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Celebrating the almost forgotten voices

Published: 
Sunday, November 5, 2017

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The house that Nyssa Chow grew up in was always full of women's voices. The voices of her mother and grandmother, extended family and neighbours trading wisdoms, stories and history back and forth, over shared meals, work or the most intimate of conversations.

In her childhood home in Sangre Grande, she was constantly struck by the experience of this country's history, shared casually by women born during the colonial era in T&T.

Today she is using her artistic expression to share those stories in an oral history exhibit called Still Life.

The exhibit started off as an academic paper, but while writing Chow became dissatisfied that the voices in her research were mainly men.

"The research I found about women in that period objectified them. I started reading the literature and wondering what it would have been like to be viewed with that specific gaze.

"It reminded me of all the things I would hear my grandmother say as a child, about sitting up straight and holding yourself up and about finding dignity in these things," Chow said.

It made Chow realise that there were voices missing, voices she had heard telling stories since her childhood.

Those stories shaped Chow's life. She graduated from Columbia University’s Oral History Masters Program, and the Columbia University MFA Film Program and is a multimedia storyteller, using writing, film, photojournalism to bridge oral history, literary non-fiction and visual storytelling.

Still Life focuses on women born in T&T in the 1920s.

Describing the exhibit, Chow noted that it was the women who kept the secrets and held the stories of the family.

"It was in the company of women where one could remove the veil; it was in that space that one could be weak, and have your shames dignified. It was the mothers who went in secret to other mothers to borrow money for clothes when the family was short.

"It was the grandmothers who counselled the young wives on how to survive, and how to move through the world. They passed on these strategies generation to generation, talking in hushed voices over tea; over the stove; over the wall in the garden; one woman to another."

She said each of these wisdoms and strategies had a history which often went silent, with only the wisdom remaining as inheritance for the next generation.

Still Life looks at what these "wisdoms" reveal about the historical and sociological realities of life that made them necessary.

Some of these wisdoms were personal for Chow.

Her own story is told in the exhibit and she recalls anecdotes like the fear her grandmother expressed when Chow's skin complexion was closer to her own brown than the lighter members of her family.

It is these stories, told from the people who lived them, that makes Chow's presentation feel true to life, and it is these stories that she chooses to share in the hopes of preserving a partially forgotten history.

The exhibit, which runs from November 3 to November 5, includes portraits, oral histories, an e-book, food from the era under discussion, and works as a sensory treat that uses sight, sound, taste and touch to tell a rarely heard story of women.

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