Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The devil's books

It always pleases me to see the work of an artist I know, a "sister" from school days. Here's Wendy Nanan and her current work.

The Devil’s Book

Wendy Nanan looks inside “books and stupas” and gets a glimpse of what the devil must be thinking. See her exhibition of papier-mache sculptures at Medulla, 37 Fitt Street, before April 24.

Imps and devils have been a feature of Trinidad Carnival since the 1880s according to Errol Hill’s book “The Trinidad Carnival.” Over time, there evolved a hierarchy of devils in bands. Imps are the proletariat. The Beast or Dragon is a central force to be controlled, or let loose. But the real leader is Lucifer, the king devil, the gownman, the bookman, dressed in flowing robes with an oversize papier mache devil mask. In the tradition, each character has a function. The imps control the beast. The imp with the key uses it to open the way across water – usually a drain or canal on the city street. Gathering the membership, the band follows a route to the house of the leader, Lucifer, King Devil, Bookman. On his doorstep, the Bookman ceremoniously records in his book, the names of all present– and who knows what else – before setting out to the carnival streets to frighten small children.

Thus the “devil” in Carnival took charge of the word – literacy and reason -  and locked it up in the secrecy of the book! We suspect that he records everything, totting up all misdeeds for that final accounting at death.

In this exhibition, Wendy Nanan acknowledges her fascination with the devil’s book. Peering inside, she finds that  “Surprisingly the Devil is thinking of religion and the shortness of life.” For her part, the fascination is not only with the thought or the word, but the impressive process to capture and conceal or reveal the devil’s ideas.

She uses the bookman’s technique of creating oversize papier mache books, and appropriates his role to create her own books for her own ideas. In so doing, she enters a process both physical – the making of papier mache - and meditative. And true to the art of the carnivalesque, what she creates is both decorative and devilish. A summary of the art and industry of the book?

You have to smile at the lion (Jah) and the elephant (Brahma) acknowledging each other in The Bounce. Smile too at Nelson Island – the (preposterous) notion that in the span of three generations from the sub-continent, an Indian woman becomes Prime Minister in these New World isles. And why not? 
Nelson's Island

The Bounce

The collection is eclectic and ironic, no religions are sacrosanct in the devil’s book. Though, to tell the truth, Christian symbols are largely absent. (This perhaps to allow the average mas-playing Trini perspective to appreciate the view without getting bogged down in unnecessary defence of his or her own dogma.) Dogen’s Rules captures sayings of the Zen teacher. The Sound of Ohm is a fiery and far-reaching symbol of symbols. We are reminded that the Gods are Watching. I like that Nanan’s Prayer Book invokes the names of female deities – did you know that there were so many?
The Gods are Watching

The Sound of Ohm

Stupas are mounds or structures that house religious (usually Buddhist) relicts. Hotei’s cake is made up of kitchen moulds, fitting tribute to the old kitchen god, the laughing budai (not Gautama Buddha), a kind of Santa Claus.  The graceful Stupa of the Compassion of Snails reminds us that even small creatures have purpose and usefulness. – these snails kept the Gautama Buddha cool.

These books and stupas convert the spare Medulla gallery into a meditative space, and worth entering even for a brief escape from the dry season heat and busyness of the world.

Rooted in old traditions – both of carnival and bookmaking – Nanan’s work uses iconography that is familiar and therefore accessible. From this comfortable even welcoming stance, she is able to gently evoke feeling and thinking about religious symbols and concepts that we largely take for granted. In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. But the book – and maybe thinking itself – must surely be the devil’s.

To see some photos of this work, go to the Medulla page on facebook: 

(Photos courtesy Medulla Art Gallery)

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