art in all its forms

art in all its forms


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.


Olive Senior on poetry and changing the world

Olive Senior reads from Summer Lightning

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

It's up to you.

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

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

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

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

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

Look for the smallest possible thing. 

My life and art are holistic. 

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

All my work is about humanity. 

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

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

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

Her father's ghost

Photo courtesy Nadia Huggins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

So where is home?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

From Nadia Huggins' Black and Blue series

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

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

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

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

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

From Huggins' Circa no future series

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Postcards to home

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


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

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

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

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

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


Naipaul's St James

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

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

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

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

A House for Mr Biswas

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


FILM REVIEW: Play the Devil

Gareth Jenkins and Petrice Jones

WHAT IS most taboo about Play the Devil is not its examination of gay life in Trinidad and Tobago. Rather, the work unsettles by throwing up questions about the power dynamics that exist when two persons of vastly different ages are in a relationship.

Of course in repressed, spiritual Trinidad and Tobago we talk about neither. We also ignore the grim implications of the vast inequalities of wealth nurtured and perpetuated by our rigidly-structured society.

The film follows Gregory (Petrice Jones), a disciplined, subdued and struggling 18-year old student who meets James (Gareth Jenkins), an older, wealthy businessman. James makes a move on Gregory who, in turn, encourages and accepts the older man’s advances. In one important scene, the younger man actively explores his sexuality with James.

The trope of doomed love between two persons of widely differing ages is a classic one in art. Consider Nabokov’s Lolita, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Eliot’s Middlemarch. In all of these male cougar stories, the love under examination is heterosexual. Here, the filmmakers flip the switch.

Other sources abound. Comparison with the 2014 musical theatre production Jab Molassie – which also starred Nickolai Salcedo (who appears in this film and is even more incredible on screen than he is on stage)—is inevitable. Like that tale, the story is set high above the capital in the hills, and a central character is seduced by a devil. But whereas the temptation in Jab Molassie was highly symbolic, in Maria Govan’s film the power of the erotic is not sublimated within the story. It is the movie’s central conflict.

Gregory’s inability to come to terms with his sexuality and James dogged campaign to take up residence in Gregory’s life breed disaster. While we must be weary of the trope of violence being used against gay characters in art, the resolution of the plot is, in this instance, not contrived and is in line with the demands of tragedy. The resolution is not gratuitous and also channels the grim reality of our violent society.

In the opening scenes, actor Gareth Jenkins leaves enough room for us to have different interpretations of James’s motives. Does he want just a hot date? Or is he looking for something more? From the perspective of Gregory – and also evidently some audience members at MovieTowne tonight – James might come across as predatory.

But the projection of negative motives on others is a hallmark of a life of isolation and in the closet. What Gregory actually fears is himself.

To some extent, James, for all his audacious provocations, is the true victim because his actions may well be motivated by a genuine yearning for love. Though clothed with greater wealth and power, James is as trapped as Gregory in a world where every aspect of his life has been brought under manners: his career, his family life, his attempt to act out his core being.

Therefore the roles of victim and villain are as interchangeable as the movie’s Carnival costumes. Gregory’s anguish at the film’s haunting climax is not just a reflection of the fact that all doors have closed on him, it is also the Edvard Munch Scream of all minorities relegated to life at the margins.

The subtle way the film handles questions of class, education and social power is among its strengths. Visually, this Abigail Hadeed-produced film is also sophisticated but not ostentatious. There is a memorable shot from cinematographer James Wall of Gregory literally shutting a closet, as well as one where he is split in the face of a mirror.

Govan’s script does a very good job of turning the screw, pitting Gregory against the forces of family, of religion, of gender norms for males in a macho society, of criminal violence, of peer pressure, of a scholarship-obsessed education system and of wealth disparities caused by a society concerned with money above all else.

Here, at last, is a film of great integrity for the age in which we Trinibagonians live.

The Strange Years of My Life

THE TITLE asks us to think of change. To look back, to reflect. To put into context past moments, past times.

This exercise of self-reflection is also one of estrangement. It places one outside of the parameters of what is being examined. It subjects a life to objective scrutiny, to reportage, a reporter's objective gaze.

But the reporter’s selection of facts is an inherently subjective exercise. And what is really strange? To whom? To which version of the self?

Is strange necessarily pejorative? The unusual, surprising, alien can be pleasurable. What has happened to change things, to render these years different or differently perceived?

And whose life? The poet's? Or a persona of the poet? Is there is difference?

Thus, the title of Nicholas Laughlin's book, The Strange Years of My Life, like the best titles, is already a poem. It suggests autobiography, but flags the conflict between truth and perception. This is an epistemological conundrum. When does the mirage end?

When we encounter books of poetry we seldom have the author at our disposal. The poet's processes are often not documented and are largely unknowable to the reader. When a poet speaks about the work, it is easy to dismiss this as the poet's own reading of what she has done; as just another reading among many possibilities. But it is still a worthy exercise to look at what Laughlin himself has said of his own work, decades in the making.

"The poems belong to a hemisphere of the imagination that encompasses the narratives of nineteenth-century travelers and twentieth-century anthropologists, spy movies, astronomical lore, the writings of Saint-John Perse and Henri Michaux, and the music of Erik Satie," the poet says. "They balance on the edge between concealment and revelation, between bemused fascination and tentative comprehension. Every sentence is a kind of translation, and language is a series of riddles with no solutions, subtly humorous at one turn, sinister at another, heartbroken at the next."

The Strange Years of My Life: manuscript notebook, successive typescript versions, proofs, book (Photo by/from Nicholas Laughlin's Flickr.)

The troupe of “friends” and “strangers” whom the reader encounters in these pages, he says, are sometimes alter egos, sometimes aliases, sometimes adversaries. They inhabit a milieu of mistaken identity and deliberate disguise, where “there are too many wrong countries” and “already no one remembers you at home.”

These statements are apt. However, because poetry moves us by holding up mirrors, I also find reflections of Trinidad and Tobago life in this work. The brief poem 'Ars Poetica' is billed as a treatise on art, but its reference to guns inevitably invokes ideas of crime and punishment in this bloody society. It further makes us question the place of art in this at times fetid state. Yet, though some have dismissed art as a thing of ornamentation, they forget its power, how many people exist today simply because of that one poem, that one movie, that one song that got them through a difficult time. If Laughlin's poem says anything, its conjunction between poetry and violence reflects how words can do things in today's world.

Last week, Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo was awarded the Forward Prize for her awesome book Measures of Expatriation. Her work has astonished and her seven published works comprise an achievement in their own right. It's a good time to reflect on the place of the poet in the Caribbean region as a whole. Both Capildeo and Laughlin’s poems are implicitly political. They liberate us from tendencies that would seek to box Caribbean writing into a narrow corner.

On another note, this shall be my final column. I'd like to thank readers for, well, reading. Maybe you agreed. Maybe you disagreed. Maybe you were moved. As I move on after ten brief years of journalism, I can’t help but look back and embrace the title of Laughlin’s book. Often we have dreams and don’t pursue them. But what if we give ourselves permission to do so? I’ve one word for all the years of doubts. Enough.

From Sunday Newsday, Sept 24, 2016
* * *



From the archive

Anu Lakhan on The Strange Years of My Life 
at Annie Paul's Active Voice blog here


Alice Yard: X

Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard

A LOT can happen in ten years. Ask Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard. Ask the artists, the dancers, the mas men, the musicians, the poets, the writers, the academics, the curators, the publishers, the bloggers, the film-makers, the graphic designers, the projectionists, the lecturers, the audio technicians, the carpenters, the workmen, the civil society activists, the craftsmen, the curious strangers. 

This September, Alice Yard marks ten years and this evening it opened a year-long series of events by hosting a new installation by Blue Curry.

Blue Curry's Untitled (Alice Yard, assorted combs) 

"I am always a bit cautious when I encounter the work of Curry," says Cozier. "His work confounds and confronts, but with precise and strategic composure....I would not trust these objects - just so - no matter how visually appealing."

Indeed, what objects can we trust? Curry's work transforms banal things, isolates them from their functions, opens the mind to appreciation of their aesthetic qualities, and then puts them back together again into a new sculpture - a kind of dance without movement. In the process, he repurposes the viewer. One man's trash is another man's treasure. And one man is also another. These are found poems. 

Cozier tonight traced the origins of Alice Yard to a conversation during Galvanise.

"We thought it would be interesting to start that conversation again," he said. In coming weeks, several events are planned, including a collaboration between Cozier and Blue Curry that seeks to shift encounters with art into public spaces, dissolve the boundary between makers and viewers and reject the notion of art as commodity.

Kriston Chen's toofprints
On a personal note, I've been around Alice Yard for years and participated in two iterations of Douen Islands there. The space has never stopped being exciting. It's never stopped. The only thing that might have changed is the fact that these days, some have more greys.

'We began ten years ago with questions and possibilities. Our evolution has been organic and open-ended. As we consider our actions and ideas of the past decade, our instinct is less to celebrate and more to affirm our spirit of investigation and exchange, our ethos of generosity and independence.' 

Conceptual sketch of Alice Yard by Sean Leonard


From prison to poetry

US poets Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Dwayne Betts. Photo: Marlon James/Bocas Lit Fest

DWAYNE Betts has told the story before.

When he was just 16-years old, Betts was jailed for a gun crime. Inside, he found freedom from an unexpected source.

“I was in solitary confinement,” Betts recalls, speaking at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest on April 30. “You could call out for a book and someone would slide one to you. Frequently, you would not know who gave it to you. Somebody slid The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall. In that book I read Robert Hayden for the first time, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton. I saw the poet as not just utilitarian but as serving art. In a poem you can give somebody a whole world. Before that, I had thought of being a writer, writing mostly essays and maybe, one day, a novel. But at that moment I decided to become a poet.”

The poet – who read at the festival alongside fellow American poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips – also conducted a poetry workshop at the Port-of-Spain Prison on April 29. The experience changed everything.

“The first thing that hit me was that there was just a bunch of people in jail on remand who had not had an opportunity to see a judge; to have a trial,” Betts tells the literary audience gathered at the Old Fire Station on Abercromby Street, a few blocks away from the penal facility at the heart of the capital. “I went into the jail and I was struggling to reconcile the profound injustice and the profound pain that happens, that permeates an entire community that does not get acknowledged at all.” In his workshop, prisoners were asked to write.

“The poems these guys wrote had this same pain and frustration,” Betts says. “In the US, most of the prisons are built way out where you can’t see. One of the things that also struck me is they are right here and still seemingly invisible.”

Betts, whose poetry chronicles some of his own experiences with the US justice system, says the workshop changed him.

“What does it mean for me to be in that space and talk to them? I hope that something I said made some sense,” Betts says. “You kind of forget what it means to have certain kinds of privilege, some kind of access to justice. If you come from the States and you are interested in criminal justice reform issues you get this very narrow view of what justice should look like and you take for granted that the system works extremely well– both to lock you up and to give you some semblance of opportunity for justice formally.” He adds,  “What I walk away with in terms of what they gave me is a challenge, both in terms of my writing and in my living.”

Betts is the author of the poetry books Bastards of the Reagan Era (described by the New York Times as “fierce, lyrical and unsparing”) and Shahid Reads His Own Palm, winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. He is also the author of an excellent memoir, A Question of Freedom, which chronicles his experience of the US justice system. In prison, he was re-Christened Shahid.

“It means witness,” Betts says.

At the event – which was supported by the US Embassy – Betts read poetry alongside Phillips, author of acclaimed collections The Ground and Heaven, which was in April shortlisted for one of the world’s biggest poetry awards, Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. Heaven was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post.

“The role of the poet is to write good poetry, period,” Phillips says. “But if you do other things, you do other things. If the poet is a politician, be a good politician. If the poet is a parent, be a good parent. The poets of the future will decide what good poetry is.” For him, craft is key, particularly form and sound.

“You live by the syllable,” Phillips says. He warns against labelling. “We are always related to some kind of event that has already happened. I don’t want to be related to anything. I don’t have to think that I’m related to Dante or Langston Hughes. I’m not responding to Wallace Stevens. The role of the poet is to write good poetry and to find good poetry.” For him, understanding the world is a constant process of re-evaluation.

“I grew up in New York,” Phillips says. “Completely by accident I grew up in an Antiguan household. When they hear or read my name, people don’t know if I am male or female. People don’t know where I’m from. So in a way you are always translated. We are always constantly translating. The classical stuff has always been important, including myth. To me it’s how you understand the world through storytelling.”

- From Newsday, May 31st, 2016


Poet Anthony Joseph traces his ‘Caribbean Roots’

The album's cover is by painter Che Lovelace, son of novelist Earl Lovelace.

By Andre Bagoo

THE TITLE track of Anthony Joseph’s latest album ends with a statement from Earl Lovelace.

“Our history is not colonialism and slavery,” Lovelace says. “Our history is our struggle against enslavement and colonialism.” This is central to the album and Joseph’s work generally.

Joseph is a Trinidadian/British poet, novelist, musician and lecturer resident in London. Not quite calypso, not quite soca, not quite rapso, not quite extempo, not quite blues, his latest album is, simply, poetry.

In Caribbean Roots, Joseph is evangelical. His spoken word sings. At times he is direct. Occasionally, the music seems unnecessary. But more often than not, it wraps itself around the words, reflecting the complex history which Joseph addresses. This work is a paean to the Caribbean.

“You realise that you rooted in the muck of history,” Joseph says in the title track. “And you begin to look around the majesty of old Europe and the citadels of its power, and its grand architecture set in old stone. And you begin to ask yourself where are my monuments? How come all these monuments – even the ones in the islands – were built by those who colonise and enslaved me?” He continues, “You need to set yourself in the soil / of these Caribbean roots”. The poet roams Europe, bringing news of the Antilles. From first to last, this work is an assertion of his identity, as complex as that may be.

The opening piece references Derek Walcott’s famous Nobel Lecture, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’, with a kora becoming part of “a complex science of sound”. The personal and political mix, the poet voyages alongside the, “memory ghost of my father, memory ghost of my mother.”

The saxophones of Shabaka Hutchings (The Heliocentrics) and Jason Yarde, the trumpet of Yvon Guillard (Magma), the bass of Mike Clinton (Salif Keita), the trombone of Pierre Chabrèle (Creole Jazz Orchestra), meld seamlessly with the steel pans of Andy Narrell. Each track proceeds like the section of a Carnival band. David Rudder makes a guest appearance, tribute is paid to the Mighty Sparrow, there is homage to Lord Kitchener.

In 1993, Lovelace also said, “This world doesn’t belong to somebody else and it doesn’t belong to just me either. It belongs to me too. I say that sets the terms of my writing: I deal not particularly with a little group of people somewhere on the periphery of existence, but at the very center of existence.” So too, Anthony Joseph.


May 21, 2016,