Carlisle Chang

Judy Raymond meets painter and designer Carlisle Chang

  • China, the Forbidden City- Band of the year 1967- was designed by Chang for bandleader Stephen Lee Heung. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Chang working on Scarlet Ibis mural for the Trinidad Hilton Hotel. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • The Inherent Nobility of Man, Chang’s most famous work of art, when it stood at Piarco Airoort. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • “Waving his slender hands to emphasize a point…Chang raises his voice slightly over the music of gongs and flutes that chimes from a cassette player. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
  • Mirage (1997); photograph by Noel Norton
  • King Sailors (1997); photograph by Noel Norton
  • Man with a Bucket (1997); photograph by Noel Noron
  • Orisons 2 (1974) which was part of Trinidad & Tobago's Independence exhibition in London. Photograph by Michelle Jorsling
  • Carlisle Chang at home in Trinidad. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Carlisle Chang’s artwork. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Waving his slender hands to emphasise a point about painting, Carlisle Chang raises his voice slightly above the music of gongs and flutes that chimes from a cassette player beside him. His face creases into a benevolent smile, and he looks the picture of a Chinese gentleman.

But Chang’s jasmine-scented room in a suburb of Port of Spain is half a world away from China, where his father was born; and Carlisle Chang is not as patrician, as conservative or as Chinese as he looks. Perhaps he inherited an adventurous streak from his father, William Chang, who left his home near Canton as a young man and crossed the globe in search of a better life. Arriving in the Caribbean, he opened a small business and put down roots.

So Carlisle Fenwick Chun-Yee Chang, born in San Juan, Trinidad, in 1921, says firmly: “I’m very fed up with this Chinese thing . . . It’s ridiculous for me to say I’m going back to my Chinese roots. I’m a Trinidadian.”

He’s not just a Trinidadian; Chang can also claim — though he’s much too modest to say so — to be the father of Trinidadian art. In a career that has lasted 60 years, he became the first local artist to make a living solely from art. (The 19th-century Trinidadian artist Michel Jean Cazabon produced many landscapes and portraits, but his income was supplemented for most of his life by revenues from his family’s sugar estates.)

Like Cazabon, Chang was trained in fine art in Europe. But on his return home, he combined those skills with the folk arts of Trinidad, using forms that made those arts accessible to everyone. Even in becoming a painter at all, Chang was a pioneer. (By the time of his death in 1888, Cazabon had been largely forgotten, and he does not seem to have inspired any followers; it was only many years later that his reputation was restored.)

Chang himself said, in a lecture on Painting in Trinidad delivered in 1963: “In Trinidad before 1930 there was hardly any practice of painting at all. One is left to assume that it was more a sort of genteel pastime, like sewing or embroidery for girls or lessons on the violin for a boy. Ours was a society with its eyes fixed on Europe, adapting external experiences willy-nilly without reference to the conditions which obtained here.” Chang was one of the artists who changed that, by showing that art was not a pastime but a vocation and that Trinidad was a fertile — and valid — source of inspiration for an art of its own.

Today there is no single place you can go to assess Chang’s work and its impact, no museum or gallery. Incredibly, it was only last year that he held his first solo exhibition: in the 25 years when he ran his own gallery, he was too busy organising shows on behalf of other artists to hold a formal exhibition of his own work. And often his paintings were sold off the easel to visitors to his studio before they were even finished.

No, if you seek Carlisle Chang’s monument, look around you. Much of his own work has been literally ephemeral — for 20 years he designed Carnival costumes, which are paraded for two days of glory and then thrown away. The only traces they have left are a few photographs and a handful of the artist’s exquisite line drawings.

But Chang has also designed stage sets and logos, produced handicraft, decorated hotels, churches and offices, constructed and painted murals at a dozen public sites. In all these ways, his work has passed before the eyes of a far larger public than the few who visit galleries and museums. Some of his work endures; and his vast influence still spreads through the work of the generations of fine artists and Carnival designers for whom he blazed a trail.

Mark Pereira, owner of the gallery in which Chang’s exhibition was held last year, says of him: “Carlisle Chang is in the realm of myth . . . He’s respected not only as a painter, but for several other areas of cultural achievement — stage set and costume design, mural design, ceramics, copperwork and Carnival costume design. His work — like himself — has a sense of timelessness, spanning perhaps the most important 50 years of art history in this country.”

It’s in that most transient — but most popular — of forms, Carnival, that Chang has had the most visible influence. His work presaged that of designers like Peter Minshall, who went on to make Trinidad’s kinetic art world-famous with his designs for the Olympic Games in Barcelona and Atlanta. It was Chang who, drawing on all of his Trinidadian heritage, from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, transformed a creole craft into an art admired by the world.

Chang’s formal education is in art — he wasn’t at all academically inclined at school. “I’ve never passed an exam in my life,” he says. But he’s tremendously knowledgeable, and his conversation, untrammelled by the rules of academic discipline, meanders leisurely here and there to include nuggets of esoteric information from every corner of the globe. Chang imparts them with a smile, recalling a pleasurable memory or simply enjoying the telling of a story.

By inclination Chang is an aesthete. Recalling his student days in Italy, he tells an anecdote about a weekend in a Tuscan palazzo. It was more than 40 years ago, but he remembers every last detail: “I thought, my God, this is Romeo and Juliet!” The family and their guests, he recalls, discoursed on Petrarch in the library after dinner. “Of course, I didn’t understand any of it,” he adds with his usual self-deprecation.

Despite his European education in fine art, and his delight in the more elegant and cerebral pleasures of life, Chang never lost touch with his origins. When he studied art in London in the 1950s he saw the funerals of George VI and Queen Mary, and met members of the aristocracy. He wept bitterly at having to leave, he recalls. And yet it was while he was an art student in London that he began to work on designs for murals which clearly showed the influence of African forms, with monumental, sculptural figures. He still has a photograph of one that he designed for his diploma. “It’s a totally African expression,” he points out, “but through modern art. I was concerned with Trinidad.”

In his most recent work, too, he’s gone back to his roots, coming full circle after a long and amazingly varied artistic career. Chang took up his paintbrushes again in 1995, 25 years after he’d last laid them down. Invited by a local insurance company to paint the illustrations for their 1996 calendar, he chose as his theme a familiar subject, Costumes and Festivals of the Caribbean, and painted a series of impressionistic figurative pieces showing Carnival costumes and characters from throughout the region.

Some of the paintings of Trinidadian themes were clearly based on Chang’s own childhood memories, and the commissioning of the calendar became a renaissance for him as he went on after its completion to explore those themes further. He held his first solo exhibition at Pereira’s Port of Spain gallery in October last year (all 20 of the new paintings were sold at the opening).

After a hiatus of a quarter of a century, Chang had to teach himself to paint all over again and returned not only to the themes but to the style and the scale of his earliest work, quite different from the abstract approach that typified his later painting, or the vast size of his murals.

“They’re very impressionistic — I can’t go into total abstraction at present. There are no faces — since school I decided it was not necessary to define physiognomy. A painting must show for itself what it’s about. There’s still a good deal of traditional painting: chiaroscuro, a certain amount of emotion. But I haven’t yet reached the point of dealing with more serious issues. I’m so cynical about Trinidad at the moment . . .”

And indeed the paintings are full of nostalgia, reflecting Chang’s advice to himself in painting them: Let me keep to the simple old things I remember. They sum up “an earlier, more graceful time and images that emerge out of the folk culture”.

Some are, again, portraits of remembered Carnival characters, king sailors, blue devils, mummers, moko jumbies who walk on stilts: suggestions of masked, dancing, glimmering figures, merging into the blues of twilight or dawn, evoking the mystery of these traditional costumes seen through the eyes of a child.

Others are more personal: they’re visual records of Chang’s own boyhood in a little country town which was only a few miles east of the capital, but was so rural in the 1920s and 30s that the only lighting was pitch-oil (kerosene) lamps, and you couldn’t stay in Port of Spain after 5 p.m. or it would be too dark to find your way home. The plump woman who holds a small boy by the hand as they make their way to church is Chang’s own nanny. “I was very fond of my nursemaid. She was a huge black woman, very kind . . .”

Other scenes draw on the culture of the area. Village life in those days, Chang has written, “offered a liberal education, rich with the culture of Hindus and Muslims, Ibo, Ashanti and Yoruba, Spanish mestizo, French patois-speaking creoles, and of course, Chinese.”

It’s the large Indian population of San Juan, though, that features most prominently in Chang’s memories and in his paintings. So he portrays the turbanned Indian windmill-seller, in soft, luminous apricots and blue-whites, passing in front of a mosque, while a small boy looks on with yearning. The Muslim festival of Hosay is evoked in brilliant oranges. And in the most abstract of Chang’s new works, Mirage, the Muslim emblem of a crescent is hinted at among vertical bands of glowing yellows and ochres.

Chang was steeped in Indian culture: he has Indian cousins, and as a child he was often sent to spend the day with the Indian neighbourhood carter’s son so that he wouldn’t be in the way in his family’s shop. Later he was drawn to eastern religion, and almost became a Hindu before settling on Buddhism. He acquired part of his early artistic education when he regularly helped his Indian friends to make tadjahs, the elaborately decorated floats pulled through the streets at Hosay, and to decorate their homes for weddings.

By then, he’d already been introduced to the art of making Carnival costumes, helping his sister Beryl with the outfit worn by a local man, a Mr Johnson, who played a red dragon. Young Carlisle also helped Johnson make the dragon’s scarlet papier-maché head. Carlisle was the youngest of three children. His father died when he was two, and his mother ran a variety of small businesses to provide for the children. She was willing to turn her hand to almost anything, and Carlisle later demonstrated the same versatility as he struggled to make his calling into a livelihood.

There was an artistic streak in the whole family, though their mother tried to persuade them to turn those talents to practical use. Beryl was a seamstress; Carlisle’s brother Wesley was a photographer, as was their mother’s cousin Isaac Chan; and their half-brother in China, from a previous marriage of their father’s, was the village calligrapher.

It wasn’t just his family, though: despite Chang’s scorn for “the Chinese thing”, the Chinese have played a significant role in the history of art in Trinidad: it was a Chinese artist, Amy Leong Pang, who gave Carlisle Chang his first formal training in art, and another, Sybil Atteck, who founded the Trinidad Art Society, to which Chang has belonged since 1944.

Carlisle began painting while he was at Tranquillity Government Boys’ School in Port of Spain, where he sat next to a boy called Boscoe Holder. More sophisticated than his friend from the country, Holder already knew a lot about painting. Like Chang, he too went on to become one of the grand old men of Trinidad art, but much of his career was spent abroad. At 18, Chang took part in an exhibition held by a group run by his art teacher, Leong Pang. (Other new names in that exhibition, also later to prove important in the history of Trinidad art, were Atteck and Holder.)

Leong Pang’s group was called the Society of Independents, and they scandalised polite society by, among other things, painting nudes. Young Carlisle didn’t go that far, but he was heavily influenced by the Independents — not only by the style of their painting but also by their ideas about life and art. “The biggest influences on their work,” he wrote of them, “were probably Matisse and Gauguin . . . Their influences were drawn from Paris but their thoughts turned first of all to Trinidad.”

That was where they were truly independent; and that was where Chang followed them.

In the same lecture on painting, Chang paid tribute to his friend and mentor Hugh Stollmeyer, describing him as “the finest exponent” among the Independents. Stollmeyer was clearly a powerful influence on Chang’s own ideas about painting, his eagerness to work in different forms and media, and even his spiritual beliefs. “Stollmeyer,” wrote Chang, “was gifted with both talent and intellect. He had tremendous imagination, coloured with a quality of mysticism which led him to be influenced by Hinduism. His themes derived from native folklore and superstition . . . He was also the first person to experiment with concrete sculpture . . .

Neither of the young disciple’s oil paintings sold in that crucial 1939 exhibition, but he wasn’t deterred.

Chang’s mother sent him to work with her cousin Isaac as a photographer, and later he moved to his brother’s photographic studio in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1945 he went to New York to study photography. His mother was later to regret that decision, because it was there, surrounded by galleries and theatres, that Carlisle made up his mind to become an artist. “I didn’t dare tell her,” he remembers, adding that she eventually “died out of sheer despair” when he persisted. She had mortgaged her house to pay for his photography studies.

But her son was adamant. “As an artist and heaven knows what else — gay — I’ve had to choose my own way,” he says matter-of-factly. He knew that the life of an artist would not be an easy one. He’d seen what happened to the Independents. They were a remarkable, dynamic group: “The conjunction of these people . . . was something electric,” he recalled. But one of the things that bound them together was an external force — the opposition of those who disapproved of everything the Independents represented. “Not only were they drawn together by common sympathies and a great friendship, but they were welded together by an overwhelming unsympathetic attitude on the part of the general public to anything they had to offer.”

In later years the public wasn’t quite so hostile, but Chang would find that it wasn’t easy to make a living from art. He continued to work as a photographer for another five years, painting murals and designing theatrical costumes and stage sets in his spare time. Then, in 1950, he received a grant to study art in London, at the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

He spent three glorious years there, studying, visiting famous galleries and theatres, and meeting other West Indians involved in the arts. He sewed a costume for Beryl McBurnie, Trinidadian dance pioneer and founder of the island’s first theatre, the Little Carib. (He’d known her from home, of course: “I used to dance, I don’t know why. I couldn’t get her to teach me West Indian folk dance — she was into black politics”. So Chang had to stick to the European dance that was conventionally taught at that time, and to Chinese dance.) McBurnie was in London to perform at a charity concert organised by Trinidadian musician Edric Connor, another of Chang’s London friends. So was Jamaican storyteller Louise Bennett. Also among the small, close-knit group of West Indians in London in those days were the Trinidadian playwrights Errol Hill and Errol John (Moon on a Rainbow Shawl), novelist Sam Selvon and Jamaican writer Roger Mais. After three years in England, Chang spent a year studying ceramics in Italy. Then it was time to come home.

Back in Trinidad, he opened a studio and gallery and began to turn out all kinds of work — Christmas cards, paintings in oils and watercolours, costume designs . . .

He was commissioned to paint several murals, including one at Piarco Airport that became his best-known work. Fifty feet long and 15 feet high, it was called The Inherent Nobility of Man. It was painted in the course of three months in 1961, and it epitomised the spirit of the country in those days, during the countdown to independence from Britain. Art historian Geoffrey MacLean describes it as having been “possibly the most important work of art in the Caribbean”.

That was one of six murals that Chang painted between 1961 and 1964, and one of many public works of art — friezes, collages, panels and copper repoussés — that he was commissioned to do. The Piarco mural was demolished in 1979, to public outcry, when the airport building was extended. But other murals remain, such as Conquerabia, cast in cement, outside the Port of Spain City Hall.

was the original name of the Amerindian settlement that preceded the Spanish city, but in many ways the mural sums up Chang’s vision of the entire country. It epitomises, too, his vision of its art, in its symbolism, its style and even the materials used in its construction. The central panels of Conquerabia are enclosed between depictions of the gaping mouths of the Dragon and the Serpent — the names of the two passages which close off the Gulf of Paria, between Trinidad and Venezuela. A Spanish caravel is seen approaching the three Trinity Hills, on the south coast, after which Trinidad is named.

The artist included Amerindian motifs as well as images that embody the diverse racial and architectural elements of the modern city.

There are also religious images, in a reference, Chang explained, “to the remarkable tolerance which has always characterised the life of Port of Spain”. And in his quest for new and durable materials, Chang found a way to incorporate literal emblems of every corner of the country. The four panels include, among other things, grey and white stones from Sans Souci on the north coast, multi-coloured porcelainite from Erin in the deep south, and a green stone from Tobago.

That Chang found so many corporate patrons in those years was an indication not only of his own talent, versatility and reputation, but also of the ambition of a young country searching for its own identity, and anxious to see images of itself made by its own people.

Thus among the subjects of his commissioned pieces were Legends of the Ibis (Trinidad’s national bird), Folk Festivals, The Story of Oil and a Hindu theme, Lord Krishna and the Milkmaids.

Chang was awarded a national honour, the Humming Bird Medal, in 1964. That was also the year he first designed a Carnival band — Japan, Land of the Kabuki — for bandleader/producer Stephen Lee Heung. Just two years later, for the band Crete, Chang designed a prizewinning Minotaur, that year’s junior King of Carnival. And in 1967 he won the Band of the Year and Queen of Carnival titles with his China, the Forbidden City. (Chang’s eclecticism, his familiarity with cultural traditions from every corner of the globe, are visible in his choice of themes for his Carnival designs: they range from Les Fetes Galantes de Versailles through Yucatan, depicting “early hemispherical cultural links”, Russian Fairy Tales and 1001 Nights, to his last Band of the Year in 1975, We Kinda People, whose slogan was “all ah we is one”.)

Between Carnivals Chang was still running his gallery, but when the Black Power movement led to social unrest in 1970, the bottom dropped out of the fine art market. Chang easily turned his hand to new work, producing handicraft and even opening a factory that made exquisite Carnival dolls, copperwork, embroidery and woodcarvings. Even his mother might have been proud of his resourcefulness — except that commercial success eluded him.

Chang is practical in many ways — his Carnival designs were not merely works of art, but precise scale drawings, blueprints for the construction of the costumes. He’s always experimented with new materials, searching to find paint which would withstand the ravages of tropical humidity, mildew and insects: earlier he tried out vinylite for his murals; now he uses acrylics for his paintings, because they don’t fade in the tropics as do oils. Even now he’s interested in new ways to make the arts viable, offering suggestions as to how steelbands could be made profitable.

But he didn’t have any business sense, and the factory failed. Even that became an opportunity to venture into new areas: Chang took up interior design. In 1991 he won an award from the National Drama Association for his set design for Lysistrata. (The production was directed by actress and dancer Jacqui Chan, daughter of his mother’s cousin Isaac Chan, who had been Chang’s first employer at the Ace photographic studio half a century earlier.)

Until 1995, however, it seemed Chang’s career was over. He’d stopped designing for Carnival bands in the 1980s, and only watched Carnival on television. “The only band I’ve been eager to see in recent years is Peter’s,” he says, referring to Minshall.

He kept busy, though, even before his recent return to painting. Few exhibitions by any of the younger generation of artists opened without his benign but sharp-eyed presence. He began archiving the history of the Trinidad Art Society — perhaps deterred by his lack of academic success, Chang hasn’t written very much, but he recognises the importance of recording Trinidad’s artistic heritage.

And after all, who is better qualified? Chang has lived that history. His living room does duty not only as a studio but also as a study, and canvases are stacked against the walls between desks and shelves filled with papers, books, photo albums and files.

He’s often asked to give interviews to students of art and cultural history, and complains that such requests are far too time-consuming, but he finds it hard to say no: “I’m a thorough fool, I get browbeaten all the time.”

But Carlisle Chang remains a kindly, gracious mandarin. He’s an invaluable repository of wisdom and experience, shrewd judgment and perfect recall of the events of a long lifetime — a lifetime, what’s more, during which he has been a central figure in the visual arts of Trinidad.

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