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Dutch courage

Thursday, March 27, 2014
Silhouettes of the crowd at the Alice Yard event, held to honour Christopher Cozier with the Prince Claus Award, cast a shadow on an animated projection piece by Nadia Huggins, Rodell Warner and North Eleven. PHOTO: Jamie Lee Loy

On Wednesday evening on Roberts Street, Woodbrook, an ear-splitting mix of sounds is blaring out of a pimped-out sports car parked in the middle of the road opposite Alice Yard. 


Painted luminous green, the doors are opened out in all directions like the Batmobile, the enormous engine and sound system seem to occupy half of the interior, and police officers as well as invited guests peer inside trying to figure out if it’s art or just a coincidence.


It’s an art-performance-installation called Sound System, an audio collaboration by 12 different artists, featuring their recorded voices looped over what sounds like a mash-up of techno, chutney soca and samba. 


There are eight cars in total, parked up outside.


Later, artist Christopher Cozier tells the crowd during his award acceptance speech that the cars were driven up from Chaguanas by car club enthusiasts with a passion for fast and loud cars, the Suspex Auto Club. The music is the result of 12 years of accumulating different sounds.


In a corner of Alice Yard, guests are invited to stand on a conceptual piece devised in collaboration with Shaun Rambaran—a simple wooden box with the words “Made in China” etched into it—while a photographer takes pictures of their feet against the white backdrop. 


Along the roof and skirting of the house and on a big screen against a wall, psychedelic animations created by Nadia Huggins, Rodell Warner and North Eleven are projected in a continual loop.


Cozier has become the third Trinidadian to receive the Prince Claus Award, after Peter Minshall and the calypsonian Chalkdust. Cozier took the opportunity to throw a party, a typically experimental art event, at Alice Yard, the creative hub that he co-founded, and the place which largely won him the award. A space for nurturing young artists, it is a physical manifestation of a generosity of spirit rarely seen in the competitive world of contemporary arts.


Prince Claus Award programme co-ordinator Iranian-born Fariba Derakhshani visited Port-of-Spain to personally honour him. 


In an exclusive T&T Guardian interview with Cozier and Derakhshani the day before the event, Derakhshani told me: “A lot of artists are inwards-facing. They are, ‘Me, myself and I.’ 


“Chris doesn’t work for himself. As an individual he is so generous to other artists. Many have told me that if it was not for Chris providing this space and platform and introducing them to other people, they wouldn’t have achieved what they have.”


Cozier recently held his first exhibition in Trinidad for 13 years at Y Gallery in Woodbrook. 


Born in Belmont and raised in Diego Martin, he recalls approaching older artists for advice in the ’80s before the Internet and international travel. 


The negative responses he got made him think: “I never want anybody to say the things about me that I might say about (artists in) that moment. It was like Mad Max back then. Trinidad was a kind of graveyard of creative ambition, and people behaved like that.”


Thanks to him and others like him, creativity in the arts is now thriving, but still he feels regional artists are shunned for looking abroad. 


“Writers and sportsmen are congratulated for positioning themselves internationally, whereas the artists are punished for it.” 


In the wider picture, it appears Caribbean artists are punished by the international market simply for being Caribbean artists. Recognition like this award helps bring together the variously developed worlds in a metaphysical space known as the art world.


Prince Claus, the late husband of Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands, had a saying, “You don’t develop people. They develop themselves.” 


I’m still trying to figure out what he meant by it, but it sounds nice. 


As a statement about the laissez-faire nature of the art development fund he founded in 1996 before his death in 2002—the Prince Claus Awards—a prize for artists outside Europe and the US, it has a kind of Nobel Savage ring to it. Perhaps he was simply referring to the kinds of winners he wanted to reward, people like Cozier, who has spent years developing his own people, Caribbean artists.


It’s a delicate post-colonial world we live in and the concept of development—a recent western invention replacing the previous brutality of the “civilising the natives” colonial project—can still provoke backlash and accusations of imperialism


In art, unlike health, economics and infrastructure, the idea of a west-centred power feeding outwards into the rainforests and urban sprawls of the developing world, does not work. The West does not feed the art world, western and non-western artists learn from each other and develop each other. Funding for the arts, however, is another matter. Non-western countries tend not to have the same resources, trusts, funds, colleges and grants at their disposal, a fact Prince Claus recognised.


Every year, 11 winners from around the world receive the prize, people “whose cultural actions have a positive impact on the development of their societies.” 


In December, the winners received their prizes at the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague. They came from Egypt, Mexico, Pakistan, China, Benin, South Africa, Colombia, Paraguay, Indonesia, Chile and T&T.


Humble start of Alice Yard




In the more sedate surroundings of the Dutch embassy on Edward Street, Cozier tells me how Alice Yard began back in 2006, “during an event called Galvanized, where young artists wanted to position themselves in the public domain. 


“Rather than having an exhibition in one central location, they opted to place their works and projects across the city in locations where people could come and see them.


“At that time, in the space where Alice Yard is, there was a group called Collaborative Frog and Jaime Lee Loy wanted an old mouldy space in which to show her video. 


“Back then the yard was an abandoned backyard shed and Sean Leonard, the founder and owner of the property, cleared it out for the video. A lot of people came to see it, and before you knew it people were saying, ‘What a cool space.’”


Next it turned into a sound-proofed rehearsal space for musicians. 


Then Cozier got involved and so did Nicholas Laughlin, now programme director of Bocas Lit Fest. More artists and designers like Marlon Darbeau and Richard Rawlins began meeting there and it became what Cozier describes as “a locus and default contemporary space.” 


There is now a gallery and an apartment where artists can stay for short periods. Cozier compares the experience artists gain from staying and working there to obtaining a degree in fine art at a prestigious overseas institution for free. 


“You mightn’t get a certificate, but you get the (invaluable) dialogue.


“The fundamental premise of it is that many of our cultural enterprises start in yards, whether it’s mas bands or steelbands,” Cozier says. 


“Sean, being an architect, is interested in urban development. Woodbrook is one of the earliest suburbs of Port-of-Spain. First Belmont, then Woodbrook, then Newtown. 


“One of the most spectacular things for me was when we were doing a project and an older man came into the yard and said, ‘I like what all you fellas doing here,’ and I asked why it’s so important and he said, ‘Well, I can remember being a little boy, watching Paul Robeson sing off the balcony of a house, and that was the foundation of Little Carib Theatre.’” 


Robeson was touring the West Indies in 1948 and laid the foundation stone of the theatre, built by dancer Beryl McBurnie in her parents’ backyard, a few blocks down Roberts Street from Alice Yard. 


The Alice Yard project became a regional transnational enterprise for artists from other parts of the Caribbean and the diaspora. Cozier says the space confuses people who are only ever introduced to art in a commercial setting. 


“It’s not really a gallery,” he says. “It’s more like a laboratory for people to come and think and try things. They might even fail, but they might then transport them elsewhere where they might work.”


On the state of Caribbean art right now, Cozier says: “I think it’s a really good moment. The sector is expanding very quickly. Inter-island conversations amongst the new generation are strong and very fertile. The connection to the diaspora is the healthiest it’s ever been. 


“Which means if you’re a 20- or 30-something-year-old artist in Port-of-Spain, Kingston, Bridgetown, London or Amsterdam you’re really working within one critical conversation. And since Alice Yard other projects have mushroomed in other islands.”


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