Caribbean Beat Magazine

Artists of a new world

In spite of the perception of Trinidad and Tobago as a commercial society, art thrives like weeds. Look for its creators in the most unlikely places. Text by Skye Hernandez, photography by Sean Drakes

  • Walt Lovelace. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • From left: Wendell McShine, Melvina Hazzard and Shalini Seereeram. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Mario Lewis. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Marlon Griffith. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Dave Williams. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Che Lovelace. Photograph by Sean Drakes
  • Richard Ashraph Ramsaran. Photograph by Sean Drakes

“The works are not afraid to admit, and admit to, the mental and physical space we have always inhabited. The artist is moving between town and country, island and continent, asking the question: Who am I? Who are these people of colour moving in this Shango/Shiva blue space, driven by the buzz of the satellite dish and digital base with the sweet mango juice dripping down to their elbows to make a stain on their Tommy Hilfigers?”

— Christopher  Cozier,
“The New Optimism,” 1998

Nail polish on glass. Bottle corks and self-portraits. Calabash, coconut husk, wire, tin and objects that litter the river mouth of a small southern Caribbean island. A naked man on a darkened stage caressing a headless mannequin. A video image of a rapso singer walking among the rubbish of a landfill. Delicate lines and tints — of India or China? — create fish and food in magazine illustrations. A television screen shows the blurred images of a man coming to grips with weakened eyesight.

These artists have been trained in Trinidad, New York and Florence, in Martinique, Havana and South Africa. They were nurtured in the craft- and festival-rich climate of an island that breathed art in its Hindu temples, in its Carnival, its Moslem Hosay festival and Orisha palaces. In a diverse country where East means one thing, Central another, South and North too, and there are intricacies of meaning in all, these young people are the alchemists, distilling the experience of their time, trying to make sense of it all, breaking down to rebuild and transform. They come from sugar cane country, from rural seaside, from the heat of the East-West Corridor, from middle-class enclaves in different parts of the country. They carry the legacy of a fierce independence bred into an elite group of artists long before colonialism was over.

And now they are on their own, raising hell and creating lasting images of our time. These artists are looking at truly new ways of making things and a new vocabulary to encompass life in this part of the Caribbean. Rather than these works reiterating or asserting the usual references, they pursue new ones or different ways of seeing the usual. For their sensitivity, openness and energy in an often-confusing, sometimes hostile environment, they have given us much — sometimes too much — to think about.

Photographer Sean Drakes sought to capture these young artists, who have attracted attention over the past five years or so, as they stand poised to make that big step into the world. It was difficult to choose the subjects for this essay, for the pool of artistic talent in Trinidad and Tobago is teeming with life. Susan Dayal and her fantastic wire-works are missing, as are Robert Young’s fashion statements, Nigel Paris and other members of the Studio 66 movement, Adele Todd, Martin Mouttet, whom we will be watching to see where his iconoclastic vision goes . . . and many whose work show a lucidity that often confounds the limitations of education and opportunity.

Our subjects are driven to tell it from the heart, wherever it takes them. They know, too, that there are many others inching up the street to meet them, so they have to soar before they lose their wings. Drakes chose to show them in portraits that hint at their work, rather than through the work itself. We talked to Christopher Cozier, artist and critic, as well as the artists themselves for the following thumbnails.

Trinidad’s New Artists

Ashraph

Ashraph (aka Richard Ashraph Ramsaran), 36, raised in Diego Martin, north-western Trinidad. “Ashraph’s work has been about himself and how he sees things,” says Cozier. “He reflects on the social and political, on hypocrisy and human interaction. His journey, from Richard to Ashraph, has led him to Morocco and into an Islamic culture where his religious roots are. He’s trying to bridge the gaps . . . He’s always testing. His images of butterflies, crucifixes and his learning to sign his name in Arabic make for interesting cross references.” Ashraph is a self-made man, with no formal art training. His obsession with overseas travel is for him a new form of education and speaks to his desire “to look for something more,” or as Ashraph puts it “to cross over the line”. He is one of the few people that collectors, as well as contemporary artists, will allow to handle and frame their work (his day-to-day business), and is also an assiduous collector of Caribbean art.

Che Lovelace

Che Lovelace, 32, born in San Fernando, grew up in Matura, on Trinidad’s eastern coast, and Port of Spain. Lovelace studied Fine Art at the L’École Regional D’Arts Plastiques de La Martinique and has been consistently producing work over the past 10 years. Each collection of work is distinct: from his post-university patterned prints, wistful celebrations of the sea in his surfing days, to huge multi-media explorations of “the experience of living” and his more recent pared down reflections, featuring photographs of the artist encased in medallions. The work may seem unconnected, but for Lovelace it’s a way of making order: “The unifying idea is that all responses and observations form a complex system of being, which has to do with the space we live in.

“People who aren’t doing art are trying to cope with the same things — their identities, their place in the world.” Cozier says Lovelace has all along been “processing . . . bridging the gaps between worlds — Martinique, New York, Port of Spain — and searching out a vocabulary to deal with his existence.

“I think the enforcement of order in an immediately understood form is what makes Che’s work become interesting, by contrast, in the sense that the alleged lack of cohesion becomes an acknowledgement on his part of the idea that culture with the capital ‘C’ is not fixed or easily managed — it’s an unwieldy thing which has an elegance in that respect, like our Trinidadian accent.” Lovelace spent five weeks in Caracas recently on a residency through the La Llama workshop.

Dave Williams

Dave Williams, “thirty-something”, born in Morvant, on the edge of Port of Spain. Dancer, choreographer, multi-media performance artist, Dave Williams’s stimulating work blurs the distinctions between genres, in a way that confounds the public’s expectations. “He is man enough to discuss his sexuality openly,” says Cozier, and so is constantly pushing the line between life and art. “Using one’s body as art leaves you completely vulnerable.” What is also important about this work “is the idea of performance as being central or significant to the forming of an idea of Caribbean art — as in Carnival — a space in which actions and objects have equal significance, as visual statements, thus the use of the body becomes powerful.” Williams’s Falling show in July this year was his most recent exploration of these themes — the final performance involved the shocking mutilation of a “live” Moko Jumbie (stilt walker), whose long legs were calmly power-sawed to smithereens as she screamed in agony.

Mario Lewis

Mario Lewis, 33, Santa Cruz, north-eastern Trinidad. Lewis was first known for his T-shirt paintings of Afrocentric imagery, and public murals, especially associated with the Emancipation celebrations. A year spent at art school in Cuba propelled him to a new confidence as an artist, and new recognition. He won a five-week residency in Italy this year and has been accepted to Goldsmith College in the UK. Lewis’s recent exhibition in Trinidad, Blind Spot, Divisions Of Approval, was prompted by the artist’s actual problems with his eyesight. It was a multi-media event, pulsing with blurred video images of Lewis’s eyes under the scrutiny of medical instruments, and familiar images of the Trinidad and Tobago parliament building, people crossing the street at the main transport hub in Port of Spain, a mausoleum, a tombstone — “ideas of ordinary human life, locations of power and death,” says Cozier, and all out of focus.

Marlon Griffith

Marlon Griffith, 25, Belmont, east Port of Spain. Print-maker, illustrator (including Caribbean Beat) and carnival artist, Griffith has after a few year’s work become the managing director of Trinity Carnival Foundation, a non-profit organisation that uses  “mas as a catalyst to promote culture and education”. It is affiliated to Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, and its children’s band takes part in Hartford’s summer carnival. Griffith teaches at a primary school there in the fall term, as well, and aims to go to university to pursue his interests. He’s exhibited work in Hartford and Seattle, an experience that was not as daunting as he felt it would be. “It’s great to show my work in an art gallery, but to me the real gallery is the Grand Stand on Carnival Saturday when you see the children going across the stage. It’s not a gallery with four walls and a few people looking at your work. After months of hard work, it’s the whole world looking at you.”

Melvina Hazzard

Melvina Hazzard, 30, Erin, southern Trinidad. Poet. Hazzard has built a career as an advertising copywriter, but became known in the art world very early for her public poetry readings. In 1997, her poetry was published in an anthology called Bittersweet by the Women’s Press in London. Hazzard’s collaboration with artist Lisa Mendes in the INYASPACE series in the Trinidad Guardian a few years ago sparked great interest, and ultimately controversy. A short video called The Chair revisited a particularly disturbing clip of INYASPACE — the true story of a domestic dispute gone deadly wrong. The video was part of a project called Obsessions, which Hazzard and writer Ellspeth Duncan instigated. Hazzard has also participated in a three-month writers’ workshop in the UK through the East Midlands Art Council and Broadway Media Centre. More recently, she took part in a La Llama workshop in Venezuela last November. She is currently studying English and Theatre at the University of the West Indies.

Shalini Seereeram

Shalini Seereeram, 29, Chaguanas, central Trinidad. Seereeram’s strong ability as an illustrator has been demonstrated in the Trinidad and Tobago press and in Caribbean Beat, where her March/April 2000 cover drew much praise. She has exhibited at the Kirby Gallery in Barbados, where her paintings were part of a “Trini Doubles” show. (“It was a good theme for me,” she says, “as I’m always interested in the interaction of two people, rather than lonely paintings.”) Her “window” and other found-art paintings took her in a new direction, and her current nail-polish-on-glass work has taken her work into the conceptual genre. “Nail polish is a little girl obsession that turns into a big woman obsession,” says Cozier. “It requires a certain kind of precision. Shalini uses it to enter the domain of conceptual art, by using the same brush to paint on glass.” Her first major exhibition in Trinidad was held October last.

Walt Lovelace

Walt Lovelace, 36, born in Scarborough, Tobago. Grew up in the US, Rio Claro, south Trinidad, Matura and Port of Spain. Cameraman/Director. His videos for rapso artists Ataklan and 3 Canal stand out as some of the most original music video work done in the Caribbean. “His status as a stylist in the video domain comes from his fine ability to interpret and edit, from the confluence between his vision and the final work,” says Cozier, of Lovelace’s ground-breaking work. Despite having received considerable critical acclaim, Lovelace himself has never been totally satisfied with his work. “I don’t have anything that I can say I am totally pleased with, or that I could show a world audience and not feel uncomfortable. I still feel that I need to do a lot more and get it to a standard that is on the level where it can be shown anywhere. I don’t want to have excuses, you know, we did not have this or we did not have that or not enough money, so until I feel that I can overcome those things, I will not feel like I have done anything really.” A founding member of Earth TV, Lovelace is one of the principals of a newly-formed video production company, Big Fish in a Blue Bottle. He and brother Che recently completed the pilot for Unseen Caribbean, a magazine series for television.

Wendell McShine

Wendell McShine, 29, Tunapuna, eastern Trinidad, started as an illustrator, being published in the local press and magazines including Caribbean Beat. His strong graphic design work has won him the prestigious News Graphics Next Generation Award from the Reuters Foundation in the UK. As part of the international award, he was invited to exhibit his work in the UK and Spain last summer. McShine “has been able to construct a highly personalised visual vernacular system of signs,” says Cozier, “in which simple everyday objects or people become anthropomorphic and reside in dream like space. They are transformed into or function more like apparitions than as ordinary observations . . . a lizard becomes a mechanical army-fatigued menace, a pigtail-headed youth seems haunted by the light of the moon in his Stand Pipe Bath series.” McShine has, this year, turned his talent to animation and web design, and has been accepted at the Kent Institute of Art and Design on the strength of his portfolio.

Special thanks to Anthony Harris/Professional Car Clinic, Ashraph and John Stollmeyer