Trinidadian Architecture Before and After Independence

out front
This was a very modern adaptation of bungalow styled homes.

Initially, I wanted save architectural heritage. Not actively lashing out at the government, picketing or non-violently obstructing bulldozers, but I wanted to save an image of national heritage in my photographs. I don’t claim to be a photographer, but I have an interest in photography and apparently, in old buildings with unsaid significance. After traveling around POS, driving through Diamond Vale and touring the different areas of Trincity, I’ve come to a relatively recent revelation that may contradict a previous blog.

From the beginning I acknowledged that I had a fascination with pre-independence homes. My motivation to take pictures of these houses stemmed from the ongoing controversy concerning conservation. If I were not introduced to the topic at all during my stay in Trinidad, surely I would have taken a few tourist pictures of the homes for my private collection. However, I was informed about the lack of awareness governing the importance of these homes and I deemed it necessary to save some that are on the verge of extinction. Why? Something pulled me in that direction. The houses are beautiful on the surface yet it has so much relevance within the context of Trinidadian history.

In a previous blog, the Phenomenology of Space, I expressed how discouraged I was with the fact that I felt nothing when interacting with various spaces. At the time we were walking in Newtown, but I also felt the same apathy towards older houses in other parts of POS. That was alarming to me because I thought I should feel something, anything, when interacting with the spaces I eagerly expressed interest in before. Now I realize that the nothing I felt was in fact something. Something is pulling me towards these homes, but I cannot articulate what that something might be. I thought that my interest did not go beyond the aesthetics of the house and I watch in amazement every time I pass the magnificent seven, but I had to wait until I photographed a modern house to recognize my appreciation.

Living room
Taking pictures in the Trincity house was difficult because of inefficient light. The dark/light contrast is not intention in this picture as it was in the Gingerbread series.

As I stood outside of the first house in Trincity I found myself looking for things to take pictures of and it was that moment when I realized how my interaction with the older houses are in fact more than nothing. Typically when I photograph pre-independence homes I would point and shoot. Just like that. Everything was intriguing and beautiful; the shapes were extraordinary and the shadows were somehow different from the image it originated from. On the other hand, the bungalow in Trincity did not have the same effect. Instead I had to create reasons explaining why I was taking the picture. For example, the tiled walkway wasn’t interesting to me but I reasoned that since old houses were also tiled it was significant to compare the two, so I took a picture. I was not interacting with the house on the same level as the old ones and worse yet was when I took pictures of the interior.

Taking shots of the interior was extremely difficult because the lighting was terrible. When I photographed another version of the Gingerbread house I did not depend on artificial light. Breeze and light passed through the house freely and it was more than enough to take pictures while keeping my body at a comfortable temperature. The Trincity house was dark and even though the homeowners explained that they knocked down walls to open up the space, it was too difficult to capture images (unless I had a tripod). Interacting with the spaces in Trincity proved that the structure of a house crucially influences the way people feel and maneuver within the space.

After I left the gingerbread house I felt as though I wasn’t finished, like I still needed to take more pictures. Of what? I have no idea, because the house was small and I don’t think I missed too many architectural details. If I went back I would be capturing the same type of images, but after photographing the bungalows in Trincity I felt quite opposite. Once I stopped taking pictures, that was it, I did not want or feel the urge to take more. The houses in Trincity were different from the pre-independence houses I encountered throughout Trinidad. I am always amazed to see wooden structures surrounded by concrete houses in areas like Tunapuna and Arima. It just reminds me that at one point all of the houses looked like gingerbread houses with detailed fretwork and front porches. Interestingly enough, I think it is easier to find a deteriorating house than to find an untouched bungalow. It was common to find renovated bungalows in Trincity but people are less likely to renovate colonial houses. Perhaps that can attributed to the fact that it’s easier to maintain a bungalow since concrete does not deteriorate as fast as wood.

The materials used nowadays are not very conducive to the environment; however, lamenting on the past does not really change anything. Yes, the older homes are beautiful photographic specimans, but people are not intersted in functional beauty they are more intersted in dysfuncctional progression. Simplicity and comfort comes with a price.

Already Grieving for an Imminent Loss

The Boissiere house a.k.a. The Gingerbread house front view taken from across the street. Click for more images from the NY Times article.

Within the first week of being in Trinidad, I was introduced to a prevalent issue surrounding the value of architectural heritage. While on a tour of Port of Spain, the Boissiere house was pointed out to my group and a few words were said about its current state of neglect. Those words stuck out to me so much that weeks later I expressed interest in expanding my knowledge on the subject. Almost immediately I was given a list of names to contact for further information. Conversely, I was more interested in capturing these decaying homes rather than talking about them because at the current rate of progress occurring in Trinidad, especially in Port of Spain, these buildings would disappear soon.

Only recently have I been involved in any discussions about the house that initially peeked my interest. After the bus tour and venturing out on my own photographic endeavors, I watched an interview with Colin Laird where he mentioned the importance of the Boissiere house for Trinidad and history. Next, I read blogs written by Nicholas Laughlin and others concerning the issues of the house. Eventually I was able to meet with Sean Leonard and Rudylynn Roberts, both architects, who also have strong opinions about the state of the house. I pulled a lot of information from these readings and interviews to get a good understanding of the significance of the house to the country and people. It is obvious that the controversy surrounding the house stems from the country’s lack of concern in preserving its past. About a year ago, the owners put the Boissiere house up for sale. Greta Elliot (maiden name Boissiere) inhabited the space, but a Scotsman named Edward Bowen imagined it into existence. He lived in Trinidad for quite sometime; therefore it is assumed that he was well acclimated with the climate. If you don’t want to assume, then take some time and analyze the house based on its architectural and structural details.

Honestly, I had no idea I was interested in architecture before coming to Trinidad. However, I attribute this newfound fascination to the ongoing debate concerning the value of architecture in Trinidad. Somehow it makes me feel like I am either experiencing something rare or I am involved in a discussion that will be important for future conversations. If in fact the house is bought and knocked down, I will feel sorrow for the loss Trinidad obliviously allowed, but I would also feel lucky to know that I was able to witness a magnificent building before it disappeared. However if the building does, by some miracle, get an investor who wants to renovate and put it to public use then I will be content knowing that I was aware and somewhat involved in the dispute regarding its status within Trinidadian society. If my children ever said, “Mom, I went to Trinidad for a semester and I saw the Gingerbread house” I will have a story to tell them.

Currently the house in question is stalled, locked up in political and social discrepancy preventing buyers from investing and keeping the bulldozers at bay. One of the people adamant about saving the house is Nicholas Laughlin, a blogger and editor of The Caribbean Review of Books, who has written and kept track of dialogues surrounding the topic. In his February 14th, 2008 article entitled, “Can We Save the Boissiere House,” he talked about the growing trend for destruction. He suggested that the community has waited around too long and should consider putting a stop to the eminent devastation. The Boissiere house should be the last straw, or at least the community should take a stand against this one since many others have already disappeared without much protest. But what stood out to me, and to Mr. Laughlin considering his lengthy response to the same comment, was the anonymous contributor who stated that they wished they could burn the place down themselves.

On the one hand, I could understand why people would associate the heritage of the house with only Greta and her family. However, the house is up for sale, it should not be considered solely the family’s property. Arguing that the building has no relevance to your personal history or Trinidad’s for that matter, suggests that you did not investigate deep enough into the subject. According to Colin Laird, an architect responsible for the National Library and various other restoration projects, the Boissiere house belongs to Trinidad just as much as it belongs to the owners. It is a precious piece of Trinidadian history and should be saved. In any other country it would have already been on the National Trust list because it is unique and tells something about the architecture from that age. If the family is willing to part with the house doesn’t mean that Trinidad should let it go just as easily. Initially I was also under the impression that these homes are not very representative of Trinidadian heritage, but as I have learned, the buildings contain intricate elements that need to be analyzed in order to interpret them. Which is similar to what Mr. Laughlin was saying is his reply to the anonymous commenter. A part of me wished that Mr. Laughlin had replied to another post suggesting an alternative use of the space.

Wrecking the house to make room for a health center may be a good idea. It could be more beneficial to Port of Spain than leaving a dilapidated house to cover over and eventually fall apart on it’s own. But why couldn’t the restored building house the health center? And if space becomes an issue, then you can still argue that the piece of land isn’t very large anyway. As for building vertically, then the new building would resemble the rest of the buildings that stick out as odd formations in Port of Spain. Is it so bad to have a modern business ran inside an old building? After all Mr. Boissiere ran his business from the study.

As the saying goes, there are always two sides to a story. Well, for this story there are about four sides. One concentrates on the family’s reasoning for putting the house up for sale and their ideas about the value of their property. The other story has to do with the potential buyers and their intentions. The third aspect incorporates the conservationists’ speaking out against the treatment of the house. Finally, but probably not last, the forth point of view revolves around the Trinidadian community. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been exposed to the third story the most, I have taken up a position resembling their ideas. Not to say that I don’t have my own opinion concerning conservation, but after some discussions I definitely changed my outlook. It is necessary to have historic buildings open to the public because people are always curious about the past.

To prove my point I’ll go on a little tangent, take for example dinosaur bones which have been found and analyzed to such an extent that archeologist are now able to produce computerized recreations of the earth during that time period. Without those bones, investigation into our past would have been a bit more difficult. Even though no one has any memory of living amongst dinosaurs, their presence still lives on in fossils so that curious humans can deduce stories. Similarly, the Boissiere house is like dinosaur bones in that it may be one of the greatest examples of Trinidad’s past and if the structure remains intact then specialized researchers can delve into the architecture to reveal something about the past. I would argue that it is in human nature to leave something for future generations, so what is being left for the future? Memory is such an important aspect of living and for the anonymous commenter who implied that it is better to leave things to memory, I would ask what happens when memory dies out with the storytellers? Once this house is gone, not even bones will remain; everything will be erased from memory and history. At the very least it will all die with Greta’s children. Saying that something has no meaning to you does not mean that it does not have a meaning to someone else: one mans trash is another mans treasure.

The interior front room of the Boissiere house also taken from the NY Times article

Not only does the exterior of the house say something about the family and about Trinidad, but so does the interior design and usage. Coming from an architect, Sean Leonard, I respect his opinions about the architectural value of the Boissiere house. It has some very unique aspects that you can’t really find anywhere else in Trinidad. You can tell that the people who lived there had money, more than likely they were plantation owners because that is what Trinidad was at the time when this house was built. More than likely The Gingerbread house was a vacation home for the family. However, I doubt that many people know about the house beyond its pretty structure. For one, it represents a past that many don’t want to relive, but Sean thinks that there is more to be said about the history separate from oppressive memories. Now is a good time to tell people about these features of the house, so that citizens can learn why it is necessary to be grateful for this building and others like it, which are disappearing fast.

Unbeknownst to Sean, he mentioned something that clearly had a deeper meaning than intended. Numerous times during the conversation he would call it The Gingerbread House as if to say that it is the official name of the house. This whole idea of a house having a name is also quite interesting because naming something infers that you are giving it meaning and presence. The fact that the house has been dubbed The Gingerbread House long before any talk of selling, buying or demolishing proves that it has already been accepted as an important feature in society. So why do people ignore this fact and let it sit in ruin?

We can assume money has a huge role in dictating the treatment of the house. Mrs. Elliot put the house up for sale approximately a year ago for 60 million TT because, we assume, she needs the money and because the house is hard to maintain. That price has since reduced to 23 million; clearly she knew that the house is worth a lot. As soon as one hole is fixed, ten more will surface and that can get stressful for a homeowner. It’s quite obvious that if anyone were to buy the house the easy way out would be to demolish it. Not many people are willing to buy the house, pay more than the asking price to restore and renovate it, then willingly give it back to the community, much less keep up with maintenance for the rest of the time they own the property. That is why it would make more sense for the government to buy the land, fix the house and reuse the area. Granted, as noted in the NY Times, some people have invested large sums of money in remodeling their old homes, but they are a few of a handful.

As for the government actually taking responsibility for the house, Mr. Leonard knows that a document was drafted roughly 15 years ago listing the various places that should be protected. Unfortunately, the National Trust has not come to a consensus, why? The February 26th article in The Express by Andre Bagoo provided one explanation: a “bureaucratic disagreement.” In addition, the government claims to have no money to invest in these types of projects. Never mind they just built a National Academy for Performing Arts for a large sum of money and currently building a theater for the Prime Minister in his backyard. For some reason Trinidad has the mentality that it is better to move forward with modern structures while leaving the past in the dust. In some ways it is disrespectful to our ancestors to disregard their communal efforts.

It’s a shame to see any of the unprotected historical buildings go, and if anyone was still alive who had a helping hand in creating one of the buildings lost to modernization, then I am sure that a part of them is hurt. To know you put so much effort into an activity and to see or hear it was wiped away in a matter of hours is traumatizing. In a way national pride, which was not something I associated with conservation, is damaged. Mr. Leonard introduced the idea to me by prefacing with the fact that Trinidad didn’t have to pay so much money for their football team to go to World Cup qualifying match. But they did and it helped to increase national pride because everyone was walking around sporting their flags and proudly supporting the 11 players on the field. In the same way, maintaining and keeping these houses would boost the pride of the laborers knowing that they/their ancestors were responsible for putting together such a great creation that is nationally known, respected and valued as a piece of Trinidadian heritage and culture.

On a deeper level, is it possible that the act of realizing some buildings need to be saved is indicative of modernization? The acknowledgement that there is a past and it is worth saving is something that developing societies can identify. So in addition to building structures that look more like they fit in a different city, Trinidad could demonstrate their intellectual tolerance by recognizing that the past is worth saving.

As a woman who already recognizes that the past is worth preserving, Rudylynn Roberts, architect renowned for restoration work and founding member of Citizens for Conservation, reminisced about a time when she triumphantly helped to push a part of Trinidad’s past further into the future. You should have seen her, her eyes lit up and a slight smile peeked through the inner turmoil constantly and unknowingly expressed on her face. But even though she is stressed about her work, Trinidad, the economy, the new building, the prime minister, she couldn’t help but to show a sliver of happiness as she rehashed the successful story of the George Brown House and birth of Citizens for Conservation.

Approximately 20 years ago, a house built and designed by George Brown in 1888 was in danger of being demolished. George Brown was an important architectural contributor to Trinidad beginning in 1883. He was responsible for fireproofing buildings, utilizing cast iron in functional manner and introduced fretwork. He is responsible for producing and influencing the unique buildings that are in danger or being torn down now. According to John Newel-Lewis, another architect and author of Ajoupa, “Port of Spain without George Brown? ...[would have looked] attractive but without class, without style and without panache,” which is why the house should be restored instead of demolished. So when Mrs. Roberts received the call from a friend who saw the bulldozers situated near the residence, she quickly responded. Immediately, Mrs. Roberts rallied as many people she could, approximately five, went down to the house locked arms and stopped the demolition. Within a day T-shirts were printed saying “Save the George Brown House”, a vigil was scheduled; radio announcements and flyers promoted the protest against destruction of the house and within two days the Prime Minister arrived on site. There were hundreds of people around the area all standing in support of keeping and preserving the house, hard to imagine since the same thing is happening now with a different house, but the reactions are not the same.

Rudylynn Roberts asserted that the Boissiere house is probably one of the best examples of Caribbean style architecture. What does that really mean? As I’ve discussed in Architectural Heritage with Rudylynn Roberts what makes a building distinctly Caribbean depend on two things. The fact that it was built to fit the climate of the country and the laborers were local. This house was undoubtedly constructed with the country’s climate in mind and almost every structural design has a function.

Noticeably, the house was built off of the ground, which is one of the most distinctive features of a Caribbean structure. Building a house on stilts allowed for privacy. As I’ve noticed, many Trinidadian homes are built rather close to the street and having the house raised from the ground gave a bit of privacy. Not only that, but air flowed under the house which helped to circulate cool breeze throughout the house. Lastly and most importantly, it kept the timber/floor dry to prevent rotting. This idea of building on stilts was taken from the adjoupa, Amerindian style of constructing homes. It is amazing to still see evidence of such a distant past in a relatively modern structure now almost irreversibly damaged.

As mentioned, Amerindians indirectly had some influence the design of the house, but so has other cultures/countries, thus giving it the rightful title of Creole. For instance the pagoda is a style taken from Chinese construction, who have also inspired the painted glass in the study. The architect was of Scottish decent and the fretwork and cast iron was imported from Scotland. Italian workers had a hand at painting the fresco inside the house. And the wrap-around porch was distinctively from the Spaniards/French. Functionally, the porch was essential for preventing direct sunlight from entering the front room. It became a cool place for families to sit and interact with the community; people would eat, people watch, play games, everything on their porch. Nowadays, everyone is locked indoors with air conditioning limiting socialization. All of these different styles could be found in other areas of the world, but here they are combined and implemented in a way that is specific and unique to the Caribbean.

Another structural technique used to build houses, which can also be found in The Gingerbread house lay within the wooden beams. Framing the house, these structural support beams were covered by a lime mortar and brick, incidentally ideal for the climate. Lime mortar allowed the stones/walls to breathe. It is more flexible and softer than Portland, cement that is often used in restoration, so when the ground moved the bricks could adjust easily. It is not advised that Portland cement be used to restore a building, although it is being used in some cases, because the cement is too rigid and could cause cracking in the walls over time. Also the lime mortar will allow moisture to escape via evaporation faster to keep the walls dry. Ironically, if Trinidad decided to go green (as suggested as reply post to Mr. Langhlin’s blog), the Boissiere house would probably be more environmentally friendly than the newer, more modern buildings.

boissiere house north gable by nicholaslaughlin.
Notice all of the opportunities for air to flow, even on the side of the house. See Nicholas Laughlin's photo collection of the Boissiere house.

As mentioned, Citizens for Conservation was created shortly after the George Brown uprising; the members vowed to help preserve as many buildings representative of Trinidad’s heritage. Unfortunately their efforts are futile. It seems as though their most successful project occurred some 20 years ago and now it’s not their fault that so many buildings are disappearing from the county. They have left a list of only 30 buildings (and trust me, there is a 10 page list out there) that the National Trust should consider protecting under law, but that list is seldom discussed. The new project for Citizens for Conservation has to do with tax breaks for the people who are living and restoring their own historically significant buildings. And even though the National Trust is not making much of an impact as yet, they are in the process of trying to gather money for the already inhabited homes in need of repair. When asked about the current state of the organization, Ms. Roberts mentioned that people are tired. There are rarely any new, young, energetic members willing to put up with the constant let down. Most of the members have been doing this for 20 years and Mrs. Roberts is one of the youngest.

A part of me thinks that if I had this conversation with Mrs. Roberts in September I would have been much more involved with Citizens for Conservation. So far, I have been a below-the-radar supporter of maintaining these nationally recognized, but locally ignored establishments. However, the few people I’ve interacted with have strongly voiced their Mr. Laughlin thinks the house is important to society, Mr. Laird sees it as a indispensable caricature of Trinidadian heritage, Mr. Leonard believes that it will further improve national pride and Mrs. Roberts simply wants to preserve the integrity of old Trinidad in a developing environment. Obviously, each person shared the same opinion: the Boissiere house should be saved. It surprises me that the value of this house is only understood or voiced by such a small group of people. Then again, a popular overseas newspaper (the NY Times) published an article, “A Painted Lady in Distress,” summarizing the discussion of architectural conservation in Trinidad, with a focus on the Boissiere house. The NY Times article should have been an advantage for the conservationists’ yet little has changed since the day the house was put for sale. In theory, now that a foreign paper is expressing the same thoughts as some of the locals, the country will take heed to the quiet pleas and find a way to invest and save this national treasure.

The Phenomenology of Space

While walking down the streets of Newtown I was asked to explain any senses I had about the space? I couldn’t say it then because I was worried I would seem too disconnected from my work, but honestly I felt nothing. No thoughts came to mind, no words came out of my mouth, not even a bullshit sentence. How do I articulate a scholarly response reflecting deep analysis when I barely have any opinion on the matter? I get the impression that I am supposed to know exactly what it is I am supposed to accomplish and have some answer to the prompt, but this is not the case. As I walked down, up and through the streets nothing about the use of space stuck out to me. What I did notice of course was the gradual move towards a more modern form of settlement. There were few houses with fretwork and even fewer made of wood. Beyond those two architectural characteristics, I am at a complete loss.

I am ashamed to admit that felt absolutely nothing as I walked past these houses and I can not begin to "read" now these spaces are inhabited. My mind rarely questions the lifestyle of the people in the space, yet oddly I do have an unexpected appreciation for the structure. Anytime I see a building I focus on the exterior, I look for unique features, contemplate the purpose/ function and continue about my way. However after reading The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, I was able to somewhat formulate what it is that intrigues me. On a very subconscious level, I am responding to the physical manifestation of imagination.

The author relates the experience of reading poetry to the type of daydreams people have about their childhood homes. The emotional connections felt when one reads a piece of work is similar to the phenomenology of inhabiting intimate spaces. He suggests that the house is a physical manifestation of imagination; the space is first designed in the mind and eventually becomes a protective (thought up by architects) and comforting (created by the residences) shelter. People want to protect themselves from what they fear (the outside world) by building a shelter to enclose themselves in safety.

One example of this lies within an aspect of inhabiting space that I so easily overlooked. Although I’ve noticed and registered the fact that Trinidadian houses are very close, I turned a blind eye to it because I did not know what else to say about the proximity. I just thought that people were short on space here so it was necessary to built houses close to each other, but maybe it is more than that. According to Bachelard, the closeness is a way to make residences feel safer because they know they are near a helpful neighbor. And another trend he touched on that I hadn't pieced together on my own was the idea that houses have minimal interaction with the environment and becomes artificially/superficially constructed the closer it gets to a city surrounding. While it is happening at a slow rate, I agree that the houses built now, especially near major city-like areas, stand out visually, structurally and in terms of its functioning within the environment. No longer do they have pleasantly useful architecture that infers a certain amount of information about the creativity of the architect while still effectively utilizing the climate of the country.

At Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, I had taken a “Science in Art” course where the art world had been revealed to me. I wonder if artists intentionally created artwork. While there are some situations where some pieces dubbed “art” was created intentionally, we had looked at a few where accidental masterpieces. As with the case of Van Gough, who painted over some of his own paintings proved that he was more interested in expressing his imaginative ideas rather than displaying art. What he created was not for art sake but he painted because he wanted to show what was in his mind. In a similar fashion, the architects have created houses and other buildings originating in their imagination. I realize that I am fascinated with the fact that people think these functional houses into existence.

Furthermore the book helped me to see that my phenomenological experience may just be very different from others. It’s expected that my personal history affects my initial interaction with each house, which would be different from someone who has lived here long enough to see the gradual changes. For instance, it’s incredible that Christopher Cozier can easily point out 1930’s glass or the approximate year a fence would have been built or surmise that a house was renovated more than once in two different eras. Either way, he seems very knowledgeable about the subject and it is evident that he experiences and interacts with the same space on a different level. I’ve been told that I am too oblivious to my surroundings, maybe that is why it's so hard for me to verbalize my phenomenological encounters with these spaces.

Architectural Heritage with Rudylynn Roberts

An abstract representation of "Progress" in Trinidad. Here we see past, present and future all in one image.

On November 6th I attended a lecture at UWI given by Rudylynn Roberts about architectural heritage. For the past two or so months I've been wondering exactly what architectural heritage means, i.e. why do we consider certain edifices and/or houses to be important enough for later generations to experience? It’s not as if I do not perceive the nostalgia of these buildings, but what exactly do they say about the culture? Of course, some buildings clearly represent the past; there are old colonial buildings from different eras including the Spanish, French and whoever else. Interestingly enough many of the architects were not Trinidadian, which added to my confusion. Why are these pre-independent buildings culturally significant even though the Trinidadian imagination is exempt? What do they have to offer a modern society, besides a pretty version of a not-so distant, tormented past?
I read Architectural Heritage of the Caribbean by Andrew Gravette hoping to get a straight-forward understanding of the meaning of the term. The first few words in the first chapter talked about climate and emphasized how important it was for architecture to be able to survive within the natural surroundings. One of the simplest ideas I initially overlooked was the fact that the Spaniards who came here probably knew little about construction, so they would have had to follow an already established (working) structure. They took ideas from the Amerindians (Ajoupa) and incorporated some of their own ideas to make a Creole version of what they were accustomed to seeing. This implies that every structure has some element of Amerindian influence and therefore has some value to a society that knows little about Amerindians. And as the years passed by, even the imported peoples found ways to integrate their modifications on the Trinidadian "style".

In conjunction with Mrs. Roberts talk, I gathered that the main reason for dubbing buildings culturally symbolic and representative of heritage has to do with: 1. the effectiveness of the building within the natural surroundings and 2. the creativity of the architect. According to Mrs. Roberts, it's not about the original nationality of the architect, but their intent for creating the designs. On the other hand, nationality is important to note for the people who labored to make the imagined designs come into existence. The houses were built by Trinidadians and designed by foreigners for Trinidad. So we have to look at architecture as an important aspect of Trinidadian heritage because it implicitly connects the people to a tangible structure.
The talk as well as some of my own photographic evidence highlighted aspects of Trinidadian architecture that are somewhat unique to the country. The tiles, fretwork and glass used generally added charm while increasing functionality within the environment. Even though some of the materials were imported to Trinidad, the way they were implemented is what made it unique to the region. I have been trying to document these rapidly disappearing houses. Just by existing in this modern society, these houses silently impose a kind of significance. Christopher Cozier mentioned how the same architecture people are getting rid of now had once been tourist attractions. Exactly what has replaced this type of attraction? Will people come to Trinidad to see the big skyscrapers and large industrial factories? For now, it seems as though the government and most citizens are disinterested in trying to preserve a past window into their history and artistry. Trinidad does not value what they had, instead they insist on knocking down the old in favor of propagating an image of a modern and developing nation. Perhaps, they are trying to free themselves from this notion of being a tourist island and working on having a more sustainable economy.

Creative Spaces in Trinidad

Alice Yard is currently undergoing construction. Somehow the small space in a tiny backyard will be expanded to accommodate a variety of artists.

Being around the creators of Alice Yard, a space for imaginative and creative people, I keep hearing over and over how Trinidad lacks "artsy" spaces. It's as if the whole island is indirectly trying to neglect the local artists. The establishments created to promote creative expression in Trinidad do little to motivate and support local artists. Andre Bagoo comments in his blog about some of the ways in which Trinidad is trying to improve their creative centers (to read more click here). In some ways people believe that Trinidad does not encourage creative expression, even though this country is famous for their whimsical two-day costumed Carnival. Somehow I was still shocked when my newly-made Trinidadian friend told me via facebook chat that this place doesn’t have the market for photographers. And I wondered what that meant? What place has a market for photographers?

In my opinion, artists always struggle to find a market for their work. Sure an add may be placed in the Newspaper for a studio or wedding photographers, but it's rare to see an art gallery searching for art work. The market for photographers, or any form of art, needs to be created by the artist. It doesn't matter where one goes, the market for art will always be a tough area to penetrate, but the options which help to create the demand is the key component, not the market itself.

Options for increasing creativity among the public include having buildings such as museums, art galleries, organizations geared towards inspiring young or old artists, even institutionalized programs, etc. But for some reason, I was under the impression that there are no museums in Trinidad, no art galleries, no option to express and showcase imagination. Interestingly enough, the more I research (online) and venture out the more I find that it is just not so. For example The National Museum and Art Gallery is in Port of Spain, which has two smaller branches of museums. There are other small art galleries throughout the island so it's not that the art world is non-existent, but there just aren't many outlets. However, the options are still available and seemingly expanding.

So far I have been taken to three art galleries, three more than I expected to visit in Trinidad, honestly. I was taken to In2Art, a gallery in St. Ann's, which is basically a hole in the wall. When we pulled up to the building, I thought it was just the entrance to an apartment building. Granted it looked freshly painted and the door seemed brand new, I couldn’t believe this was a gallery. However, when I walked into the space there was a refreshing cleanliness reminiscent of a typical gallery. The walls were stark white, fluorescent lights brightened the space and detached walls separated areas of the room. According to the curator there were three rooms and I thought to myself, "how could they possibly fit three rooms in this small building," but it was well done. At the time The Tallman Foundation, an organization that promotes artistic expression in young adults and teenagers throughout Trinidad, had their work on display. These adolecent artists had photographs depicting Hope, Love and Faith on every wall of the gallery; there was even a video recording of the purpose and drive for the work showing in the back room for anyone interested.

Horizons Art Gallery was another place I visited that seemed spaciously small. Comprised of two buildings, side by side, where one was the gallery and the other was a sort of gallery shop, Horizons displayed beautiful oil paintings by Harry Bryden. Although the images highlight an overly romanticized past, the creations are still very pleasing to the eye. The artist is of Trinidadian ancestry, which (similar to In2Art) was another example of Trinidadian art displayed in a Trinidadian gallery. A part of me expected to see non-Trinidadian art at these galleries, so it was nice to see Bryden's work on display in a somewhat nostalgic looking building. The outside of the building had fretwork, however the inside lacked the past characteristics so elegantly portrayed in the paintings and exterior design.

Soft Box Art Gallery "Hallway for Display" shows how paintings are on showcased on the walls similar to family pictures in a home.

Located in St. Clair, the restored old house turned art gallery seemed too small for the amount of paintings on display. Dispite the limitations of the building, the curators have done a wonderful job of making the space feel bigger than it looks. Artwork was displayed in nearly every room including the kitchen and a small sitting area. The only areas I did not see artwork were in the storage room and photo studio. A small commercial photography studio is run in the same building, so even though there was no art on display the rooms still had an arty vibe. I thought it was an interesting use of space because it examplifies one way Trinidad could invest in supporting their local artists while preserving architectural history.

The building was renovated but still had many of the old characteristics. The fretwork was still very visible on the exterior, however glass covered the inside fretwork so that cool air wouldn’t escape through the old ventilation system. There was still old tile work on the floor in one of the gallery rooms, which gave it a different feel from the dark hard wood floor at the entrance and in the hall. Even though the building is a gutted and repacked version of a house, it still felt homely to some extent.

All of this is to say that, while I am not very versed or experienced with Trinidadian art, from an outsiders perspective the place seems to promote artistic expression. Whether that comes from a national level, private organization or instigated by the community is not a huge concern. The fact is that there are some very nice spaces willing to display local artwork.

For more images of art spaces in Trinidad, click here.

A Tiled Car Park in Trinidad

Tile in a Carpark
"Tile in the Car Park" shows the tile work (probably) left over from a house that once occupied the same space where the car park is now situated.

While walking along the streets of Port of Spain, we come across a seemingly normal space: a parking lot. Nowadays it is normal to see car parks, but has anyone ever stopped to wonder what used to occupy this very space? Highly doubtful. I've been told that Trinidadians like to live in the moment, in the present, with little focus on the past or future. With that ideology, I really don't expect many people to notice the odd usage of this space. Honestly, I too walked blindingly past the parking lot the first time and if it weren't for my mentor I would never have known the difference.

Christopher Cozier made sense of it, he explained that some quintessential pieces of architecture are being destroyed and, in its place, car parks or office buildings are created. I do not know what it is, whether people cannot afford to keep the house in working condition or if they are just selling it for the large sums of money. Maybe people are fed up trying to salvage a rotten house. Perhaps it is easier for the owners to give up the homes, but for what? More wealth, which would be spent paying off the higher electricity bill because of the overuse of air conditioning? Either way these culturally symbolic homes are being wiped out.

Some may argue that it's more beneficial for the community to have space for parking as opposed to having a worn down house. After seeing the spontaneous street parking (talk about creating space where none is provided) it is not a wonder why car parks are necessary. In some cases, cars would park facing the opposite directions on the same side of the street. For this and many more reasons, putting down concrete where a house used to be is necessary for the foward movement of Trinidad, or so it is believed. To any unsuspecting passerby, the parking lot was a great way to clear up the road for moving cars.

Opposite facing cars
Here are "Opposite Facing Cars" parked on the street, not in the car park, still taking up road needed for driving.

This particular car park is on St. Clair. It is situated between three houses, one on the left, right and behind it. I guess this isn't a huge difference, but I am accustomed seeing parking lots next to stores or at least down the street. Maybe I must have missed the store, but as far as I know, there was none immediately close by. To me, just the fact that the car park is an empty area between houses hints at the previous domestic use of the space.

The second piece of evidence eluding to this theory is the fence in front of the car park. The details and design of the fence is, if nothing else, reminiscent of the old types (which are scarcely found in Port of Spain). Assuming that iron rusts after a long period of time, it's possible that the fence has been standing for many years and still is even though the house it once enclosed is gone.

Finally, the final clue is the tile under the fence. It gives away the previous use of the space because it stands out the most. The tile work adds a hint of unique beauty to the otherwise plain looking car park. Tiling was and, probably still is, popular in homes, so the fact that tile is under the fence really gets the point across. Maybe people don't want to live in the past, but why not demolish the whole site instead of leaving these historically insignificant objects to taunt Trinidadians who actually remember.

Although I say insignificant, which does no justice to my sentiments about the space, what I really mean to say is that the non-existent physical structure could have expressed a story or revealed some sort of history. The architecture could have been a great way to keep Trinidad's culture and heritage alive, but it's a bit too late for those hopes. All that is left are these easily forgotten, quick to walk past with no second thought, objects that imply a deeper meaning.

For more Car Park pictures CLICK HERE

Preserved 1930's Trinidad House

This image was taken in the front room where the majority of the family photos are displayed. This particular one is entitled "Portrait" for obvious reasons.

My name is Stanita Clarke and I am a Trinity College student studying in Trinidad for a semester. I chose to spend half of my senior year in Trinidad because of all the wonderful stories previous study abroad students have shared with me. So far, Trinidad is treating me very well, I am not sick nor is it snowing. With that said, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to learn in such a comfortable environment. As a student I am compelled to submerge myself in the world of academia. One aspect of my learning experience is to investigate Trinidad through photography. I am currently working on a series of images pertaining to the unique architecture in Trinidad. My hope is to preserve the memory of the "old" Trinidad, even though a more modern Trinidad is progressively taking over the country.

My first set of images are of a house in Port of Spain on Piccadilly Street. Dubbed the "Gingerbread House", possibly for its ostentatious wood work and extremely pointed roof-tops is an example of Trinidad's past struggling to survive modernization. I am told by my mentor, Christopher Cozier, that these houses are on the brink of extinction. So many of them have been bulldozed that it is becoming more and more uncommon to witness such marvelous structures. Which is a shame because they reflect so much about Trinidadian culture. Not only does the outside depict architectural work specific and unique to Trinidad, but the inside conveys particular details about what people cherish and how a home is put together.

According to the owners, the house was built in the 1930's by a Trinidadian architect. They have lived in it for 55 years (1954) and managed to keep almost everything original. The kitchen and bathroom were the only areas completely renovated mainly because of inconvenience. The kitchen was located outside behind of the house, but now that they have extended the house further back the kitchen is incorporated into the house. Some repainting and touch-ups have been done just to keep the place vibrant. It is becoming a common trend for windows to be boarded up so that air conditioning could provide the cool breeze. But as I have experienced, the open windows and fretwork around the top of the house allows enough breeze in to keep the family cool, not cold.

Front Door
The whole house was brightly lit with natural sunlight streaming in from the "Front Door" and neumerous windows strategically placed throughout the house.
Link to my first photo set here.

At one point the Gingerbread House was considered a modern structure, but never Western. Now, these houses are being replaced by buildings that fit Westernized standards rather than fitting into the climate/environment of Trinidad. I am not sure if Trinidad has realized the saying (as yet):" You never know what you've got 'til it is gone."

Trinity of Trinidad

I’ve spent the past four months living and studying in Trinidad and Tobago, pressed with the challenge of photographing and documenting aspects of the culture. On a straightforward level, I assigned myself the topic of exploring the performance of religion in Trinidad, as well as the performance of mas during Carnival season. Along the way, I’ve experienced culture shock while trying to negotiate the temporal and special cultural differences embedded in the flow of everyday life. The issues that face any photographer were a regular struggle: developing an eye, communicating with the subject, arranging composition and form. Yet because I was an American student transplanted into a different country, I had to be aware of the history of colonialism and ‘orientalism’ that shaped the foundation of Trinidad, and how European/American photographic history in the Caribbean has reflected a colonizer/colonized narrative, as the European eye visually controlled its subjects, recasting the landscape to fit a mold of economic exploitation and tourism which highlighted the ‘native’ and the exotic. Keeping this in mind, Trinidad has confronted me with my own identity within a new space. I am a young, white American female with privilege and access to institutionalized education. I am leaving mainstream ‘normative’ American culture to foray into a Caribbean locale of religious and performative tradition, all of which have been shaped in relation with the colonizer discourse. I have to be mindful of the idea of a camera as a weapon for controlling, recasting, and stating truths that may exist only in my mind. But at the same time the camera can be merely an open, absorbing receptacle to an existing landscape – allowing the camera to function as an unconscious extension of my cultural encounters, of my personal background and my emotions, and my individual eye and visual perceptions. My photographs have concentrated primarily on the theme of performance. Carnival is all about playing mas, becoming a character, and through that character or alternate persona, really being you in a liberated, transcendental state. I find that sort of emancipation through performance is similar within religious tradition as well. Trinidad and Tobago is saturated with religious imagery and rituals, from Hindu pujas to Catholic burials to Shouter Baptist celebrations. The rituals are performative in nature – religion is a communal event, connecting people to each other and to the idea of another spiritual dimension. And as a photographer, I find the matrix of colors and forms to be revealing, a creation of a visual language to explain the unconscious. I don’t pretend to be an expert at any of this. My entire experience here has been very amateur: only skimming the surface of what it means to be Trinidadian. But this encounter has provided me with a re-evaluation of myself and how I can connect to this liberation narrative, finding out how much of me is about being American, and how much of me truly belongs to a wider community.


Catholics gather in the early hours of Good Friday to watch the re-enactment of Jesus Christ’s trial and crucifixion through the Stations of the Cross at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Tunapuna, Trinidad.

Probably the first striking thing about Trinidad and Tobago is the way space is conceptualized and utilized differently than in America. Architecture comes in a variety of forms: modern, Western cityscapes exist side-by-side with empty lots, homes put together from spare materials, marketplaces erected in the shadow of a KFC. The space seems entirely human made, rather than sterile and mass-produced. Even the writings of a menu on the wall, or the business hours of a store, are hand painted. People move seamlessly through these industrial and rural spaces, as they always seem joined together. Trinidadian time moves differently as well, not necessarily in the linear, frantic pace I’m accustomed to in New York. Things happen when they happen, and moving somewhere can be as much as part of the experience as actually arriving or accomplishing the goal. The way people occupy space has caught my attention. It has taught me to see Trinidad in terms of spatial movement: how the landscape reflects layers of experiences. Empty space is as significant as ‘meaningful’ space.

Cultural Encounter

A gravedigger dances while assisting in the burial of Parang singer Tito Lara at the Santa Cruz R.C. Church, as family members look on.
One of my first true “cultural shocks” in Trinidad was when I attended the Catholic funeral of Tito Lara, a Parang singer in Santa Cruz. His funeral was highly publicized, as he was a well-known and beloved member of the community, and in attendance were family, friends, and Trinidadians from all over the country that came to pay respects. I was caught off guard upon entering the Church grounds: the space was occupied by numerous people, sitting, standing, liming among the graves, which were organized rather haphazardly; they were dug in a seemingly random manner, often blending into the environment as they were covered with dirt, grass and leaves. This contrasted significantly with my American funeral and graveyard experiences, which are always very pristine, sterile, and tightly organized. The Catholic funerals I’ve attended at home made a point, it seemed, to distance the event from what it really means to be dead and buried. Family members left the graveyard before the burial of the coffin, whereas at this funeral, the coffin was lowered into the ground as the crowd looked on, crying, singing, and tossing dirt from the earth onto the coffin. It was practically a transcendental experience for me, as I was thrust into the crowd, and ordered to take pictures by people standing around the grave. I was nervous with adrenaline and unfamiliarity: I was standing practically barefoot in the very dirt that was picked up to toss onto the coffin and sealed into the ground. It was difficult to locate myself in this chaos of noise and movement, and I sort of let the camera take over and connect with my instincts, using it as a barrier between the experience and myself. I would absorb and process the event much later, but in the moment, the camera functioned as a cultural translator for me, recording a time for my consideration later, when I was at a safe distance. This reflects a tension that I had while photographing almost all events in Trinidad. I had only academic, second hand knowledge of what would be occurring at the event, and while I was inside the moment, I had to balance between becoming overwhelmed by the new experience and taking a detached, documentary viewpoint. I tried to let the camera speak for me, to pick up what was happening and perhaps the photographs would bear testament to my own confusion and misunderstandings.

Personal Encounter

A girl works a marketplace both in the streets of Siparia during La Divina Pastora, a religious festival held on Holy Thursday. The statue of La Divina Pastora, kept by the local Catholic Church, is shrouded in myth and is said to have miraculous powers. Every year, Hindus migrate to the site to pray and give offerings to the statue and the poor, as an Indian bazaar is held in the streets around the Church to accommodate visitors.

Perhaps one of the most obvious experiences I encountered while photographing in Trinidad is the danger of reducing subjects, who are, to me, “foreign”, as “others”, especially in the historical and social context of colonialism and racial exploitation. As a white American, I had to be aware of the role I might play and assumptions I might make: that Trinidadian culture is foreign, not “modern”. That I might frame what I see only in terms of differences from my American experience. The cultural encounters had me as an outsider trying to find meaning in a visual experience, and I was afraid to disrespect the event by focusing on the wrong aspect, framing the event as something it was not, or something I mistakenly assumed it to be. I was often uncomfortable to approach strangers with my camera, using it to capture them for my own edification. During La Divina Pastora, many people swarmed in the streets of the bazaar, selling and buying, interacting with intensity. I took this opportunity of movement and confusion to prepare myself mentally with determination that I would take portraits, no matter what, and without really showing ‘mercy’ to people. I wouldn’t be shy, I wouldn’t ask permission, I would just use the camera to surreptitiously get a sense of how people looked during a transaction. One of my favorite portraits is when I aimed my camera at a young girl looking rather bored as her mother completed such a transaction. She was staring away when I raised the camera, but as I clicked, she turned towards me. She has a rather intense look on her face. I felt that my determination to get shots of people was matched in her gaze: we were both staring each other down. This was a moment when I was able to get more comfortable using a camera in Trinidad.

Form and Shape

Children in mas pass by an old building during Children’s Carnival in downtown Port-of-Spain.

Something I liked to experiment with was the idea of seeing beyond what was objectively the surface of an image. For instance, catching the backs of children’s mas during their carnival, the way the free-flow of their white costume was a stark contrast to the old, weathered building in the streets of Port-of-Spain. Art against an institution of function. One of my failings is that I am not very skilled at interpreting meaning in the moments of photographing. I tend to find interesting quirks and forms afterward. Sometimes I can sense when there is an interesting contrast happening, but I am not able to fully process it until later. Finding shapes, colors and lines within a mundane setting is one of the aesthetic things that I enjoy about photography. I am interested in using different perspectives, forcing myself physically to move my body to lower or higher levels, to see something in a new way.


Players in Carnival Tuesday pass by a homeless man in downtown Port-of-Spain

The image of the Caribbean as exported to the rest of the world is one of sun, sea, and sand. A vacation, a paradise. Yet this imaging is constructed by those who wield power and influence, who are exerting their control over place to market it to other Americans/Europeans. Trinidad is outside the predominant tourist industry, but it is still presented as a place to lime, a “get away” from the “real” world, a place of music and fun. The realities and context of the Caribbean need to be considered when photographing. It should not be objectified as either a tourist paradise, nor should the poverty and distress be a central focus either, which renders the Caribbean as destitute, in need of help that only “first world” countries can offer. Trinidad is much deeper than that.

Historical Context

Shouter Baptists celebrate the annual holiday of Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, which commemorates the repeal of the 1951 Shouter Prohibition Ordinance, which forbid Shouter Baptists from gathering to practice their religion.

Trinidad is a land of struggle and emancipation. The country’s history is riddled with suppression of freedoms and creative self-expression, and tension among different ethnic and religious groups. The Shouter Baptists were prevented from practicing their religion by the government, for example. When photographing, it’s helpful to be aware of the nation’s history, to pick up on the significance of certain events, such as the marginalization of certain peoples, and what the social norms are in terms of religious identity. Shouter Baptists tend to be on the margins of society, as they fuse Christianity with African traditional religious practices, which can be seen as threatening.

Deconstructing Cultural Synthesis

A vendor sells framed images of Jesus along with various Hindu devas and devis during La Divina Pastora in Siparia. The event brings together Hindus and Catholics, as Catholics worship during Holy Thursday mass, and Hindus pray and give offerings to the statue.

Trinidad is a multi-cultural society featuring the encounter between Africans, Indians, Chinese, Europeans, all sharing different languages, religions, and traditions. There are many divisive lines between these cultures, yet what is more interesting is the ways that they interconnect and affect each other. The European colonial influence is obvious, but the ways that tradition remains provoke attention. The celebration of La Divina Pastora on Holy Thursday brings together Catholics and Hindus, and the bazaar outside the church reflects this, as vendors cater to both Hindu and Catholic iconography. There might be a distinct cultural separation between Christians and Hindus in the country, but everyone is Trinidadian, and the ways that they come together are examples of fusion and exchange.

Secular Meets Religious

A mausoleum in Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port-of-Spain is juxtaposed against the PowerGen energy plant, which provides electrical power to Trinidad and Tobago.

Religion plays an omnipresent role in Trinidadian society. Religious imagery is everywhere. Bumper stickers and the name of God are invoked on cars and public transportation, churches and temples are found on nearly every block. The distinction between the secular and the spiritual is blurred when walking through the streets of the country, everywhere are symbols indicating the existence of religious life: jahndis, Christian t-shirts, pictures of devas and devis, rosaries. The role that religion plays in Trinidadian life appears to be so normalized that there is little transition between religious practice and symbolism, and secular, daily routine.

Religion as Performance

Actors dress as biblical figures in the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, during a re-enactment of the Catholic Stations of the Cross at Mount Saint Benedict in Tunapuna, Trinidad.

Almost immediately upon arrival in Trinidad, we were told that Trinidadian culture itself could be viewed as a kind of mas. Performance is central to all human beings – we all perform outward personalities, we role-play when interacting with other people. But in Trinidad, the act of expression through symbolic meaning seems to carry more resonance. The religious undercurrent in Trinidad seems to be an extension of this: involving yourself in a larger, transcendental community, playing a role within this community, outwardly projecting something intrinsically spiritual and indefinable, making the spirit visible. Performing religious rituals connects people to their environment and makes a space for the self in the world. It’s using creativity to make visual meaning out of physical objects. The Stations of the Cross, re-enacted on Good Friday by Catholics, is a literal example of performing religion. It’s a mas, ritualizing the death of Jesus. The photographs I took of the Stations of the Cross are some of my favorite, because the experience felt surreal: people dressed as biblical figures, playing ‘God’ and his followers. The images I took were blurred not just because of the dim lighting and movement, but because the moments, or ‘stations’, of action, felt static like a painting, or something dreamlike. The Stations of the Cross helped validate the meaning of performance-in-religion in a real way for me, because it involved a moving truck with loudspeakers announcing the narrative of each station, and the men who were ‘whipping’ Jesus carried and cracked their whips identical to the Carnival Jab-Jabs. All along the journey to the final station, Catholics trailed behind, stopping at each station to take a moment of pause. It was eerily reminiscent of J’Ouvert dawn, or Carnival Tuesday – a group of people walking a set path, a moving truck with bellowing music and announcements, and periods of rest, functioning like the ‘judging points’ of Carnival. Except instead of jumping and wining, people were solemn, carrying candles instead of cups filled with alcohol. The connections between performing mas and performing religion were quite apparent to me during this religious re-enactment.

Liberation Narrative
A young girl dances in the rain during Children’s Carnival in Port-of-Spain
Photographing Trinidad has been a challenge for me, in confronting my own identity and how I am received and perceived in a new culture. It’s been about encountering different conceptions of time and space, using the camera as both a mechanism of capturing others and shielding me from a direct encounter with culture shock. Recognizing Trinidad’s history, context and routine imagery has been part of the experience in rendering moments. Overall I’ve identified a theme of performance – performing mas, performing religion. These both serve as tools of emancipation to transcend the self. Within a defined social space, moments of liberation and transcendence can occur even within a ritualized and pre-conceived performance. Perhaps it is these well-known guidelines and repetitive structures of ritualized performance that help bring us together and beyond the mundane. Photographing Trinidad has been about constant negotiation: between my culture and this culture, feeling out the tensions within this culture, finding connections, balancing a comfort level between subject and photographer, and understanding the relationship between ritual performance and spontaneous performance. The theme of liberation through performance is central to what I’ve understood about Trinidad: that transcending the ordinary is part of the human condition. It manifests itself in both secular and religious outlets, and sometimes the two are indistinguishable.

This friday

click here to see Alice Yard site for event details
Read below for project notes

Haben: Mother Mas Is Alive (Thematics and Outline)

Manifested Hope: Mother Mas and Her Global Community

“Mas is me and I is mas”- Tony Hall

I approached this paper as an artist write up of the experiences, processes, motivations and sources that led to the Mother Mas creation. As a result of cultural performance, immersion and social activism influences, Mother Mas is able to critique, encourage and teach her global community through vocal and play performance. The premise of this paper is “Mas is me and I is mas” in which questions of community, performance and emancipation are undoubtedly formed. As part of the creation of Mother Mas these questions needed to be researched, experienced and learned. Through analysis of some art texts and concepts of installation, memory work and modes of art circulation Mother Mas was built along fundamental lines in order to aid her in strengthening her global community and its consciousness. Alongside text references a major resource component of my search is my personal experience and relations I have built within my own cultural space, allowing the Caribbean context to inspire my work fully.

The themes of the Mother Mas project are a culmination of my mas, artistic experiences, artistic and social discourse and found art of Trinidad. My Carnival experience in February 2009 and Temple of Hip Hop involvement primarily motivated my Mother Mas character formation. In conjunction with the Carnival experience, I have studied festival arts as cultural performance, circulating the birth of Carnival and its notions of emancipation as critiqued by my professor, Tony Hall, the author of “Jean and Dinah”.

Mother Mas was created from my experiential learning in playing Jouvay mas, Carnival Tuesday as well as participating in a plethora of other Carnival activities. Furthermore, the understanding of my participatory position in a tradition that grants me emancipation of identity, creativity and behavior has contributed to forming Mother Mas’ role and purpose. The concepts and readings I have been greatly inspired by in terms of structuring this project have been Derek Walcott’s ‘broken vase’, V.S. Naipaul’s “Middle Passage”, Tony Hall’s “Jean and Dinah”, Annie Paul’s “The Repeating AlterNATIVE”, Boris Groys’ “Politics of Installation”, David Scott’s “Introduction: On the Archaeologies of Black Memory”, Krista Thompson, Cornel West and Gerardo Mosquera. My musical inspirations for the project include conscious hip hop group Blue Scholars, Immortal Technique, Sam Cooke, Deitrick Haddon, Billie Holiday, Anthony Hamilton and various other gospel and conscious artists.

Secondly my theme of a mas celebration is indeed social commentary and discourse through the vocal art form. Violence has been growing across a global scale; particularly in my neighborhood of Curepe some community aspects are shifting as people try to take more safety precautions. This trend is not significant only to Trinidad or the islands, and in turn Mother Mas sings about her pains and the social woes that plague her global community; her vocal song cry is an outcry for hope. Mother Mas has a place amongst the turmoil and violence of any nation; she is the hope potential for change. In mas, she represents emancipation from these social issues, allowing a space for discourse as well as critique. Ideally, Carnival mas characters are always performing and engaging hence why I felt it was appropriate to incorporate vocal performance rather than solely implementing still life paintings or scenery sketches as final exhibition of my experience and research.

In the initial planning stages of this Mother Mas project I planned on painting a series of canvas pieces, each depicting a different social issue in Trinidad. One canvas piece would depict the issue of teen pregnancy; another would represent violence and so forth. It was not until I read Tony Hall’s play, “Jean and Dinah” that I began to strongly reconsider my performance planning. Through Hall’s text, my understanding of mas playing as performance, rebirth and emancipation began to shape Mother Mas and her message. The plot includes two female best friends Jean and Dinah and on the morning of Carnival Monday, Jean tries to unsuccessfully convince a sick, bedridden Dinah to play mas. Here is the excerpt that encouraged me to break out of the common art exhibition approach I originally planned and bring Mother Mas to life through movement and performance. The text reads as follows; it is an argument between Jean and Dinah:

JEAN: “Today is our day. If we don’t play [mas] today, we might as well be dead.”
DINAH: “I played some of the best mas in this place. So you, nor nobody like you, can’t tell me about mas. Mas is me and I is mas. And I am telling you that I am staying in my pissing bed, here today.”

Dinah states that “Mas is me and I is mas” which is a culmination of Mother Mas for me. No one can define mas for Dinah because she has made it her own; she has always connected with mas tradition for a lifelong while. Mas is an invocation, an awakening of new spirits and tapping into an inner self yet to be found. For some, mas is a tool to reconnect with an inner self that has always existed. This is the definition I apply to Mother Mas. Following my Temple of Hip Hop experience I have witnessed how mas has pushed me to an even further conscious understanding of myself as an activist, singer, artist and poet. Mother Mas allows me to try new art forms such as spoken word, an art form I have always been interested in but have never attempted to perform. For this Mother Mas allows me to tap into a deeper part of my creativity and will to take on such a challenge.

Mas, in the context of Jean and Dinah is used as an eliminator of problems, a temporary medicine to ease their life’s pains and heartaches. On the contrary my Mother Mas is the truth teller of violence, poverty, and inequality; Mother Mas is the reminder of issues though her mission is to give hope to a global community. Mother Mas signifies ‘memory-work’ and ‘freeing up’ from societal issues through consciousness. Mother Mas, unlike Jean and Dinah uses mas as a platform to display and express her societal sermon, not to mask herself behind it.

The third element to the creation of Mother Mas is found art. This aspect was headed by Thea Button, my project partner. Thea’s interest in understanding space and our positions as island visiting artists encouraged her to find and merge remnants, artifacts, trash and any movable objects that reflect geographical community and Trinidadian identity. The found pieces represent a momentary piece; an art piece built depending on what could be found in specific moments. With the objects Thea found, combining the ugly, unsanitary and uncensored parts of Trinidad with a Mother mas character representing hope, change and protection of Trinidad initially appear to be extremes. Thea was determined to make a found art piece created from people’s trash, thus formulating beauty from rubble but interestingly this signifies Mother Mas’ beautiful hope for the world regarding the stains of violence, corruption and poverty. Furthermore I as the Mother Mas character will wear Thea’s found art creation as a costume during the final performance.

thea: thematic outline

            This place is it. Where we are now we must embrace. Time, space, circumstance, whatever, understand it, and if you don’t, try. Do not transplant your past, your “home”, your preconceptions on this place. Own it. Open yourself to what it has to offer. What we have is a snapshot, it is one view of a huge world. Extrapolate, expand, but do not diminish. Humanity has a common bond and universal themes but it is the individuality that makes each instant important. We all have pasts and we must learn from them but not allow those pasts to rule our present or we run the risk of sacrificing what is for what could be. It is in honor of that fact that I began my project. I took a method I had learned in another place and time, found art, and applied it to my current project and situation. And at first that worked. But I slowly realized that I was bringing too much of my past into it and I needed to learn and absorb more from my present. The universe thought so too when the cleaning lady did her job, and in cleaning up my collected trash, also provided me with the clean slate upon which to build my project as it should be.  This event coincided with an opportune conversation with Sean Leonard that meshed my project with Haben’s and forced me to pull a little more Trinidad into what I was doing.  And that is how I got to the idea of Mas, after all, what is more Trini than carnival, embracing the creativity it takes to take something out of nothing, and performing with confidence and presence.

            I was of course blessed with a space that by itself meant something. Trinidad as a whole has infinite faces and opportunities, interesting personalities, and great energy. But Alice Yard as an individual space is a gem.  If culture is shaped by art, then Alice Yard is doing a great deal of shaping. Every type of art and artist can be found there and anything can be facilitated. A can do attitude, an open mind, and a safe space can take you far when it comes to fostering creativity and I have found Alice Yard to be an invaluable muse.  Combine that with in depth readings about art in an international context and I was better able to see Alice Yard as a lens with which to view the rest of the world but still able to understand it as a oasis, a special, individual sanctuary that can only exist as a product of the environment it exists in, in the moment.

            I am who I am right now. I am not the me of next year, last week, or even tomorrow. I am partially a product of fate, partially of industry, and I am only so good or bad as my actions and what comes of them. I am a person and I could be anyone but my circumstances have led me to be the me of the moment. I have to accept serendipity as a huge component of my being. That is something that I did choose to bring to the table while planning my mas. I could not control the mas in the way I would have liked if I were building it from scratch: I did not have the budget, the materials, the skill, or the man-hours to build a formal mas. However, by implementing the mas with my original plan of found art I was able to circumvent those problems simply as a result of the medium I was using.

            The mas I created was a product of this place, this now. It is a result of the greatness, the energy of Alice Yard. It is the outcome of my semester in and understanding of Trinidad, and the consequence of my eye, which is in itself the product of my experiences internationally, both artistically and experientially.

            By using elements such as phone cards, I was able to capture a physical component of Trinidad, which I believe has a greater meaning. The whole process of phone cards in Trinidad is symbolic of something far greater than the simple ability to call down the road. In the states I have a phone plan, I pay it monthly, I have an agreement with the phone company to be a customer and they agree to keep my service running 24/7. This involves complicated legal contracts that bind me to them for two or more years and can be slightly problematic when they don’t provide the quality of service I am expecting, But at the end of the day, my phone calls out when I need it to and I don’t really have to pay that much attention to it. Here however, I need to continuously buy phone cards, running from one to the next, discovering, as I have, late at night, that I have run through all of my minutes and still need to make calls but unable to obtain more minutes. It is such a tenuous agreement, no long term security, no cushy convenience of a once a month bill. It is momentary, living in this minute rather than the next, no future plan, simply a call, right here, right now.

It is the same concept that "liming" follows: what I am doing right here, right now, supersedes everything else in importance. It is a moment-to-moment experience, more raw and in touch but also more haphazard, pieced together. It is real, human and a key part of the Trinidad experience.

But my experience in Trinidad is more than just the “Trinidad experience”, who I am makes it what it is for me. This mas, phone cards and all, is a piece of my soul because I am in it because the me that I am no longer exists without the mas and the mas, as it is, would never exist without me.



thea: home stretch

dear reader,
whether you've been following our blog since we began or are just here to check us out pre-performance, I just want to say, thanks. As Hab and I wrap up, finalize, hammer out details and generally near the finish line we realize how much we appreciate the support and encouragement of our mentors, our friends and the artists who have taken time out of their busy lives to speak with us, influence us, and impart precious knowledge to us. We would not be where we are now without you.

today we had a rehearsal/brainstorm during which we went over details, finalized our script, and staged our performance. We had a lady open second story door over looking the yard and give Haben a standing ovation after she belted out her song. Paul came by and gave us some encouragement (and helped me undo a problematic screw). Susan Nunez came around and we grabbed lunch and shot the shit. Chris, as always, gave creative critisism that both frustrated us and pushed us in new and better directions. Chris, you have been an absolutely invaluable resource. We would not be where we are with out your constant pushing and prodding, your challenges and your expanding of our artistic and intellectual horizons. You know by now how to push our (specifically my) buttons and aggravate us, and we by now know that you do it with the purest of intentions and for the best results.

this is not my final post but close to it. please excuse the cheesiness, its par for the course when the end is in sight.

thea: my music video debut

Alice Yard is a special place, my favorite in Trinidad and definitely top 10 internationally. From the first time I walked in to the space I knew I had found something important and I have tried to spend as much time there as I could whether I was just liming there with Haben and whoever else came through or working on this project. Simply being there has given me all sorts of cool experiences, meeting awesome artists like Greta Mendez, bands like 12 and 3Canal, and last weekend, I even landed a spot in the music video of Hot Water by Gyazette .
I had been there all day painting tables and chairs for our performance, I was wearing my Jouvey shirt and all in all I must have looked pretty special. But when the band and video crew rolled up they would not let me fade into the back ground, instead pulling me in as an extra. We had a great time, dancing along to Hot Water, which is an awesome song. I met a bunch of the other girls and the band members and a few expressed interest in maybe coming out our show on May 8th. All in all it was a pretty great experience. Sean Leonard seemed to have fun too. He could not get over the fact that a music video was being filmed in the Yard. Apparently this was only the second time this has happened and he was simply delighted.

Moral of this story? Lime in Alice Yard guys, you never know what will come of it, but it will be excellent.

Haben: Changes

As you can see there have not been updated photos placed on my flickr. My focus for this project has shifted to the major performance piece. Soon I will be able to post images of my performance costume and its movement(i.e. in rehearsal). My original plan to paint a canvas series has changed due to my Trinidad experience. I have met several artists that have shown me the strength of live performance. Visual arts have always been a part of my life but only recently have I truly paid attention to my growth as a singer. I want to share this with the Alice Yard community.

Part of my motivation is the youth. I want Alice Yard to become a space for young people as well. My generational lyrics, as well as Mother Mas are meant to be heard by all, not only the artistically inclined folk. Hopefully we can incorporate young people on performance night. Keep posted for pictures.

Haben: Updated Lyrics (in Progress)

This is playing off of the call and response style. I dreamt this in my sleep.
And I actually imagined a Mother Mas, mimicking Ma Rainey in stature, singing in a blues voice:

(Begin with a portion of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Chile)

Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Chile
Sometimes I feel like a motherless Chile
Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Chile
A long, long way from home
Sometimes I feel like Im almost gone
Sometimes I feel like Im almost gone
Sometimes I feel like Im all alone
All Aloneeee

How could you leave me?
Im Mother Mas
How could you hide from me?
Im your protection
How could you run from me?
Im your education

How could you forget me?
Im your memory of what was and what can be

Slavery has had its turn on me
Its torn me down and broken me apart
But Im giving you the key to suceed my child
You are stronger than the whip and the struggle
Meet tomorrow with open arms and heads lifted
Live to make your ancestors smile
Reject denial
Live to make your ancestors smile(2x)

Haben: Visit to Chaguanas Primary School with Rape Crisis Center

This past Saturday I attended and volunteered to teach a "What a Girl Wants" symposium at Chaguanas Primary School with Amanda Persad, a fellow Trinity College student. The event was funded by the Rape Crisis Center of Trinidad where Amanda is an intern. The program was designed for teen boys between the ages of fifteen and seventeen years old. The program lessons entailed advice and instructions about safe sex, teen pregnancy, STDs, dating and healthy relationships.

Amanda and I set up short skits for the young men to act. The vibrancy and energy of the room was amazing and they received the performances well. As desired, a cross dialogue took place and notions of patriarchy, peer pressure and masculinity were made evident through their questions and frustrations. I observed how the 'popular' notions of sexuality, masculinity and relationships had taken affect on the young people. Programs such as these are needed across the country, ideally on a global scale as well. Notions of patriarchy, violence and abuse can be linked to the way our children are raised, what they are mentally fed on a day to day basis, the lack of needed support to override these notions.

Teh Rape Crisis Center work brought an inspiration to my writing. As a conscious performer I wanted to become well acquainted with some social issues facing Trinidad. In combination with Kywnn Johnson's exhibition, meeting other artists, readings by Walcott, Walker and Paul alike, as well as my volunteering at Chaguanas I am finding more material to incorporate into my song/spoken word piece as part of the final performance. Im taking Chris Cozier's advice of doing more 'showing' and less 'telling' in terms of my purpose or my message for the song.