Trinidad and Tobago


The contribution of Carlisle Chang

April 07, 2001

NORMALLY, the more vocal and visible personalities among us acquire the distinction of becoming household names, but local artist Carlisle Chang, hardly the outgoing type, undoubtedly qualified for such an accolade.

Chang, 80, died on Sunday morning. He came from a fold of artists of the ilk of Sybil Atteck and MP Alladin, whose works withstood not just time, but the onslaught of revolutionary approaches to art that came with the second half of the 20th Century.

Up to last year, before the clutches of illness stayed his gifted hands, he designed magnificent costumes and sets for the Lydiansí presentation of Pucciniís Turandot. Last month he put on show 150 of his Carnival designs, some of which were offered for sale, proceeds going toward expensive medical attention. On Saturday, he was saluted with a lifetime achievement award by the National Carnival Bands Association (NCBA).

Designer of the national flag and Coat of Arms, Chang lived for art at all levels, from a stout defender of the Prime Ministerís Better Village Competition, a rural forum for creative expression, to State commissions and international showings. His full list of awards, bulging as it may be, does not properly reflect the impact he had on budding artists and promulgation of that discipline in Trinidad and Tobago.

Of note was his lifetime award from the Trinidad Art Society on the occasion of its Golden Anniversary, the Hummingbird Silver Medal, the Presidentís Honour Award in 1991, a citation from the Press Club of Lausanne and the coveted Bienale of Sao Paulo. Chang is to date the only English speaking Caribbean artist to receive that award.

And all this came to a man whose life began humbly and remained so and whose formal education in the arts started with a correspondence course.

Not trusting the gains to be made from art, he soon switched to photography and worked with cameras for ten years, before returning to the palate and brushes in 1950, after winning a British Council scholarship to study in London. From there he went to Italy to complete his studies in ceramics and mural painting.

Upon his return home in 1955 and for the next 25 years, he was involved in every aspect of the arts, designing for theatre, dance, drama and the national festival. His work in Carnival is legend, having produced several prize-winning portrayals and Kings and Queens of Carnival for the Stephen Lee Heung organisation; spanning the breadth of society in that idiom from China the Forbidden City to We Kinda People.

His contribution to Carnival did not end on the drawing board. Chang served on several of the festivalís development committees at national level and was a founder of the Carnival Bands Association, forerunner to the NCBA. He has lectured both at home on abroad on Carnival arts.

Among his major works stood his greatest heartbreak, when The Inherent Nobility of Man, a 40-foot mural commissioned for the arrival hall at Piarco International Airport in 1961. The piece was consigned to the wrecking ball 19 years later, in the expedient interest of expanding the facility.

Happily, his Conquerabia, done for the Port of Spain City Hall still stands, as does other murals for Hilton Trinidad, the Textel Building, several commercial banks and the Central Bank, for which he did Lysistrata, a piece that won him his first Cacique Award.

His last major work, the 1997 Clico calendar became a collectorsí item and even after he stopped painting altogether, the name Carlisle Chang still reverberated in any local discussion about art.

While we understand the passing of the post World War II generation of artists in pragmatic terms, it still rattles the conscience that while they lived, their works seem to be taken for granted. Changís business ventures did not do particularly well. Both his Carlart Studios and Gayapa Industries, a handicraft manufacturing concern folded after relatively insignificant and short-lived terms.

Perhaps those earlier experiences, coupled with reversals often suffered by artists, helped imbue him with the resilience he showed until the end.

May he rest in peace, after so large and tireless a contribution to the development of art in Trinidad and Tobago.

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