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María Elena Ortiz: Exploring Trinidad

View of Trinidad.

By María Elena Ortiz
On Dec 17, 2014

View of Trinidad.

This is the third journal entry for a series of research trips by María Elena Ortiz, the 2014 recipient of the CPPC Travel Award. She will visit new and established contemporary art centers, artist initiatives, and film festivals in the Caribbean countries of Aruba, the Bahamas, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago. Her research will explore film and video practices, through interviews with local cultural producers and artists, with the aim of strengthening the ties between art in the Caribbean and the Diaspora in the local community of Miami.

Of all the Caribbean cities I would visit as part of this research, I was particularly intrigued by the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, Port of Spain. I was anticipating an imaginatively, fascinating community. Composed of two islands, the country has a rich and complex history that involves British, African, Amerindian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and East Indian cultures, among others. Mostly referred to as Trinidad, this twin island nation had multiple Western settlements that brought slaves to the island, but in 1797 it became British. After the abolition of slavery in 1838, Britain transported thousands of Indians, as indentured servants, to ameliorate “the shortage of labor” in agricultural fields. In 1962, it became independent. Today, Trinidad houses two of the largest banks in the region and its economy is fueled by natural gas and oil.  Artistically, Port of Spain is known for generating solid international cultural programs, such as the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF) and the now extinct non-profit, Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7 -1998-2006) (which facilitated the entry of artists Peter Doig and Chris Ofili onto local dwellings). I was also aware of Port of Spain’s gallery circuit, mostly dedicated to traditional painting. Yet, I wondered what else I would encounter there.

View from Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival.

View of Medulla.

I arrived on opening night of the film festival, TTFF. The kick off film, Pan! Our Music Odyssey was produced by a Frenchman, Jean-Michel Gibert and written by local Dr. Kim Johnson. The movie focused on the development of the steelpan, a musical instrument that emerged in the economically deprived sections of Port of Spain. Set in the 1940s, the film was a glamorized portrayal of the history of this internationally played percussion device, which has origins tied to oil, gang violence, and poverty. Other films in the program provocatively dealt with contemporary Caribbean realities. I also viewed Black Radical Imagination, a screening program developed by American curators Erin Christovale and Amir George, including video works by contemporary African American artists illustrating ideas of Afro Futurism, current black culture, and diaspora.

View of Little Carib Theatre, one of the venues for the Film Festival.

At the studio with Christopher Cozier.

The next day, I met with artist and curator, Christopher Cozier, a leading voice in the creative community. He took me to eat Trinidadian Roti, a local flatbread that fuses Caribbean and Indian cuisine. Cozier has worked in the region for over 20 years, and after the demise of the CCA7 (which he also helped to develop), he founded Alice Yard with writer Nicolas Laughlin and architect Sean Leonard in 2006. Locally known as The Yard, this contemporary and interdisciplinary arts platform has an exhibition space and an apartment for resident artists, curators, and other practitioners, located in Woodbrook. The Yard has become the epicenter for contemporary dialogue and international exchange. It also has a project space in Belmont known as Granderson Lab which provides studio space for artists. Cozier is also a researcher who recently has been tracing conceptual art practices in the Caribbean. Together, we went to 3 art galleries and a non-profit space, including Y Gallery, Horizons Gallery, and Medulla Gallery, all very different. Horizons Gallery was a conservative venue, showing local landscapes and traditional still lifes. Y Gallery showed a variety of local and well-established artists’ paintings, photographs, and prints. There, I had the opportunity to see A rainbow for Everyman by critically-acclaimed artist and costume designer, Peter Minshall. The work depicted over 60 small images of a man in profile wearing one of Minshall’s world-famous carnival masks. Housed in a new building renovated 5 years in the style influenced by early 20th century creole architecture, Medulla Gallery is the youngest of the three. It is known for generating an experimental exhibition program, including video and new media practices. In a way, it was great to find in the city three different approaches to the commercialization of art, especially considering that it has a limited gallery circuit.

Artists' Publication by Pinky & Emigrante.

I had studio visits with artists whose works clearly point to the cultural complexity of the island. I met with graphic designer and artist Richard Rawlins. Similar to Cozier, he has become a mentor for a younger generation of artists. Alluding to the complexities of Afro-Caribbean identity, he showed me a series of recent paintings that deal with issues of race and politics on the island and in diaspora. I also met with Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran, who previously worked with Peter Minshall in the 1990s. Ashraph has also developed an artistic practice that explores his upbringing in a Hindu and Muslim household to address homosexuality and marriage. I also visited Cozier’s studio; his works explore and question Caribbean postcolonial histories. Lastly, I met with Akuzuru Tala, a female artist who explores the strategies of rituals and notions of spirituality to create performances, sculptures, and installations that question the feminine in environments.

Studio Visit with Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran.

In Port of Spain, there is an active younger generation of artists working in conceptual and experimental approaches, embodying the creative strategies of their moment. Rodell Warner, a new media artist, is known for a photographic series, Worker Portraits (2013) that shows local workers wearing their quasi-futuristic uniforms in the tropical, majestic landscape. Also, Warner is interested in the possibilities of internet art as a tool to reach wider audiences and access global consciousness. Another artist, Alicia Milne, is part of a minority of Portuguese immigrants on the island. She works in a variety of mediums ranging from ceramics to video to address the construction of perception. For a couple of years, Milne has been collaborating with Luis Vasquez La Roche, whose work explores his experience as an individual with Venezuelan and Chilean heritage living and working in Trinidad. Together, they call themselves Pinky & Emigrante and have created a series of ephemeral public works in the city. Another younger artist working in Port of Spain, Nikolai Noel utilizes a conceptual approach to investigate European, African and Asian histories to question the national constructs of the island.

Studio/House of Leroy Clarke.

One of the most significant moments during my research was meeting artists Leroy Clarke and Peter Minshall. Clarke was the first artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1972. His paintings have been exhibited internationally representing an earlier generation of Trinidadian artists proudly asserting the dynamics of Caribbean culture. His paintings allude to his African heritage and represent the cultural exchanges between blacks in New York and the Caribbean in the 1970s. Peter Minshall became an artist who reimagined the carnival as a concept in which the use of a mask embodies what it means to be Caribbean. The mask becomes the metaphor to show that an individual is neither one type nor another, rather the performance of multiple masks.

Conversation with Peter Minshall.

Being in Trinidad during TTFF was a great opportunity to meet other cultural practitioners, who travel to enjoy or participate in the festival. I met with artist and curator Holly Bynoe, from Arc Magazine. I came across the photographic works of Nadia Huggins, an artist from St. Vincent, as well as the recent productions of Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter. I explored other parts of the island, including visits to the national museum, the once bohemian neighborhood of Belmont, and the area of Diego Martin, a wealthy section of Port of Spain whose architecture and malls resemble the skyline of Miami, and where at a distance one can see the Caribbean coastline of Venezuela. In Port of Spain, I experienced distinct generations of artists, perceived the contrasts between independent art initiatives and the commercial world, but also enjoyed the great films of TTFF.

The research for this project was made possible by the generous support of ICI and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) through the CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.