On its 69th birthday, September 13, the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago hosted the public at A Conversation with the Elders. This was a panel discussion moderated by Ken Crichlow; the members of the panel were Holly Gayadeen, Willi Chen, Alexis Ballie and Audley Sue Wing. The event kickstarted a series of celebrations leading up to the society’s 70th anniversary next year, explained president Gail P Guy. The artists on the panel took turns speaking a little about themselves and gave us an insight, via their histories, as to the part they played as members of our alumni of creative artists. There were some audio problems and a woman in the audience later echoed my sentiment when she commented on how difficult it was to hear the speakers. The Art Society agreed it would seek to have the recording made available to the public later. The Art Society did a decent job in putting together a cool set for the evening. Gayadeen, Chen, Ballie and Sue Wing shared valuable historical anecdotes and stories tied into our local art history.
The first thing I heard Willi Chen say when he entered the building was to ask if he had come for “talk, quarrel or discussion.” It was funny because that sums up my experiences with art circles today, too. Later I would learn of epic art quarrels between factions within the Art Society itself when those such as Colin Laird and Noel Norton vied for control. Men were underrepresented and women had a strong presence there that evening. Local great Sybil Atteck was a large part of the discussion mainly because of Sue Wing’s support of her contributions as a teacher and practicing artist who helped form what the Art Society is today. Chen would later deconstruct her work in a scathing criticism of some of her forms. Crichlow seemed as eager to hear all of the stories as I and the many others gathered there. Some 50 or so collectors, artists, gallery owners, curators and other members of creative society were there to listen in. The big thing I would take away from this panel is that generally a lot has not changed in our local art scene. We still largely end up pawns or continue to depend on the support of government to get things going. Yet when we circumvent that and do what we do best—that is, be creative—we shine.
There are still a lot of hungry artists looking for good art education and few who actually step up and teach not for self-gratification but for further development of the scene. There are still the cliques and struggles between artists and creatives here, mainly for obvious reasons like power and access to high-paying clientele. In its earlier years everyone flocked around the Art Society because it was in an elite position with a lot of government involvement. In today’s fragmented market that is more celebrity-centric, you find groups focusing around individuals who have varying degrees of public attention. I could not help but see these men as versions of myself, my future in waiting. Sue Wing joked with me about starting his career working for the Guardian, smuggling rum for late artist Alfred Codallo in between newssheets and hollering at young women across the street. I started out in the newspapers as well, looking for work and a way to make a name for myself. It was through that I was able to meet many artists who mentored me such as Wendell McShine and Christopher Cozier. Our industry is still fragmented and hungry for information about our own experiences, with little information being put out there to satisfy that hunger. Evidently there is no unifying spirit and little care since we have our various celebrity tent poles to gather around. So 70 years later our art world is still developing because we continue to have very little knowledge of our past. — James Hackett is a visual artist and designer.