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Vision, re-vision and the nation
The unfortunate photograph of the woman on the front pages of two daily papers last week, who appeared to be kissing the feet of the goodly Minister of Handing out Hampers, who (in the Opposition leader’s tortured view) appeared to be enjoying it, was an interesting glimpse into the visual character of the media and public sphere. It showed how for-granted visual intelligence is taken, and how great a mistake that is.
The woman subsequently said her neighbours and relatives berated her for appearing to kiss the ministerial feet, even though she protested that she was giving thanks to god, not to the minister. But the image, volubly and ineloquently, said otherwise. Even before the image’s poiesis (as it were) a certain visual poetics existed—widely practiced, and acquired rather than taught. The poetics, for example, provided the impetus for media photographers to recognise the potential of and shoot the image. Its logic guided the editors to put it on the front page. And the praxis showed the honourable Opposition leader, and the public, how to decode it. And they were all wrong. And here lies the problem.
It means there’s a widespread practice of propagating destructive visual habits and material, which leads to a generalised broader problem: if you “see” something as dangerous and offensive, you respond instinctively, without the ordinary restraints (like counterargument) that logocentric stimuli generate. How do you counter-argue an image? And if you see everything not conforming to your prejudices as offensive, that’s a recipe for continuous hostility.
The bleeding of political and cultural spheres into each other has, over the last 15 years or so, left a visual regime which demands that the country be seen in a particular way, as a strategy in the war of ethnic symbolic regimes. Ironically, as the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival (now under way) gets bigger and bigger, we’re seeing consequences of visual regime which cultivates low visual intelligence in the population.
I can’t say if Trini filmmakers are providing new and interesting visions of the nation—as I write, I’ve seen one film, and I was more interested in the filmmaker. However there has been a place where the “nationalist” symbolic war has been inscribed: the work of Trini visual artists, whose job is to introduce new visual possibilities, and drive the national visual language, as much as anything else.
A 50th anniversary of independence exhibition of works is now on at the National Museum, which illustrates this evolution over time. But a smaller, more eloquent vision of emerging visual possibilities is available from a single artist: Wendy Nanan, whose show, Independence, is up at the Medulla Art Gallery on Fitt St in Woodbrook.
I remember one of Nanan’s exhibitions from about 15 years ago, when Afro-Indo hostility was high, manifesting in a violent cultural tussle to establish Trinidad as Afro cultured, vis a vis the new Indian government. The pieces were small canvases inscribed with Sanskrit text, which, when translated, read “Trini to the Bone” and “Sweet T&T” and so on. It was a superb commentary and illustration of the moment.
Nanan’s Independence exhibition is equally sharp and comprises just a few pieces: Baby Krishna; The Nation Morphs; Enlightenment Is; and Queens. The Nation Morphs shows the familiar shape of Trinidad with the apostrophe of Tobago gradually morphing into a banana. The Queens are papier mache heads of various figures (Asian, Rastafarian, Caucasian) covered with British stamps; Enlightenment Is, is a series of suns, and the Baby Krishnas are a series of effigies of the Hindu god.
The Krishna series speaks in very elementary symbolic language of the nationalist conundrum: four effigies of the Hindu god, embellished with angel’s wings, carry in both hands, respectively, a pile of sugar, a tin cup with what is apparently the last draining of oil, a scarlet ibis, a curly-haired child, the symbol of the Aum, and so on.
The meaning of the god holding the objects is not difficult to grasp. But the secondary meaning is more fascinating: Krishna is now a hybrid god, comprised of (Christian) angel’s wings, the thick black hair, and blue skin—a fusion of the religious images in many Indian temples and homes, with the equally pervasive Christian imagery in churches and homes, which iconographies have never met and interacted.
This hybridisation describes the polysemic world we find ourselves in—we’re an island on a 500-year historical continuum, and also a point in an interconnected web of transnational meanings, images, and impulses existing in the present. The “present-ness”, and its contention with a repeating historical process of subjugation, domination, and struggle for release, is visible through the series.
The Queens, no matter their iconoclasm, are still stamped with British authority, via postage stamps. Enlightenment Is, is an arc of small papier mache suns which trace their transit by the size of the smile on the face, which changes with each position on the ecliptic. The Nation Morphs suggests, beneath the obvious banana republic imprecation, that Trinidad is a mutable idea.
But even without translating image into text, Nanan’s exhibition presents an intriguing set of visual possibilities which we need. Despite being visually bombarded every day from the minute we open our eyes, Independence shows us that we are exploiting the thinnest sliver of the enormous transnational field of visual possibility, to out detriment.
Not being able to, literally, see what’s before our very eyes is at least part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in. The responsibility for this lies in several places: the educational morass that passes for a school system; the culture vultures who’ve hijacked “culture”; UWI; and the other usual suspects. But from the little I’ve seen of the TTFF’s aggressive push to grow, and expand its viewing base, this might be set to change.
(To be continued.)
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