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Friday, December 13, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Light among the ruins
Artist Kwynn Johnson’s How the Light Enters exhibition at Soft Box Art Gallery on Alcazar Street, Port-of-Spain, presents a collection of drawings conceived and executed in the “ruinscapes” of Jacmel and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the devastating earthquake of January 2010. The collection explores the concept of “visualising absence and continuity” in the ruinscape and the show itself, which travels to Jacmel in November, is also a practice-based research submission, as part of Johnson’s PhD in Cultural Studies at UWI. Two major influences shaped Johnson’s research fieldwork, which began with her first trip to Haiti in December 2010. Initially she was looking for papier mache masks, which are just one of cultural products Jacmel, as Haiti’s cultural centre, is famous for. She travelled to the southern port (immortalised in Rene Depestre’s novel Hadriana dans tous mes Reves) in the night and awoke to the ruins of the town, whose architecture is echoed in that of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
A meeting with young rubble artist Anderson Ambroise, and his assemblages of tile fragments and objects found in the post-quake rubble, introduced her to the idea of continuity beyond the destruction and informed her subsequent work as much as a quote from Alphonse Quesnel: “There is an earthquake every day, not only on January 12. Through that fault in our lives, the light enters.” Johnson attributes her choice of medium and methods of execution to the metaphor of light as continuity, implied in Quesnel’s quote: “In these representations of Jacmelians and Jacmelian architecture I employ the opaque quality of vellum and the cast-shadow created by the human form in order to consider the ghostly presence or spectral nature of a ruinscape. These representations use the human form to speak of loss of life and habitation as well as the ubiquitous presence of that loss within the extant ruinscape.”
With many of the drawings one is first struck by the incongruity of the juxtaposed skewed perspective (a reality of the arbitrary re-alignment of planes caused by the quake) and the intricate architectural detail. In some of drawings, like Spiral 2012, there’s an over-exposed quality of light, which both suffuses and obscures, powerfully suggesting impermanence and the hazy recall of memory. But what distinguishes Johnson’s interpretation of the Haitian ruins from those of European artists and antiquarians who documented the ruins of Rome and Greece during the Neo-Classical era is the interpolation of the contemporary human form. Whether it is the stylised man holding a blind baby who dwarfs a huddle of buildings below him (View from Rue Seymour Pradel, 2012); the motorbike riders perched precariously above an arch (Rue de Commerce 2011), or the figure with a loaded tray on its head seemingly following its own shadow (Marche en fer 2011) this evidence of life and the ordinary captures both the extraordinary reality of survival and continuity amid the “fault” Quesnel cites and the total disruption of a built environment, an absence which is obviated by the memories and stories of the survivors.
Johnson herself describes these levitational figures as “toppling” the buildings, a felicitous pun, as they literally “top” the falling structures and visually suggest the transcendence and continuity amid absence Quesnel drew attention to. Johnson’s three previous shows (Treading water over dead coral when you’re feeling blue 2007, Red, appropriated 2009 and Black-Gold, playing with oil 2010) all focused on various aspects of trauma, whether personal, societal or environmental, a conceptual continuity recognised by UWI lecturer Pat Mohammed, one of the assessors at her first postgrad presentation, “who joined up the dots.” Having re-focused her research and studied sociological reports of post-quake activity following such major quakes as San Francisco 1906 and Mexico City 1985, in an effort to “not essentialise” what had happened in Haiti, Johnson sought a shift from the negatives which world media had circulated. Her lived experience as a Caribbean artist-in-residence as it were, on her eight trips to Jacmel informed her work. She was accepted as a fellow artist rather than viewed as an outsider, whether tourist, aid worker or anthropologist. And while the theme of absence presented itself both literally (people who’d died or migrated; the devastated architecture; deforestation) and metaphorically, abstract absence became personalised in the stories and memories of Jacmelians like Ambroise, the rubble artist, who could point to places he’d lived or gone to school.
“Everyone is aware of the history of the town. Everyone has a story connected to the buildings. Buildings from 1838 or 1888 are still functioning. The way a Haitian views historic buildings and his/her heritage is very different from the way a Trini views them. The presidential palace in Port-au-Prince caved in due to the quake. Here the President’s house collapsed due to neglect.”
It may well be for all our “development” in T&T, we have lost both a sense of continuity and a sensitivity to the light which illuminates memory and “the layers of meaning” stored in the built environment. Johnson’s exhibition provides viewers with insights into the grace and poetry of surviving Haitian architecture but most of all her figures, which “topple” these spaces and places, remind us of the truism that “Life goes on.” As Johnson says “Amid the rubble of the ruinscape men and women go to work; kids go to school; turkeys, charcoal are taken to be sold in the market.” Human activity continues whether it’s parties, riding motorbikes, the Friday after-work lime or family Sunday on the beach. If living and working in Jacmel have undoubtedly informed her work, when it comes to her work, she emphasises “It’s graphite and paper, light, line, tone, volume, perspective you’re dealing with.” It’s also her work on paper, which will inform the theory of the written dissertation she’s required to submit. For Johnson it’s the response to her show when it travels to the Alliance Francaise in Jacmel in November that she’s most concerned with. “To hear the people there say ‘She did my town justice; she did justice to my story and lived experience; she didn’t essentialise.”
INFO: Kywnn Johnson’s exhibition How the Light Enters continues at Soft Box Art Gallery until October 21.
QUOTE: Johnson’s exhibition provides viewers with insights into the grace and poetry of surviving Haitian architecture but most of all her figures, which “topple” these spaces and places, remind us of the truism that “Life goes on.”
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