Why do people paint their necks with powder, and what is the origin of that ritual? Those are questions that provoked the curiosity of artist Marlon Griffith for many years. His curiosity was deepened by derogatory comments like,| “Yuh look like fish about to fry,” that are commonly slung at people sporting a powdered neck. “How does this simple thing get people riled up?” wonders Griffith.
“When I asked people why do they wear powder, most say they grew up doing it to keep cool. And how do they feel when people make comments? A lot don’t care, some feel really hurt.”
In 2009, Griffith, an illustrator from Belmont who lives in Nagoya, Japan, constructed a photographic project around powdered necks, titled The Powder Box Schoolgirl Series. He cast girls in school uniforms and incorporated iconic logos into his narrative on branding black bodies. “Coming from a Carnival background I thought it would be interesting to use it as a kind of intervention to comment on things that are happening around us, and to empower the person that is wearing the powder. “It was key to pick specific schools where the powder-neck girls are. I attended Tranquillity (Government Secondary),” says Griffith, 35, “which is one of those schools.” “Around the corner was St Joseph’s Convent—you wouldn’t find a girl in St Joseph’s with powder around her neck. It comes from your background, class, the kind of people you interact with. “Most people, when they see it, get disgusted by it. For me, doing that part with the schoolgirls brought up a bigger dialogue with the branding. Branding plays a very big part of urban culture here.
Everybody wants to look like the rapper on TV. Having the student wear (a logo) image says a lot about where a young (person’s) head is at, and the kind of interactions they have with people. It says a lot about the education system and how students and educators perceive each other, and the kind of relationships they have. Griffith’s Powder Box project first received attention for a showing in Connecticut. “Right after that (curators) started picking up this image, it was everywhere—except in Trinidad. It was being published and written about, I won a Guggenheim. Still nothing here,” notes Griffith. Last July, Griffith’s images finally surfaced in Trinidad, on a radio station’s Facebook page. They were posted without credit and out of context with the caption, “Nex level Powderneck...would you wear it?”
The most vile comment Griffith noticed on that thread read: “These young women look like prostitutes, only prostitutes wear powder around their neck like that.” In the three years since Griffith migrated, he was awarded a two-year John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and a Commonwealth Connections arts residency. He has taken a wife, Akiko, has a son, Sora (ten-months-old), learned to write and speak Japanese, mounted installations in Japan, and adjusted to a diet of fish, brown rice, vegetables and tofu. “I am very happy. I’m not a starving artist in Japan.”
In the travel narrative The Middle Passage by VS Naipaul, the author is on board the Spanish immigrant ship Francisco Bobadilla, bound for Trinidad. Griffith returns to Belmont to expand his Powder Series with the installation project The Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla, which references Naipaul’s narrative on relationships in uncomfortable space. The project will be unveiled today at 7 pm at the Granderson Lab, 24 Erthig Road, Belmont.
“I am using galvanise to keep a connection to all that galvanise you see when you look out the windows,” explains Griffith. “I wanted to simulate the idea of walking down a street or a lane—Belmont has many tight lanes. There’s a voyeuristic quality moving around these spaces. Depending on where you live, if you open your window you might be looking into someone’s bedroom. Many streets run into somebody’s house or a dead end.”
A projection of a girl applying powder takes viewers into personal space and provides a link to his Powder Box Series. “With this (Bobadilla project) I decided to focus on the relationships of people within a particular community...navigating trying to be comfortable in an uncomfortable environment. Since I’ve been back I’ve found the environment to be much more uncomfortable. There are more police patrols in Belmont. Yesterday a woman’s throat was slit around the corner. A lot of personal spaces that I am familiar with no longer exist. The dynamics of Port-of-Spain have changed, so have the people, in response to those changes.”
The Bobadilla installation is a collaboration with Alice Yard and took two weeks to mount. Griffith is reluctant to appoint a meaty artist’s statement to the work because, “Not everybody is going to be convinced by what you say. “People have to experience before they can make their own assessment...art is something that evolves over time. As the artist you have an idea of what this thing is and what it should do, but then people make it more than what you thought it was or could be.”