Horizon at Sandy Point

Monday, March 16, 2015

Connecting with art

Cinematography that's up close and in your face. Action and soliloquy driven by rhythm, cadences in language, music the way Trinis like to play it - two turns above loud - the uneven jerky sometimes dark record of handheld go pros: all are spliced into an artful cinematic flow of sound and image that's hard to look away from. The film-maker turned critic who sat in the front row at the iMax cinema confessed to being compelled by the action, unable to move for the 80+ minutes of the film. "I'm glad I saw it, best production in a long time," he pronounced after staying to see the roll of credits - producers, sponsors, crew, teachers and families, and of course, the youngsters from Success Laventille Secondary School.

This is part of the success of Art Connect the film: that the finished documentary is itself an artistic expression of its creators; the artist Wendell McShine, musicians Freetown Collective, British dancers Anthony and Kevin, filmmaker Miguel Galofre, producer Charlotte Elias, the crew, sponsors and  others who elected to enter the lives of these Laventille teenagers.

It takes a village to raise a child, yes. But it takes a special sensibility to devise practical, expressive and technical avenues for the transition from childhood to adult. Art may be the vehicle that is missing from the academic and societal routines of most young people in Trinidad and Tobago. This conviction is the thesis of Wendell McShine's initiative Art Connect, not just to open up and transform youngsters but just as importantly, to give the adults, parents, teachers, administrators insight on a "way in,"methods to reach young people growing up in a changed and rapidly changing world.

The first "art connect" programme carried out by Wendell McShine was funded by Atlantic, the Trinidad and Tobago LNG company, and took place in Point Fortin Trinidad in July 2007. The Arts Project was called Our Point and may be seen here:

Shine as he is known in the international art world conceived a programme that would teach art (drawing, painting, animation and mural-making) while documenting the process with videography and music. His wife Yadira Albarran Kamin has been instrumental in the process. A few years ago, he took Art Connect to Liverpool working with elderly and disadvantaged groups, as well as young people. This process is also recorded in a Shine video here:

Art Connect programmes wherever they are happening are proof of concept of Shine's motivating principle: “We all share a common interest in the well being of our societies, and self expression is one of our core values both as individuals and groups. I have created the Art Connect Project rooted in the philosophy that investment in education, art and humanities is vital for the uplifting and development of any society."

The location for Art Connect the film happens to be the seamier side of Port of Spain, Laventille, the reputed crime capital of Trinidad and Tobago. But this is not the story of gangs, guns or drugs. This story deals with the light and life still to be found in these hills above Port of Spain. More than that, it tells personal stories, that are at once intimate and universal, of self discovery and healing, through interventions of art.

Viewers may be shocked by the barely clothed pregnant woman chasing her children down with a cutlass. They may want to pity the children growing up in close quarters with killings, disappearing fathers, drug and money machismo. But, as David Rudder says in one brief comment, there is always hope in Laventille. Here is a place where people lived and aspired, with a higher than normal requirement to struggle and to overcome. There are real and revelatory moments when the teenagers are able to go beyond what makes them unsmiling, serious, stony, or "vex," to show their true selves.

We will remember Ateion, Maliq, Sharice, Isis, Eyed, Daniel, and the other brave youths who exposed their feelings and fears for Art Connect. These are not child actors but teenagers whose lives are transformed through mural-making, writing, music, movement and dance, and the process of filmmaking. In so doing, they shape a prayer for safety and guidance in the lives of young people everywhere. Develop their self-esteem and keep them from the bad influences in their environments. Connect them with the means to expression, to work out the anger and pain in their lives, and reinforce the self love they need to bring them through the most treacherous times of their lives.

The accolades that the film has received are well-deserved. It is visually narrated, rhythmic and fast-paced. But it is the hearts of these teenagers - unscripted, authentic, un-acted - that makes this a compelling narrative. It is hoped that Art Connect the film will be seen by communities all over Trinidad and Tobago, and be received as inspiration and motivation -  cri de coeur for the arts, pan, painting et al - for healing, for awakening potential through self-expression, for transformation.

Charlotte, Maliq and Ateion - among the stars of Art Connect - were present at the screening.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lineage from the mother

Our grandmother was in her early 30s when she left China forever. Still a young woman, she had already borne three sons and a daughter. She midwifed herself - if we believe the evidence of subsequent births - in interludes to the back-breaking tasks in the rice paddies. She would continue to work when she had to, with the baby nestled in a sling close to her breast.

Her first son Wong SeYon preceded her to Trinidad, travelling with his father Wong Fook Chong in or around 1934 or 1935. Young Tai Yow would make the journey in 1939 with the next three youngsters.

If she had any apprehensions to leave the land and the family and the work that shaped her life to that time, we do not know. In her journey, she would be supported and guided by sons who were already 15 and 14 year old men. The girl was five and most likely the one to be chased after, entertained and kept safe by the three grown-ups, on the boat across the Pacific, on the train across North America and another boat south in the Atlantic.

What did she feel when she landed in Trinidad we can only speculate. First wife to her husband, what must she have felt to see the family already growing down the road: a seven year old boy, a girl the same age as her own, and boys of three and one. Would she have returned to China if she could? We know that she never forgot those she left behind, collecting and mailing whatever she thought might be useful. Some of these items included string and the fabric of 100-pound bags in which sugar or chicken feed was transported. Those were treacherous days for travel, the beginning of the second World War. There are those who would say that she and the children had gotten out "by the skin of their teeth" in 1939.

You could probably date the arrival in Trinidad in 1939 from the arrival of the baby boy in March 1940. He was followed by a girl two years later and another girl one year after that. Above and in between the child-bearing and rearing, the home-making, Apo (grandmother as we learned to call her) was constant in the shop on St Francois Valley Road: all day, every day. With barely any English of her own, she understood more than she let on. Outside the family and the shop, what was her internal life? Cut off from China, who were her friends?

We know she was devoted to her family. As her younger daughters were growing, she welcomed the grandchildren. SeYon's two girls were born in 1945 and 1947. Henry's eldest boy was born in 1950. Then QuiOn's girls in 1951, 1952 and 1955. Whenever Apo saw us, her face took on a particular glow and half-smile. We were embarrassed by her Chinese-ness, the aggressive intonation, punctuated by "huh!" We didn't even understand her English, so we communicated in food, much of which my father her son learned to make: the steamed sponge cake; soup cooked in a whole winter melon; char siu bao.
Young Tai Yow, mother of three daughters, grand-mother of 12 grand-daughters, great-grandmother of many!
She was a strong stubborn determined woman. Maybe she had no choice in being a wife, but it didn't alter or affect the mother she was.  Though not independent in her day - it wasn't fashionable then - she fostered self-reliance and independence in her children, especially the daughters. And generations of daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters will be hard-headed, wilful and "own way" in their own times. That's the Tai Yow gene!

(This is written to honour women everywhere who struggle to raise families, to assert selfhood, to remain "useful" to the end, on International Women's Day 2015. Let us remember and be grateful for what we have from our mothers, grand-mothers, aunties, sisters and our own daughters!)