Marsha Pearce reviews Dear Joseph, an art exhibition at the National Museum and Art Gallery
Dear Joseph, an exhibition of works from the national art collection, opened at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port-of-Spain on March 15. The art display is curated by Kwynn Johnson, who used a letter by the late artist Carlisle Chang as the point of departure for selecting and organising the work in the exhibit. Chang's letter, dated around 1961, is addressed to fellow Trinidadian artist Joseph Cromwell-Assee, who was living in London at the time. The exhibition title is taken from the letter's opening salutation, "Dear Joseph."
Chang mentions a number of artists in the letter, while disclosing to Cromwell-Assee his views on the state of the art scene in Trinidad: "I am afraid hard living problems have dismissed out of my system a lot of this sentimentality which attaches to painters and painting in Trinidad."
Chang adds: "Personally I feel no excitement, whether in architecture, music, drama or painting, only a lot of activity in a desert. This must be a period of stocktaking and caution and perhaps there is a hint of seriousness among the young ones who 'take up art.' But I see little around me to brighten the picture."
It is noteworthy that Chang distinguishes the words "take up art" with his use of quotation marks. It draws our attention to an incongruity in what he deems a general lack of commitment to growth among those who claim to be interested and engaged in creative practice.
It is also significant that Chang was writing in a pre-independence climate with art as a resource that could be tapped for its potential for contributing to self-determination and playing a key role in individual and collective development. Have we fully understood art's capacity in T&T? Is taking up art a frivolous, superficial affair? Are our artists not serious enough? Have artistic works in T&T been plagued by sentimentality–by too much tenderness, romanticism and nostalgia?
The body of work now on show at the National Art Gallery allows us to do some stocktaking, to review and assess the big picture of visual arts in our nation.
Pieces have been pulled from the vault, from a collection of art the museum has acquired through purchase over the years–"with our tax dollars," to quote the curator–or through donations. The exhibition is an amalgam of early and contemporary works that exposes us to a national visual archive and allows us to access and interrogate a visual memory. It is a variegated memory bank ranging from a Cedrosan Saladoid ceremonial vessel found at Erin in South Trinidad, to cartoon strips and wire sculpture; a cache created with an array of media: oils, acrylic, watercolour, pen and ink, graphite, gouache, charcoal, pastel, copper, 18-carat gold, wood and clay.
What is on display includes Chang's maquette for his mural The Inherent Nobility of Man, which was commissioned for Piarco Airport. Audiences get a chance to connect with a piece of history that was buried with the destruction of the mural when the airport was expanded in 1977. It is an important work that foregrounds our spirit of resilience and our inalienable worthiness.
The exhibition also devotes an entire wall to Joseph Cromwell-Assee's paintings, which explore the subject of folklore. Cromwell-Assee donated 31 of his paintings to the National Museum in 1998. The exhibit is a means for audiences to acquaint themselves with his work. His bold renderings of soucouyants, douens and other fabled characters bring local myth to life.
T&T lore becomes a thread that binds Cromwell-Assee's pieces to other artists' work in the exhibit. Willi Chen's intensely abstract papa bois converses with Cromwell-Assee's more recognisable forms so that audiences become witnesses to a dynamic dialogue. Alfred Codallo's La Diablesse at Bele Dance and Dermot Louison's Soucouyant also join in this conversation among artworks. The result is a lively exchange with each artist's work voicing our oral traditions in different creative ways.
More connecting threads are tangible. Placing Lisa O'Connor's painting of Stollmeyer's Castle (2002), Jackie Hinkson's painted view of Queen's Park Paddock (1997) and Francisco Cabral's three-dimensional, fretwork-adorned chair with its jalousied back (1986) all in close proximity to each other prompts us to consider them in relation and to reflect on the seat or location of our history. Is our history, our record of who we are, to be sought in a past long gone or does it live in places like Stollmeyer's Castle, the Paddock, or the fort painted on the back of Cabral's chair?
The fact that Cabral's work, entitled Historical Site, is positioned in front of windows at the gallery, which bear shutters similar to those featured in the artist's sculptural piece, makes us read the art together with its surroundings. We find ourselves asking whether the National Art Gallery is to be seen as an effective site for our history. While watching the cannon that Cabral has painted, we are compelled to ponder the gallery's archival and educative firepower.
Other art pieces on display let us see the work of those artists mentioned in Chang's letter: Sybil Atteck, Hugh Stollmeyer, Joan St Louis and Noel Vaucrosson, among others. The sentimentality that Chang decries is evident in such works as Wilson Minshall's 1957 painting Bay Tree Avenue, Geoffrey Holder's undated Martiniquan and Jason's Nedd's 1992 A Catch of Jacks.
Yet while Chang feels no excitement at the time of writing his letter, a thrill is palpable in the space where the exhibition is mounted. Etchings created in the 1970s by Carlisle Harris and Sonnylal Rambissoon are brilliantly expressive in their presentation of lines. Wendy Nanan's imaginative brass and copper piece, dated 1990, has us spiralling into ancient civilisations.
There is more than a hint of seriousness to be found among the artists exhibited. Works by Steve Ouditt, Edward Bowen, Christopher Cozier, Makemba Kunle, Emheyo Bahabha, Richard "Ashraph" Ramsaran, Barbara Jardine and Pat Bishop add brightness to a picture of our visual arts.
However, what suppresses the light of that picture is the predominance of male artists on show. Has the National Museum made systematic acquisitions of artworks with a bias in favour of male art practitioners? Is our visual memory a gendered one? Where are the women who surely gave shape, colour and texture to our art scene? These are the urgent questions this exhibition raises.
The exhibition is a useful portal that links our past, present and future. The curatorial decision to use Chang's letter as a trigger for choosing and arranging a body of work that can raise public consciousness of a national collection–a collection of art that belongs to all of us–is a smart one. What comes with that awareness, though, is an ambivalence; a simultaneous delight and heavy uneasiness as we revel in the creative strides demonstrated by our artists while discerning the likelihood of a politics of exclusion that comes with acquiring and archiving our nation's visual endeavours.
A strength of this exhibition is the promise it holds for stirring rich debate. It is hoped that the public engages with it and enters into critical, constructive discussions.
Dear Joseph will be on display until March 15, 2014, at the Marie Louise Hall of the National Museum and Art Gallery, 117 Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain. Gallery hours: Tue- Sat 10 am- 6 pm. Info: 623-5941.