“Daddy, it is okay to not be smart?” my daughter Jinaki asked me this week. We were on the bed, me reading and she watching a doll video on You Tube.
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Todd shows in Glasgow
T&T’s Adele Todd is one of three artists whose work is being shown at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Glasgow, Scotland, in a show called Spirit Levels. The show opened July 26 and runs until September 7. “The three artists in Spirit Levels share a fascination with line and form, though each of them balance their interest in abstraction through differing acknowledgements of cultural and social realities,” the CCA web site says.
The other two artists are Remy Jungerman of Suriname and Tony Cruz of Puerto Rico. “Adele Todd’s work employs domestic materials and techniques such as thread, embroidery, felt and trapunto [a method of quilting]. These ‘soft materials,’ as she puts it herself, are used to outline abstract forms across a space, but often they are grounded in specific social concerns, such as the stereotyping of both boys and girls coming-of-age in Trinidadian culture.”
Her works in the show include the previously exhibited series Police an Tief, embroidered panels showing images of police, magistrates and criminals. She also shows new work that curator Remco de Blaaij said was done specifically for the exhibition: words made of wire wrapped in thread. The words include slang and derogatory words for women and their genitals. Todd is interviewed in the brochure for the show, part of the text of which is reproduced below courtesy of CCA. (LAA)
Could you tell us a bit more about Police An Tief, the oldest work on show?
Sure. A number of years ago, probably around 2007, crime at the time seemed particularly out of control in T&T. So, as always I got really upset about it and what was happening is that the media was playing it up to the first pages of the newspaper. I began to cut images out of the newspaper, images that I felt were very striking and I was thinking gradually how to deal with a topic like crime and violence, since Trinidad had not always been that violent place.
I was trying to see what I could do about it, since it was so present amongst everyone, up until today. There is a lot of worry and little that is being done about it. Nobody seems to want to touch the subject, but for me it was obvious that I wanted to deal with it. I began with some large embroideries, about a foot by two feet. The first piece was depicting some lawyers coming down from the Hall of Justice, placing their leather cases on the ground. That struck me, since they in their profession seem to be very busy, still there is an impression that nothing is done about it. People don’t feel any safer.
I started with black embroidery on brown cotton, a rough material. I did a large part of it and then I left it for some time, which felt not the right way to go. When I look back to it now, embroidery was a strong language, but it did not meet what I wanted to say. But then I started to revisit still these works and to go back to my archive of newspaper images, which I had been collecting for a number of years and putting them out. I began to see a pattern and more and more connections between police, crimes, justice and victims. I started to use a sort of code, the police in grey, as their uniform, and the thieves as brown, sometimes even the police, as they are often times corrupt. Brown is for the criminal because these are generally perceived as the lowest form within society, lower than dirt.
Looking also at the corporate greed, coming from this one-liner in which we say we want to catch the big fish behind some of these crimes. The white stands for the victims, because having experienced crime myself, it’s very apparent that you don’t call crime over yourself generally. It does not happen automatically as a result of some of your behaviour. We still have the saying that if you have experienced crime, there is probably something that you neglected to do, like forgot to put the latch on, or not having enough measure to keep the bad people out. Trinidad is already quite full of iron bars in front of our doors and many people with dogs.
The judiciary is yellow since there is a sense of cowardness [sic]. If you go to the police station and report a crime, introduced is a slowness of information. The police even try to sell you cameras after the crime as a sort of crime trade. This body of work was made in response to these situations and making the work got really close to me. I was looking every day at the news and I had the idea that the news was following me around. When I am doing this small embroidery, I can’t focus on pleasant thoughts. If I would try think about something cheerful, I would stop actually, since it does not compute with the feeling I want to lay in these embroideries. When you look at them, the idea is that you are genuinely moved by the scenes that are depicted. I hope I have achieved that.
Could you talk about the materials a bit more?
I like the idea of using the soft material to tell hard stories. A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to work on a show together with South African artist Lisa Brice and she showed me one of her catalogues. She did a painting of a woman, with white paint on a black background, looking to me as “net” on felt. I kind of took that idea and showed it to her and she was quite surprised, as these were not the materials she had used, but I thought she did. I had created my own materialism. I liked the immediacy of thread and its colour. Yes, I can paint and draw, but this immediacy is something harder to achieve within painting or drawing, I feel. Working with the fabric gives me a lot of freedom. I can sit down when people are talking to me, and I can continue to work on it, I can get a work done that way, and it is semi-public as well.
And what about the language piece, or in general the idea of slang language within your work?
I do a lot of research to do with language. For me the language moves the visual. There is a piece I did years before the Police an Tief piece, called Hit! It looked at domestic violence and I made labels to be attached to domestic appliances with which women could defend themselves, and at the time it was very vivid discussion within Trinidad society, and perhaps still is. Women are not perceived to be capable of violence, but what is this violence about? Hit was for me the base to talk about violence and a lot of works were shaped after this piece. If somebody is to drop in to the island of T&T and to understand the core of the country in terms of understanding these social issues, both the visual work of artists, as well as writing, are the instruments that can help us think about it.
It works even better when journalists or writers are writing about these social art pieces as a form of translation and embedding them into a larger framework of meaning. I looked at a lot of language for Hit, for example the domestic violence act and more specific words used in communities. This series specifically focused on women and sexuality and looking at what was spoken about women. I had a curiosity about language and words being used and I thought I would concentrate on a series of embroidery around the idea of language.
How to think about texture and sculpture?
I began to wrap thread around wire for which I made words, mostly slang used in Port-of-Spain, of which many one cannot understand its meaning directly, like the slang word for lesbian, which is zamie. Already using that word gives some sort of controversy. Words can be very strong.
Do you think the idea of translation is important? How do these slang words translate to a place like Scotland?
Well, skettel, one of the words you can see very well, is a controversial word as well. But I had a nice conversation with Tony Cruz about music, since we have played much music during the installation, he played something we call parang. He said we call this parranda, in which we go door-to-door and we play it, we eat. I said to him, we do the same thing! That was a nice moment of recognition in which I had to think of how things relate to each other. One does not necessarily need to literally understand each other’s words to speak with one another, or understand what is being said. It is the visual and non-linguistic within language perhaps. There is some kind of universalism in it across geography, there is no need for a literal or direct translation. The movement of those words is much more important, negative or positive, of course.