Wendell McShine: a shaman called Shine

Nazma Muller interprets the message behind the medium of T&T artist Wendell McShine, who’s making a name for himself in Mexico

  • Installation detail. Photograph courtesy Wendell McShine
  • Mural in Mexico City. Photograph courtesy Wendell McShine
  • McShine at work. Photograph courtesy Wendell McShine
  • Dreamweaver. Courtesy Wendell McShine

Rumour has it that Wendell McShine is an obeahman. And without prompting he confirms it in an e-mail: “I’m into shamanism and stuff that you may consider occult.”

I believe him. The gods have surely guided this youth from Trinidad, through the daily struggles of being the ninth son of ten children born to working-class parents, shielded him from the temptations of gangs and drugs, to a scholarship in London, then Spain, New York, and now, Mexico City, where he is considered one of the country’s leading contemporary artists.

Not yet 40, this small-island boy known as “Shine” has spray-painted and animated his way onto the urban art scene of a city of eight million inhabitants, making his name as an innovator, an underground fine artist whose work is collected by some of the wealthiest people in Mexico and the world. His work sells mainly in the US – the West Coast, where he has a huge fan base – but he also has buyers from the UK and Sweden. Some of it is also wearable, and is available online at zazzle.com. His installations and canvases have been shown at the Mexican Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and he was selected to be part of Adidas’ “celebrating originality” street mural campaign. In an Absolut Vodka urban art project, he worked in a giant glass room in different parts of the city, where people could see him develop his paintings and animations live.

“I love it here,” McShine says, “the colours, textures and most definitely the diversity of different indigenous tribes. They all bring that special uniqueness that makes Mexico. My inspiration really is universal, but Mexico is where I feel alive. Everything here is on a higher vibration. It’s as if there’s another dimension unfolding right before our eyes and my work reflects that.”

Indeed it does. His series La Puerta Abierta (The Open Door) is a continuous narrative about the interconnectedness of man, nature, and the spirit world. The Blue Men of his series of installations are “shamans of the eternal spirit walk; messengers and keepers of alchemic formulas” – and extensions of higher human selves. “The Open Door” signifies the opening up of one’s consciousness to another reality.

His work combines Caribbean and Mexican imagery, hinting a vast range of influences – from Frida Kahlo to traditional costumes from Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival.

“My source of creativity comes from my approach to making art, and that’s to remain in the mindset of a child,” he explained. “I constantly see the world with my inner eye. I see love and positivity in all situations. My guiding principle is to connect to the essence of myself and to see me in everyone and everything.”

In his spellbinding music video for the song “Prosper” by his compatriots 12 the Band, Shine does this beautifully. Drawing on his beloved medium, animation, he brings to life the poignant lyrics that implore the people of Trinidad & Tobago to come together and heal their nation. He makes the national bird, the scarlet ibis, take flight, while a hard-working brother lifts a gas tank onto his back, and climbs, like Sisyphus, up a flight of steps. “I got to show how someone could use all the knowledge learnt outside and bring it back here and do something powerful with it,” he said.

McShine’s childhood in the towns of Tunapuna and Arima, the challenge to maintain dignity and focus, was what inspired him to look within and contemplate the nature of existence. “[Being born] in ‘the third world’, where opportunities don’t come by unless you have courage, spirit and conviction, has been an undercover blessing,” he writes in his blog, “allowing me to draw from my own life experiences and giving me a huge hunger to tell multidimensional stories that inspire.”

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That hunger, married to an almost Zen-like discipline, made art his life. A fellowship to study information graphics at Reuters News Foundation in London and the University of Navarra-Pamplona in Spain was the launching pad for Shine to see the world, especially the art world. From there, he went to live in New York. This exposure has certainly influenced the global feel and complexity of his work.

“My ability to adapt to different places has paid off for me big time in the art world. The globe is very small in today’s world, so a true master got to find ways to stand out from the rest. Sometimes I feel like a nomad. I guess that must be something in my DNA left over from my African roots. Maybe slavery made us into hybrids, sort of like superhuman men and women. You can feel that reflected in my work.”

His Third World project, which is part of La Puerta Abierta, is more of an exploration of a dream state. “The other side, or spirit world, is always there for us,” he says. “It’s our birthright. It’s just that sometimes we lose track within this experience of life on this plane and we become forgetful of how multidimensional we really are.”

Shamanism is just accessing these doorways and walking into the realm of immortality, he believes. Indeed, we walk into this realm every time we go to sleep. Remaining aware of this nether world, our unconscious link with the unseen, is the key after one returns from that state.

“I see us in the Third World as being more in tune with Nature,” Shine says. Here, we can find so many things to recycle to express ourselves. He creates planes from Coke cans, flown by skeleton pilots; houses from cardboard and papier-mâché. Cardboard easily absorbs spray paint and doesn’t need to be treated or varnished.

“Making art accessible is very important for me,” he explains. This is why he returned home to Trinidad in 2009 to run the Arts Project in the town of Point Fortin. At these workshops he taught the basics of film production, design, music therapy, animation, and mural-making.

“The mission is to plant seeds of consciousness in our youths through art so that they can live their full potential and bring up their communities. These avenues didn’t exist when I was growing up in the islands. It’s my personal vision to give back to my people.”

So although Mexico remains McShine’s base (he is married to Mexican-American filmmaker Yadira Alberran and they have a son), the Caribbean is still on his mind, and in his heart. “In a world where change is upon us,” he wrote in his blog, “the only truth is the holograms of the imagination. My brothers in Haiti, hold on. Magic is your strength.”
Wendell McShine’s blog is at: http://72ironmen.blogspot.com