Remembering Geocities 2004 – Pioneers of an Era

Pioneers of an Era

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This second in a series of group exhibitions put on at the National Museum in collaboration with the creative director of Studio 66, Mr. Makemba Kunle is an important milestone in the history of Art in Trinidad and Tobago. Six luminaries of an era are chosen and their works displayed. In July 2004 the artists chosen were Kenrick Callender, Edward Davidson, Holly Gayadeen, Marcelio Hovell, Ferdinand Romilly and Leo Warner. In July 2005 the six are Al Akong, Alexis Ballie, Barbara Felice, Cyprian Rivers, Mary Hahn and Paul ‘Bill” Trotman. The handsome catalogue that accompanies the show states that the works of the six artists ‘serve as the foundation for the countries artistic development.’ It is within this context that this review shall be taken.

The curator of the national museum, Mr.Vel Lewis has been very successful in creating a series of interesting shows over the years, and he has managed to produce a strong roster of shows that over time may become annual events. Mr. Lewis has his critics, but as curator he has a lot more to be pleased with, as there is so much that he has managed to do for the museum over his tenure.

This second in the series of shows on pioneers is one such plan and a very commendable one. The inclusion of colour catalogues on the subject brings the exhibition to a level of historical importance, providing possibly the only chance at seeing such works in print in such a setting.Looking at the works of artists who are living legends is an awe inspiring one. You find yourself filled with questions for all of them. How did they manage throughout the years. How do they feel about art today? To look at the works of these pioneers, one must keep what one sees within its context. It is clear that the works for many of the artists are things completed many years before. What is surprising is that the earliest piece shown is dated to 1956 and is the only work so dated. Most of the works are from the 1990’s.

Here is where the challenges of the exhibition begin. The choice of what to show and the relationship of one work to another and to a body of work as a whole may be in question. Before going to this second show, I happened to visit Horizon’s Art Gallery that same day, and I came across works by Larry Mosca and Leo Glasgow. I observed to a friend the subtle changes that I saw taking place in their development with these new pieces that were in the gallery space. It was quite exciting to see for example that Mr. Mosca is now looking at softening his backgrounds to a misty palette, to focus on greater detail in his observation of birds.

What I believe is missing in ‘Pioneers’ is that same steady observation. The show takes place during the vacation for many parents and their children to visit the museum and find out about these artists. For many people the names of the artists are vague to the memories. Paul ‘Bill’ Trotman would be the most well known because of his background in Calypso. Alexis Ballie is another luminary for those of us who follow art. But the other names are not as obvious. So there is an opportunity for this show to educate the public.      It is not enough that on show are seven or eight works by each artist from the same decade when that person has been working for thirty to fourty years. It would have been better served to show the growth of each artist over time. For example the ceramic pieces of Barbara Felice. Some background history that accompanied the work would help put her work into its proper context. One may argue that that would require the assistance of art theorists, critics and the like, and that is true. Where are these people to assist in making this show historically relevant? But not only that, at the opening to this second installment on pioneers, I was disappointed that although there was a decent showing of guests, it was obvious that the ‘younger’ artists were missing. But that is another matter.

I commend the idea to have shows of this nature, but I am concerned that by not considering the larger context, works by artists such as these can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. One can be left with the impression that art is taken casually, that pastoral imagery is all that fifty to eighty years of art in Trinidad and Tobago has produced, and perhaps this is indeed the case.

I however am not inclined to believe this as the work of Cyprian Rivers attests. His is a graphic design sensitivity. His paintings are attempts to make magazine cutouts larger than life as his David Rudder painting shows. Then there is Alexis Ballie whose works show a proud Indian heritage and a departure to explore abstractions. At least with his work there is by chance an opportunity to see growth. His works range in date from 1956 to 2001 and show the greatest variety of range.

In a show of this nature as well it would have helped to show a pictorial history of Trinidad and Tobago alongside the works of these artists so that the public could see how the process of art has developed over the years. To look upon Paul “Bill’Trotman’s Dance Marie against Alexis Ballie’s Three Women, it may be worthy to ask about identity and placement for example. Or Al Akong’s River Scene – Cumana against the context of Mary Hahn’s What are we (Humans) Doing? Painted twenty three years apart. One decrying man’s inhumanity to the environment the other glorifying it.

This show has an opportunity to do so much for those who love art and those who are passing by. The museum has a responsibility to make all of us see in ways we may never have considered before. Perhaps with the third installment of pioneers this fact will become more apparent. But for now Pioneers II is worth a look.

Adele Todd 2005

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