The Trinidad Aesthetic

Touring Trinidad and Tobago, the bookman and I come across work that we consider closer to the man on the street than the work of the artists who show for exhibitions. The artist who displays for exhibition is working at what they believe is the taste of the public, and the work of the street is the real desire of the public. This has been hard to reconcile, particularly in the case of graphic design. But that is another post. The artist on the street is a commercial artist. Work is done by commission or by compulsion. However it is always done with sincerity. It sometimes reflects the taste of the person commissioning the work, or at other times it represents the community. This is why we gravitate towards rum shops and bars, street signage and graffiti. It is in these places that the work of the street thrives.

In the last year we have begun to see what started as random imagery expand into a visual narrative of our country and its people. The divide between the artists who exhibit and those who do not is vast, and in many ways the artist on the street is much more a real artist than the artists getting sound bites in the newspapers. We can say this because the work on the street is without artifice. As commissioned work reflecting taste, the works are an extension of the architecture that is as much a hodge podge of styles as the works we see. That doesn’t mean that the work is pretty or even engaging. Sometimes the things we come across are hard to reconcile. We wonder what is the purpose of large bas relief’s on house exteriors or air brush paintings on cars. We conclude that they are extensions of personalities that transcend taste and create styles of their own. These works compete with all other media and succeed because they represent their spaces without apology.


When you look at a wonky sign or an aggressive piece of graffiti, you are feeling something much more intimate than the work in an art gallery. First of all the things in the gallery have all been vetted before. Almost none of the things have gone beyond expectation. Not in style, technique or composition. Every year you can see the same landscape, seascape, Magnificent Seven, Belle dancers, standpipe bathers and kerchief wearing women. On the street you see none of that. There is no asking, apology or even politeness. There is only arough suggestion that something was asked for and received. You see sexual politics, illiteracy, desperation, identity issues, fantasy and wishful thinking. The work on the street speaks to an attempt of those who put their ideas out on display, to reconcile theirspaces. Theirs is a searching, finding, grasping desire to make something from nothing using what they have. It is not asked, do you have talent. Someone has said, ‘I can draw.” Or, ‘He does draw real good boy.” Another issue is that for many, art has to be polite, we want it to be ‘nice’ and we want it to be pretty. That is the whole unheard argument with contemporary work that is seen more so abroad than locally of our working artists.

When the work is seen here, it is basically seen by the same 70 to 100 people. So am I saying that good work is gritty and hard? Not necessarily. But I am saying that while contemporary artists are showing to a select group, there is a lot more going on the islands than just that, and the public is seeing it all the time and asking for it. It isn’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘proper’ art. It isn’t necessarily art that contemporary artists understand, some may even make fun of it and say that it isn’t art by a long shot. Yet these things matter because they represent us and they are engaging, and they do cause a second and third look. They are actually a glimpse into how to make work seen in galleries stronger. – Adele

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