Valerie Belgrave's art for the people (a photo memoir) is a new book by the artist herself which is due for release in December. Written in the first person, it is a unique testimony of the paths travelled by this well-known artist and writer, and a rare glimpse into the raison d'être of her many doings and achievements-enough to fill 132 glossy pages. If there was ever a year in which fate seemed to be asking us to pay attention to the greats among us before they are all gone, it was this year, 2011. One can't help but feel that this book is part salve to ease a little of the pain of our losses, and part signpost showing us the direction in which we ought to be heading.
For it is becoming clear that we must start documenting the achievements of our achievers and doing so in ways that are accessible to wide cross-sections of our people while these artists are still around to clarify and explain their stories. Belgrave writes with a refreshing openness and frankness which should be important to students and art lovers but also to the general public as well. Beneath her casualness and touches of humour, there still lies the experienced writer who instinctively brings to the text an engaging sense of drama that holds the reader's attention.
You actually get caught up in her infectious excitement about her work, in her "daring do" approach, in her almost carefree individualism and in her particular philosophy. She writes with the authority of one sure of her convictions and, of course, nothing is as infectious as self-confidence. Far from being ego-centred, the book reads like a friendly, uninhibited conversation with this multi-talented daughter of the soil who has, in fact, a great deal to boast about. Her credits range from batiks that went all the way to the BBC's Clothes Show, to a well-loved novel that sold like "hot cakes" and that is used at several universities, to a play that got rave reviews here and in Jamaica, to one-woman shows where her paintings sold out on opening nights.
There are several themes that run through the memoir. In one that adds a surprising twist to the norm, she traces her journey from realism in high school (St Joseph's Convent, San Fernando), to abstract art at university (Concordia in Montreal), and then slowly back to realism once she returned to Trinidad. Fascinating! Striking too, is her self-motivated reliance on inspiration approach. "Having no ambitions to protect, I mostly thought of myself as a vessel ready to receive direction on what to do and more times than not, on how to do it. Intense attention and humility were my greatest teachers," she explains.
Printed and published locally, by "Jouvay Press", the product's excellence certainly testifies to the coming of age of our local publishing and printing industry. For this is a "coffee-table style, picture book" as the releases for it proclaim. Pictures outnumber text. There is a wealth of colourful photographs of Belgrave's work from childhood to her most recent painting that was featured in the National Women's exhibition held earlier this year at the National Museum. Beautiful models people the batik section.
Photographs of audiences and friends proliferate, as does newspaper clippings; the latter interestingly, far from intruding, giving a sense of validation to the text. I happen to know that the layout was personally done by her son and owner of Who Graphics Ltd, Chenier, so it's no wonder that the book isn't only about art but is a work of art itself. It is not insignificant that the artist's name is in this book's title. Belgrave isn't claiming to define "people's art", only her version of it. And who is to say that she isn't entitled to such a claim? Some among us still remember her name as being synonymous with the struggle for change and a new, people-powered dispensation. And where art is concerned, she has been a pioneer of batik as a relatable art form, a pioneer of quality popular literature, and one of the first local feminist playwrights with her play "Night of the Wolf", to name only a few of her firsts. Not to be forgotten are her paintings.
The landscapes done without the help of photography, which she describes as "fantasy-like, romanticised, emotive in nature", her people-paintings, mostly done "monumental-style" showing the grandeur and importance of our people. This limited edition book is a rare gem, something that you don't see enough of in these parts.