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As Carnival approaches, a monument to the man who invented one of its elemental components is collapsing. Pat Chu Foon’s sculpture, dedicated to Winston “Spree” Simon, a pioneer of pan, has partially collapsed on its plinth behind Columbus Square, Port-of-Spain.
Built in 1972, Tribute To The Steelband Movement features three figures contorting their bodies playing steelpan and dancing, arms aloft.
The figure in the middle of the trio, playing the national instrument and raising his hands to the sky has, in the last few months, crumbled and fallen backwards to the ground. It is now bent double and the “cement fondue” material from which it is made has chipped away, exposing the rusted wire mesh beneath.
Public works of art in the capital are the responsibility of the city corporation, but when contacted on Thursday by the T&T Guardian, Mayor Raymond Tim Kee said “I’m hearing about this for the first time, but what I propose to do this afternoon is find out who is responsible.”
He later added, “If we are responsible for it, we will fix it.”
Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism Lincoln Douglas, responding to a text message, replied, “I was unaware that the statue is collapsing, I will immediately have it looked into and respond with the necessary repairs.”
A spokesman for the National Trust told the T&T Guardian they were aware of the situation and had already acted on it.
“We did send a notice to the city corporation before it collapsed earlier this year. The sculpture was noticed by members of the trust and we had calls from the general public. We sent a letter to the PoS Corporation.”
Babu Ketema, a National Trust member and administrator of Studio 66 art gallery, noticed that the sculpture was deteriorating in late November. “We took photos and prepared a proposal which we sent to the Mayor and the ministry to find out who had responsibility. The National Trust wrote to the Mayor in December.”
But since then nothing has been done. The trust confirmed it will be making efforts to list public works of art “in the near future,” as its remit includes “built, natural and other items that could be described as heritage sites.”
It sent a release to the media on Friday which emphasised the urgency of the repairs needed to the sculpture.
“It is imperative now that restoration works begin immediately. This restoration should be professionally done by an artist, not a mason,” the release said.
“Hopefully, this effort may simultaneously restore some measure of credibility to our appreciation of our heritage.”
“No longer must it appear that there is a lack of respect for our heritage, and by extension, our elders and ancestors, nor an appreciation for people who have contributed significantly to the social and cultural landscape of T&T.”
Repairing the sculpture
Repairing the statue will be difficult, arts and heritage experts said.
Geoffrey MacLean, owner of Medulla art gallery, feels the sculpture should be cast in bronze.
“One of the difficulties with the Pat Chu Foon sculptures is they are made from some sort of cement-based material and they should have been cast in bronze, then they would have lasted forever. This ones is not the first of his works to have collapsed,” he said.
Chu Foon’s 1969 Gandhi sculpture in Kew Place was destroyed in the mid 1980s.
As for the bronze-casting suggestion, MacLean said “we’re not talking about a lot of money. We got a quote for the Lord Harris restorations and it was between $150,000-200,000. I’d estimate this one could be $600,000, because it’s three figures. It would be done in Venezuela, where they have the facilities to do it; we don’t.”
Lord Harris’s statue, which stood in the square named after him, was made out of lead.
Thieves stole the metal for scrap and smashed it. All that was left were his hands and face which are currently kept in a bag in City Hall while the involved parties decide what to do with them.
The city corporation has raised half the funds for it to be restored and is still waiting for the Harris Trust to come up with the other half as promised. The statue was stolen over 20 years ago.
Harris was governor of Trinidad from 1846-53, and among other things, established the first public schools, where the children of the recently emancipated slaves could be educated.
Mark Pereira, owner of 101 Art Gallery, agreed the Steelpan sculpture must be rebuilt, but said casting it in bronze “might bring up issues with the Chu Foon estate. It’s a copyrighted item so the family might need to give permission for it to be rebuilt.”
Pereira said within the last month City Hall had approached the Art Society to discuss recommendations for assessing all public artworks.
Chu Foon’s legacy
Pat Chu Foon, who died in 1998, left a legacy of urban public statues that is widely recognised for its importance. Art and heritage supporters have agonised over way they have been neglected.
“He was one of the few sculptors who did public work,” said MacLean.
“One on the corner of New Street and St Vincent Street is overgrown and not maintained. The Lord Kitchener sculpture at the Roxy roundabout...All public statues should be examined, but nobody is interested. People see them and then move on.”
Pereira described Chu Foon as “one of the master artists and a pioneer.”
Working as a young artist in the 1960s, he studied in Mexico, obtaining a fine arts degree from the University of the Americas in 1967 which, Pereira said, “had a huge influence on his design and structural work. He led the field in Trinidad’s op-art movement.”
The fallen-down sculpture is located close to Laventille, which is a very appropriate place, according to MacLean, who feels that is where a tribute to the original panman should be.
With its backdrop of the Laventille hills and bordered by urban buildings and traffic it is symbolic to many, even in its decrepit state.
As the T&T Guardian photographed it, locals came up to tell their memories of it and their sadness at its collapse.
An engraving on the plinth has lines from Kitchener’s 1975 Road March, Tribute to (Winston) Spree Simon.
It reads, “Everybody wondering how the Steelband start. When you get to know, it’s going to break your heart. Ah tell you now, it’s founded by one Winston ‘Spree’ and this is how he started his first melody.”
Other Pat Chu Foon sculptures in Port-of-Spain include:
• Lord Kitchener statue, Roxy roundabout, 1994
• Spirit of Hope, corner Dundonald Street and Ariapita Avenue, 1971
• Mother and Child, Mount Hope Hospital, 1980