Chris Cozier: a state of independence

Annie Paul on the art of Chris Cozier

  • Taking Aim; About Balance; Western Journey; Poised 1999; Johannesburg, at the Bag Factory. Photograph by Chris Cozier
  • Egoli, City of Gold; Suspended; Voice; Culture Man; from Intersection, an exhibition at CCA 7, Trinidad; 2001. Photograph by Henry Hamlet
  • Intersection (silk screen and lino cut; limited edition; produced at the Caversham Press, South Africa; 1999). Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Cozier in his studio, 2001. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • A still from the video installation Blue Soap (produced by Earth TV), 1994. Photograph by Marlon Rouse
  • Under the Stick and You Feel I F...... Care (mixed media on cardboard; 1999). Photograph by Henry Hamlet
  • 1 About Balance  2 Carrying load 3 Listen to the Light. Photograph by Henry Hamlet
  • Police (from the Blue Soap series; mixed media on paper; collection of Dr Ulrich Fiedler, Cologne). Photograph by Henry Hamlet
  • Bend Down (1996; mixed media on paper; collection of Ataklan). Photograph by Chris Cozier
  • Cultural mixer posing arrogantly as phallic symbol ejaculating nationalist icons (1997; mixed media on paper; from the collection of Moira Elias, Scotland). Photograph by Chris Cozier
  • Art and Nation, Things You Must Learn From Day 1 (mixed media installation; 1998). Photograph by Chris Cozier
  • Historical Narrative (mixed media; 1991; collection of Dr Ulrich Fiedler, Cologne). Photograph by Henry Hamlet
  • Cozier at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg. Photograph by Mark Attwood

You get flag, nation and passport and you want more?

1997 Marketable Historical Injuries.

Cultural mixer posing arrogantly as phallic symbol ejaculating nationalist icons.

These titles from Christopher Cozier’s 1998 exhibition, Migrate or Medal/Meddle, in Laventille, Port of Spain, convey something of the playfulness of his work.  Coming from Jamaica, where I was used to ponderous works with titles like Dialogue II, Notte 1977, or Pensées des Morts, Cozier’s exhibition was a wonderful surprise. For me, it was also the best introduction to an artist and critic whose work I had been admiring from afar for a long time.

“So what do you think?” Cozier asked, showing me around the exhibition that consisted of drawings on paper. I deferred answering that question for a couple of years until I had been able to take in the work, digest it, and start to get a sense of what it meant for an artist to make work like this in the anti-intellectual terrain of the Caribbean.

Cozier’s 1998 show Migrate or Medal/Meddle first introduced the figure of the naked man, often running, “in-flight”, sometimes legless, sometimes winged. Man Running Between Two Unspecific Points, as one piece is called, shows a man running through a landscape of surgically severed limbs; menacing cones signify loudspeakers in Announcement, while they represent mounds of cocaine, of red, black and white flags and schoolroom blackboards in Dunce Cap. The blackboard imparts lessons on distinguishing between us and them, while the loudspeakers issue the words “vote for we”.

A recurring image is that of a kitchen implement of Indian origin, the swizzle stick, a kind of whisk used to blend cooked sauces. It is most commonly used to blend the Trinidadian soup called callaloo. In a typical Cozierscape, it appears jaunty and “nuff” (or overconfident) as they say in Jamaica, topped by the red, white and black of Trinidad and Tobago, a “cultural mixer posing arrogantly as phallic symbol ejaculating nationalist icons”. The crutch makes its appearance here and there, an innocuous enough object, signifying a kind of mobility, an aid for dismembered, injured people to manoeuvre their severed bodies with.

In Cozier’s critique, the crutch stands for Culture, with a capital C. According to him, “We define culture in politically expedient ways to the point that we represent ourselves as some injured/impure entity in comparison to healthy, allegedly pure cultures elsewhere. So we enter into an idea of a national self as ex-colonials, as wounded, as having some original injury like Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, bewildered, with a passport, a flag.”

ozier was born in 1959 in Port of Spain. He took lessons in painting at the Royal Victoria Institute with M. P. Alladin, and studied graphic design at the John S. Donaldson Technical Institute. He then went to the United States and studied painting at The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, getting his BFA in 1986. By 1988, he had received his MFA in Visual Arts from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where he also studied criticism.

There, he showed potential as a critic, and as a result was offered a position in an art criticism programme at Stonybrook, where he spent a term; the élite of French theorists, Derrida and Julia Kristeva, were flown in to give lectures to a handful of students. Cozier’s mentors could scarcely believe it when he chucked all this up and decided to return to Trinidad and Tobago at the end of 1988.

Cozier now found himself in the predicament of most intellectuals in the Caribbean. How could he put to use the brand new ideas about art and life that he had acquired in his time abroad? How would he produce art “that would be Caribbean, not only in context, but in technique and gesture?” And how could he avoid being seen as a threat by those who controlled the art game at home?

By doggedly pursuing his artistic ambitions, Cozier has managed to fashion an art practice for more than a decade. His work is to be found in international collections in England, the United States  and South Africa. The World Bank recently acquired a piece of his work. Within the Caribbean,  his has been an influential curatorial and critical voice, responsible for enabling many younger artists working in non-traditional modes and media. The achievements of the younger generation fill him with an almost paternal pride. He can genuinely survey his ten years in the Caribbean and see the impression he has made on the artistic landscape.

But the going has never been easy. In the early years, while local art aficionados remained resistant to his brand of contemporary art, Cozier found support in Ulrich Fiedler, a German surgeon who lived in Trinidad in the early 1990s, Gregor Nassief and others.  A collector of German contemporary art, Fiedler realised that Cozier, along with Eddie Bowen and Steve Ouditt, was chronicling the “dark side of modernity” in Trinidad and the Caribbean. Fiedler’s pivotal support helped Cozier to develop a home base from where he could work, rather than produce “art objects” for the veneration of the nation.

Cozier  believed that his role as artist, curator and critic was to discover and reveal “the art that has always been happening” in the Caribbean space. This belief turned him away from painting toward media such as construction and installation, performance and video. “I became more interested in working with things co-opted from everyday life and  understanding their status as signs or symbols,” he explained,  talking about his performances Conversation with a Shirt Jac and Analysis Of A Tamarind Rod  from the early 90s. “There was a lot of enthusiasm in the country after independence. We were given paper and pencils to draw local images and landscapes. I began to visually narrate a story about the post-independence era.”

By the time I encountered Chris in early 1998, he had already explored these themes in other media and was now back to drawing and sketching. Faced with his Madman’s Chant, a collaborative, multi-panelled work with singer David Rudder, and commissioned by Gregor Nassief, I found myself negotiating my way through the morphing scapes of life in Trinidad through Cozier’s eyes. The country’s vibrant popular culture is a constant presence in his work. Although the medium had now become old-fashioned drawing, the fade-ins and outs recall film and television, the latter intimately connected with Chris’s childhood and growing up in the post-colonial Caribbean.

The year 1999 found Cozier in South Africa on a three-month residency at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg. A number of questions arose about how Cozier’s work would translate into a South African context? Could signs be transported from one location to another? How would symbols mobilised in the Caribbean context, a visual syntax linked to local concerns,  translate themselves elsewhere? What kind of work would Cozier produce in South Africa? As it happened, his work was very well received critically, as well as by viewers who came to the gallery.

In his post-South African show in Trinidad at Caribbean Contemporary Arts entitled Intersection, Cozier showed the blackboard called Art and Nation, Things You Must learn From Day One, with tiny islands of flagged sandwiches in front of it, from The attack of the sandwich men. This notion of education as something that the state feeds you and nurtures you on, like sliced bread, has a resonance in third- world locales where sliced bread often signalled the arrival of 20th-century modernity. In the Indian city in which I grew up, Ahmedabad, there were only two kinds of sliced bread available, Britannia and Modern Bread. Modern Bread was actually a state project, delivering bread to the nation in a conveniently consumable form.

It is this kind of resonances, the reference to common post- colonial predicaments of shared experiences, which makes Cozier’s work so portable across national and international borders. Perhaps this is possible because Cozier is producing “transcultural signs”, to borrow a useful concept from Indian art critic Geeta Kapur. Commenting on the fact that he “seemed to be reading our strangely layered landscape through local eyes”,  South African critic Alex Dodd said, “Cozier’s penetrating eye looks through the local window dressings of culture to the core global equations.”

The year 2001 finds Cozier in a pensive mood, wondering how long he can continue to live and work in the Caribbean. To migrate or continue to meddle? That is the question. With four children and a wife, Irenée Shaw, who is also an artist, life hasn’t been easy. It has been productive, but is often a struggle. Going North, the title of another piece, seems an attractive option. It is a predicament faced by many in these islands.

The South African view

South African journalist Alex Dodd on Chris Cozier’s sojourn as artist-in-residence in Johannesburg

n the first day I met Christopher Cozier, we travelled to Pretoria together with a bunch of Jo’burg artist friends. Pretoria is a strange city, the headquarters of the old South Africa. Lots of lush purple jacaranda trees, almost, but not quite, redeeming the impenetrably harsh Soviet-style architecture. It instantly struck me that Cozier was reading our strangely layered landscape through South African eyes. Usually, newcomers to South Africa take a while to understand us. It is rarely as black and white as you’d expect, but everything was as clear as daylight to Cozier. Our whole jangled history seemed to have revealed itself to him.

The streets of Pretoria are always clean, the public parks well tended and lawns neatly mowed, very different from the chaos of the great African metropolis of Johannesburg. It’s an ironic place in which to celebrate Heritage Day, one of the government’s attempts at helping us embrace our cultural diversity. I couldn’t help but appreciate Cozier’s jaded reaction to this new, happy, rainbow-nation parade, complete with Xhosa kids in animal skins, Indians in saris, Zulus dancing, drum majorettes, Afrikaner ox wagons, camouflage army outfits, guns, spears, balloons, trumpets, hot dogs, you name it. Welcome to the new South Africa! Cozier seemed to have seen it all before.

I know Trinidad and Tobago got its independence in 1962. They have had time to find their cultural expression. Here, in South Africa, we’re still going through the teething pains of new nationhood. We’re still all hot and sweaty and keen on blanket statements; we’re only just emerging from the dire necessity of protest art. Cozier’s familiarity here is also less strange when you consider Trinidad and Tobago’s African heritage, which emerged most powerfully in the wake of the international wave of black consciousness during the 1970s, and which affirmed the strong religious, cultural and social associations between Africa and the Caribbean.

“Nice suit,” I commented on Cozier’s rather stylish, casual blue linen suit. “I hardly ever wear suits,” he replied, in a tone that made it clear that suits are definitely not his thing. It was only much later I understood why he took mild offence at that comment. The point is: chameleons never wear suits, and Cozier is a social chameleon of the first order. Within days of touching down at Johannesburg airport, he was traversing the streets of this crazy and dangerous city as if it was his home turf.

Cozier ended up in Egoli (the “City of Gold”) as a resident artist at the Fordsburg Artists’ Studios, established in 1991. A multi-cultural, collective studio space for visual artists is still a recent concept in the South African context, so The Bag Factory, as it is commonly known, is one of the most exciting art spaces in Johannesburg. It is situated on the rough western edge of the city centre, adjacent to the Newtown Cultural Precinct and next to the Oriental Plaza, with its wild array of fabrics, yummy curries and easy bargains.

Cozier’s contribution to this mission was felt by many. During his time at the Bag Factory, his studio was a clutter of paraphernalia. “On the walls were numerous brown paper drawings in different stages of development. On the table were, among other clutter, a coffee percolator and a portable music set playing some Caribbean rhythms,” recalls Koloane. “And this was Cozier’s great gift to us. He brought his world with him. He had complex spicy stews to cook and unforgettable tales to tell – a whole string of Caribbean folk legends to share.

“With his art he offered us a fresh new window through which to see ourselves. We South Africans have a tendency to be precious and parochial. Cozier’s rare gift was his ability to see us within a global context, to read our local symbols as part of a far wider alphabet. To ask intimate new questions about our common and separate histories.”

At the end of Cozier’s time in South Africa, he exhibited along with Anthony Cawood (South Africa) and Yacouba Toure (Ivory Coast). On the opening night you couldn’t find a parking spot for blocks – a rare phenomenon in downtown Johannesburg at night. Usually the city streets are deserted around sunset, but on that night, music spilled out onto Minnaar Street, where patrons sipping red wine hung around the entrance like fireflies at the source of light. The place was all abuzz. Cawood and Toure’s work was similarly abstract, but the work that had everyone whispering in hushed tones was Cozier’s. Many pieces drew comparisons to the work of internationally acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge. Cozier and Kentridge have in common a deep personal engagement with the socio-political worlds in which they find themselves. They feel no fear addressing issues such as poverty, political and spiritual domination, the mining industry and seething resentments arising out of dark histories. They both steer away from stock generalisations and easy political statements, in favour of asking more relevant questions about individual human responses to the status quo.

While in South Africa, Cozier invented a whole new vocabulary of visual cues and clues to pose very human questions about life in our post-colonial, post-apartheid universe. Tea cups and blackboards, crutches as AK47s, running legs, limbs and limblessness, naked black men holding the world on their shoulders, were all elements in his syntax of symbols. The resonance in his drawings of mine shafts, men with begging boards and mini-bus taxis left one feeling as if he’d been here for a long, long time. Cozier’s penetrating eye looks through the local window dressing of culture to core global questions. Beyond the bold and often messy aesthetics of reactive anger, his subtle images invite you into a space where he asks pointed but humble questions about humanity, about where you stand, or fall.