What the Caribbean is talking about this month

Follow their footprints: T.O.K.’s album Unknown Language finds a new way to talk about contemporary Jamaica and more

  • A Creole Conversation Piece (foreground) and Sisters
  • Cecil Baugh vase Photographer: courtesy the Whitechapel Gallery
  • Detail of Winston Kellman’s charcoal drawing Photographer: courtesy the Zemicon gallery
  • Film still from Horace Ové’s Pressure Photographer: courtesy the National Gallery of Jamaica
  • Bracelet by Rachel Ross Photographer: Michelle Jorsling

Follow their footprints

They were hailed by the New York Times as “the world’s greatest dancehall-reggae boy band,” but T.O.K. — stands for Touch of Klass — are much more than that. Yes, they’re famous for the dancehall smashes on their 2001 debut album My Crew, My Dawgs, but unlike most boy bands this quartet — Xavier “Flexx” Davidson, Craig “Craigy T” Thompson, Alistaire “Alex” McCalla, and Roshaun “Bay-C” Clarke — also demonstrate a social conscience.

2005 may be the year they go mainstream. From Kingston to Brixton, Footprints, their tribute single to victims of violence, has spread across the globe faster than any other Jamaican song this year. Crafted masterfully on Donovan “Don Corleone” Bennett’s “drop leaf” riddim, Footprints began as a tribute to Alex’s own brother, who was killed by a stray bullet. “We feel a duty to be positive role models,” T.O.K. said at the time.


Their storytelling approach and heartwrenching authenticity place listeners bang in the middle of an urban world where violence has become commonplace. This isn’t the sugar-coated unreality of MTV “bling” videos — this is the real deal, and Footprints’ urban poetics relate to listeners the world over.

In June they dropped their sophomore album Unknown Language to much hype. Named for the language barrier imposed by their native Jamaican patois, the album combines sweet melodic crooning and R&B harmonies with dancehall gruffness and pop hooks. The track Fire Fire even works in a sample from Tobagonian Calypso Rose’s classic Fire in You Wire. “The inspiration for the new album title comes from just wanting to take the group and dancehall music to another level,” they say.

“We’re making music that cannot be put in one particular genre. It’s not dancehall straight. It’s not pop straight. It’s not R&B straight. That’s what makes us very different . . . this is just the beginning. We want to capture the whole world with our music,” explains Bay-C.

With their refreshing style of urban truth and a far less glitzy production than most mass appeal bands, T.O.K. may just have found the right formula to follow.

Dylan Kerrigan

 

Bookshelf

 

The power of ten

The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar  Kevin Baldeosingh
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-000-0, 454 pp)

This big and ambitious novel uses the idea of reincarnation to travel through more than five hundred years of Caribbean history. It begins with the first Amerindian settlers in what is now Haiti; then it explores the worlds of a 16th-century Spanish conquistador, a Portuguese slave trader, and 17th-century colonial Barbados. We meet women who become pirates and stickfighters and crusaders against slavery. A black estate owner in 19th-century Trinidad struggles to subjugate an almost-white servant he has bought at auction, a young Indo-Trinidadian fights in World War II, and a contemporary university lecturer teaches students how to think.

All these people are the same person, an avatar (a divine or spiritual being in human form) reborn into a series of different lives. “He” is sometimes man, sometimes woman; sometimes a wielder of power and sometimes the victim of it; sometimes noble and sometimes wicked. And in each incarnation, he is haunted by a mysterious “Shadowman” who does not change across the centuries, and who cuts short each life after exactly 50 years.

These tales of the Caribbean past ask far-reaching questions. How has human life really changed over five hundred years? Is human life becoming less “wretched”? Are humans using their brains to improve their lives? What dark cosmic forces might we be up against? Does life’s meaning and purpose derive from the epic or the ordinary? Are some people really reborn into new lives? What would the purpose of that be? And, not least, as “Adam Avatar” slowly reveals his life stories, how can his audience be sure that these are real memories and experiences, not schizophrenic delusions? Is the “avatar” a true immortal, or a human fraud?

Kevin Baldeosingh is a newspaper columnist in Trinidad, and has already published two satirical novels (The Autobiography of Paras P and The Virgin’s Triangle). Adam Avatar is longer than the two earlier novels put together: it is a radical change of direction, a hugely ambitious and complex novel, and an impressive imaginative feat. There are more questions in it than answers, and the jostling ideas don’t always sit comfortably together; on the whole, the storytelling works better than the philosophising. But it’s a book bristling with ideas, its human voices are convincing, and it deserves to be read.

Jeremy Taylor

Poets’ half-dozen

Calabash Chapbook Series:
Gateman  Blakka Ellis (33 pp)
Bryan’s Bay  Ishion Hutchinson (25 pp)
Weights and Measures  Niki Johnson (25 pp)
Light in a Book of Stone  Mbala (23 pp)
Soft Flesh  Saffron (27 pp)
In Disguise  Andrew Stone (29 pp)

Since 2001, the Calabash International Literary Festival has annually brought hundreds of lit fans to idyllic and isolated Treasure Beach on the south-western coast of Jamaica, for a long weekend of book readings, music, Red Stripe, and general merriment. In 2004 Calabash expanded into the realm of publishing, with a 50th-anniversary edition of Roger Mais’s Brother Man. This year, apart from another anniversary volume, this time of John Hearne’s novel Voices under the Window, Calabash launched a series of six poetry chapbooks, all by members of the Calabash Writers’ Workshop (another branch of the ever-growing Calabash enterprise). Each chapbook contains about a dozen and a half poems. There is no Calabash school of writing — each poet has his or her individual style; what they share is an admirable frankness about Jamaican life.


Half the poems in Niki Johnson’s Weights and Measures are addressed to the elusive “Anthony” familiar to readers who know Johnson’s work; these are lyrics of memory and desire, one moment almost embarrassing plainspoken (“Anthony, / do you remember the park?”), the next tangled in puzzling obsessions (“rain is not a tiger / rain is not / a tiger”), just like any real-life adult affair. And the title poem, about two women in a kitchen, finds in this ordinary domestic scenario a gentle metaphor for love, the passing of time, the lessons of age.

Mbala is clearly an experienced poet-performer; but even plucked from the spotlit microphone and pressed in the pages of Light in a Book of Stone, his dub poems vibrate with energy and attitude. They’re also refreshingly unpretentious. In “pests”, Mbala describes “a cloud of / mosquito words” that fly up his nose; “i have no / choice / but to blow them / on paper / here / have a poem”. A dab more of that kind of humour might have helped Blakka Ellis’s Gateman, which tends to the earnest; but in “Foot Bawl” and the title poem, about a headstrong security guard, Ellis shows how sharp his lyrics can get when he lightens his touch.

With a title like Soft Flesh and a pen-name like Saffron, it’s no surprise that Phillippa Sauterel’s poems have intimate matters in mind; there’s no shortage here of damp sheets and sultry odours. Like its title poem, Soft Flesh tries to ask some hard questions, but too many of these lyrics end “wilting back to flaccid”. Still, when her puns are most pointed and her poems earn their ironies — with verbal rigour, as poems must earn everything — Saffron can achieve an urgent wit.

Most of Andrew Stone’s poems start with patient observation — of people, animals, situations — trying to make from the fragments of what can be seen whole metaphors, and from metaphors illuminations about the true nature of things. If everything is In Disguise, he wants to apprehend what lies behind the veils, but his craft is still catching up with his ambition. Ishion Hutchinson, the youngest of these Calabash poets, shows real assurance in Bryan’s Bay, and signs of a definite lyrical gift. He knows what a poem is supposed to sound like, but many of his notes are off-key. There’s a danger in publishing too early, and Bryan’s Bay sadly falls prey. (The series editor, Kwame Dawes, should have known better.) But there’s enough promise here to leave me eager to see the kind of poet Hutchinson will become; as eager as I am to see what Calabash will come up with next year.

Philip Sander

Arts and soul

The Arts Journal (Guyana), vol. 1, nos. 1 and 2, ed. Ameena Gafoor

Starting a magazine is a brave venture. Starting an intellectual magazine is so brave a venture as to verge on the insane. And starting an intellectual magazine in the Caribbean — where audiences are small and fragmented, and sources of funding close to non-existent — well, perhaps some forms of extreme madness are close to saintliness. Blessings, then, on Ameena Gafoor of Guyana’s Arts Forum, who in early 2004 launched The Arts Journal (subtitled “Critical Perspectives on the Contemporary Literatures, History, Art, and Culture of Guyana and the Caribbean”), a substantial publication with the ambition to stimulate the growth of a critical tradition in Guyana. That first issue focused on the Indian Caribbean experience, with articles by, among others, Kenneth Ramchand, Clem Seecharan, Verene Shepherd, and Gafoor herself, plus a section of plates reproducing works from a 2002 exhibition called Under the Seventh Sun, curated by Bernadette Persaud.

The Arts Journal’s second issue was understandably delayed by the catastrophic flooding in Guyana last January and February; it finally appeared in March. It ranges even wider than its predecessor: here are Victor Ramraj on David Dabydeen, Raymond Ramcharitar on Ken Ramchand, M.N. Menezes on Amerindian music, an interview with writer Peter Kempadoo, and photographs by Robert Fernandes.

You might say The Arts Journal’s mix of formal academic papers and essays aimed at a wider audience is uneven; you might say it just means something for everybody. Either way, it’s an important achievement not just for Guyana but for the Caribbean. We need more serious periodicals, and more people like Gafoor, willing and able to do the hard work of publishing them.

PS

Man in the middle

Remembering the Sea: An Introduction to Frank A. Collymore,
ed. Philip Nanton (Central Bank of Barbados, ISBN 976-8081-37-6, 160 pp)

In 1973, when the magazine Savacou published a special issue dedicated to Frank Collymore, the fifty writers on the contents page were a who’s who of West Indian literature. As editor of Bim, the first of the three magazines in the advance guard of the West Indian literary invasion of the 1950s — the other two were Focus, in Jamaica, and Kyk-Over-Al, in Guyana — Collymore played a major role in the careers of dozens of writers, including Derek Walcott, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite, and Edgar Mittelholzer. He encouraged them, corresponded with them, and most importantly published their early work; then he got his friend Henry Swanzy, the producer of the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme, to broadcast their stories and poems across the region. Collymore, who died in 1980, is remembered fondly by many older West Indian writers, but to younger generations, even in Barbados, he’s merely a name from the past.

Remembering the Sea, published by the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment, with support from the Barbados Central Bank, is a very welcome attempt not just to revive interest in Collymore, but to start real debate. This is no hagiography; it reprints an admiring essay by Collymore’s friend A.J. Seymour, but also includes new essays by Stewart Brown, Marcia Burrowes, Sonji Phillips, and editor Philip Nanton which take a clear-eyed look at Collymore’s work as editor, poet, actor, and artist, enquiring into both his real successes and his real flaws.

The key to understanding Collymore, Nanton suggests, is recognising his liminality — academic-speak for “in-betweenness”. He stood at a threshold between ethnicities, classes, traditions. He described himself as “one of the whiter of the non-whites” of Barbados; artistic or intellectual pursuits were not expected of a man of his class, nor his bohemian easygoingness. But Collymore seemed to delight in defying expectations, and the story that unfolds through this book is far more interesting than the honorific “grand old man of West Indian letters” leads one to expect. And if Remembering the Sea does no more than trigger a reconsideration of Collymore’s achievements as a writer — see especially Stewart Brown’s careful essay — then it will have done West Indian letters a grand old favour.

PS

Fruit of passion

i was schooled by ackee
scholar of passion
that turns the blood
a poisonous mauve
she told me one
night of purple skies

ackee is serious
about devotion
using her shirt tail
to fan the heat between her thighs

— from “Caribbean Passion”

And in her new book of poems, Caribbean Passion (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-92-9), Opal Palmer Adisa is serious about her devotion to ruthless and sensuous honesty. Best known as the author of highly challenging, politically relevant prose and verse, Adisa is also a broadcaster, performance artist, literary critic, and lecturer, currently teaching at the California College of the Arts.

Adisa’s work has been greatly informed by her childhood experience of life on a sugar estate in the Jamaican countryside, where her father worked as a chemist and her mother as a bookkeeper. It was in this setting that young Opal was introduced not only to the art of storytelling, but also, after her parents divorced, to the ceaseless oppression faced by women and the ongoing injustices heaped on the poor. Such formative experiences, coupled with her mother’s efforts to improve the lives of those around her, gave Adisa the desire to “give voice to the voiceless” at an early age.

As she was raised just ten miles outside Kingston, Adisa always attended school in the capital; nevertheless, when she moved to New York in 1970 to study at Hunter College, she found herself in a bewildering environment marked by human confusion and dense congestion, where she felt herself very much an outsider. A move to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue an MA in creative writing in 1979 brought considerable relief, as the slower pace, milder climate, more permissive atmosphere, and vibrant arts scene helped her find her element as a writer. Her subsequent book of short fiction, Bake Face and other Guava Stories, examined the lives of four strong-minded women in rural Jamaica, living rich lives despite their poverty. The complex novel It Begins With Tears explored the problematic transgressions of a group of women in a small Jamaican village; a book of poems, Tamarind and Mango Women, won the PEN/Josephine Miles Award in 1992 for its imagistic account of mother-daughter relationships.

With Caribbean Passion, Adisa continues to challenge our perceptions of Caribbean life. Although the title and sensual cover image suggest a collection of steamy, romantic verse, many of these poems detail the region’s turbulent history and chaotic present, suggesting an overriding resilience in the face of unspoken sexual abuse, lost Haitian refugees, and gender-based tyranny, all delivered in a unique and authentic voice. And Adisa insists that her work ultimately aims to assist in a healing process, offering strength and hope in the face of countless challenges.

David Katz

 

“I focused on the difficult”

David Katz talks to Opal Palmer Adisa

What have you attempted to address in Caribbean Passion?
There are four sections: history, erotic entanglements, personal and cultural biography (sprinkled with strong ‘omanist sentiments), and cultural poems of celebration. The title and cover image were calculated tropes to lure and then expose — or, more accurately, share — who I/we are fully.

How do you feel the Jamaica of your childhood has influenced your writing?
In every way . . . I write the stories I write because of how and where I was raised. Before TV, storytelling was the major form of entertainment among both children and adults, so my childhood in Jamaica has impacted and influenced not just how I tell stories, but the content of the stories as well.

Why have you often chosen to focus on difficult issues?
I focused on the difficult because I didn’t see that being taken on too much by any other writer, and I know now that this is very much influenced by my mother’s work, helping to start a credit union for cane-cutters and other labourers on the estate, warning my sister and I to address every adult, regardless of their social position, with equal respect . . . I witnessed men who worked in the factory fighting with their women, and I heard the maids talking across yards and fences about issues with their men, but I also witnessed some formidable women who fought back with fist as well as tongue, so I wanted to write about this so we can look at it and decide to change, to heal, to grow more wholesome.

 

Rhythm roundup

 

Jah bless

Spirit of Love  Eldon Blackman (Jamoo Good News Limited)
Oyniye  Avion Blackman (Lion of Zion Entertainment, LZD-6531)

The Blackmans are one of the most remarkable families in Caribbean music — I’d put them up there with the Marleys, in terms of both talent and musical output. Yet outside of their native Trinidad and Tobago and the particular niche they’ve carved out for themselves internationally, they’re largely unknown.

But this hasn’t stopped the Blackmans from doing their thing. The children of the late Ras Shorty I (formerly Garfield Blackman), the soca pioneer-turned-spiritual visionary, are scattered throughout the world, doing what talented musicians do. There are Blackmans performing in Asia, California, and, at the time of writing, Sheldon Blackman is in London for a memorial concert in honour of his father. Those Blackmans who have remained in Trinidad have also been quite prolific, performing as the band The Love Circle and releasing the occasional CD, and it’s been a joy to watch as each family member comes into his or her own as a solo performer. They have an astonishing range of styles and voices, none of which affect their success as a unit: a Love Circle performance is at one level a ballet, where band members slip gracefully in and out of supporting and lead roles as the repertoire requires.


Abby (who is not a Love Circle member) was the first of the Trinidad branch to release a solo album, followed by Sheldon in 1999 (he’s done three more since), and Isaac in 2004. Now they’re are joined by Eldon and Avion on two quite different releases, both of which remain true to the ideals of jamoo (“Jah music”), the genre created by Ras Shorty I during the period of his spiritual transformation.

There’s an unvarnished beauty to Eldon Blackman’s vibrato-free voice that makes it an apt vehicle for the uncomplicated, introspective songs that have become his trademark. The self-produced Spirit of Love features 14 tracks, ten written by Eldon himself. He seems most at home on songs with a gentle 1970s folk rock/baroque pop spirit, and while it never loses its Caribbean flavour, Eldon’s music at times strongly recalls artists such as Nick Drake, America, and The Moody Blues. He also reprises two of his father’s songs, successfully refurbishing the classic Who God Bless with background harmonies from his sisters Marge and Nehilet and others. Among the album’s finest numbers are Mummy We Love You — a touching tribute to Claudette Blackman (who raised 12 children and performs today with the group), on which Eldon is joined by his more flamboyant twin Sheldon — Spirit of Love, Sail Me, Holy One of Jerusalem, and City of Grace, featuring sister Marge.


Avion Blackman is now based in Los Angeles and a member of the Christian reggae group Christafari, and her sophisticated debut Oyinye is produced by Lion of Zion Entertainment, whose head (and Christafari front man) Mark Mohr is now her husband. The benefits of being backed by an organised (albeit small, independent) record label are all in evidence on this slickly produced album, which features fine acoustic instrumentation (including Avion on guitar) and savvy musical arrangements. The promotional material for Onyinye compares Avion to Sade and Norah Jones, and her voice does possess the sultriness of the former, but for the spiritual component I’d also add India.Arie. Included among the 13 sensual praise songs, lover’s rock, R&B, and jamoo/roots numbers are compositions by Avion, Mark Mohr, Ras Shorty I, Isaac Blackman, and the late April Blackman (the sister who died at 20), to whom the album is dedicated.

Georgia Popplewell

Full points

Pan Have We DNA  Chalkdust (Juba Productions)

Chalkdust — this year’s Calypso Monarch, last year’s Calypso Monarch, and one of the finest topical calypsonians ever to set pen to paper — has seldom released a CD with fewer than two masterworks on it, but this is the first time in my memory that he’s come out with a CD on which not one single tune falls short of that high standard. If Chalkie keeps this up, we can soon expect to find him neck-and-neck with Sparrow for copping the most Monarch crowns. Chalkie’s latest contains all four of his most recent Monarch winners: two (Trinidad in the Cemetery and Chalkie the Fish Monger) from 2004, and two (I In Town Too Long and Ah Doh Rhyme) from 2005. Fish Monger was a “bomb” — a new song Chalkie premiered at the Savannah. Chalkie saves his sharpest wit and technical flair for these last-moment compositions, and Fish Monger (an affectionate praise-song for his calypsonian colleague Cro-Cro) is a masterwork, as is Doh Rhyme, a topical smut in which Chalkie encourages the audience to supply the rhyming naughty words, while he himself substitutes an innocent, non-rhyming alternative. One of the nicest touches is the addition of the sound of a wildly cheering Savannah audience to the studio recording of Fish Monger; anyone who’s been there when Chalkie dropped a bomb in the Savannah will appreciate this enhancement.

Michael Goodwin

 

Smoother than smooth

Candice  Candice Alcantara (Parlémusik CAS 2005)
The Ming-Toy Project  élan parlé (Parlémusik EP 2005)

Singer/songwriter — and élan parlé collaborator — Candice Alcantara’s debut release on the Parlémusik label is a solid vocal jazz/R&B/inspirational effort appealingly arranged and produced by Michael “Ming” Low Chew Tung. Among the 13 tracks are a slo-mo version of the Gregory “GB” Ballantyne/Len “Boogsie” Sharpe calypso ballad Life Line, with veteran Mavis John as guest vocalist, and a dramatic cover of Richard “Nappy” Mayers’s Old Time Days. On the ambitious Keep on Moving, Alcantara also tries her hand at a bit of spoken word/rapso, and performs two versions of Low Chew Tung’s sweet bossa nova-toned ballad Love Our Children, one of them in Portuguese.

The other release on the Parlémusik label is élan parlé’s fourth CD, The Ming-Toy Project, which sees the jazz fusion ensemble fleshing out their repertoire with ten Ming originals by the hard-working Ming himself, plus a version of Lord Kitchener’s Old Lady Walk a Mile. Among the usual calypso and Latin grooves are straight-up fusion numbers like Orbitus (Galactic Voyage), the moody Grover’s Groove and a slow blues called Hit the Rhodes.

GP

 

Also worth a listen:

• Tobago’s Signal Hill Alumni Choir celebrates two decades as one of the premier performing ensembles in the Caribbean with Signal Hill Alumni Choir 20th Anniversary (Sanch CD 0501-2), a two-CD set featuring selections from their wide ranging repertoire, which includes soca, Caribbean folk songs, reggae, and classical. The somewhat roomy recording is released by Sanch Electronix, who also recently released a specially-priced Special Edition Series comprising several two-CD steelpan and jazz recordings remastered using HDCD technology, a proprietary digital format developed by Microsoft. All the above are available at www.sanch.com.

• US-based Barbadian writer Anthony Kellman dons the singer/songwriter hat on Limestone, which comprises 15 Caribbean-flavoured easy listening tracks which take on themes of Caribbean history and that old pop music mainstay — love and relationships. Purchase Limestone at www.cdbaby.com

 

Theatre buzz

Heart of steel

Fourteen years after its premiere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Derek Walcott’s musical Steel finally makes it to the Trinidad stage with a reworked script and a lavish production intended to celebrate the Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright’s 75th birthday. The production promises to put to rest the international quarrel about ownership of the steelpan — invented in Trinidad in the last century. Walcott’s lyrics are set to music by his longtime collaborator Galt MacDermot, the composer whose musical Hair revolutionised Broadway in the 1960s. The stellar cast includes Trinidad-born Hollywood actor Leon Morenzie; Brian Green, the Trinidad-born, Paris-based baritone celebrated for his opera roles around the world; the Caribbean’s “Queen of Soul”, Mavis John; and supporting actors from the Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Set and costumes are designed by artist Jackie Hinkson, and the musical arrangement is by Gene Lawrence.


Steel tells the story, in song and dialogue, of the birth of the steelpan in Trinidad. Set in the depressed Port of Spain district of Laventille after World War II, it is both a love story and a social examination of the urban community that, despite its economic conditions and violent social backdrop, was able to invent this extraordinary musical instrument. The story is told in part through the eyes of a once-proud calypso king, who at the end of his career counsels a young pan musician about his own future in a society that has failed him.

Steel immortalises the story of the steelband, from rusty drums and pitch oil tins to a pristine orchestral music of the New World — a metaphor of Caribbean peoples themselves, fighting stigma, abuse, and contempt with an enormous capacity to create, invent, and achieve against tremendous odds.

The collaboration of Walcott and MacDermot for this production is the climax of a lifetime’s friendship, starting in the 1970s, which has produced classic works like The Joker of Seville and O! Babylon. Walcott’s lyrics successfully articulate the new global individual who embodies the influences of many cultures, the collision of many experiences, and the collective histories of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It finds expression through the renowned Walcott technique, combining a philosopher’s vision, a poet’s sensitivity, a painter’s eye for colour, a dramatist’s skill with dialogue, and an actor’s flair for posture, through a language that marries the classical precision of standard English with the range of its Creole offspring. This finds its musical equivalent in MacDermot, born of Caribbean parents, whose musical scores now cross the boundaries of jazz, folk, gospel, reggae, rap, and traditional and classical styles.

The million-dollar production — which has two major sponsors in British Gas and Neal and Massy Holdings Limited — is one of the highlights of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop’s 2005 “Year of Derek Walcott”. Other birthday celebrations include the establishment of the TTW’s Fund for Literature and Drama, offering prizes for young Trinidadian writers and film-makers, including a TT$10,000 prize for short fiction sponsored by Walcott himself.

Steel runs at Queen’s Hall, Port of Spain, from September 13 to 18. For information, or to make bookings, call 868-624-8502

Kris Rampersad

 

Art buzz

Black and white stories

White Creole postcolonial feminism, anyone? (Didn’t think so.)

“I know. This is not stuff that people talk about,” admitted artist Joscelyn Gardner when I caught up with her in mid-June, a few days before the launch of her multimedia installation White Skin, Black Kin at Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7) in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
“At least, not in Barbados,” she added with a wry smile.

Gardner should know. She’s Barbadian. In fact, the lithographer and visual artist, whose practice focuses on issues of Creole identity from a postcolonial feminist perspective, was born in Barbados to a family that has been resident on the island since the 17th century. And although Gardner now lives in Canada, teaching fine arts at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, she’ll tell you in a heartbeat that she’s as Bajan as they come, and she’s certain that Bajans don’t talk about that kind of stuff.

So Gardner’s clearly not thinking about boosting her sales when she describes her work, in her artist’s statement, as “addressing the denial, repression, and dissociation that operate in relation to the subject of slavery and white culpability”. But for Gardner, art is not just end product, but a medium for the articulation of a bigger message — what she describes as “the intertwined historical/ancestral relationship between black/white women in the postcolonial Caribbean”.

In this sense, art is very serious work. And Gardner — who during her residency at CCA7 devoted considerable effort to researching the role played by 19th century Creole women operating in the margins of the patriarchal structures of colonial society — is a serious artist.

Her installation, which ran until mid-July at CCA7, consisted of two separate but interrelated works: Plantation Poker: The Merkin Stories and White Skin, Black Kin: A Creole Conversation Piece. The former is a series of lithographs on frosted mylar, displaying excerpts from the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, an 18th-century Jamaican planter who recorded in detail his abusive sexual exploitation of slave women. Interspersed among these panels of text are graphic black-and-white drawings melding images of various instruments of torture — a cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip, shackles, flagella, spurs, a weight — with intimate female images. The words and images work together to convey a powerful message about female Creole sexuality.

“It’s a way of reclaiming or empowering these females,” Gardner explained, “because you’re taking these tools of torture and you’re making them into decorative elements.”


The second half of the exhibition was a minimalist video and sound installation made up of a mounted photographic reproduction of an actual portrait of an 18th-century Barbadian planter (Portrait of Seale-Yearwood Esq), a topsy-turvy doll on a mahogany armchair, five audio tracks, and two DVD projections (Sisters and A Creole Conversation Piece).

This last element, a silent digital video, is the piece’s central component, projected onto a large screen dominating the space of the exhibition room. In this digital reproduction of the typical 18th-century family portrait, a white woman and her two daughters sit in a drawing-room adorned with all the trappings of the wealthy colonial planter class. But throughout the looping video clip, ghost-like black female figures move through the drawing-room, asserting by their very presence and movement their rightful place in the space (both physical and historical). The idea, one concludes, is to force us to question the Eurocentric and patriarchal orthodoxy that passes for genuine Caribbean history.

In this strikingly and refreshingly original multimedia installation (originally mounted at the Barbados Museum in 2004), it is as if Gardner has distilled all the Caribbean into one person, one Creole woman, captured that one woman’s repressed and subconscious thoughts, and then presented that hidden female consciousness in a form that we can not just experience but almost inhabit, if only for a while.

Gerard A. Best

 

Gallery roundup

Clay and Fire: Ceramic Art in Jamaica, National Gallery of Jamaica

Late master potter Cecil Baugh is the best-known name in this wide-ranging show, but the curatorial team (including National Gallery curator emeritus David Boxer and ceramicists Norma Harrack and David Pinto, both of whose work appears) has assembled a collection starting with Taino vessels and early African-Jamaican works, and ending in a survey of today’s leading ceramics artists, including works by the late folk potter Ma Lou of Spanish Town, and sculptures by artists not usually associated with ceramics.
Until November 5

Winston Kellman: Recent Works, Zemicon Gallery, Barbados

Winston Kellman, a favourite of the Barbados art scene, has made a career of observing the passage of time in his island’s landscape — the contrast between the slow decay of old plantation buildings and the rapid advance of vegetation; the variations in line and colour that accompany the changing tropical seasons. His masterful, lively charcoal drawings are at the core of this show, which also includes works in oil and watercolour.
September 4 to 23

Back to Black: Art, Cinema, and the Racial Imaginary, Whitechapel Gallery, London
This major survey of the work of black artists from the US, the UK, and the Caribbean in the 1960s and 70s covers a period of dramatic transformation and rapidly growing consciousness. As the civil rights movement in the US dismantled centuries of racial discrimination, many black Britons looked to the Caribbean for ideas about identity and roots. Some viewers may wonder why the show focuses on Jamaica to the exclusion of other islands, and the notion of blackness in the Caribbean is far more complicated than the one suggested here, but this is nonetheless an excellent opportunity to see the works of artists like Jamaicans Edna Manley, Kapo, and Everald Brown, Guyanese Aubrey Williams, and Trinidadian Horace Ové.
Until September 4; then September 30 to November 20 at the New Art Gallery, Walsall

Peter Doig: STUDIOFILMCLUB, Kunsthalle Zurich
Since early 2003, British artist Peter Doig and Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace have been running a low-frills weekly film club at Doig’s studio at CCA7 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, showing Caribbean, foreign-language, and art-house films. A show of the posters Doig paints for each screening opened at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in April, and moved to Zurich in August. Influenced by traditional Trinidadian sign-painting as much as by film imagery, these posters share with Doig’s full-scale works a puzzling, dream-like intensity and a fascination with the way the mind assembles images from fragments of everyday experience.
Until October 30

Flux and Fire: Six Jewellers and Their Art, National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago
This group show collects the work of five women jewellers: Barbara Jardine, Rachel Ross, Janice Derrick, and Sarah Marshall of Trinidad, and Jasmine Thomas-Girvan of Jamaica. Spanning generations — with Marshall at the beginning of her career, and Ross and Jardine glorying in the full alchemy of their craft — what these six have in common is the extent to which each has dedicated her creative life to the art of jewellery-making. Life and work are interwoven, extraordinary and unique; each of these elegant objects has a story to whisper.
September 29 to October 16

 

Business buzz

 

Crafty style

Shoppers alert! For a whole weekend in September, art, craft, gifts, apparel, and fashion accessories from over thirty Caribbean countries will be on display in Barbados, at the 12th Caribbean Gift and Craft Show. By far the largest trade show of its kind in the Caribbean, the CGCS is a prime opportunity to see the finest products of the region all under one roof, and last year over 15,000 visitors took the opportunity to do just that. Buyers from around the world flock to order craft and gift items that capture the spirit and style of the islands.

The 2005 Caribbean Gift and Craft Show takes place from 22 to 25 September at the Sherbourne Conference Centre in Barbados. For further information, contact Caribbean Export, T: 246-436-0578, cgcs@carib-export.com, or check www.caribbeangiftandcraft.com

 

Big picture

In the central Trinidad village of Felicity, the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, is re-enacted every year as the rituals of Ramleela lead up to Divali, the festival of lights.

Trinidad and Tobago: Portrait of Two Islands, with photographs by Alex Smailes and an introduction by Jeremy Taylor (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-0749-4, 227 pp), will be published in October 2005.

 

Island hopper

September starts — and the summer season ends — with a huge party in Brooklyn, at the famous Labour Day Parade (5 September), when a real Caribbean carnival breaks out in the heart of New York’s second borough (see page 64), mixing the best festival traditions of all the islands — music, spectacle, food, and fun • You’ll have a few weeks to rest and recover (you’ll probably need them) before the start of Tobago Fest (28 September to 2 October), combining a mini-masquerade with old traditions like the Tobago speech band. If you missed Carnival in February, this may be the next best thing. • That same weekend, the Jamaica Coffee Festival (2 October) in Kingston will introduce you to world-famous Blue Mountain coffee, prized by java connoisseurs everywhere. What better place to sample the blend, plus coffee-laced confections of every imaginable sort, than the gracious lawns of Devon House, with the Blue Mountains themselves rising in the near distance? • But maybe you can’t get enough of partying — a week later, head north for Miami Carnival (9 October) — costumes, steelbands, soca, and endless adrenaline in this honorary Caribbean city, with the prospect of winding down in sybaritic South Beach.

Music lovers, mark your calendars: for ten days in October, the Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan and Jazz Festival (21 to 30 October) blends hot steel with cool grooves at locations across T&T. Produced by the Queen’s Royal College Foundation, the festival brings some of the country’s best steel orchestras together with performers ranging from the Signal Hill Alumni Choir to soca star Shurwayne Winchester. • And if you catch an early flight out, you might just manage to squeeze in the World Creole Music Festival (28 to 30 October) in Dominica, where world-class performers meet home-grown talent for one of the Caribbean’s feistiest musical events.

As October draws to a close, Hindus in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname prepare for Divali (1 November; date to be confirmed), the joyful festival of lights. This is the time to experience Ramleela, a dramatisation of the Ramayana traditionally enacted in Hindu communities in the weeks before Divali — an extraordinary folk theatre experience, climaxing with the burning in effigy of the evil Ravan, as good triumphs over evil.