting to that strategy and acknowledging that for those of us who speak this patois there is an intimacy that we share when we communicate in it.”

The artist continues, “It’s private, it is familial, which gives it a certain power and place of privilege. To me that seems an appropriate strategy for an intimate topic such as desire.”

This polyvalence is fitting for the subject matter, especially in context of Caribbean societies that have driven questions of sexuality underground into the realm of subterfuge and shadow play. Désert’s piece reflects a precarious tight-rope act. On the one hand it is festive, on the other hand it stands in awe – maybe fear – of desire. The use of “swine” in the title connotes various forms of kink, in addition to its figurative meaning.

“As we know, the figure of the pig is also someone who engages in something excessive,” Désert says. “There is also a certain obstinacy that comes with being a pig. When someone is called a pig it infers a variety of things.” If the message is lost, then this demonstrates how sacred texts are inherently malleable. They therefore serve as poor justifications for bigotry.

It Neque mittatis margaritas Vestras ante porcos (Do Not Cast Pearls Before Swine) is a serious warning from an artist who knows all too well the price of intolerance.

As a child, Désert’s family fled his native Haiti when it was under the grip of the first Duvalier regime.

“We were thrown into exile,” Désert says. “We lived in the Brazilian Embassy for a number of months until the President’s birthday when we were able to escape for the airport, making our way from Haiti to New York. One more day, all three of us would have been murdered.”


Désert continues, “My mother is still very reticent to talk about it. This is from what I pieced together from my father. Their marriage would eventually suffer and fall apart by the time we were living in the States. Even when my mom got divorced and she returned she was immediately arrested and stopped at an airport because we were still on a blacklist. Relatives had their businesses compromised. We had to abandon all our properties leaving me no physical legacy.” He adds, “but the cultural legacy cannot be erased.”

Désert has since lived in New York, Paris and now Berlin. He has earned degrees at Cooper Union and Columbia University and has lectured and been invited as a critic at Princeton, Yale, Humboldt. His work is impossible to pin down, including billboards, actions, paintings, site-specific sculptures, video and objects. A simple video of him standing at Piazza San Marco, Venice, during a flood tide takes on the air of something weighty and profound: commenting on history and fate.

In 2013’s Amour Colere Folie (Love Anger Madness), Désert pays homage to the Haitian author Marie Chauvet whose writing sent her into exile in New York until her death. Her work was later clandestinely published in 2002 reestablishing her once censored voice against the wishes of her family feared reprisals.

Désert pieces are united by this concern with the clandestine, not as willful obscurity, but as necessity. This is so whether he is working with burquas and flags, the exposed male body and lederhosen, or elaborately presented testimonials of sex workers. He hides things in plain sight, where they will be safest.

Or most dangerous, such as in La Main (The Hand) where that body part is cast in white chocolate, in a reference to the disturbing racist elements of Belgium’s history, a history which is not as well known as the country’s fine pralines.

“In my work in general I try not to impose my own personal point of view,” Désert says. “I would imagine one could say this about most of the practioners in this exhibit – we are not dedicated explicitly to a queer practice. It is implicitly there, they are one of many elements in our works.”

A tall, striking punk figure who combines dapper waistcoats with kilts, Désert adds, “I am very conscious of the male drag that I wear. Yet, that’s only one of about 50 layers of who I am. I don’t want to dis-empower the viewer to bring their own experiences in experiencing work. It’s poetic if one does it correctly.”

- from Sunday Newsday, December 18, page 3

Caribbean Queer Visualities was the outcome of a series of roundtable discussions by Small Axe and was staged at the Golden Thread Gallery as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Fest at Belfast last month.

More coverage of Caribbean Queer Visualities here and here,
supported by the British Council. 


Nowhere boy

Andil Gosine poses with Jamie Baird's portrait of him at PS2 Gallery, Belfast.
Photo by Andre Bagoo.

ANDIL GOSINE is 14-years old and he can’t stop crying. He’s at the Piarco International Airport. His family is about to board a plane that will take him, forever it seems, from Trinidad to Canada.

“I did not want to go,” he says today, seated in a café on a cool November afternoon in Belfast. “I made a huge scene in Piarco. The security guard saw me seven years later and he said: ‘O you come back!’ I was crying and begging my parents not to go. I definitely did not want to leave. It was very traumatic for me.” 

Gosine, 43, has lived all over the world (in one chat he breezes through Paris, New York, Toronto). “You know that expression in Trinidad— nowarian?” he says, alluding to his wanderlust state. 

Gosine is one of the artists featured in Caribbean Queer Visualities, the ground-breaking exhibition staged at Belfast in early November as part of Outburst, the city’s queer arts festival. His piece, Coolie Colors, alludes to two shifts: moving away from Trinidad, and embracing his sexuality. 

The artist juxtaposes two things: a small photo album showing that seven-year old who bawled down the place at Piarco posing in dainty guises; and an empty plant pot filled with three stunted jhandis—the flags used by Hindus for protection. 

Andil Gosine's Coolie Colours, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast

“I could have been fabulous but then I moved to Canada,” Gosine says the title of pantone that forms a part of his piece at the show. He is speaking on opening night at Belfast’s Golden Thread Galley, taking the audience through the work. “I wanted to challenge the dominant narrative of the Caribbean as an oppressive space for people who don’t conform to hetereonormativity.” Though the Caribbean lags behind many countries in terms of LGBTI equality, Gosine, the oldest of three boys, remembers his childhood in Trinidad as one in which he was never made to feel oppressed. 

“None of that was ever policed for me,” he says. 

Later, he states of the photo album, “Those pictures demonstrate to me the feeling of being a loved child who was not policed around identity. I was never told boys don’t do that. I was a confident child. I was lucky to have been brought up in Trinidad. I wasn’t known as a boy who didn’t do sport. I was just Andil. I really did feel cared for by my parents.” 

 Details from Coolie Colours

He adds, “I left Trinidad a very confident child and Canada destroyed me. It was obliterating. There was nothing freeing about being in Canada. It was punitive those four years in high school.”
Later, in Gosine’s experience, race complicated his engagement with Canada’s gay community. 

“You won’t see me claim gay pride because my experience of gay culture has been really race-inflected,” he says. 

“The racism in some pockets of the gay community just makes me feel sad.” Coolie Colors, therefore, merges the story of migration with a gay man’s personal experience of the world amid the forces of history. 

“I think it reflects my anxieties and I just tried to be honest and confident about sharing them,” Gosine says. At a roundtable discussion he adds, “For me, being home is where I get looked at as a full and complex human being…. I get to be a full complex human being in a way that proves evasive in Toronto or New York.” 

Gosine’s story is just one of many within Caribbean Queer Visualities which 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 supported by Ruth McCarthy, director of the Outburst festival in Belfast. It was the culmination of a series of roundtable discussions convened by Small Axe, the forum for ideas. 

“The exhibition emerged out of two events that centred on the aesthetic practices and decisions of the practitioners,” Cunningham says. “The vision was, to my mind, to think the question of queer through contemporary visual art.” Other artists involved include: Ewan Atkinson, Ebony G Patterson, Jean-Ulrick Désert, Jorge Pineda, Charl Landvreugd, Leasho Johnson, Nadia Huggins, Richard Fung and Kareem Mortimer. 

“I think of Caribbean history as a kind of queer history,” says David Scott, founder/ editor of Small Axe. “We tend to think of these colonial stories through a kind of normative lens overriding social and individual dimensions… But we all have stories of people who stand out in our family settings as LGBTI. If you tell the story through those lenses, what emerges?” 

Gosine, a former Commonwealth Scholar and World Bank gender consultant, is also an associate professor of cultural studies at York University, Toronto. He was born on November 26, 1973. He grew up in Tableland before his family joined the throngs of people who migrated. 

“I worked hard to get into Presentation College,” he says of his time at Robert Village Hindu School. “I remember I finished first. I worked so hard and then you want me to leave all this to go to some industrial town, some vocational institute in Oshawa?” After school, Gosine’s plan was to make his escape to Trinidad. But the plan changed. 

“It changed because I met my first boyfriend,” he says. “Everything changed.” Later, they changed again. The relationship ended, posing a new dilemma for the nowarian. 

What to do? “That relationship ended and my art career started,” Gosine says, as if channelling Adele or her good pal Jessie Ware. 

Gosine’s work has already been shown at Queen’s Museum, O’Born Contemporary, Gallery 511, and the Art Gallery Ontario. His forthcoming solo exhibition, Coolie, Coolie, Viens Pour Curry. Le Curry Est Tout Fini! will open across three gallery spaces in Toronto in March 2017. 

His work balances the historical with the personal, showing their common thread of power. 

“My mom and dad are clearly affectionate,” Gosine says. “In my first relationship, I was in a way copying my parents. Then, for many years, the dominant mode of existence was heartbreak.” He recalls being inspired by the conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady, who once said, “Art’s first goal is to remind us that we are human, whatever that is….we are all human.” “I once wanted to be a writer,” Gosine says. 

He also alludes to a time when he was drawn to politics. He adds, smiling, “But art provides a more complex way of conveying the world.” 

-taken from Sunday Newsday, Section B, page 1, with modification:

The print version lists Andil as 7 when he leaves Trinidad, and attributes "I could have been fabulous but then I moved to Canada" directly to him, not as a title. 

More coverage of Small Axe's Caribbean Queer Visualities here and here,
supported by the British Council


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.