Born, raised and died at 17 Eastern Main Road, Petit Bourg, San Juan, Valerie Belgrave was one of T&T's celebrated artists specialising in the batik craft. Belgrave is also hailed as an advocate in the tumultuous Black Power era of the 70s although she insisted that she was not for Black Power, but for power to the people.
She died on Tuesday, August 23, and was laid to rest on August 27, in St Joseph. Belgrave bore one child, Trinidad Guardian designer Chenier Belgrave, and is still fondly remembered by family, friends and colleagues in the arts fraternity. The following are excerpts of some of the many tributes paid to Belgrave.
"I was not brought up like other children. I was brought up to apply logic and justification to actions within reason. From an early age I sat in rooms with people who debated life and the justification of actions. I remember being, for example, at Aunty Pat's (Pat Bishop) house listening and contributing to debates between her and (Peter) Minshall.
"When I was five I started Primary School at Curepe Anglican and on the first day, my mother was more distraught than I was. You see, my mind was trained from the time I was three years old to understand, justify and accept. Primary school was the natural progression from kindergarten and that is all I needed to know.
However, in her anxiety, my mother forgot to give me my lunch kit and drove off heading towards the Students' Guild. I, assessing the situation logically, knew I had to call my mother so I went to principal's office to ask him to call my mother and tell her I had no lunch.
"The principal, thinking that I was another ordinary homesick crying child, brushed me off and told me 'go back to the classroom' and bouffed me for having left my class in the first place. He began to pull me and consequently I bit him. A bite he would not soon forget. He promptly called my mother. When she heard the story she asked him why he just didn't call her. When he explained that was not how things were done, she said this is not the school for my child.
"That was the story of our relationship. Anything I wanted to do or anything she was considering to embark on, we sat and discussed.
"You see, my mother was her creativity. It was effortless because it was natural to her. As a result her mind was almost mathematically logical because her creativity just flowed out of her paws. So she could create the beautiful sceneries of Ti Marie alongside its historical accuracy of the period.
"One of her last conscious sentences was 'I am not an egoist and I have no desire for eternal life.'"
My mother never stopped being proud of whatever I tried. As always, we discussed what I wanted to do and why. And I never crossed her because I didn't want to test the theory of consequence for actions. Well, maybe I did once or twice and although she didn't beat, consequence was enough to stop me dead in my tracks.
"I think her greatest joy and proudest moment was the birth of my son, Che. She had made it to see her grandson. She loved him before he was born. He was the only thing that caused her to wake up from her semi-comatose state in the week before she died, just to see him blow her a kiss.
"Moms, we have come to the end of this journey. The last few months were hard and unjustifiable but ironic. She approached them as she approached all adversity...head-on. Although the illness was always one step ahead of us, we battled to the end."
"I had never heard of Valerie Belgrave, I knew nothing of her already monumental achievements as a batik artist, let alone her involvement in the Sir George Williams affair, and the reviews I got were not very encouraging.
"But when I met her at the guild office I was instantly mesmerised. I had never met anyone quite like Valerie, she was different. She was nearly 40 and I was half that. How she intrigued me with her turban and the elegant filter in which she stuck her cigarettes and moved it up to her mouth in one fluid movement. She was different, she was an original. It was love at first sight.
"Val became a constant in my life and I in hers. If you knew her at all back in those days, you would know that she always had a project going on. She involved me in most ofthem, I had no choice.
"If she staged a batik exhibition at her home, I became a ramp model; when she wrote her books I morphed into keen critic; when she produced a play, of course, I was also an actress; if she was painting I posed like an aristocrat for many a portrait; and when she composed music, I was a back-up singer.
"Each of these adventures added depth to my understanding of life, broadened my sensitivities, and transformed my experience of being a person.
"If you were to ask me what is the single most useful insight that Valerie gave to me in our three decades of friendship it would be this: She would say Kathy, beyond intelligence, talents, gifts and skills; the most important capacity to have in life is the ability to finish what you start, to stay the course and finish."
"There were two young artists–both women–for whom working at the University of the West Indies was merely a sojourn in their life, for their life was truly about creating images, sounds and words that would forever challenge and provoke our imagination of who we can and could be as a people. As one of those accidents of history–as Lloyd Best oft reminded us–they became friends and collaborators while at UWI.
By another accident of history, one passed to the ancestors exactly five years and three days before the other. I speak of course of Pat Bishop and Valerie Belgrave, and it was also at UWI that I came to know them both and became their lifelong friends.
"Valerie was employed as, what we would now call, the administrative assistant at the Students' Guild Office at UWI, St Augustine. I first met her when I started UWI in October 1972. She started in the guild not long before that, having returned to Trinidad after leaving Montreal and Sir George Williams University.
"It was an almost natural place for Valerie to find a job–the young radical who was part of the students' revolt against racism at Sir George.
Of course, that revolt helped to spark the Black Power revolt here in Trinidad and Tobago in 1970, as UWI students demonstrated in solidarity with their fellow West Indian students at Sir George by first protesting against the Canadian Governor General on February 26, 1969, and preventing him from opening Canada Hall at St Augustine; and who exactly one year later, on February 26, 1970, went into the Canadian-owned banks–Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of London and Montreal, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Bank of Nova Scotia in downtown Port-of-Spain.
"That protest we know ended up in the Roman Catholic Cathedral which led to the arrest of the protestors and the start of the 'February Revolution'. So, Valerie was naturally destined to work at UWI and at the Students' Guild, especially given the hostility of official society to members of the movement which hostility would have prevented her from working elsewhere.
"But in our day there was only one cafeteria on campus unless you were a hall student, so all workers, students and some lecturers who wanted to eat or drink had to pass the guild office on the way to or from class, the library or office. The guild office was not air conditioned so all could see in and those in could see out. This was Valerie's command post.
"And command it she did! Of course, we who were guild councillors were officially in charge and gave 'instructions' to Valerie who managed a staff of Cyrilla Brunton, Pat Kallicheran and later Pamela Marcano-DeSilva, Ernest our messenger, and Carol and her team in the cafeteria and bar.
But Valerie always had an advantage on us–not only of continuity of office but of having herself been a radical student leader, much more famous than us. And, of course she was very knowledgeable of the political texts and theories of revolutionary change, so we could not pull rank on her at all.
"For being at the centre of the activity on campus enabled Val to meet so many people, students then who later moved into positions of influence in so many spheres of our national life; notables in academia, the arts and the creative world who either studied or worked or visited UWI, whose names I dare not call lest I omit someone.
"These persons, from varied backgrounds and of diverse talents and professional pursuits, whom Val met through being at the guild office intersected with her on her creative journey for the next 40 plus years, which journey produced a truly humongous volume of work in so many different mediums–batik as art, as fabric for clothes, costuming and set design for the theatre; novels, plays; and always, drawing and painting. The guild office was thus a hub which enabled so much of her work to evolve.
"As Valerie herself describes in her book–Art for the People–'I may never have heard of this class (tie dye and batik organized by the Extra Mural Department) if Ian Ali (who led the class) hadn't chanced to walk past the guild office, stop to say hello to me, and happen to mention it. Hearing of my interest, he generously invited me to come by and check out the class. This I did, and as they say, 'the rest is history'.
"Thank you Valerie Belgrave–you are one of our country's best and finest progressive, creative spirits."
(compiled by Peter Ray Blood)