art in all its forms

art in all its forms


Native Son

The great books of VS Naipaul

Photo via Reuters
HE WROTE dozens of books, yet, in a sense, VS Naipaul spent a lifetime writing only one thing: his own story. 
After the early novels, in which his keen ear for dialogue, technical mastery of prose, and talent for comedy emerges triumphantly; after the magisterial A House for Mr Biswas, in which the title character’s profound vulnerability sheds light on the fate of Trinidad as a new nation; after the novels set in London, in which he sought to prove he could write about anyone anywhere and in wintery tones too; after In a Free State, which saw him push against the margins of the novel; after the ambitious books of sex, violence and Black Power; after The Enigma of Arrival, a work that has not lost its power to confound; after the forced yet sometimes beautiful sequences towards the end of his fiction; and the turn to stunning reportage and travel writing, in which he spoke truth to power and offended in equal measure – after all of this we are left with, in effect, the most astonishing autobiography in English letters.
On August 11, on his deathbed in London, Naipaul took comfort in Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar, with its tide that “turns again home,” 
For some, the question is: which home? 
The books provide the answer. They can and should be read as one. They tell a tale that always leads back to Trinidad. He remains a native son. 
His prose is famously crystal clear, but Naipaul the man was as messy as they come. 

- from my piece in Sunday Newsday, August 19, 2018. Read in full here. Find another piece, also published in the same paper, and with focus on the non-fiction, here.


FILM REVIEW: Moving parts

Valerie Tian in Moving Parts

Moving Parts tells a story not often told. It seeks to give audiences a glimpse of life from the perspective of persons who are smuggled into Trinidad and Tobago as well as persons who fall prey to human trafficking. That focus on these invisible groups is laudable, especially at a time when the world is alight with debate over the role of immigrants.

The film follows Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) and her brother Wei (Jay Wong) who are both grieving the death of their father. Zhenzhen is smuggled into the country then soon finds herself captive to handlers who promptly take away her passport. After a few days of having her do menial work in a restaurant, they enlist her into a prostitution ring. As time passes and it becomes clear neither brother nor sister can free themselves of a vicious cycle of subservience, there are tragic consequences.

Refreshingly, the film jettisons the tourist brochure approach to local filmmaking and presents Trinidad in an unvarnished way, making great use of downtown Port-of-Spain locations in particular. Some thought and effort clearly went into the visual strategy of the film, with Nancy Schreiber's hand-held cinematography underlining the gritty realities of the story as well as conveying the rich mood and textures of the capital.

Sections of the film bring to mind Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros with its interlocking narratives and brooding mood. The minimal score also leaves room for mesmerizing sequences that rely on the ambient sounds of the capital. For instance, there are two memorable scenes in which Multisymptom's 'Sonita' becomes a haunting counterpoint to the action. Director Emilie Upczak shows verve in her management of all these elements.

Because of what the film is about, however, it will inevitably invoke comparisons to films like Taken and Trade. These comparisons will not be justified. This is not a film about action. Nor is it a tearjerker. Which is problematic. Despite achieving strength in some of its quieter moments, the movie - which is only 77 minutes long - is too languid given the menace of its subject matter.

Moving Parts

Directed by: Emilie Upczak
Written by: Emilie Upczak, Nicholas Emery, Jay White
Produced by: John Otterbacher, Emilie Upczak
Co-Producers: Rhonda Chan Soo, Annabelle Mullen
Executive Producers: Melanie Archer, Bonnie Kennedy, Jud Valeski
Cinematographer: Nancy Schreiber
Production Designer: Shannon Alonzo
Editing: Gabriel Coss, Jonathan Gollner
Production Sound: Cedric Smart
Sound Design: Kris Franzen
Score: Rafael Attias

Opens today at MovieTowne, Port of Spain. 


Paint the town blue

LIKE THE words in this sentence, the objects in Shane Mohammed's collages build on one another. Individually, each object has performed some function and carries an archive of associations. Yet, exhausted of their use and repurposed they hint at secret narratives. But must there be narrative in art? Even the lack of story is a story. Everything here functions like the words in a poem or the pieces of a stained-glass window.

In a statement accompanying Block and Blue (the title of the show does not do it justice), Mohammed gives us an account of his process:
I collect objects and in admiration use them to tell stories of past and present experiences. They reside in our homes, on our top shelves and below the kitchen sink, in our glass-cased cabinets and among the landfills. 
The objects range from the everyday plastic bottle to the inner workings of an antique clock and everything in between. They are accumulated by the cycle of working, living and satisfying but in this collection they are returned to the cycle as a fuel to the cycle itself. The objects are collected and stored whilst influenced by the process of painting, personal restrictions, ideas of colour and relationships to individual objects.
All of it is beautiful, as if Yves Klein or a jab jab went around Port of Spain picking out things from dustbins. The room is filled with shades of blue, making everything have impact en masse. Individual pieces, as pleasing as they are, feel less audacious. But, as the artist suggests, each piece is destined to be re-constituted as object d'art, in the process opening into an infinite process of creation through collection.

We come away feeling like we've been given access to a person's private hoarding: as though her thoughts were made manifest and laid bare on a circuit board. Block and Blue nobly asks us to question and interrogate the most common things in our lives. It reminds us of the magic that happens when objects no longer have a time and place, when they transcend context. And it makes us wonder about the distinction between animate and inanimate, functional and decorative, bodily and sculptural, between horcruxes and that which they contain.

Block and Blue is on at The Frame Shop, Carlos Street, Woodbrook. Call (868) 628-7508. Show runs until May 12. Saturday opening hours 9am-2pm.


'Listen, I am writing for the people'

Poet Laureate Paul Keens-Douglas

Those were the days of Black Power and that’s when The Last Poets and the black poets were all streaming and then again I was influenced by that. That’s the first time you are hearing this type of poetry and from Canada I went to Jamaica and there I heard Louise Bennett now doing her dialect and pushing this nation language and it was right there on campus, that I decided that I should try my hand after hearing Louise, try my hand at writing dialect poetry and I wrote that first piece: 'The Band Passing' and since that time I have never gone back to writing Standard English. I mean I still write Standard English. But when I discovered the power of the poetry, when I saw how it moved people in the audience, the local poetry particularly, the response blew me. I thought, you know, this is wonderful because you became a pioneer then, in those days, because there was nobody else to follow. You wrote your poem and you want to sing, you just sing, you want to dance, you dance your poem, you want to put it upside down, you put it upside down. You were in charge of your poem. There was no structure that you had to follow, whereas in the Literature Department you had all these Literary Terms and what is Literature and what is Poetry. Did away with all of that and said listen I am writing for the people. Let them be my audience.

- Poet Laureate Paul Keens-Douglas recalls how he started writing poetry in the inaugural Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago podcast posted over at the Circle of Poets website. LISTEN here


Poet’s words dazzle in daughter’s new film

By Andre Bagoo

FATHER-daughter relations, the politics of being an artist, and poetry of breath-taking power converge in Unfinished Sentences, Mariel Brown’s moving new work about her late father, the acclaimed poet, writer and newspaper columnist Wayne Brown.

Minutes into the film premiere last Thursday at CineLit – the film segment of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest – it became clear this was not a feature film dramatizing Wayne Brown’s life. Nor was it a documentary in the conventional sense. Rather, the daughter has done something more fitting. She has made a fine example of that genre of art called the film-poem.

Unfinished Sentences, therefore, is not strictly about the life of Wayne Brown. His daughter’s grief and depression, her struggles within this region’s precarious creative arts sector, as well as the story of her father’s momentary rejection of her because of a haircut all find a place in this meditation. Equally, the effective use of archive footage in relation to historic events surrounding the family narrative, gives a wider context. We get a glimpse of the politics of race relations and of life in Caribbean countries as they straddled the transition from colonialism to independence. The result is something similar to the personal and political meditations in The Amerindians, the 2010 film by Tracy Assing.

But every poem, whether written on the page or presented to us on a screen, is an act of anamnesis. And the strongest aspect of the film is how it breathes life into Wayne Brown’s words, starting with his astonishing poem, ‘Voyages’ – the title poem from his 1989 collection. The poem interrogates language, history, and the idea of the human body as apparition. Says the poet: “The poem dies, / the cry of the slaveship under waves / dies and resurfaces”. As the film unfurls, Wayne Brown’s lines come to dramatize aspects of his life, as if arguing a case for the notion that an artist’s private life always finds expression in her work.

With the aid of Nadia Huggins and Sean Edghill, who serve as the film’s directors of photography, Mariel Brown also successfully creates a distinctive look for the work, embracing techniques and filters that evoke the Polaroids and grainy film textures of a bygone era. Visual artist Huggin’s underwater footage, in particular, is striking. As is the voicing of actor Nickolai Salcedo, who eerily achieves Wayne Brown’s timbres. Additionally, composer Francesco Emmanuel and editor Laura Fong-Prosper weave the film’s disparate strands expertly.

But the real star is the written word. Those going into this film wanting to know as much as possible about Wayne Brown’s work, its reception during his lifetime and since, and how it fits within wider literary currents, may be dismayed by the wide focus. Equally, those who are not driven to ecstasy by poetry and letter-writing will find relief in the focus on universal themes like family quarrels, romance, race and love. The incident in which the writer says his daughter’s haircut makes her look like an “ugly dyke” raises troubling questions about his attitudes to LGBTQ rights and, therefore, his legacy. But such questions are not taken up.

While the film sometimes slips into the banal and lacks incisiveness in relation to the complexity of its prime subject, it does feature many candid, hilarious moments with Wayne Brown and the people who knew him best. The man, his loved ones and his words truly come to life.

What a drawing can do

WENDY NANAN has given us an exhibition of drawings, but what does it mean to have an exhibition of drawings in a world where digital photography has taken over? What can a drawing do that a photograph cannot? Or is there something that both do that is valuable?

These are not the only provocations of Wendy Nanan Draws, the latest show at Medulla Gallery, Woodbrook. The bulk of the drawings can be classed as male nudes, as if the artist is reversing the bias of the art world in which the female body has long been fair game and the male body off limits. Nanan’s gaze is not necessarily erotic, though there is a kind of yearning and curiosity evident in the selection of which bodies are deemed interesting.

But the recent animus around questions of sexuality – particularly the status of members of the LGBTQ community – provides another lens through which to view these pieces. In their celebration of the diversity of the human shape, they are a reminder of the democracy of the body: everyone is different, but that is no reason to deny some the right to human dignity. The drawings ask us to bring questions about sexuality out of the shadows and confront them head-on.

There are also allusions to several of Nanan’s previous shows in the same space. A book in one drawing references Books and Stupas – an exhibition which comprised papier-mache forms that were painted, chalked and collaged. A conch in another piece references her glorious Shells, which consisted of assemblages drawn from the marine and tropical environment. This gives followers of Nanan’s work the sense of an organic whole: of chapters and themes unfolding over a lifetime. Kind of like how readers of a particular poet or novelist might notice certain motifs over decades of work.

The drawings have a raw, un-staged quality, as if drawn in great haste. They do not, however, feel like sketches. The line takes on many textures due to the use of inks, pastels, watercolors, colour pencil. Each piece is painted in colour. The arrangement of the subject matter is also counter-intuitive: they do not replicate what we’d expect in traditional portraiture, landscape or still life.

The overall effect: the drawings have, though the artists’ inner workings, become figurative. She sees bodies but draws landscapes of the mind.

A good example is ‘The Boys on the Beach 2’ where languid men lay on the sand, shells oddly positioned between them as if some kind of onanism has or is about to occur. There is no focal point, there is a liminal quality. Here is what a drawing can do that a photograph might not.

- from Newsday, March 3, 2018, p. 32