art in all its forms

art in all its forms

6/18/17

A poem for Asami

Trinidad is a beautiful but troubled country. What's the role of the poet here?

Asami Nagakiya. Illustration by Christopher Lou-Hing.

Voices Carry, by Mervyn Taylor
(Shearsman, ISBN 9781848614970, 100 pp)

Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting, by Shivanee Ramlochan
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845233631, 72 pp)



SOME questions about the role of the poet came to mind when I was reading two recently published poetry collections by Trinidadian authors. In my view these books  demonstrate the importance of the poet having the freedom to be socially engaged. Mervyn Taylor’s Voices Carry and Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting respond, each in their own way, to issues plaguing our society.

I know both authors. My third book Pitch Lake is dedicated to Taylor; and was recently reviewed by Ramlochan. I would not want to pretend to review these titles as an independent critic might. Instead, I refer to both books as part of an overall argument about the right of the poet to speak out in the manner of their choosing.

Let me be clear. The poet has no duty to anyone.

Yet, no poet lives in a vacuum. Each is a product of a society or societies. Though we sometimes disagree on what poetry is, we do not quibble over who poetry is for. It is meant for an audience. That audience, too, is comprised of sentient individuals: beings whose lives have been colored by factors that shape our understanding of the world. On this pulsing theatre stage, what is the place of the poet?

Poet Mervyn Taylor. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

At the very least, poets who choose to directly engage with the issues of their time; who seek to express truths; who sincerely advocate for justice and equality should not be vilified. Nor should their work be, for these reasons, deemed inferior or dismissed as simplistic. Plato and Socrates questioned virtue, but poetry reassembles it with both crystal-clear water AND mud. Remember, poetry is a true democracy.

It is often said in debates about poetry that the idea of a poet having an agenda is distasteful or distracting. But it is not about the poet having an agenda. It is about the poet having the freedom to express their moral conscience. It is about an individual’s willingness not to turn a blind eye to suffering. A desire to express our dream for a better world, presenting the world in all of its beauty and its ugliness. If a poet is dismissed as being fashionable due to her awkward quality of having integrity, then so be it.

Taylor’s previous books include The Waving Gallery, No Back Door, and Gone Away. Like these works, Voices Carry examines the shifting individual, moving across boundaries and time, coming to terms with bitter social realities. The collection is nostalgic about the past, in love with memory, drunk on music and literature, ever mindful of the shifting times; the changing world. His poems achieve great clarity but not at the expense of freshness. They feel like fables but are completely modern. If at times they veer into the surreal, that is because life in Trinidad and Tobago is surreal (consider ‘Blue Lights’, ‘Bad Dream’).

Crime is the villain of theses poems, stalking them, made more horrific by how Taylor casually incorporates suffering. In ‘Alma’s Advice’ he writes:

Who are the boys we’ll root for,
when they’re all dead or gone away?
Where is the cluster of houses
We’ll indicate with a wave,
meaning where we grew up, where
we had our first glimpse of secret
flesh, covered with fur.

But for all the fine poems, it is ‘A Kind of Valentine’ that lingers in the mind long after we close this book. Taylor writes of murdered Japanese steel pan player Asami Nagakiya, found dead on Ash Wednesday, 2016, in her Carnival costume. The poet gives us, “the Carnival that so went to a man’s/ head, he tried to hide her/ among the yellow blossoms”. The concluding lines:

I will walk you round this Savannah…
I will show you where not to go at night. But
I cannot help during the day, when

it is bright, and a hundred thousand people
offer invites, and behind the masks, men
are not always who they say they are.

In this book, voices bring us news. They carry—meaning they go far and wide; they endure. They carry—meaning they contain multitudes, bring us gifts.

Shivanee Ramlochan at painter Che Lovelace's studio in Macqueripe. Photo by Andre Bagoo.


In a similar vein, Ramlochan’s rich debut, Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting preaches truth. There is a sense of a poet luxuriating in language. Elegant lines are dipped in Gothicism and folklore; incandescent monologues are spiked by the poet’s imperatives. There is the play of magic realism, the personal is made mythological yet the sense of intimacy, of secrets being revealed remains. In this way social concerns, such as those relating to gender and violence, are woven into a beautiful tapestry. Ramlochan’s mosaic leaves us with the bristling sensation of a yearning for justice. And so the complex ‘Materna’:

I am not your mother
but in my womb there is knowing of you.
The dome of my head is shorn close, ‘til it hints of marrow.
These years and years of hair
carpet your dreams.

Also consider the irresistible ‘Shepherdess Boxcutter’ sequence where the traumatic and fertile are allied. Everywhere we find the body of the abused, the marginal, the silenced – now strangely brought back to life by the poet’s scalpel as though we are privy to a miraculous post-mortem. Translate “Everyone knows I am a haunting” and you get everyone knows I am a-hunting; everyone knows I am a ghost; everyone knows. All should be afraid.

These books respond to the immediate needs of the world around them in ways that are compelling, beautiful and, in my view, necessary. Taylor and Ramlochan approach social realities differently, yet those realities are present all the same. They demonstrate John F Kennedy’s famous declaration: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

- Sunday Newsday, June 18, 2017, Section B, page 3 & page 6.


READ Dalton Narine's open letter to Taylor here.

5/21/17

BOOK REVIEW: Travels with a Husband

Rex Dixon, Toco Moods, acrylic and collage on paper, 2010.


Wherever I sat, there I might live, 
and the landscape radiated from me accordingly.

- Henry David Thoreau



REX DIXON's talent for painting, poetry and prose shines bright in Travels with a Husband – a playful book that is intriguing, humorous yet ultimately slight notwithstanding the wealth of material it marshals.

Scholar and filmmaker Patricia Mohammed has made something of a companion piece to her beautiful film Seventeen Colours and a Sitar which documented the artistic pairing between her husband Dixon and sitarist Mungal Patasar. Whereas that film presented, "a marriage between intuitive and experimental ways of working" this book presents the marriage proper between Dixon and Mohammed.

But Travels with a Husband is not a juicy tell-all. As Mohammed states in the introduction, the title of the book is a pastiche of Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) and Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt (1970). Mohammed cheekily adds, "neither reference is literal but nonetheless some parallels may be drawn... the double entendre in the indefinite article is deliberate, open to anyone's interpretation." We identify easily with the two authors and are promised a book that gives us a glimpse of their life:
We are, like many others, very much products of the modern condition of being, always transitory migrants, not quite settled in any one place, and wary of the boundaries of nation, class, ethnicity or gender that attempt to define our lives. Like many others, we leave a little of our souls in each place we have visited or lived in for a while, and we take some of theirs with us, always adding to the imaginary landscapes that constantly fuel our creativity and joie de vivre
Yet, after 216 pages, we don't feel like we've had a meaningful glimpse of any of this. The book covers a dazzling array of countries, assembling short essays, poems and paintings. But the prose sections anchoring it all are problematically insubstantial.

Rex Dixon, Spanish Postcard, pencil on paper, 2000.

Mohammed, who is the author of a book-length study on Caribbean iconography, writes the bulk of the book's passages. Her tone is often witty and wry. Her prose is strongest when she paints cameos of characters encountered during the couple's peregrinations across countries like Jamaica, Canada, Namibia, Spain, Japan, Haiti, the Netherlands, India, Australia, Cuba and Barbados. There are some memorable descriptive passages, such as this one about Jamaica:
The blue of this sea is not translucent aquamarine like Negril or Montego Bay. It is as changeable as a summer's day on the Antrium coast of Northern Ireland. Prussian blue in mid-morning, with a ribbon of lilac marking the horizon, and a white frothy lace, the shore. 
However, Mohammed's narratives sometimes over-reach, coming to grand conclusions without adequate development. You get the sense that she has held back the big ideas she wanted to explore. For example, we are left wanting to understand more about her views on resistance; crave a better examination of Namibia and its politics; wish for exploration of how "masculinity and nationalism is forever an ongoing game"; and definitely needed more on Cuba and Haiti.

Rex Dixon, Two Burning Cages, acrylic on canvas, 2013.

Understandably, the authors were aware they were not writing an academic book. But a book like this has to be able to carry complex ideas in ordinary language. Some things here are simply too breezy. A narrower, more sustained focus would have been useful. We are left with a rushed feeling of fragments recollected by-the-way after the passing of years.

The real strength of the book, though, comes in how it showcases Dixon's art, including several of his paintings and multi-media collages done in a series of locations. Lines are never straight, brilliant tones are washed together, forms suggested, text and photographs merge. We ask: are we looking at animals, places or elaborate fonts spelling words we've never used?

Rex Dixon, Intuitive Painters Plus Dog, gouche on paper, 2005.

Many influences loom: the fluid energy of Pollock, the graffiti-like abstraction of Basquiat, the palette of Chagal. But while his painting relishes in the ambiguous, Dixon's poetry and prose are crystal clear. In 'Poem with no name' he achieves a moment of excellence:
Van Bylandtstraat washed over in Payne's grey
A gloomy winter Sunday
On either side
aged houses sit like old men and women
rubbing shoulders and feet together
sending smoke signals through their chimney pipes
as if to say
there's life inside us still 
Yesterday the shadows danced
mischievous dwarfs along your rooftops
Today the dull red bricks lie sullen
drugged dreamless,
too weary resisting
the damp and cold.
And just as his paintings suggest a stylistic master, Dixon's prose has an understated grace and clarity that puts some more established writers to shame. 'Requiem for my grandfather' is a fine essay with the kind of touches that demonstrate a mature writer:
One day when I was six, my mother took me to the railway station and, coming out of the steam was this tall man in an army uniform with a long kit bag slung over his shoulder. He came up to us and started kissing my mother. "This is your father, Matthew," she said. I realized then that I was also named after him.
Unfortunately, the stance of both authors on contemporary art practices appears to be one of disdain, even if they have authored a book that places them at the centre of those practices. This is a work that demonstrates art's malleability and the usefulness of hybrid forms.

Also, it must be noted that the book feels heavy in the hand, there is no index of Dixon's artwork, no list of names or places and no pages for notes in the back, something readers travelling with Travelling with a Husband would have appreciated.

In the end, we find ourselves looking for the provocations and profound insights of books like Stevenson's Travels or even VS Naipaul's The Middle Passage. Instead, we end up feeling like we've spent a lot of time reading the trailer to a more serious movie the authors really want to make.


5/20/17

Dalton Narine pens an open letter on Mervyn Taylor

Ah, Mr. Taylor, whenever I read a new book of your poems, why do you treat me as if I had plundered your pockets of small change?

There’s always one that comes flashing back. A rush of water that takes me over the shallows. It happens when I get stuck, a boat grinding to a stop in the muck in my head.

Mervyn Taylor has done it again.

You pick up a book of his and are so absorbed it kills you that a lone, mostly unadorned poem throws you off his merry-go-round of verses and drops you in the middle of the mas only to be confronted by a midnight robber wading in the sea.

Aha! Taylor seems to reduce the long-winded robber talk to that simple scary silly joke just to tease. As in ‘Not on Any Map.’

We read, re-read, read once more—and, strangely, we’re seeing things. All of them belonging to the truth coming out from a gloomy ocean, like Minshall’s Oil Slick character in Carnival of the Sea.

But this can’t be. Eventually, you catch Taylor’s drift. That’s the point.
                                     
Was it always like this,
learning the hard lesson.
Carib killing the Arawak,
landfall hard to make, looking
for mountains, three to be
exact, a bed of oil forever
bubbling? Who set me
adrift, I forget that too. (25)

Voices Carry engages your attention. You sense Taylor’s inspiration, see his experiences and imagination and craft reflected from the foam on a tall, robust glass of beer, the kind of mug you’re tempted to steal as you hopscotch the bars.

One gets that Taylor is a control freak the way he builds a mere word, a line, a paragraph into scenes. How he illumines them with your grandmother’s candles for natural light.

Taylor is an ol’ player from Belmont who’s as keen on the tricks of the trade in the mas as in verse where he looms with a smooth voice in your ear.

He had me right there with him in Charlotteville rummaging through ‘The Village Where Dreams Are Kept.’

I’d been through every nook and cranny of that otherworldly idyll of Tobago when he acquainted me with Sarah, that old black magic that he weaved so well among the crowing cocks, and the Nylon pool and the blackbirds tiefing from the fishermen’s nets.

Gang-Gang Sarah.

Oh, Lord! That old black-magic chick still has me in Taylor’s spell as we walk away from the sea near the forest.

Voices Carry is a work about adventure and of nostalgia for the romance of the shifting back and forth between two worlds.

An esteemed poet with great respect and gentleness, Taylor mines his work with equally rich and well-connected words. He tantalizes your experience with personal idiosyncrasies, such that they tend to immeasurably enrich learning and our understanding of his art. In his macoscope of exploration, there’s a matchup—and mashup—of society and human nature with our own blues, a collusion that doesn’t dent the book’s appeal. He ladles it out with dollops of agony and ecstasy and an extra few shakes of a roving sailor’s talcum powder.

Mervyn Taylor. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

‘Incoming,’ the first of a quintet of poems, reaches me as a war veteran in the trenches in the middle of the night, the sound of a mortar round leaving the enemy’s firing tube. Phafft! Yet, it’s about coming home. And it asks, “Which death might be better, in snow, or one where the heat cooks us quickly, till we’re done.”

Taylor offers us a feast in this, the best of his six books. He doesn’t chinks on his readers. It’d be wise to collect them all. An Island of His Own, The Goat, Gone Away, No Back Door and The Waving Gallery. Each in a class of its own inventiveness, all of them distinguished as pearls of wisdom. In Voices Carry, ‘Those Who Stayed’ have rank. Novel and unusual, them. A double-entendre chantwell that evokes the underworld lifestyle of Trinis for life.

“And the boy in America, for some reason hasn’t called,” a voice offstage worries.

Could it be that this Trini to the Bone rudeboy, whose records of his past remain zealously home-made and preserved, unlike the lifer mother whose new dress, bought on a whim, changes with the color of her mood?

What is Taylor telling us?

On the heels of ‘Those Who Stayed’, ‘Enough’ waltzes in, masked as Armageddon. The battle between crime and punishment will be fought back home. The nuclear race of our badjohns, wholesalers, sellers, dopers, criminals and killers are in the mix. ‘Enough’ is as spare as it is powerful. A most emotionally wrought scene, it arrives with rat-a-tat energy and a God-bless-you pat on the soul. It sings. It cries.

A poem can have different meanings to different readers. Taylor’s experience could either translate into a general situation or some private experience of his own. His poems stretch beyond ordinary speech. From poetry to ole talk to conversation to song.

And Taylor is singing it when he offers to walk Asami Nagakiya, the murdered Japanese masquerader, round the Savannah.

In ‘A Kind of Valentine’ you’re hanging out with him, and you’d hardly miss any of the vignettes that masks our daily lives as he and Nagakiya traipse around the Cyclop’s eye of Port of Spain.

I will walk you round this Savannah
because we’ve always boasted
of its beauty, because it’s where 
all our love and all our craziness
take place, where our horses have raced…(21)

Like Dante travels through Hell and Paradise, these poems take us from quiet moments to intense life experiences. Like Asami’s. Voices Carry is Taylor’s best work, a far cry from other scholarly stuff I’ve read recently. He gives us his lifetime of intense experiences. Yes. Observation and poetry.



Dalton Narine is a journalist, film producer and director. Mervyn Taylor's new book, Voices Carry, is published by Shearsman Books

5/14/17

PODCAST // Ghosts come alive at UWI art show - w. Melanie Archer


Melanie Archer inspects work by Maria Diaz at the National Museum.
Photo by Andre Bagoo.

In this PLEASURE PODCAST // I'm joined by designer, art critic and publisher Melanie Archer as we take a look at the University of the West Indies (UWI)'s Visual Arts Degree Show 2017 which was staged at the National Museum from April 12 to May 6. It was the second year in a row the annual show of student work was held at the Museum.


A list of those featured in the show this year includes: Reanna Ali, Naqiyah Assin, Khaffi Beckles, Nikeisha Claxton, Maria Diaz, Virginia D'Ornellas, Lendel Fraser, Anesha Garcia, Shane Mohammed, Khylah Mykoo-Garcia, Kavisha Peru, Shantee Rajkumar, Joy Rajnauth, Christopher Ross-Dick, Ciele Williams (fine arts); and Alejandro Ali, Maryssa Beckford, Jade Bridgemohan, Shayna Karim, Dhillon Khan, Camille Parris, Anna Power, Jerrell Riley, Amrika Sampath, and Amaara White (design).

In this podcast we examine logistical issues with the show and focus on work by Diaz, Mohammed and Fraser who all startle with spectral examinations of the human body whether through haunting sculptures, claustrophobic collections of artefacts, or micro-landscapes of skin.

Because so many artists were featured in the show, it was impossible to cover every single piece. So be sure dear listeners to add your two cents and to let us know what you thought in the comments section below.

You can also find out more about UWI's Visual Arts program here, as well as its Department of Creative and Festival Arts here.

This podcast was recorded just before Archer launched a campaign with Mariel Brown to fund a publishing project, A - Z of Caribbean Art. Find out more here. And while you're at it check out Melanie's great website here.

Maria Diaz's haunting work photographed by Melanie Archer

Inside Shane Mohammed's assemblages
Until the next despatch!

4/15/17

FILM REVIEW: Looking back at 'Poetry is an Island'

Derek Walcott in a still from Ida Does final version of her 2013 documentary

IN 2013, I saw an earlier version of Ida Does' documentary Poetry is an Island. Back then, I wrote the film was, "as unexpected as it is indispensable; the kind of gift you cannot imagine parting with even if you never realized you needed it in the first place."

Re-watching the film now (a final cut produced in 2016 was screened on Tuesday in Florida by the Third Horizon Caribbean Film Festival, O Miami Poetry Festival and the O Cinema Wynwood) all the things I found exhilarating in 2013 are now bathed in pathos in the wake of the poet's death. Walcott's beautiful readings here are more heart-wrenching; the piece and its examination of the politics of neglect in the Caribbean has an unshakeable sadness. These are the final scenes, we feel, of a poet's epic life.

And the primary defect I complained of then seems more glaring now. The film is not a biography of the poet; it gives us his life in outline but is skewered in favour of his later years. It falls short when it attempts to give us an account of what makes Walcott's poetry so special, so deserving of international recognition. We are given an admirable analysis by Walcott's childhood friend Arthur Jacobs, yet I was left yearning for more varied, critical voices and for even the perspectives of some of the poets assembled in the film.

The 2016 cut also, understandably, does not include any of the work produced by Walcott in his great collaboration with Peter Doig, a final chapter which in many ways saw Walcott reaching new heights. VS Naipaul is mentioned as being too harsh a critic of the West Indies, yet the film seems to confirm - if only momentarily - one aspect of Naipaul's caustic views of the region when it decries how Walcott's plans for an artists' colony have never been supported; and when a theatre on the island named after its Nobel Laureate is pictured in ruins.

Still, Does's documentary retains its spell-binding power, especially its moments covering Walcott's great Nobel Lecture dealing with Ramleela in Felicity. These moments remind us of the presence of literature all around us; a literature that forces us to see each other in a different light, to challenge our myopic and bigoted thinking. Here is a film which, like a fine Walcott poem, reminds us of the true power of language and of seeing the world anew through art. 

4/7/17

PODCAST // The Things We Keep - with Marsha Pearce


In this PLEASURE PODCAST // I’m joined by art critic and lecturer Dr Marsha Pearce as we take a walk through The Things We Keep an exhibition featuring work by four female artists at Medulla Gallery, Woodbrook, Port of Spain. The podcast includes a recording of Pearce reading ‘The Things We Keep’, a Gerard Smyth poem. Music by Bensound. Special thanks to Medulla Gallery.




‘The Things We Keep’ features Alicia Milne, Jaime Lee Loy, Michelle Isava and Nadia Huggins and runs until May 1st. 

Ants in our pants: Inside Jamie Lee Loy's Little Girl: Playing House

Go fetch: Alicia Milne's Branch - found object from the landscape and Bodies that bind

Hooking up: Nadia Huggins' Ghostlines

Dangerous waists: Michelle Isava's Crone Study, Force Ripe and Red Woman

Andre Bagoo and Dr Marsha Pearce

3/26/17

This page is a cloud


IT IS THE LAST poem of White Egrets, published in 2010, and is the last poem in The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948 - 2013 a collected volume published in 2014. It bears no title, but when it first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 2007, it was published under the heading, 'This Page Is A Cloud'. You can read it in full at the Scottish Poetry Library website here. At the moment, it is my favorite Walcott poem.

This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges
a headland with mountains appears brokenly
then is hidden again until what emerges
from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea
and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road....

Here is a poem that literally jumps off the page. It engages the mind and the body, inviting reflection on the book as an object in our hands; on the poetry of ordinary life; and on death. A chapter is closed.

The idea of a page being a cloud takes us through several leaps. First, we are invited to remove ourselves from the abstract imagery of language and to contemplate something solid: the book in our hands. The scope of the poem widened, we then fly to the clouds. We are given a bird's eye view of the terrain, inhabiting the perspective of the titular white egrets. It all unfurls: the colors of the land, the shapes of valleys, the curves of roads, the serenity of fishing villages. But this is not just a picaresque, descriptive list. Each item is a symbol. What is at first beautiful is also rendered dangerous. There are shadows stalking the land, the road coils like a snake. "A line of gulls has arrowed" suggests an offensive, the idea of birds turning on man, as well as the arrows of the Amerindians. Time itself is pierced. Each turn ("a widening harbour", "a town with no noise", "streets growing closer") is a stop along the way in a journey that is both linear and also metaphorical. When "ancestral canoes" appear it is as though an Egyptian burial ship has been excavated. We have crossed over.

By the time we arrive at the closing lines ("a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes / white again and the book comes to a close") we have been on a disorienting odyssey, traveling film-reel style through a country, through feelings ("white, silent surges"), through life and through time.

That the poem makes us think of the poetry book in our hands is not tangential to the theme of death. For Walcott is asking us to reflect on the place of objects in our lives and the relevance of objects in the afterlife. Like 'Love After Love', this is a great poem which the poet had to build up to, starting, perhaps with an earlier poem like 1987's 'To Norline' in which a relationship has ended: "when some line on a page / is loved...it's hard to turn."

By ending his books with this untitled poem, Walcott has implicated us in the matter to which he has invited our attention again and again throughout his career. Like a philosopher concerned with the relationship between language and reality, he uses the fraught process of reading to ask us to consider what is more real: language or what it describes? Life or death?






Big ideas for C'bean's biggest lit fest

The program for the 2017 NGC Bocas Lit Fest was unveiled last week, and a hearty serving of brain food is on the menu.


PRIME Minister Dr Keith Rowley is expected; the poetry slam prize has almost tripled; and tribute will be paid to Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott - but these are not the only big things at this year's NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

The festival program, which was unveiled by founder and festival director Marina Salandy-Brown last Wednesday at the National Library, Port of Spain, is set to be dominated by big ideas. Discussion panels and events are to be held on diverse issues such as the rights of LGBTI people all over the Caribbean, the importance of a free press, the problems dogging the criminal justice system and violence against women.

"From the start, Bocas has not just been a festival of literature but also a festival of ideas," Salandy-Brown said. Noting last year's program triggered nationwide debate on the child marriage statutes - which has culminated in a reform bill being tabled in Parliament - she added, "Don't ever think that a literature festival can't change the world."

Salandy-Brown also paid tribute to Walcott, whose funeral was yesterday. With tears welling in her eyes, she said Walcott served the region, "not just with his poems but with his burning devotion to literature and why it matters". Walcott was the recipient of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2011 in its inaugural year.


NGC Bocas Lit Fest founder and director Marina Salandy-Brown at lat week's media launch.

The Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts was announced as a new sponsor of the festival. The finalists of Code's 2017 Burt Award were unveiled: Lisa Allen-Agostini (Trinidad & Tobago); Kevin Jared Hosein (Trinidad & Tobago) and Viviana Prado-Nunez (Puerto Rico/USA). Joan Dayal of the Paper Based Bookshop - which is marking its 30th anniversary this year - will receive the Henry Swanzy Award for distinguished service to Caribbean letters.

On the doubling of the First Citizens National Poetry Slam prize purse to $50,000, Jason Julien, FCB deputy CEO, said, "we are putting our money where our mouth is. For the next generation of Sir Dereks out there, we encourage you."

Vahni Capildeo and Kei Miller, winners of the Forward Prize, as well as Ishion Hutchinson, who recently took home the National Book Critics Circle Award for his poetry collection House of Lords and Commons, Safiya Sinclair, Rosamund King, Jennifer Rahim and Rajiv Mohabir will be among the poets in attendance.

The National Library. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

For a second year, there will be a special project involving the prison system, led Debbie Jacob, but this time also including Anya Ayoung Chee.

"If this intervention in our nation's prisons can help just one or two inmates then it is worth it, " Salandy-Brown said.

In addition to Walcott, tribute will be paid to the late literature scholar and journalist Giselle Rampaul, and writer Angelo Bissessarsingh. The festival will also serve a hearty portion of brain food, taking a look at the legacy of CLR James, including his relationship to figures such as Eric Williams, Rudranath Capildeo, and Albert Gomes. There will be an examination of the ideas of Lloyd Best, as well as an event featuring acclaimed essayist Eliot Weinberger.

"Bocas is a full month of activities making April a season of literature for TT," Salandy-Brown said. "Never let it be said that Trinidadians do not love literature."

You can check out the full Bocas program at the festival website here.


3/25/17

We Are All Queer


If no two people see art in the same way, how can we believe that we all experience desire and sex in the same way? And if our bodies, while conforming to general patterns, are all shaped in different ways, why do we persist in the illusion that there is one way of experiencing sexuality? We all conform yet do not conform. In one lifetime we all have multiple experiences and our tastes may change drastically (I loved Sarah McLachlan as a teenager, now I am embarrassed to state this publicly). We are fluid over time, variegated from body to body. We all exist on the margins of what has been set and defined. Some view queer people as an alien group far removed from them. But the truth is, to various degrees, we are all queer inside, be it in body or in terms of our perceptions.

- from 'We Are All Queer', my essay at the ARC website on art and two recent events, the Caribbean Queer Visualities show and the Beyond Homophobia conference at Jamaica.

3/24/17

Poet Shivanee Ramlochan on Derek Walcott

Poet Shivanee Ramlochan. Photo by Andre Bagoo. 

If you’ve been to a Hindu funeral, you won’t forget the burning.

The ceremony is its own dread ritual, but when it comes to the commitment of that body to the fire, you will remember it. You will see the smoke rising from the body you once knew when its muscles were working and its heart was pumping, when it issued curses and sighs and farts and hunger growls. You will take the ashes of that body into your body; you will feel the heat even if you are feet away from the pyre. You will go home with the trace elements of that body that once fed and dressed and sheltered you, under your tongue and fingernails, in the roots of your hair, in the backs of your eyes.

I attended a Hindu burning when I was nine, long before I read “The Saddhu of Couva”, which you can read here at PoemHunter. Every time I turn to this poem, I cannot do so without the scent, the heat, the nearness of that first burning.

What is ready for the pyre in “The Saddhu of Couva” has long been cremated. The speaker, who looks out onto the canefields, sees rows of tradition razed before him. He longs to depart a life long made untenable for him by the advent of electric light. His faith in his gods is undiminished, but he fears the conduit has been cut – that labourers and hunters are slicing and caging the deities who were once bundled in white muslin, indentured from India’s belly. The world has wrought a great weariness in our saddhu; he senses his reincarnation might be upon him, imagines at every moment how effortless it might be to take flight.

POET Shivanee Ramlochan is about to unveil her debut book of poems at this year's Bocas Lit Fest. But as we wait patiently for Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, you can read 'A Week in Walcott' Ramlochan's gorgeous series on the poetry of Derek Walcott, which is ongoing at her literature website, Novel Niche. Read more from her post on Walcott's 'The Saddhu of Couva' here.

3/19/17

Walcott's world


EVEN AT the very end Derek Walcott yearned to explore new things. Morning, Paramin, his book-length collection of ekphrastic verse with the painter Peter Doig, bears all the hallmarks of Walcott the poet. Here was an artist who was rigorous, but who also tried out new forms, new modes. Though often somber, he could also be playful. At all points, he sought the sublime. Like the greatest poets, he always imagined a poetry that was just out of reach. If, like Icarus, he sometimes came too close to the sun, he also just as often achieved mesmeric flight.

Since his death on Friday, Walcott has been described by many as ambitious. Journalists from outside the Caribbean have said he took Western literature and used it as a tool to his own ends. They suggest his vantage point was that of an outsider. While his work certainly grapples with a feeling of being lost between two worlds, inside and outside the Caribbean, I think Walcott’s achievement is more profound than this. He did not make an argument for inclusion of the so-called Third World, post-colonial Caribbean within the global literary canon. Rather, he set out to show how, all along, we have always resided within it.

No one can question his technical achievements. You think of a Walcott poem and you think of his grasp for the musicality of language; his talent for acute images; his sophisticated metaphors that have the impact of an undeniable truth; his chameleon-like ability to replicate any type of landscape; his ability to surprise. Tiepolo’s Hound opens with these lines:

They stroll on Sundays down Dronningens Street,
passing the bank and the small island shops

quiet as drawings, keeping from the heat
through Danish arches until the street stops

at the blue, gusting harbour, where like commas
in a shop ledger gulls tick the lined waves.

In the poem ‘Islands’, from the collection In a Green Night, he wrote:

I seek,
As climate seeks its style, to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curled wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water.

Walcott worked hard. At one stage he described his calling in terms that brought to mind spiritual devotion. He said:

“I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us.”

Derek Walcott

If Walcott was a priest, many of us were his acolytes.

I first encountered Walcott’s poetry at secondary school. I will never forget that English Literature class, in 1999, when Mr Perkins asked us to read Walcott’s poem about Carnival, ‘Mass Man’. It was a hot afternoon at St Mary’s College on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain. I still remember the light of that day, streaming through the bay leaves of the trees that lined the front of the college, and the smell of old wooden desks. At the age of 16, I was not prepared for what was about to happen.

We students read and read and read and read. Walcott’s lines were so simple, they flowed right past us, right over our heads: “Hector Mannix, waterworks clerk, San Juan, has entered a lion”, the poem began. There was a man with “two golden mangoes bobbing for breastplates”. What on earth was happening? The disorientation a first-time Carnival reveler might feel fell upon that all-boys Catholic school classroom. It was only when Mr Perkins began to break down the poem, to critique it, did something click. Until then, for many of us, poetry was a kind of ornamental art: inert, limited to sound and not necessarily sense. That a poem could contain a torrent of fraught truths about ourselves, right there on the cool page, was the revelation.

We came to Walcott’s great lines: “But I am dancing, look, from an old gibbet / my bull-whipped body swings, a metronone! / Like a fruit bat dropped in the silk-cotton’s shade, / My mania, my mania is a terrible calm.”

At last, we saw our own complexity acting on Walcott’s stage. He had written a poem about Carnival and all its queerness, but it was really a ghost story; a gothic horror about slavery and abandoned children. From that moment, the possibility of poetry: what it could simultaneously hide and reveal, what it could say and do (and I insist that poetry can do) came. Poetry could be ours. I don’t remember anything else Mr Perkins ever taught me. But I will never forget that lesson.

And so though I met Walcott only twice, I’ve always felt his presence in my life through his work. Admittedly, sometimes his work became problematic.



 
 Walcott reading at 92nd Street Y in 2007.

I remember recently seeing a re-staging of his play, Ti-Jean and His Brothers and being stunned by the cavalier way in which the poet deployed puns that alienated me, a queer man. Sitting in the darkness of the Little Carib Theatre and hearing actors read out lines in which they repeatedly ask each other for “fags”, conscious of the derogatory meaning of the word, I questioned who this play was intended for? What was its moral heart? And was its audience supposed to include me? In Morning, Paramin (reviewed here) I questioned one poem in particular, ‘Man Dressed As Bat’, feeling there was a violence in the poem that could not be accounted for on its surface. What was intended in this poem, which was literally about a batty man? I also became aware of the sexual harassment allegations that resurfaced when he was in line for a key post at Oxford.

“I am disappointed that such low tactics have been used in this election, and I do not want to get into a race for a post where it causes embarrassment to those who have chosen to support me for the role or to myself,” Walcott told The Evening Standard of London. He added, “While I was happy to be put forward for the post, if it has degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination, I do not want to be part of it.”

While he also had a long feud with VS Naipaul, Walcott had a vision of the Caribbean that was conciliatory.

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” he said in 1992 in his Nobel lecture. “The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments.” That is a vision we would do well to remember today, as fragmented and divided as we stand.

Walcott’s poetry never claims to be perfect, though it almost nearly is. Since no woman or man can be known entirely, since our responses to art and artists are distinct and complex, I’ve never stopped being a devotee.

From Sunday Newsday, p 18

3/12/17

Sasha Solomon on Leasho Johnson

Ever-bless good-good by Leasho Johnson, mixed media on canvas, 37" x 54".    


BLINK TOO quickly and one might miss the idiosyncrasies in these works. In one piece, two neon orange avatars, rendered without conventional gender and sexual markers, are wrapped around each other in a loving embrace. They are clearly a couple. Here, Jamaican artist Leasho Johnson implies that dancehall is a space where queer Caribbean identities do exist and can be seen. He asserts that those marginalized identities ought to be made visible, whether or not mainstream or even the dancehall subculture is ready or willing to acknowledge them.

Johnson expands on his narrative of dancehall as counter-culture. In his debut solo exhibition Belisario and The Soundboy (which ran from February 4- 24 at NLS, Kingston, Jamaica) 18th century paintings and art by figures such as Isaac Mendes Belisario are mashed with Johnson's signature neon orange characters.

Individually and collectively, these pieces ridicule the constipated male/female, masculine/feminine, and heterosexual/homosexual binaries that frame the island's cultural imagery and national identity. Ultra-conservative, cis-heteronormative Jamaica and its constricting preoccupation with all things straight is the butt of a huge joke here. 

According to the National Gallery of Jamaica, Isaac Mendes Belisario (1795-1849) was, "the first documented Jamaican-born artist". A popular landscape painter, he created some of the most picturesque images of colonial Jamaica, despite its ills of slavery and cultural imperialism. But there are other references in the show as well such as the painters JB Kidd and William Clarke, as well as photography by Duperley and Sons.


Photo by Sasha Solomon

Belisario and The Soundboy opens with 'Cocktales & Pum-pum', a mixed media sculptural tableau which includes pieces such as 'Di Good Hole', 'Gumption', 'You Can't Twerk on Sundays', '6:30', and more. Mischievous and cheeky, these objects celebrate the sexual freedom of dancehall's women. They big up di gyal dem - the acrobatic, daring, and confidently sexual black Jamaican women who negotiate power and femininity in the dancehall space.

In 'Ever-bless good-good', two black Jamaican women meet at a sort of crossroads in the lush Jamaican countryside. It's a riotous image, positioning dancehall as a space for the sexual to be enacted and performed in the presence of the respectable.  

'Rude to your parents' is a broad declaration of the power of black female sexuality and a reclamation of the black female body. All in all, it's a Caribbean time warp of the first order, where Johnson radically changes the lens of time, culture, identity and history. 

Rude to your parents, mixed media on canvas, 37" x 54. 

Overall, Johnson creates a space for a difficult, but necessary conversation about who or what systems get to decide which Jamaican identities, cultures and histories are seen and documented. Is it possible for dancehall to be a space for intersectional politics to be seen as a site for queer culture? How do we go about choosing which aspects of our culture and history are worth documenting? By interlacing his neon orange dancehall avatars with these famous images of Jamaican life, he emphasizes that dancehall is as much a part of everyday Jamaican culture, and is even more so because it is the creation of the Jamaicans who are the progeny of those from the colonial era who are immortalized in much Jamaican art. 

Still, 'Ital dish/ Walk-like-a-dog' explores dancehall as a problematic space. The artist creates a world where the neon orange visual of 'fish', the derogatory word for a homosexual man or one who is effeminate, signifies an existence and a reality that is as much a part of our pre-colonial, colonial as it is the post-colonial and post-independent lives. Even in subcultural spaces, these identities are affirmed as real and tangible. 

Ital dish/Walk-like-a-dog, mixed media on canvas, 40" x 64".    

Johnson suggests we have sought to erase black queer identities in our conception of the working class and the communities from which dancehall originates. With Belisario and The Soundboy, he shows he is here to remedy this amnesia. He creates one continuous stream of culture, history and identity. He is here to upset.


Sasha Solomon is a Jamaican writer who recently participated in the Bocas Lit Fest / British Council art criticism workshop lead by Claire Armitstead and Gene Moreno in January at the University of the West Indies. 



3/5/17

Leasho Johnson on the male gaze and his new piece at the Jamaica Biennial

Leasho Johnson at Devon House. Photo by Andre Bagoo.
LEASHO Johnson, 32, has something to say, and he's wasting no time saying it. Hot on the heels of participating in Caribbean Queer Visualities last November; being featured at Fader in January; then mounting his debut solo exhibition at NLS last month, he's now making a splash at the Jamaica Biennial with In-a-the-Middle, an installation at Devon House which cooks up a scathing commentary on misogyny. Leasho takes a rare break to tell us, in his own words, about his latest work.

CCH Pounder checks out Leasho Johnson's In-a-the-Middle. (Courtesy the artist).
When it came to the title for this piece, I was thinking about ZJ Liquid's 'Inna the Middle'. I was also thinking about sweet potato pudding, a popular Jamaican dessert, and about our attitude to cooking more generally. Jamaicans love their cooking, especially their mom's cooking. We are very fond of sweet potato pudding, which we call hell a top, hell a bottom and hallelujah in the middle. I love the construction of this nickname and like to maintain elements of Jamaican patois in my work.

In-a-the-Middle is referring to the objectification of the female body in dancehall via the male gaze. I'm also referring to the idea of the female as the home-maker. I am trying to describe a kind of negative space that is misogynistic. It's also violent: a violent aftermath of something. What I'm describing is something I believe is commonplace in homes across Jamaica; as ubiquitous as rice and peas in a culture that deems women weak and that places men on a podium. Yes, dancehall is the centre stage of our culture, but everything happens in the home.

Digital sketch for In-a-the-Middle.

Devon House was part of the curating. I was transfixed by its aesthetic elements. I wanted to see if I could pull this piece off the way I saw it in my head and that involved its white walls.

This piece started after I created a piece with bottles for my solo exhibition called 'Cocktales and Pumpum'. In the course of researching that I came across an image of an outdoor kitchen made of rocks and firewood with large Dutch pots. It occurred to me that these pots were so familiar they were engrained in our culture. It made sense to do something using them.

The process of assembling this was nail-biting and I had given up a few times. This piece was brand new for me: new materials and a new space. But I had help from the National Gallery of Jamaica and fellow artists. Anything is possible when good people are behind you and for that I'm grateful.


A dress to the nation by Richard Rawlins

Richard Rawlins' A Dress to the Nation at Alice Yard. Photo by Andre Bagoo.

A DRESS is a gendered thing. It makes us think of the guises adopted by women and men. Of the body's impulse to conceal and reveal; to dress up and dress down. A Dress to the Nation, the outstanding new installation by Richard Rawlins at Alice Yard, is political in how it seeks to contrast bombastic presidential and prime ministerial speeches with a fading sense of patriotism. But the work's most glaring questions relate to a different kind of politics: gender and performance.

Standing inert in a black box, it has an ambiguity that means it can be pictured, variously, on a girl, boy, a svelte woman or man. Just as the dress mirrors the national flag, it is mirrored by glass and echoed by the subtle use of sound.

"I can’t help but hear the song from the musical Annie playing in my head," Rawlins, 50, says. What has gone astray in our wonderland is the fetishisation of the female: the placing of it behind a glass wall as if it is a strange, exotic thing, as if the only gaze that matters is the gaze of those who do not wear dresses, who scorn dresses, who regard them as markers of inferiority. The artist has given the nation a dress whose frills seem antiquated, whose noise comes from its smutty suppression, whose estranged body is at large, whose truth haunts us. Wearing its heart on its sleeve, it shows us the antagonistic link between the body of the citizen and the body of the speech-mongering statesman. It demands that we all be seen to be human.

A Dress to the Nation runs until March 8 at Alice Yard.




2/22/17

PODCAST // Film review - Moonlight


FOR the inaugural PLEASURE PODCAST // Andre Bagoo and Christopher Lou-Hing take a look at Moonlight, which is up for eight Oscars on Sunday. Does the film deserve the accolades heaped on it? Is it a good film or a great film? And will it be a watershed moment in queer cinema? After listening to the podcast, you can also read a full review of the film below.




Moonlight, a film doubly rare
By Andre Bagoo

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali


THE PACKED audience at the Fernandes Industrial Estate, Laventille, for studiofilmclub’s screening of Moonlight was a sign of the tremendous buzz surrounding the film. Dozens of accolades have been heaped on Barry Jenkin’s coming-of-age drama, and since its screening last month it’s been nominated for eight Oscars. Whether it wins any is beside the point. Here is a movie that achieves what good art should: it moves its audience to empathy and love.

This is one of those films in which nothing happens yet everything happens. It is structured in three acts, all following the progress of Chiron. We see him as a shell-shocked child (Alex Hibbert) navigating a world torn apart by drugs; as a frail closeted teen (Ashton Sanders) being bullied by schoolmates; and as a buff adult (Trevante Rhodes) who has re-invented himself outwardly, even if he hasn’t yet found expression for his inner desires.

Like Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), which deals with gay life within the Korean-American community, Moonlight gives us something doubly rare: a film about a race not represented enough, and then a minority within that race. Yes, there are black people and some of us are gay. I’ve been waiting too long for this.

At one stage, when two stunning acts of violence occur, we are given a stark choice: be left devastated at the tragic consequences for the main character, or cheer loudly at poetic justice. The crowd at studiofilmclub cheered. Trinidadians are yearning to see themselves onscreen and to live in a world where people aren’t taken advantage of just because they are gay or different in some way.

Trevante Rhodes

Still, Chiron pays a price for his actions. In the process, Jenkins subtly raises difficult questions about the criminal justice system—how its narrow gaze ignores wider social conditions and history. It’s the old determinism versus free will debate.

None of this should suggest Moonlight is a philosophical treatise. Its strength lies in its singular focus on the human stories that populate it, including that of Juan, a charismatic drug-dealer played by Mahershala Ali. Juan is haunted by a guilt that seems to manifest itself in the form of little Chiron. We learn Chiron’s mother Paula (an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris) is one of the people to whom Juan sells drugs, effectively enabling the addiction that has torn Chiron’s life apart.

But while it does a good job of depicting black male experience, Moonlight struggles to shake the Madonna-whore complex when it comes to its female figures. They are either overwhelmingly supportive of the men in their lives, or largely sources of trauma. Paula is almost the Hollywood stereotype of a black woman: a crack-head veering out of control. What redeems the film’s treatment of her are early and late scenes that give her a layered complexity. (Harris has spoken about her initial reluctance to take the part, a reluctance she overcame when Jenkins told her the character was akin to his real-life mother.)

Naomie Harris as Paula

While the film seems to fly in its first two acts, things slow down in its third. Developments essential to our understanding of Chiron happen, but much of the conflict is largely off-stage, reducing the tension. We learn that he has molted and become someone at odds with the sexuality explored in his youth. An act of fate triggers a literal voyage of re-discovery. As in Jenkin’s previous film, the wonderfully peripatetic Medicine for Melancholy, we see how the biggest moments of a life are the quietest ones.

And those quiet moments are truly stunning. Jenkin and his cinematographer James Laxon exercise restraint in their use of imagery. They give us the moon only once, but make it count in a stunning dissolve over the ocean. Composer Nicholas Britell’s score veers between stirring violins to Caetano Veloso.

In a marked departure from films such as Get Real, Philadelphia, and even the recent Caribbean films Children of God and Play the Devil, Jenkins dispenses with the standard tragic ending. This is not the place for the passion-infused horror of Brokeback Mountain. It is, instead, a lagniappe to James Ivory’s delicious Maurice. There is one particularly beautiful moment when Chiron takes a glimpse at a path leading to the sea. He could go down that path to the raging waters. Of perhaps he can stay on dry land and, with his beloved, learn to swim. Bravely, he stays in the light.

MORE FAVORITE FILMS OF 2016

Paterson: I'm slightly biased about this one. A film about a bus-driver who writes poems. But Jim Jarmusch makes this work. Plus there is an Oscar-worthy performance by Nellie the bulldog as Marvin.

Hidden Figures: A popcorn movie that does justice to unheralded figures, it also is a sobering reminder that segregation and state-sanctioned racism was a fact of life only a few decades ago in the US. How far has the world really come since then in an age of Trump and Brexit?

Loving: A completely overlooked, powerful film featuring the best performances of the year by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. The true story of inter-racial couple Richard and Mildred Loving who were arrested for simply getting married.

Lion: In its first half, this is the kind of film Satyajit Ray would have made were he alive today. The second half loses some momentum but is still moving, with great performances by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.

Play the Devil: A milestone in Trinidad and Tobago cinema which, notwithstanding its tragic ending, impresses with its ravishing poetry.

Arrival: A smart, stylish tear-jerker of a film about the importance of language, disguised as a sci-fi thriller.

NB: Omissions are inevitable, also liked: Closet Monster, Other People, King Cobra, and the Absolutely Fabulous movie!

2/21/17

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

BERLIN

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.



2/17/17

A House for Mr Baldwin

BERLIN

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.