Alice Yard, the backyard space of a house at 80 Roberts Street, Woodbrook, celebrates its sixth anniversary this year as a venue for creative experiment within and conversation about contemporary art in the Caribbean.
Alice Yard is a space to play. The property was once owned by Alice Matilda Gittens, the great-grandmother of local architect Sean Leonard. Several generations of children have played in that yard. Carnival bands have used the yard as a meeting and preparation point before taking their costumes to the streets.
In September 2006, Leonard drew on the specific history of this Woodbrook site as well as the broader tradition of yards as communal spaces in urban Trinidad to conceive a location for various artists to meet and play.
Yet, what does it mean to play? A team at a San Francisco-based design firm called the Dubberly Design Office defines play as a conversation. Play starts with an act that contributes to a conversation and interactions. Play involves engagement and imagination. Play is the thrill and natural intoxication of experimenting, trying new things, collaborating and relating with each other in novel ways. Play is about not knowing where things will lead. Play is about having fun. Alice Yard embodies all of these ideas.
According to Leonard, Alice Yard is about “getting things to happen that we enjoy.” Quite a lot has happened at Alice Yard in the past six years. Along with Leonard, artist and writer Christopher Cozier and writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin administer Alice Yard’s activities. Since 2006, there has been a band room at the yard. 12, the band led by musician Sheldon Holder, used to practise there. From 2006 to early 2008, a series of Conversations in the Yard ran on Friday nights, events that brought together musicians, visual artists, writers and audiences for informal performances and discussions. A modest gallery, established at the location in 2007, has been a space for exhibiting projects by such artists as Adam Williams, Jaime Lee Loy, Nikolai Noel, Mario Lewis and Dave Williams.
Alice Yard also hosts artists in residence, allowing creative people space away from their usual environment and obligations to research, produce and present work. With assistance from the Commonwealth Foundation, Alice Yard has supported artist residencies for Bright Ugochukwu Eke of Nigeria and Heino Schmid of the Bahamas. Other residency opportunities have been made available to such artists as Sheena Rose and Mark King of Barbados.
Alice Yard has also hosted writers in residence: poets Ishion Hutchinson of Jamaica and Valzhyna Mort of Belarus. The yard has been a venue for the 2008 Animae Caribe awards for Caribbean animation and the Trinidad launch of ARC Caribbean art and culture magazine in 2011. Alice Yard has also partnered with the study abroad programme of Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, by hosting and supporting exhibitions and performances by visiting students.
Without permanent members of staff, Alice Yard depends on its growing network of creative collaborators who believe in nurturing an infrastructure for exchanging ideas among artists in the Caribbean region and those abroad. More than a physical place, Alice Yard is about the architecture of interaction with people. The yard is a space characterised by relationships forged among the various people who move in and through it. It is a space with a focus on connections and sustained dialogue between individuals.
Among those who have found themselves intimately woven into this space of people is Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith.“I have always been in dialogue with Alice Yard,” says Griffith, who recently created an installation at Alice Yard’s adjunct location on Erthig Road, Belmont. The Belmont site, known as Granderson Lab, accommodates projects that cannot fit in the yard in Woodbrook. Griffith has been living and working in Japan for the past three years and returned to Trinidad a few months ago for a brief visit. His trip coincided with Alice Yard’s celebration of its sixth anniversary and he seized the opportunity to create a piece of art.
Griffith has shared his artwork at the yard in the past and has been instrumental in conceptualising such programmes as Alice Yard’s 24-hour residency, which invites an artist to create a site-specific work of art in the yard over the course of one day. Griffith talks about the bonds that are formed at Alice Yard and the magnetism of the space: “I always planned to come back to do something. My first connection with Alice Yard was with the Galvanize project in 2006. Artist Jaime Lee Loy had an installation at Alice Yard. Through Alice Yard connections were made. Myself, Jaime and Nikolai Noel collaborated and did an installation at Belmont. Sean helped us with getting things in place and building the installation.”
With his recent visit, Griffith could not resist the chance to play in Trinidad again. His new installation is a creative act that contributes to a conversation about ideas of progress. He uses VS Naipaul’s 1962 travel narrative, The Middle Passage as a reference point for his art. In the book, Naipaul returns to Trinidad on board the Spanish immigrant ship Francisco Bobadilla. “That book has always stuck with me. The people Naipaul describes on the vessel in an enclosed space. That is still relevant to the space we live in,” says Griffith. The artist borrows the name of the ship to call his own work The Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla. It is a piece that considers Griffith’s return to Trinidad, to Belmont where he grew up and his discomfort as he wrestles with what has changed about the place and what has stayed the same.
He asks the question: What is Belmont’s relationship to progress? To consider answers, he creates images that focus on the powdered necks of different people in the community. Griffith is aware that the practice of applying powder heavily to the neck is scorned by some—it is seen as backward behaviour, the antithesis of progress. He makes patterns with the powder, some that hark back to the past. He uses patterns from window designs that are still present at his family home in Belmont. Some patterns are also reminiscent of doily designs. “I grew up in a house where my mother crocheted. So we had the crocheted table cloth and the doilies,” Griffith explains.
Other patterns in powder, like the repeated Nike swoosh, are suggestive of making strides, with consumerism and branding as markers of forward movement. The body becomes a canvas for exploring concerns with place and progress. Powder—used in sailor mas—becomes a powerful symbol in engaging with Belmont, which remains a key community in the history of Carnival. Griffith’s installation also incorporates a massive galvanized structure that invites people to enter what feels like an uncomfortable space. It seems to mimic a ship’s bow. A fog machine in the structure heightens the sense of disorientation. Griffith addresses the notion of an uneasy return home. His installation, with all of its layers of meaning, is a fitting example of a testing out of ideas, an experimenting with materials and space and the input of a number of people working behind the scenes to help bring the artwork and conversation to life. Griffith’s work is a manifestation and commemoration of an extraordinary spirit that Alice Yard has upheld for the past six years: a spirit of play.