I have learned that the most important tolerance shown to a person living with a mental illness is the tolerance displayed by the person to him/herself.
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“She’s a warrior on many levels. And I’m a poet,” says Paula Obe on the phone to the T&T Guardian. “We took both of our strengths and the name Warrior-Poet was born.”
Obe and her friend Shivana Singh are about to hold their first exhibition, consisting of artworks and spoken word poetry, on July 11 and 12 at the T&T Art Society in Federation Park, Port-of-Spain.
Singh has had leukaemia for ten years, and has been fighting it with bouts of chemotherapy.
“It fluctuates,” she said down the line from her Glencoe apartment, where the view of the sea influences her painting. “It goes into remission and then pops back up. Chemo is painful but I don’t see a reason to stop. People tell me I should be resting but I work 24/7.”
She’s an architectural consultant, a job that sounds pretty demanding. She began painting for therapeutic reasons.
“It was serendipitous,” she says. “I sat down one day and thought ‘Why not just try it?’ It’s cathartic. I enjoy the silence and it gets me away from lots of things. I do it on my porch in Goodwood Park, looking out to sea.”
Starting off with pencil sketches, she now paints in acrylics and has amassed several years’ worth of work, some of it quite expansive.
A triptych called Tears of the Universe is a continuous wave washing ashore on a sandy beach. Wild Thoughts is a colourful painting of a woman whose mind is literally running wild.
“She has to be quiet, she has to be exactly what everyone wants her to be but if you look at her mind it’s exploding,” Singh says.
Asked who it’s about, she says “that one is kind of me, unfortunately. Sometimes I have to be politically correct and diplomatic and I don’t want to be.”
Obe tells me the two women made the decision a number of years ago to exhibit their work but that it took a while to build up the courage to bring them to the point of actually following through.
“We were talking, I don’t know exactly what initiated it. I had dabbled in painting before but had never exhibited,” Obe says, modestly. Earlier, Singh had described her as an “exceptional painter.”
“Shivana had never painted before a few years ago but she’s very creative so we thought it would be a good medium.” The medium is a combination of art and words. Each painting will be accompanied by a poem.
“It’s a double initiative of art and literature,” Singh explains. “Each work of art has a story behind it and that will be explained by the poetry.”
In some ways the poems will act like the talking guide you see people in museums listening to on headsets, except the poems are subjective and open to multiple interpretations.
A wonderful artwork called Afterbirth by Obe, representing the female body in abstract biological form combines the traditions of African art with a Dali-esque surrealism. The poem accompanying it speaks of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood:
My memories bob and weave
remembering your touch.
My womb wonders about creation
The painting, and a recording sung version of the poem, was submitted to an online museum called the International Museum of Women which encouraged artists to send in their work.
“It was dedicated to my mother and now deceased grandmother. She was alive at the time I painted it,” she says. She sold the painting to a good friend “so that I can always see it,” she laughs. The friend lives in Arima, while Obe lives in Morvant, where she was born and raised. Every time she visits her friend she will see it on the wall.
Asked about her inspiration in art she says, “I don’t actually think about what I’m going to do when I sit down to paint. I just let the brush speak.”
Obe has been writing poetry since her teens and co-owns the publishing house Bamboo Talk Press and has published several books. Last year her anthology, called She Sex, featured a poem by Singh.
Of Singh, she says “It was nice having a buddy to exhibit with.”
The two women met at advertising agency Inglefield Ogilvy some four years ago. Obe was a senior copywriter and Singh worked in the media communications department. Obe has since left advertising, currently working as a photographer for the Licensing Office in Chaguanas.
“For the first few months I didn’t know about Shivana’s leukaemia,” she says, “I greatly admire her because of her fighting spirit.”
The blurb on the programme for the exhibition reads, “Opposites attract. Opposities strengthen. The Warrior-Poet exhibition epitomises the balance between fury and serenity. It invites you to that space on the horizon between the fire of the blazing sun and the calmness of a deep ocean; so smooth, it moves like glass, reflecting the power of self.”
The Art Society better be prepared: what happens over the two days of this exhibition could be powerful and just a bit emotional.