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Through innocent eyes
The independence celebrations over the last few weeks were as inane as they were laughably amateurish—like the radio ad announcing that VS Naipaul won the “Nobel Peace Prize in Literature,” a single instance which captures the general air of incomprehension and fuzziness around the festivities. But most painfully evident was the absence of even a working knowledge informing the expatiation of the history, especially in regard to the crucial question of how it led to the Trinidad we live in.
A significant reason for this absence is that any attempt to pierce the vapid voice-over conveying the patriotic sentiment necessarily reveals the unwholesome substrate beneath. A good example of this is sitting along the Wrightson Rd wall of PowerGen: a number of panels which reproduce the finalists’ entries for the PowerGen (primary and secondary) schools art competition. On the surface, there’s lots of colour and steelpan; beneath, not so good.
Apparently PowerGen (or whoever advises them on artistic matters) does not know that works of art have titles, so I can’t refer to the works by name to describe them. (Neither will I name the artists, since they’re minors.) Nonetheless, these panels, as a purposeful assemblage of images, tell a sad story which no one seems to want to hear.
Since the artists are children (primary and secondary school), one or two things seem evident: first, there’s a fair amount of unconscious reproduction of mental and material environments—the children are regurgitating what they are told, shown, and what they have (perhaps unconsciously) internalised about Trinidad & Tobago’s nature. Second, the uniformity of the images suggests that the education system, the media, and national institutions, are all getting a consistent message out. Unfortunately the wrong message.
The images are unanimous on the components of the nation’s constitution, character and destiny. The primary component is “culture,” made manifest in the image of the steelpan, Carnival costumes, and multi-ethnic figures in traditional poses and tableaux (in ethnic costume, or juxtaposed by religious imagery—cross, star and crescent moon, the Aum). After “culture” come images of nature: hummingbirds, vegetation, the sea, wilderness, palm trees. And after culture comes sport: football, a swimming figure.
Two pieces diverge from these themes: one depicting book spines with the legend The Nation’s Encyclopedia—The Power of Knowledge. The books are held together by two bookends in the shape of what appear to be the national birds. The other non-conforming image is of a coconut vendor’s truck next to a doubles vendor near a recreation ground.
The single technically proficient painting came from an autistic child. Otherwise, the quality of the paintings is very low—which does not augur well for the state of art education, not just in execution, but in the opening of the minds and imaginations of the students.
At the very least, the most elementary art education shows the student multiple ways of seeing at the same object or scene. The impressionists, the realists, the surrealists, the pointillists and so on—just seeing these different re-presentations of the same object can open the vistas to a curious young mind. But none of this was visible here.
It is possible that these issues might not be the fault of the students, but of the authorities. It could be that the students were given a formula for an independence image, and built their canvases on that brief. And the brief would be indicative of the paucity of art education, and the limitations its absence inflicts through the society. It is also possible that these images are not the best, and better, more sophisticated visions of the nation were entered, but these were the ones chosen by PowerGen and/or those who were mandated by them to select the winners.
But all this aside, the choice of image was not the most troubling thing about the exercise. Most troubling was the way young artists handled their material. The principal technique was pastiche: contrasting and juxtaposing often incongruous images, without any unifying theory, idea, or even a notion of technical coherence.
The panel closest to Colville Street was an extreme example, with every image contained in a screen-like box. In another of the paintings, the different elements (the ethnic groups, steelpan, flag, birds, etc) were scrupulously separated from each other by lines, or relegated to separate areas of the canvas.
Unfortunately, what this implies is that a fractured, ultimately irreconcilable society is what children see, hence this is what they reproduce. For reasons that have been explored in this space exhaustively, there is no unifying theory of Trinidad and Tobago—except perhaps for the cynical “all o’ we is one,” and it seems unlikely there will be any time soon.
And here is perhaps the greatest failure of independence: not only to fail to encourage this (or any other) kind of thought, or the capacity to think, but the substitution of the notion of “Carnival society” as a unifying theory. From the stolidity and lifelessness of those images, the kids aren’t buying it, but they know they have to reproduce it. But there’s one more glaring thing in these images: the absences.
In none of the paintings created by the children was anything futuristic, or relating to science, fantasy, magic, and indeed nothing that even ventured into the realm of the fantastic. It would have been far more comforting had the children played with the flag, created grotesque beasts like gryphons or sphinxes or centaurs (or more appropriately, satyrs). And the absence of science in the idea of Trinidad, and the minds of its children is not only inaccurate, it’s insidious.
Continued next week
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