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Port of Spain

The role of visual art in the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora remains an under-examined question despite recent contemporary Caribbean art exhibitions such as 2010’s ‘Rockstone and Bootheel’ at Real Art Ways in Connecticut and ‘Wrestling with the Image’ at the Washington Art Museum of the Americas, which were curated by the Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier. In the Caribbean it is the so-called ‘festival arts’, for instance carnival in Trinidad and dancehall in Jamaica, that set the barometer by which artistic creativity is measured. The many concerts and festivals I attended during my first visit to Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) demonstrated the dominance of performance and music in the visual arts (I was lucky enough to visit a live concert of the leading soca singer Machel Montano, saw a steel band procession in the very birthplace of the steel pan, the deprived Port of Spain district Laventille, and attended the annual Emancipation Festival). So how do local visual artists position themselves in the context of these ‘relational practices’? In the light of the closure of the not-for-profit platform Contemporary Caribbean Arts 7 in Port of Spain in 2007, a number of small independent art spaces have sprung up to compensate for the lack of discursive platforms and exhibition spaces previously provided by CCA7. The latter’s closing event, ‘Galvanize Project’, was organised by a group of prominent local and international artists including Steve Ouditt, Eddie Bowen, Mario Lewis, Cozier and Peter Doig. A critical interventionist project, ‘Galvanize’ ventured into the urban space with a six-week series of events, performances and collaborations. But which institution did the ‘Galvanize Project’ critique? The festival arts from which it expanded beyond the stage and the street procession or the white cube gallery from which it escaped onto the streets? ‘Galvanize’ founder Lewis, who returned to Trinidad after graduating from Goldsmiths and now dedicates his time to teaching and curating, is keen to foster a research-based, discursive, critical and collaborative contemporary art practice in the ethnically and culturally rich community of T&T. Lewis asks, why follow the western art world model of object fetishisation and commerce in a context that historically has been based on the interdisciplinary social practices of carnival and festivals – a model that the West is only now starting to embrace? Lewis’s question seems to imply a subtle critique of Alice Yard Space, a small gallery space that opened in 2007 within the context of Alice Yard, an arts platform run by the architect Sean Leonard, writer Nicholas Laughlin, artist Cozier and musician Sheldon Holder. During my visit this August, Michelle Isava’s Travelling Shoe Project asked participants to give their shoes in exchange for footware from neighbouring Venezuela. As part of the same series, called ‘Proximities’, Cozier curated a number of international artists’ videos earlier this year exploring the relation between public and private space.

Cozier, who presented hundreds of delicate drawings entitled Tropical Night at Tate Liverpool’s ‘Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic’ last year (Reviews AM334), works with painting, installation, text and voice. His Attack of the Sandwich Men, 2002 – white sandwiches neatly wrapped in wax paper and crowned with a small national T&T flag – was a comment on Modernism’s industrialisation of private, banal experiences, such as food consumption. Post-colonial childhood memories seem to have a deep influence on the 53-yearold artist, whose rich interdisciplinary work also involves collaborations with musicians, such as calypso singer David Rudder, the rapso (a fusion of rap and calypso) band 3 Canal and Guyanese musician and Alice Yard colleague Holder. It is cross-media practices like these that shape the specificity of Caribbean contemporary art. Che Lovelace’s intriguing new body of work is equally informed by performance, dance and surfing. In a series of cardboard paintings the artist and acclaimed surfing champion focuses on a squatting male figure suggestive of an uncanny, almost animalistic outcast character as well as the surfer’s body position. Yet, despite the work’s sensuality – Lovelace invites the spectator into a further tactile dimension by physically cutting into the cardboard – these paintings are ultimately about the act of seeing: doubling ourselves through the squatting figure, whose back faces us, we too become witnesses to his field of vision. I was also able to meet Ouditt who, like many artists in T&T, divides his practice between art and education (Ouditt used to be the curator of education at Iniva and recently launched the first MA in Design at the University of the West Indies in T&T. His work focuses on the language of programming, which the artist considers somewhat illicit in the art world, describing it as a ‘dirty yet rewarding activity in art making’.

In a male-dominated art world, questions of gender are easily repressed. I found an early example of feminist art in a small retrospective exhibition of Claire Jesse, a Trinidadian painter, who created a series of startling works when visiting Kenya in the late 1970s. In her intimate paintings, the nude female body is placed within surreal visions of emancipation from patriarchy, racism and motherhood. Jamie Lee Loy’s 40min video Bury Your Mother from 2009 describes a surreal and intimate experience of child abuse. Oscillating between narrative and abstraction, Loy’s film penetrates the physical walls of a house, home to the psychological war between a mother and a daughter. Loy explores domestic violence, a taboo subject in T&T, through a wide range of media, including sculpture, performance and text. Of Chinese origin, Loy explained to me the challenges of working within an identity discourse dominated by the history of slavery, colonialism and black-skin racism. Inspired by the above-mentioned ‘Galvanize Project’, Loy founded the Collaborative Frog Collective with fellow artists Nikolai Noel and Marlon Griffith in 2007. Griffith, who also worked at the carnival workshop of Peter Minshall, the worldrenowned Trinidadian carnival designer, places the participatory element of T&T’s costume and masquerade culture within the minimalist legacy of conceptualism and the spatial aesthetics of installation art. Griffith presented his highly innovative artwork in ‘Spring’ for the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008 and A Walk Into the Night for ‘Cape 09’ in Cape Town. Both were ‘processions’ curated by Claire Tancons, a US-based curator of French Caribbean descent. She considers carnival (‘mas’) as a methodology and artistic practice that is more political than object-based art, more sustainable than relational aesthetics, more effective than institutional critique and more inclusive than performance. Ironically, just as the official Trinidadian carnival seems to be degenerating into a commercial enterprise filled with ‘beads and bikinis’, an avalanche of street protests has uprooted entrenched political systems across the globe. Tancons asks, ‘Cannot a bottom-up “mas” give a much stronger political agency to the contemporary (art) audience than any gallery exhibition?’ This question seems more than timely in light of the state of emergency that was declared in T&T the very night I left Port of Spain. ❚

MAXA ZOLLER is an art lecturer.

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OCT 11 | ART MONTHLY | 350

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