Passport pictures at Back in Times

Mr. Smailes looked smart, and he was dressed for the occasion as if he was going to be photographed himself or to later participate in a dance sweat down. This was at the driveway to SWWTU, Port of Spain, Trinidad, where for the one evening only, an exhibition of his portrait photographs of regular fete players who come to an event called, “Back in Times.”

SWWTU is ingrained in us, and you don’t have to go inside to know what happens there. It is a Rite of Passage for some older Trinidadians, and on the weekends, late at night, you can see couples coming out of their Datsun 260c cars, dressed to the hilt in their matching silver lamé or Caribbean blue polyester garbs designed especially for the event. And from the fashion houses of family’s tailors and seamstresses, there is sence of panache that stands out. If this does not do the trick, an elaborate weave may, and sometimes you have to bend your head backwards as you drive along the roadway to catch a glimpse of a hairdo that took 12 hours to prepare, and is majestically balanced on the lady’s shoulders as she walks and dodges portholes, but still keeps her balance with her 6 inch high heels and white straps that wrap up her shin.

“Back in Times” is an offshoot of Carnival, and a history of slavery where people mimicked their masters. It is an opportunity to masquerade in a fantasy where men are Manly, and women are Womanly. Also, it is the idea of couples only and more so to compete with a fashion style characterised by the SWWTU street posters, such as Lady in Red, Black and White Ball or Birth Night. And in the hall of SWWTU, Saga Boys and Lovely Ladies in Red all congregate towards the walls of the dance floor, hidden from the disco strobes that may capture a moment of Tabanca

Mr. Smailes’ photographs for this exhibition are a bit mediocre, with the exception of one “couple” where he uses it twice. In the photograph, an older lady is truly captivated by her catch, and the photographer captures the moment of true Tabanca. Yet, the majority of the prints looked stagnant, or either they lacked the subject’s desire to be photographed. Unfortunately, for the very place where these pictures where conceived, they were also rejected. SWWTU had them removed from along the corridor to the entrance’s hall and they are up at Caribbean Contemporary Arts. But forgoing the blunder, this exhibition is really for the fete goers who would physically see themselves immortalised in print as they prepared to enter a world of fantasy and “Back in Times.”

Top: Open gates at SWWTU. Centre: The dance floor at SWWTU. Bottom: A small gathering at a brief opening. A pan of the corridor and exhibition via a mobile video phone on youtube
where freshly starched and pressed white trousers may be permanently marked by grooving to a slow tune.

See Alex Smailes’ book of Trinidad and Tobago

Ah, the humble roadposter. One of the major reasons we began our interest in public art all those years ago. Where else can you learn names like Joey Lewis, SWWTU Hall, Rennie B’s Birthnight Bash and other choice signage over the years that whether you went to the ‘bashment’ or the black and white ball, you knew that if you happened to pass by SWWTU you had to look in to see who was wearing what and why. The SWWTU Hall itself says ‘old people teaching young people a ‘ting or two, or tree! I never imagined any reason to go to SWWTU as a teenager. As I got older and wanted to go to Kitchener’s Tent which is situated at SWWTU, only then did I venture in at all, and what an experience it is. It is a very nostalgic space. All it is really is a big hall, but the people make it nostalgic by their dress and their attitude as you can see traditions being passed on before your very eyes. However the Hall is not the only advertiser of fetes. There is the Fireman’s fete every Carnival. There is Soca by the Silo’s, WASA Fete and other signage. In the 1980’s and 90’s the signs got so Large that they caused debate. The signage is also accompanied by very overly colour saturated. Loud and sometimes lewd party invitations.

But I believe that that taste is generational and belongs to the group 35 and under. The SWWTU set get invitations that look like old fashioned ‘garden party’ stock of heavy solid card in colours like baby pink or baby blue or yellow and say things politely, like,’You are cordially invited…” But that is a whole other discussion that shall be left for later. These posters are always written in bright colours in Sans Serif type. My particular interest in them comes from the quirky things that happen on them. Sometimes dates change and some reworking has to take place as in the case of the Emancipation Ball poster. I like to see as well the sign painters attempts to squeeze as much as possible into the space without making the poster completely unreadable. These posters came upon criticism recently when it was brought to the publics’ attention that many of them are tacked up on telephone polls which is actually illegal. I have grown up seeing these posters all year long, so this new interest in their placement struck me as curious. They are as common and expected as the weather itself. How much the party planners have heeded the laws remains to be seen. This signage talks about a whole industry that goes by unacknowledged, but represents a very big part of the Trinidad aesthetic. (Next time we shall critique the partiers themselves) – Adele

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