"Your reaction is just as important as my reaction. Fifty per cent of the work is your response."This statement from artist Wendy Nanan, delivered on April 22, at her artist talk at Medulla Gallery, formed the foundation for fifty-fifty, an installation and conversation on the role of responses to art in T&T.
Fifty-fifty was conceptualised by art scholar and Sunday Arts writer Marsha Pearce in conjunction with Medulla Art Gallery. It was held with support from North Eleven Projection and the Invisible Creative.
On June 7, at Medulla, Fitt Street, Woodbrook, Pearce led an artists' panel in discussion of these gravid notions of art ownership; the fundamental perceptions of contemporary and traditional art in T&T; the accessibility and range of critique with which local art is treated; and a host of other concerns.
The panel comprised five creative practitioners who live, work and produce art locally: poet Andre Bagoo, and visual artists Alicia Milne, Richard Rawlins, Edward Bowen and Adele Todd.Pearce provided the Sunday Arts Section with a recording of the event, on which this story is based.
Early in the conversation, Todd established a spirit of collective, communal art inspiration. Citing Wendy Nanan, Todd said, "Without the kind of work she was doing...I don't think I would be able to do the kind of work I do."
Highlighting Nanan's creative influence in her life as paramount, Todd citied the 2005 Cricket, Lovely Cricket series for its minimalist strength, calling it an "extremely important moment in our art history."
As would most of the panellists that evening, Todd went on to ask challenging questions, themselves prompted by the line of discourse that Pearce put to her panel.
One such question was, "Most people come into a gallery space and they are impacted by the red dots on the wall, perhaps?" (Gallerists stick red dots next to pieces that have been sold.) Todd says her response to art goes beyond its baseline, saleable nature.
"There is a safety in not rocking the boat," said Richard Rawlins, who has mounted numerous exhibitions in both local and foreign spaces. At art shows, he said, "the wine and the gossip about other things takes over–a backdrop to an evening of entertainment, perhaps."
Frustrated by the hyper-intellectualised, verbose artist statements that accompany the majority of contemporary shows, Rawlins used a posey–a chamber pot–as his artist's statement for his 2013 Steupps show.
Offering the posey as a receptacle to invite audience interpretations of an artist's statement revealed to Rawlins that most people did not understand what an artist's statement was. "We don't really understand what criticism means here. We do not treat a review of work here as we would elsewhere," he said.
Value, Rawlins said, is frequently and enthusiastically ascribed to art selected to "hang in restaurants, embassies and banks." He reminded the Medulla gathering that, outside of the evening's attendees, T&T contemporary artists Christopher Cozier, Nikolai Noel and Dean Arlen were scarcely household names, not when compared to the iconic weight of masman Peter Minshall or fashion designer Meiling. This led Rawlins to contemplate the public perception of the contemporary artist's value in T&T society.
Alicia Milne compared Wendy Nanan's 2016 show to the 2015 collective exhibition (S)how, in which Milne exhibited work alongside Jaime Lee Loy, Nikolai Noel, Tamara Tam-Cruickshank and Luis Vasquez La Roche.
Remarking on the wealth of critical and artistic response to the former, Milne speculated, "I wonder how this pouring of responses has come to be. Is it because she (Nanan) has a long-standing career in Trinidad that commands attention? Or is it because the show was full of vulvas?"
Responding to Milne's concerns on which art exhibitions marshall the lion's share of response, Andre Bagoo playfully said, "I do think bribing the audience does help in terms of engaging them," referencing the piece-naming competition that was part of Nanan's 2016 show.
Bagoo shared his poem The Body in the River as an engagement with the themes of fifty-fifty, explaining that the poem was itself a Frankenstein composition, borrowing liberally from the 16th century English play Richard III while also taking lines from 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet Rilke. Written in response to both Shakespeare and Nanan's work, the piece raised questions of "What is the boundary? Did I write this poem or was it determined that I would write this poem?"
Edward Bowen, whose artistic career in Trinidad spans some three decades, challenged the Medulla audience to resist conservative approaches to art acquisition and practice. Full of vitriol for the corporate sector of T&T, which he said has done precious little to educate itself on the evolving nature of artistic needs, Bowen championed the channelling of rage and aggression in creating one's pieces.
Citing Mancrab, the groundbreaking king from Peter Minshall's 1983 Carnival band River, Bowen said that the relentlessly severe and brutal presentation of that mas has haunted him and his work since its creation.
With a literal nod to Minshall, who was present at the fifty-fifty gathering, Bowen said, "We have to be so brutally realistic with our positions as artists. We are actually not on the fringe of society. "We are the ones in the centre who process the essences, the ideas–you have to be in it, like the lotus flower in the mud."
The vigorous debate that ensued following Todd, Bagoo, Rawlins, Milne and Bowen's roundtable reflections focused on the need for an interrogation and dismissal of failing governmental infrastructure around art. Artist Andy Jacob lambasted the dearth of qualified, structured reviewership in T&T, saying that "A great artist needs a great reviewer."
It has been through education, Bowen responded, that the majority of possibilities for critical thought in T&T art have emerged.
Bagoo added that the playing field of reviewership type and scope has been broadened by the wide accessibility of social media. The veil is thinning between artists and their audiences, Bagoo concluded, in ways that are easier than ever to digitally harness.
Even if the Government and corporate world consistently fail and disappoint working artists, Rawlins said, it remains commendable and inspiring that young "first-jobbers" use their disposable income to buy art.
Fifty-fifty offered no easy consensus to the questions posed by Pearce: it instead reminded both the artists' panel and the audience that such convocations are necessary, for as long as such questions continue to be paramount in our local arts environment.