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PACKING UP SHOP- Eddie Bowen’s twisting the brush in another direction
Idling at Cumana junction the other morning, waiting on Chinee Frank to open up shop, I got the earliest call ever from Miss Frankie Goes to Town. Her news was old: Eddie Bowen (variously known as the Architect of Impossible Physics, the Fatman, John von Gusto, Busha, the Sadhu of Sans Souci) painter, drawer, Fine Arts practitioner, landowner, gentleman farmer, builder, philosophe of the high bush, was shutting down shop and moving from his studio on the corner of Sydenham Avenue, St Ann’s. An era in Trinidada’s (sic) postmodern art was over. Could I get the story? Gyul, I tell she, yuh arksin answers. Do I like curry duck? Can a duck swim? Am I not Heironymous Bosch?
When Chinee Frank finally pulled up the shutters and let the world in at 8.20 am, I purchased my vital supplies jumped in my chariot and headed back along the north coast road, through Toco, Mission, L’anse Noir and down the long stretch of black rocks slicing the surf below rainforested headlands, that leads to Big Bay, Sans Souci and up the hill to the Estate House where Mr Bowen was still snoring.
Now turned 50, Bowen is poised to make personal, professional and property changes, bringing “an extended experiment” which began in the late 1980s to a close, simply because “it’s time to do something else. That corner has exhausted its possibilities and it will keep me in the same space.” He’ll be moving on with a justifiable sense of achievement: “I’m glad. A lot of work was done on that corner...a lot of people contributed to a conversation there…it seemed to attract artists, the informality of the space allowed things to happen which couldn’t happen elsewhere…but it’s done.”
The extended experiment Bowen refers to represents a phase in the development of the Visual and Plastic Arts in Trinidad, which introduced subversive irony, social conscience and commentary, and a distinctly vernacular take on the avant garde, that launched the careers of a new generation of local artists committed to interrogating the complexities and contradictions of post independence society, rather than producing pretty nationalist/exotic postcards.
The Sydenham Avenue Studio and Crossover Designs on Woodford Street were the sites where three enfants terribles, Steve Ouditt, Chris Cozier and Eddie the hippy Bowen launched their assault on T&T’s conservative and largely decorative artscape, circa 1988/9. All three had studied abroad outside of the stifling goldfish bowl, gaining technical expertise and exposure to the discourses and practices of the international art world. Yet all three deliberately returned to Trinidad and the Caribbean to make their careers and to shift local art practice and discourse from the bourgeois comfort zone of the gallery circuit, dominated by representational landscapes or portraits, passive consumer items which perpetuated stereotypes of exotic otherness, the tropical paradise trope of the tourist brochure, to a real engagement, even enragement, with the realities and banalities of a young Caribbean society.
The terrible trio were not popular with the art establishment; they offended many, but they undoubtedly revolutionised the practice of the Fine Arts in T&T. They took to the streets and public spaces, engaging commerce and the media, with an incendiary mix of talent and humour which demonstrated to their students and society at large, that art is a serious and necessary business, not a socialite accessory, but integral to the understanding and development of the country and the region.
Much of the conversation initiated in the Sydenham Avenue Studio and the cultural products it spawned have taken T&T to the world, to prestigious biennales, residencies, one man shows. It’s no exaggeration to say that Trinidad’s postmodern art is better known, understood and appreciated outside T&T but that’s what real artists do, bring their local visions to the world for commentary.
“Living and working in Sydenham Avenue changed my perceptions of being an artist,” Bowen reminisces about those early days, when he returned to Trinidad after studying at Croydon Art School in England, where he’d been schooled from age seven. “Living in England was a breeze, being English was easy but I needed space, colours. So I decided, let’s see if I can be Trini. Let me see what the sun has to offer; let me see what I have to offer.”
As a grandson of English civil engineer William “Gingerbread House” Bowen and Marie Alcina Carey, a member of a long-established white Creole family which owned Chacachacare long before it was a leper colony in addition to the Sans Souci estate and properties in Port-of-Spain, including the 13 acre swathe of land straddling the hillside between St Ann’s and Lady Chancellor, the privileged young artist faced several obstacles. After the “Massa Day
Done” rhetoric of Williams and the affirmative Black Power of the 1970s, being a privileged white Creole in post independence T&T carried a stigma Bowen admits “has taken me a couple of decades” to overcome, or simply relax with.
But before engaging with the young volatile society he needed a studio. At the back of a family property on Sydenham Avenue he found the abandoned old servants’ quarters, jammed with old carnival costumes, snakes, cockroaches and moulding memories. “My family are builders,” he mentions with some pride and the construction genes kicked in—the old “shed” was gutted, a room built in front and Bowen had his working space.
However privileged or white, whatever that really means, Bowen is first and foremost a Creole: “I’m aware of being part of this ecology.” If you’ve ever seen him perspiring like jumping porpoise in his rambling garden at Sans Souci, you could never doubt Busha Bowen’s navel-string attachment to the land of T&T. He’s got his fingers dirty in it as often as he’s raised brush to canvas, or pencil to paper; his commitment to engaging all the elements in the disparate coscomel which constitutes Trinidad, is grounded in the land.
And his commitment to engaging our changing society as an artist is one of the reasons he’s moving on. “My work has to engage more fully. That’s my duty to the work. Society has changed and change is good; change in terms of scale, attitude, configuration. What I do is my contribution to discussion. I’m looking for ways to twist the brush in another direction.”
He has some sense of achievement and a generously empathetic take on conflicted postmodern T&T: “I’m surprised and delighted to be respected. I thought the racial/class stereotypes would have won out. But there was room here. The opportunity for failure here is ridiculously high. You’re here to produce, to give to society, otherwise you become irrelevant.”
His Fine Art practice is not that of a disconnected privileged aesthete but a continuing struggle to create new spaces and possibilities. His bush philosophy combines art and the land in a distinctly Caribbean mode: “My work as a landowner is also about creating possibilities outside of the capitalist box. Thinking outside the box is what the Caribbean is all about. You can’t rely on governments. This society gives you a carte blanche to be crazy!”
The estate at Sans Souci, which Bowen describes as his “decompression zone”, “a car park for soul and psyche” has functioned much like a rural counterpoint to the Sydenham studio—“a space for myself and others.” When he first returned to Sans Souci after England. “It was like coming across a dream.” But the architect of impossible physics is well aware that dreams like visions, need work to manifest. And it’s the work, which has called him to leave the comfort zone of the Studio.
“I’m extremely happy to have secured a sale and I’m looking forward to building a new purpose-built studio (a short schlepp up the hill from the old one). I’d like to continue teaching privately,” he muses from the gallery at Sans Souci, the coastline stretching below us with all the possibilities of the future.