art in all its forms

art in all its forms


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.


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


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!