Caribbean Beat Magazine

Carlisle Chang: the artist

Carlisle Chang: A landmark artist, Chang designed bands unrivalled for the breadth of their themes and meticulousness of their execution

  • China, the Forbiden City on Frederick Street. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • China, the Forbidden City. This well-known photograph was used on a postage stamp in 1967. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Elsie Lee Heung, wife of bandleader Stephen Lee Heung, in China, the Forbidden City. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Chang, portraying a gold fish in China the Forbidden City (1967). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Carlisle Chang in the 1980s. Photograph by Bruce Paddington

Carlisle Chang, 1921–2001

“Carlisle Chang is in the realm of myth . . . His work — like himself — has a sense of timelessness, spanning perhaps the most important 50 years of art history in this country.”
— Mark Pereira, art dealer

In a profile of Carlisle Chang published in Caribbean Beat in 1998, writer Judy Raymond called him the father of Trinidadian art. In purely practical terms, he was the first Trinidadian artist to actually earn a living solely from his art, paving the way for two generations of professional artists. Over his 60-year career, he was a painter (his lost mural The Inherent Nobility of Man was called “possibly the most important work of art in the Caribbean” by critic Geoffrey MacLean), a sculptor, a designer of theatre sets and costumes, a photographer, a ceramicist, an interior designer, a gallery owner, and a beloved teacher. It’s safe to say that he was the most complete person-of-the-arts to emerge in Trinidad in the 20th century. But many ordinary people who have never seen his work in a museum remember him as the designer of some of the most enthralling Carnival bands ever to cross the stage at the Savannah.

Chang was born in 1921 in San Juan, which today is almost a suburb of Port of Spain, but was then a quiet country town without electricity. His father was a migrant from China, his mother was born in British Guiana of Chinese stock, but Chang grew up in an ethnically diverse community, “rich with the culture of Hindus and Muslims, Ibo, Ashanti, and Yoruba, Spanish mestizo, French patois-speaking creoles, and, of course Chinese”, as he wrote. He always insisted that his true roots were in this cultural mix, declaring himself “fed up with this Chinese thing”, and his art grew out of his love for the society that produced him.

One of Chang’s earliest artistic experiences was, appropriately, connected with Carnival. At the age of seven he helped his sister Beryl sew a dragon costume for a neighbour, and worked also on the head of scarlet papier mâché. His first formal training came from artists like Sybil Atteck and Amy Leong Pang, members of the seminal Society of Independents. As a young man he learned photography from a cousin, then studied in New York, London, and Italy on a series of scholarships. The style he developed was a thoroughly indigenous fusion of the traditions of Europe with Trinidad’s folk art, coloured always by his own eclecticism. According to Peter Minshall, “Chang was among the first to understand that this place is an incredible laboratory of the New World, an orchid house where incredible hybrids need to be nurtured.”

Chang was never a bandleader, unlike the other designers profiled in these pages. Instead, from 1964 to 1975 he designed an astonishing series of bands for Stephen Lee Heung (who had a good eye for talent — it was at his commission that Peter Minshall designed his first band). Chang’s themes reflected his knowledge of the world’s artistic traditions — his first presentation was Japan, Land of the Kabuki, and he went on to produce bands based on ancient Crete, the civilisations of Central America, and Russian and Arabic folk tales.

Best remembered is 1967’s China, the Forbidden City— a shimmering vision of Peking overflowing with birds, temples, gardens, and pavilions, in which Chang himself portrayed a goldfish with an enormous tail flowing in the breeze, and for which he won his first band of the year title. But closest to his artistic vision was the final band he designed in 1975, We Kind Ah People, a celebration of the diverse cultural and ethnic streams that combine in the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Meticulous in detail, breathtaking as an abstract painting as the masqueraders danced past the Grand Stand, We Kind Ah People showcased Chang’s skill at weaving multiple influences into one authentic whole.

From the late 70s, for nearly 20 years, it seemed that Chang’s career had ended. Disillusioned by what he felt was an absence of appreciation, he stopped painting altogether until a revival of public and critical interest in the mid-90s reinvigorated him. But Carnival had already benefited from the deep artistic sophistication he had brought to his design, and his work strongly influenced younger designers like Minshall.

Carlisle Chang died in 2001, shortly after his 80th birthday. A humble and unassuming man, he might have been embarrassed by his obituary accolades. Judy Raymond, writing of his physically ephemeral yet creatively indelible contribution to Carnival design, noted that “It was Chang who, drawing on all his Trinidadian heritage, from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, transformed a creole craft into an art admired by the world.”

Carlisle Chang: Band of the Year Titles

1967    China, the Forbidden City (bandleader, Stephen Lee Heung)
1975    We Kind Ah People (bandleader, Stephen Lee Heung)