Another Voice

Posted in Sex in Caribbean Art by Adele Todd on August 20, 2007

In Trinidad and Tobago , the number of artists who have shown work that might qualify as erotic can be numbered on one hand, and even that is a stretch, spreading the definition to include simple nudity. Bosco Holder, Irene Shaw, Sundiata, come to mind in this category, myself and Harold Heminez I would place outside this definition, being specifically erotic, using a symbolic language that is overtly erotic, even pornographic. Well, I may have to use another hand in counting, a couple more fingers, with the recent brave showing at Soft Box in Port of Spain, of two young artists who are going somewhere, if they are allowed to.*
Bosco Holder’s semi male nude

Bosco Holder’s work is of special significance to me, being one of the most important indigenous influences of my formative years, lining the walls of my childhood neighbour Jack Kelshall’s sprawling mansion of a house in Palmiste in South Trinidad . These images were literally etched into my consciousness, early, as a boy – not only the nudity, but the bandanaed dusky women of Bosco’s particular invention paved the way forward for my own cipher of West Indian black Creole women as a predominating subject in my own work. His nude black men I have only ever seen a few of, and only recently, certainly not at that early stage of my development – they are not for local consumption anyway, rightly or wrongly judged by their author to be too explicitly homoerotic for local acceptable tastes. A pity, because it means we’ve been denied not only a major portion of Bosco’s output, but also the opportunity for homoeroticism to have entered long ago into the Trinidad/West Indian mainstream, if only by dint of exposure to it, in the same way that homoeroticism is there for all to experience on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for instance. Coming from such a major and beloved – iconic! – figure in art and entertainment in Trinidad as Bosco Holder, there would have been, at the very least, no denying its presence and relevance to the society, whether people liked it or not.
Irene Shaw is another proposition altogether, a kind of inward looking feminism and narcissism, strongest and best where she tries least hard, and where she dispenses with symbolic and social histrionics and relaxes into something more straightforwardly resembling simple self-portraiture. Best, also, I think, when she paints nude portraits of men – where her technique has called to mind Lucien Freud for the creamy application of pigment to canvas, if not necessarily the penetrative perceptive power of Freud’s work – and the self-consciousness of her self-portraits is thrown out for a more straightforward, often pungent commentary on her subjects and their sexuality.

Sundiata has stuck pretty close to his beloved Matisse in the decorative possibilities of the nude – well, semi nude – female and male. It would be a wonderful thing to see him do more, go further, see where it might take him, but somehow I just don’t see that happening. But you never know. And this lack of initiative – but this may only be here, as he has exhibited abroad and, like Holder, may have been more explicit there – pretty well mirrors the little island society we live in, terribly afraid to offend, rock the boat, step out of the box. Which is what, this box, really, anyway? – for it is breached everywhere you open your eyes – and ears – in Trinidad . The obscenity of our graffiti, and the unremitting nastiness (and violent misogynism) of our street talk, is everywhere to be experienced. And Carnival has become – deteriorated into? – a truly Eurepedesian Bacchanalia, 80 percent female, and pretty blatantly maenadian in its exclusion of men – who can help but notice the dressing up of our men-folk as our female-folk dress down, shedding as much as the law here allows/? And along with the rest of the world, we have become an island where cable TV brings every possible choice of either the most sacred or most profane into any house that can afford it. And where the incidence of aids is second highest in the world. And men piss freely on any wall on any street anywhere without censure of society – or law, for that matter. So what are we afraid of finding outside the box? Really? And what will it take to unfetter us from this awful self-destructive sexual hypocrisy?
There also seems to be a particularly disturbing, ridiculous insistence that anything not of native Trinidadian origin – despite, for instance, the fact that Christianity itself is an import and imposition on the local Amerindian, African and Indian Diaspora – is “not for we” and “we ent so”, so that what is perfectly acceptable, a mundane everyday commonplace in the major metropoll – nudity in public monuments, for one – in Trinidad, becomes a cause celebre for persecution and ridicule and police intervention – bacchanal! – the recent equal opportunity bill and its disgusting proposition of prosecution and persecution of homosexuals, being solid evidence of where this kind of vitriolic exclusionism has taken us, and, by the way, just how brutal a society we are – no wonder the murder rate has risen to an astonishingly ghoulish three in one night, six over the two-day weekend! – in a population of 1.2 million! (I have to add here, just three months after writing this, that the murder-rate has risen to an astonishing horrific six in one night, who knows how many women battered and children violated – in whatever way you choose to think of! – in the same time-span.)
Having said all that, the recent exhibition of work by two young artists gives hope and some expectation of release from this awful cycle of self mutilation, if only for the courage of the gallery and the artists themselves to show images of unalloyed, pure eroticism, leaving no doubt as to their sexual orientation and their delight in the announcement of that, too. If I find, ultimately, that the weight and darkness of the female artist (who has asked that her name not be mentioned) graphite renderings – interspersed colour and breezy Art Décor quotation not withstanding – is claustrophobic and sorrowful rather than exuberant and celebratory, which is what I believe they are attempting to be, then that is a problem of technique and finesse which is far out-shone by the daring and determination of her enterprise – as I see it, to show exactly who she is, in this island of intolerance and phobia. Jordan James’s work, on the other hand, is possibly too light and feathery – the droopy wings of his apparitions binding them to earth rather than lifting them aloft, however- and needs some narrative intrigue to flesh out the rather timid lines. May be next time the level of self-confidence will have been raised if only by the fact of having exhibited before, breaking the ice once and for all, and he will saw upwards and outwards beyond the constraints of his present intimidations and fears.

– Stuart


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