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Portraits of Trinidad

By Terry Joseph
May 21, 2004

Anyone viewing Portraits of Trinidad, the current exhibition of carnage, catastrophe and corruption that opened dramatically last week with the murder of Mala Mohammed, is bound to come away with a feeling of sheer overkill.

From small, conservative thumbnail sketches to the most expansive mural, something is very wrong with every picture, flaws hardly attributable to media on this occasion, although garish impasto is evident in more than one frame.

Most of the pieces on show (the gallery is open daily to locals and visitors) feature gauche representations of Trinidad-murder, mayhem and malfeasance-often bereft of pleasant enough contrast to dilute pervading ethereal images of torn flesh, broken hearts and warped minds.

A study in water-colours, "Fishermen Under Fire", depicts a pirogue in choppy seas, its occupants ducking bullets from a group of pirates in hot pursuit. "An Arresting Sight", a work rendered in non-transparent acrylic, shows former Cabinet Ministers being arraigned. On a darkly draped table to the left was "House of Cards", well-crafted origami, showing deftly constructed paper companies.

"Foreign Affairs" is a stark piece, a leather bag in sepia, its only balance provided by a protruding white packet, mischievously juxtaposed and titled "Back in Time" is a huge but faded photo of a former First Division police officer escorting a lady through what looks like the 1970s version of Piarco International Airport, caught at the precise moment the woman handed over a package of undeveloped film to airline employees for carriage to Curacao.

An entire alcove is dedicated to "In Chambers", a morbid montage of victims who are relatives of Members of Parliament. To its credit, the gruesome collection includes the recent kidnapping and robbery of the son of former PNM education minister, Augustus Ramrekersingh, and the anguish of the brother of UNC Senator Nizam Baksh as he called on politicians to forget differences in the interest of bringing comfort to a nation. Both moods are vividly captured in "Under Siege".

Strikingly, in the whole exhibition, there is no Bas-relief, nor any of the "pathos" that could supply soothing pastel tones. Contrarily, on both sides of the hall are pictures of pointing fingers and scenes of warring politicians. Absent were the sprinklings of serenity common to art galleries in the developed world but frankly, calming images like "Whistler's Mother" and "Mona Lisa" would appear distinctly alien in this collection.

Instead, there is a photo essay, "Perilous Porches", in the foreground of which are front elevations of Baldy Hernandez's Barataria home captured in broad daylight and the patio of a Westmoorings residence at late evening. Indeed, the tranquility of Raphael's "Cherubino" would have been oddly conspicuous.

Getting attention from a group of well-heeled visitors was a surrealistic work labelled "Whose Side Are You On?" In the piece, members of a distinguished local panel, addressing delegates at last week's symposium titled "Carnival as an Industry", obviously misunderstood the work of Monet (whom it copies), giving the impression this country is a lost cause and doing so at a gathering of potential investors here for the Fourth Annual Euromoney/Latin Finance Caribbean Forum.

"Suffer the Little Children", a collage of three consecutive robbery scenes at the Lady Hochoy Home, all rendered in crayon, shows pre-teen, mentally challenged kids in tears as they assist nuns at the facility in putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again after repeated raids and ransacking by thugs preying on the disabled and with unconscionable frequency.

Among the more gory pieces is a collection of mobiles called "On the Drag", deliberately splattered with dark red paint a-la-fresco, representing dried blood of traffic accident victims. The gore is set against a network of gray-black roads, including the Uriah Butler and Churchill-Roosevelt Highways and the Priority Bus Route.

"Rumours of War", a baleful batik display, was executed exclusively in muted tones, its cracks separating general hopelessness and paranoia from an appreciation of public panic arising out of talk of yet another Friday coup. In "Get To Hell Out of Here", an East Indian couple is seen frantically herding offspring into a spaceship with engines already under power.

"May the Best Man Win" is a three-dimensional papier mache piece, police with hands tied behind their backs observing the success of better-equipped bandits, and in a full-length "Time Longer Than Twine", a mask of total vindication superimposed on a life-sized caricature of former National Security Minister Howard Chin Lee.

"No Free Lunch" visits recent conflict over whether an event in honour of Nelson Mandela should be held at the Country Club. Using the basic art principle that "colour is light", the painter does a patently un-funny pastiche on pigmentation. In "Showtime", a militant soca singer is portrayed in ceramic as a gun-toting guerilla, while a mas landscape features former partners of the band Legends both frantically grabbing for the trademark sword.

Disgust showed on the faces of patrons. In addressing them, curator Lord Putt-Ahan admitted the exhibition could induce depression and conceded oil was not always the best medium to work with. He however emphasised that it was the age of realism and none of the pieces was in any way sensational. "Like it or not," he said, "these are the signs of our times."

But the more devout saw evil portents in these portraits and fell to prayer, needing only to close their eyes and clasp hands, for this conspiracy of corruption, bandits, reckless drivers and kidnappers had long brought them to their knees.

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