Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A little Minshall

For many years, most of us got accustomed to a regular infusion of Minshall. We waited, responded to and received it like a blessing, every year (almost). From 1974 until 2003: mas presentations from the pure and lovely Land of the Hummingbird to the sardonic Ship of Fools, not pure in white. We had two Summer Olympic openings in Barcelona and Atlanta, and a winter games too, a peace march in Washington DC and many other international performances. In 2006, a surprise lagniappe, a Sacred Heart like an army returning to reclaim turf. And then, that was that.

The mask: Smoke and Fire, how many faces do you see?
It is therefore a pleasing surprise for Minshall fans to be invited to view a Minshall Miscellany in late October 2012. We are told that this conceptualisation, selection and framing of 45 pieces for the Y Gallery took place in a record 18 days! Good work Ashraph and Yasmin in leaping to the opportunity and seizing the day!
Model for set of Errol Hill's Man Better Man

Elegantly finished and displayed, these surrenderings from an archive that might fill a university library are intimations of the output over 50 years of design art. Here are the Jaycees' Carnival Queens gowns and costumes, debutant-ish and stylish, and timeless as beauty queens garments go. Here, theatre sets for Edward Albee's Virginia Woolf and Errol Hill's Man Better Man, rendered in spare line, spare form.

We meet again the "everyman" profile that people assumed was a self-portrait; used as the logo motif for Callaloo, and over the years to carry different ideas and paraphernalia. My favourite is the "thousand twangling instruments," reference to Shakespeare's The Tempest given a contemporary interpretation. Lovely too the "fan-like" preliminary views of Callaloo Dancing Tic-Tac-Toe.

Allusions to bands are few. Here are four of the colour sketches for Tantana cloths. What this exhibition clearly says - like the drawing shows held in New York and at the Clico Art Gallery in 2005 -  is that Minshall's two-dimensional templates are more than indicators of the drama whether of stage or mas. They are expressions worthy of consideration in their own medium; each with a story to tell, a piece of history to relate.
Mask of the Peacock

Mask of Bird of Paradise Spirit God
A sample showing the technique of hanging sequins to create an image is offered. This technique was applied on costumes such as the tree of life behind The Serpent (1976); with greater precision in several characters in Papillon (1981) and many other local and international presentations (the fans of the Feria del Toro Pamplona comes to mind); and in the construction of the finished mural Jouvert - the Rising Sun, installed in the Sagicor building on the west side of the Savannah.

So many of Minshall's drawings are ideas or instructional. Each allows a peep into the workings of the artist's mind. Some are conversations with himself, some stepping stones on the path to some dynamic integration of costume, sound, light, movement, space and time that we have come to know in the performance of Minshall bands. And we look to the pieces that are more three-dimensional for the spirit of the mas: but the masks conceal more than they reveal. They speak of an on-going occupation with duality; such as is also demonstrated in the sketch The Artist, Sober and Drunk.

One view of the mask Two faced

Another view of Two faced

This exhibition tugs at the heart strings of those who have participated, seen or experienced Minshall on Carnival Tuesday. Fortunately, the street works are extant in extensive archives of photography and videography held by their creators not only in Trinidad and Tobago but around the world. Hopefully some of these will be organised into books, films (see Dalton Narine's Masman) and even museum events - whether in the artist's lifetime or not is moot.

This brings us to another question. How does the artist who has served his community well continue to survive? It is a challenge equally for the society as for the artist: to continue to appreciate and to derive on-going benefit especially when that art springs from a deep and communal wellspring, and has a living context. It applies as much to calypsonians as to panmen as to mas-makers.

How shall we imagine and innovate a Cup of Life for the arts?

Where is the Bele Queen in contemporary Carnival?
Made by Minshall in a raku course conducted by Bunty O'Connor

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Adventures of Max the Brave

Carnival Monday 2002, Max leaps over the low wall of the house on Princess Margaret Avenue and heads directly to the Diego Martin highway. The son - shirtless and barefoot in the yard - gives chase.  Max is glanced by a speeding car, gets up runs again when he is hit sideways by another car. In less than a minute, he is up and running along the highway diving into a big drain as his chaser is joined by two on bikes. They have run miles by the time Max is cornered exhausted. Then the long trek back  to the house and a visit to the vet who says, "You have a hard head, old boy! Looks like you'll live to run another day!"
Oka (standing) and Max

If we made a movie of the exploits of Max, it would cover numerous escapades "beyond the fence." In Santa Cruz, he has been lost for days. He has climbed hill and dale to join other dogs around a bitch in heat in one of the many quarries. He has been dog-napped twice; each time accompanied by Sheeba the lagahoo toad-licker who was his "let's go out of the yard" sidekick. The dognapper who had both dogs tied up in a yard across the valley claimed that he was keeping them safe. Max and Sheeba were gone for nine days. His mate Oka - who adored Max - was usually too coward to leave the homestead.

Max loved water and the beach: at Las Cuevas

Within the yard, these two would lead the hunt. They couldn't reach the manicou which would walk along the top of the fence, or the agouti which could run swiftly through the bars in the gate. But the iguanas were particularly vulnerable. In one long dry season, he lay three large ones at the back door.

A year or so ago, Max ran out to a grudge match with a neighborhood dog. They had been having regular bark outs. So it must have seemed like a fine time to settle the score. The other barker - tied in a fenceless yard - was a pitbull. He held on to Max's ear and would not let go. Dripping blood from a shredded ear, Max still looked like he was grinning! It was around this time that we were realising that Max was going blind: one eye was cloudy the other glassy. He was prone to "colds in the neck" which was helped with cod liver oil. He never bumped into things and always knew who was nearby but he became an inveterate barker. However fit he looked - he was almost 13 (in his seventies in human terms) - time was running on.

Born to the white Labrador Charlie and a neighbouring Rottweiler in Minshall's yard in Federation Park, Max "Maximilian Maximus" came to us in late 1999. The daughter went with me to pick one of the litter, all short stout puppies with jet black coats that hung around their bones two sizes too big. Which one? This one, Mom, this one, he keeps following me around!

One of Max's puppies

Miss (Liz) Taylor, white Lab-Rott, at four weeks,
grand-daughter of Minshall's Charlie

Max lived with us in two valleys, Santa Cruz and Diego Martin. He became an adult in October 2001 when the family was split apart by surgery for cancer. So he went to a friend whose family doted on him. With Yoda - the wild dog that was saved from a drain in Barataria - he had three litters, each more abundant that the last (eight, eleven, thirteen pups). With Oka - a Lab-Rott just like him - he also had three litters. One of Oka's puppies went back to live in the Minshall household: Miss Elizabeth Taylor a white Lab-Rott was the mother of Minshall's "eleven black ninjas."

In the last year, as the new dog is growing to adulthood, Max likes him less and less. Their fights become more frequent more vicious. Max always seems to inflict more damage - puncture wounds to the forelegs. But it is the ticking crocodile that does him in.  During the last of these encounters  his great heart gives out and he's gone to chase agoutis in neverland.

Max (sitting up) 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Monk's Tale

The artist disappears. For three years. The occasional facebook postings show photographs of a hillside 'fastness'* a figurative walled garden overlooking the sea, somewhere on Trinidad's remote north east. Rows of bodi and melongene, heart-shaped dasheen leaves unfurl and are reaped. The daily bread delivers a melting pot - yam, green fig, pigeon peas, ochros, seasonings, fish. The admonition, "plant food," becomes his mantra. He photographs house renovations and angled views; from the studio, frames of early morning light and cloud hover on the coast. This domain envelops the artist like a cocoon, cell of solitude and transformation.

Looks like home: detail from Landscape with Two Hills
acrylic and collage on paper
Eddie Bowen describes this time on the estate in Sans Souci - translates literally "no worries" - as the monastery. Away from the noise and the bustle, the niceties of social living, the saying one thing to cover another, the artist's infrequent forays into town make him strange if not a stranger. At Sans Souci, monastic discipline turns daily routine into a telling of the hours - garden work, kitchen work, housework, drawing and painting as meditation. So many hours of contemplative pen stroke and brush work and re-work deliver detail, colour, shape, pattern, complexity.

Garden Drawing, black ink on paper

Detail, Garden Drawing 
Detail, Garden Drawing

Whose secret indoor garden? - detail from Tenement
acrylic on canvas
It is now late in 2012 that Eddie Bowen re-appears. He looks like the country-bookie farmer, a little diffident, a little hobbit-y, a little glassy eyed, a lot pleased with the years' bounty. He is changed. Here is the artist as wizard, his hands the masters of straight lines, conjurer of maps, patterns and order, symmetry and architecture. His fellows are the Jouvert mystics, otherworld personages "dropping in" to provide an outside perspective.

Detail, The Wizard 
acrylic on paper
Detail, Mystic Jouvert
acrylic on canvas
Here are landscapes that are intensely familiar but other.  Look at the tropical rainforest and see beyond the bush, for in these wild gardens are abundance and mystery; the primordial wildness of imagination. Use wizard's eyes to see: Landscape with Spire; Two Hills; Pyramid House with Red Tree; Jumbie Tree. These are hopeful landscapes of unbridled energy. Complexity - a cypher for biodiversity - rules in Bowen's trees, dwellings and structures exposed or sheltered, on his island, in his cell.

Detail, Caribbean Cell
ink/acrylic on paper
Detail shows a boat on a busy sea, Island
acrylic inks on paper

Detail, Island

Composting and planting in recycled containers, replanting in cycles of root and shoot, flower and pod are techniques that delivered more than food. Here on the land, light, rain and dirt provided an education which tutored the mind in fullness and sufficiency. Study the Garden Drawing as the world re-drawn into the Sans Souci garden.

It's no wonder that humans in these worlds are imbued with powers:  Wizard Juggling Vortices; Warrior Queen; Goddess Meditating and the Carnival Babe as fertility goddess.

Wizard Juggling Vortices
acrylic inks on paper
Tales from the monastery - Sans Souci 2009 to 2012 - come out of Bowen's unique Caribbean cell, out of solitude and wildness. The artist as monk has turned his meditations into a Jacob's ladder linking heaven and earth. Eddie Bowen's Paintings from the Monastery continues at Medulla Gallery, 37 Fitt Street until November 13, 2012. These are Trini landscapes that imagine the way to re-integrate culture and the wild.

A pleasant land of counterpane: Landscape with Spire
acrylic inks and oil pastel

*A secure refuge, esp. a place well protected by natural features.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Timeless Lamu

By Sunday morning (October 17, 1982) we were on the road again, to Mombasa. There was open highway all the way, but we had to look out for animals crossing out of nowhere.  We arrived in Mombasa at 4pm. Stopped first at Castle Hotel for beers, then tried to get a room at Nyali Beach. We got one at the Neptune Beach Hotel. Resort strips are the same everywhere: swimming pools yards away from the ocean; and luxury offered in quiet darkened spacious rooms. Slipping into calm smooth water - no waves coarse coral pebbles - I thought to myself, so this is the Indian Ocean.

On Monday, we were shopping in Mombasa - caftans and kitenges, baskets and carved ebony. Then we headed further up the coast to Malindi getting lost on the way to Petra's. Dinner at the Driftwood club was very good. It rained all night. We drifted around with Petra until it was time for Cooper's Skybird Charter - a seven-seater cherokee single engine plane - to Lamu, flying over Kenya's drowned east coast. It was still raining when we landed on Lamu, looking for a room.

Days of rain inundated the deltas of Kenya's east coast

At Petra's house in Malindi, north of Mombasa.
Settled by Portuguese, it was  in the 80s attracting lots of Italians

We walked through the town and found bed and breakfast lodging at a private house owned by Mahrus.  We never met the owner and breakfast seemed to be served by invisible hands. We were up on the third level of an Islamic home, with a large sitting room, a double bed covered in a heavy red chenille spread, and a bathroom that was open to the sky. We would be comfortable for two nights. The narrow streets were defined by high walls and heavy wooden doors. The only traffic was on foot or donkey.
Our quarters at Mahrus's house

Peponi's hotel founded in 1967, still run by the same family to today

For dinner, Ranji decided we would walk to the end of the island to the famous Peponi's hotel restaurant. It was a long but relaxing stroll but the sun dropped suddenly as it does in the tropics. No wonder we say, night falls. We'd get a boat to bring us back I was assured. Much later, there were no boats. There was no moon - Divali was a couple nights away - so we held each other and stumbled over the boat ropes dangling above the falling tide, laughing almost falling every few steps loving the pitch darkness that cocooned our silliness.

Night walk along the shorefront at low tide is a different prospect from the day

These sails are distinctive in the east African coastal trade
No vehicles on the island, but many boats like this one

Pleasing promenade on the Lamu waterfront

The next day was sunny enough to think about going to the beach, by boat to the resort called Ras Kitau on the island of Manda, across the strait from Lamu. Looking at websites for these locations 30 years later, not much seems to have changed. Time must run slower when you are travelling by dhow or donkey!

At Ras Kitau, you can put flowers in your hair!

In all, we spent no more than ten days in Kenya. My regret is that I didn't find out more about where we were going, what else was there, the history of the place. All of which I have looked for, in the intervening years, in movies like Out of Africa (the story of Isak Dineson and Denys Finch-Hatton) or The Constant Gardener or The Ghost and the Darkness (about two man-eating Tsavo lions) and I Dreamed of Africa.

I cannot say that I have the feel of that country, just some random photographs and scribblings that bring a wash of feelings across these many years.

Sand dunes on Lamu
(All photos were taken in 1982)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Kenya diary 1982

Mythical Africa - where elephant and zebra, lion, gazelle and cheetahs play!

What is the attraction of "going away" for a honeymoon? What do we look for - is it luxury or solitude, a place where no one knows our name? What do we expect to find there, similarities or differences, something to take us forward, or one day look back on? To find yourself amid strangers? Or to find yourself and the person you have recently committed to? Thirty years ago, just married, we chose Kenya. It was my first real vacation in a few years, but for the groom, it was the opportunity to share an adventure in Africa where he grew up. Via France and Italy, we entered Kenya: a new place for me, a coming home for him.

Ranji as a teenager, in a Masai village

Mini-safari: On Tuesday (October 12, 1982), we left Nairobi at 9 am. Adrienne's car loaded with camping equipment, tent and toiletries. Coffee, milk, bread, sugar, salt, gas, matches, batteries, sweets, from my scant diary of that day. Stopped in Narok - a town in transition from old Maasai cattle collective to modern village. Many tourists. Arrived Keekorok at 1pm, over un-tarmacked roads. Lunch was a cold buffet. Animals seen: deer, giraffe, elephant, lion, zebra and ostrich.

One of the many deer species in Kenya

Wildebeest on migration
Giraffes everywhere!

Family groups traverse the Mara plains.
Later that evening, we pitched tent in Sand River in the Mara. A game warden, John Maine, offered a piece of his topi (Thompson gazelle) which we stewed with potatoes over a campfire. There was sand in the stew but as my father would say, "a bellyful is a belly full." Inside the two-man tent, we were safe as houses, but when we heard a snuffling "mewhhhh" and scampering, Ranji put his finger to his lip and mouthed "lion," before turning over and snoring all night.

Sleeping lions the colour of the grass 

Simba keeps watch

Peeping out of the tent next morning - with a plan to sprint the hundred yards to where the car was parked - we saw water buffalo and beautiful sunshine. Coffee on an open fire is the best. No bathroom but the bush, we headed back to Keekorok to wash in their restrooms. Lunch at the Keekorok canteen was goat, cabbage and potato - a formula for farts.

Waking up on Sand River, Masai Mara

From Keekorok, we took a heading to Mara Serena. Driving fast on a very boggy road did nothing good for the car. Animals seen: rabbit, warthog, hippopotamus, hyena, jackal, baboon. Mara Serena looks out over the plains from a hill; but there was no room for us. Kichwa Tembo (which means head of an elephant) had no room. We were sent on to Mara Sara where the lodge was empty but closed. We could however camp on the bank of the Mara river within the compound.

By the next day, the knocking of the shock on the left rear end could not be ignored. A noisy ride to Kichwa Tembo found a bush mechanic. By mid-morning we were on the road to Lolgorien over the Oloololo escarpment where giraffes and gazelles darted across the rocky road. At times, it felt like the car was picking its way from rock to rock; not surprised at the flat tyre at the top of the scarp. After lunch in Migori, it was on to Rongo where we picked up a policeman heading to Homa Bay.

Rest stop at Homa Bay
There was room in the hotel at Homa Bay - the Kenyan tip of Lake Victoria where they say the fish are man-sized, fat on the victims of Idi Amin's regime. We drained the hotel tanks for bath water. Good thing it rained all night. But the road was turned to a river of mud. Maybe we would have to pay the 30 fellas their price of five shillingi each to push us up the hill. Not yet, as the trusty Peugeot and excellent driving skills took us skidding up the hill. Then we picked up the American Peace Corps Volunteer who talked all the way to Kericho, through Nakuru, Naivasha and on to Nairobi. Seems he was more than half spaz from taking a flying leap for a second floor window on acid. He told his life story, Ranji told his. Not sure which was more colourful.

Masai Mara sculpture

Saturday on the Ngong Hills was cold and breezy. And this haiku: the great rift valley of Africa, drift, rift, divide, deep rift, river ...

From the Kenyan plateau, we headed to the coast, the ancient port of Mombasa and magical offshore island of Lamu.

It's a little amazing in hindsight that we could have set out on life's adventure with so little planning and no reservations.
Early morning on the bank of the Mara River - no bathing, but stories of a hippo that bit a man in two