Word of mouth (November/ December 2013)

Discover Trinidad’s Divali Nagar, Miami’s international art fair, and Jamaica’s annual pantomime

City of Lights. Illustration by Darren CheewahThe view from the Roost. Illustration by Darren CheewahUntitled Lightz I (2013, mixed media on paper, 8.5 x 6.75 feet), by Ebony G. Patterson. Photograph courtesy Ebony G. Patterson/Monique Meloche Gallery

City of lights

Angelo Bissessarsingh recounts the sights and sounds of Trinidad’s Divali Nagar, an annual grand fair in the weeks before the Hindu festival of lights

Every child in Trinidad and Tobago grows up with a rudimentary knowledge of the religion, culture, and customs of her peers, which is probably why this nation can serve as a model for social tolerance. We all know about Divali, the Hindu festival of lights, which ostensibly commemorates the return of Rama, the hero of the Ramayan epic, to Ayodha after his long exile. The goddess Lakshmi is also paid homage, in the hope that she bestows prosperity on her adherents. In Trinidad, however, Divali — which falls this year on 2 November — has transcended its ethnic and religious roots to become a national festival that reaches out to the wider Indo- and non-Indo-Trindiadian community. And long before the thunder of bursting bamboo echoes through the villages, and in anticipation of the night when tens of thousands of tiny oil-lamps called deyas transform the darkness into a palette of splendour, there is the Divali Nagar.

The Nagar is best described as a grand fair centred around Divali that blends the ancient civilisation of India with the heady pulse and tempo of life that make Trinis world-famous. Located just east of Chaguanas, the bustling unofficial capital of central Trinidad, the expansive space that is transformed annually into the gaudy extravaganza was designated for this purpose in 1986, after the original location in a shopping mall car-park proved inadequate. From day one, the Nagar, which opens a few weeks before the Divali holiday, proved to be a wild success, with hundreds of vendors flocking to the area. It has since been upgraded to include a pavilion, an air-conditioned indoor hall, a magnificent statue, and landscaped grounds. An old locomotive and bogie cart — silent reminders of the island’s sugar industry (the original impetus for labour from India in 1845) — stands to the rear of the compound. The National Council for Indian Culture is the body that oversees the Nagar, and ensures that the fair opens with a dramatic event that draws a wide spectrum of people from every walk of life, from government ministers to the burgesses of Chaguanas.

To the first-time visitor, the Nagar experience assaults the senses. The aroma of pholourie, aloo pies, and saheenas frying in coconut oil clashes with the pungent curries being prepared just a few feet away. The riot of colour is almost psychedelic, as elegant silk saris, heavy with embroidery, mingle with delicate filigree jewellery crafted locally or imported from India. At all times, the fine sounds of classical Indian music can be heard, occasionally broken into by more invigorating Indo-Caribbean beats.

It’s an addictive experience, as evidenced by the thousands of cars and buses which converge every day while the festival is in session — full of visitors, all with the expectation of imbibing the essence of the Divali Nagar.

The art of Ocean Drive

Marta Fernandez Campa previews Miami Art Basel, the biggest contemporary art event around the Caribbean, and recalls some hits from recent editions of the fair

Art Basel Miami Beach — also known as Miami Art Week — is a cultural experience true to its host city: eclectic and heterogeneous. With the main fair (running this year from 5 to 8 December) and over twenty satellite events spread across the city, art lovers can easily feel overwhelmed. Dozens of international galleries exhibit contemporary artwork by established and emerging artists, and to fully appreciate the sheer number of shows, openings, and other events happening simultaneously over the four days, you need your diary at hand and your walking shoes on. Admittedly, this look may clash with the trendy attire of many art-fair–goers, but being selective definitely helps.

Considering Miami’s proximity to the region, it’s not surprising that Caribbean artists turn up at the fair. Jamaican Ebony G. Patterson was featured by Chicago-based gallery Monique Meloche in 2012, in Untitled, a new satellite fair curated by Omar Lopez-Chaboud. Untitled grouped artwork by forty galleries in a tent on the beach opposite Ocean Drive. Patterson’s mixed media drawings reflected the artist’s distinctive aesthetics and focus on portraiture of Jamaican male youth and dancehall culture. Her work will once again be a focal point of Monique Meloche’s 2013 Untitled presentation, with a series of stunning gold-leaf paintings.

Miami’s art museums also introduce special exhibitions during Art Basel. I will always remember Isaac Julien’s 2010 exhibition at the Bass Museum of Art, which kicked off during the fair. It featured Julien’s installation videos Baltimore, Vagabondia, and Paradise Omeros, a combination of installation and photography paying homage to Derek Walcott’s Omeros and St Lucia, home of Julien’s parents. These works showed a unique sensibility in their narrative rhythm, which drew you towards their “silent” stories.

The exhibition also premiered Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in the United States. This audiovisual installation of nine massive screens tells stories of China’s past and present, while remembering the twenty-three Chinese immigrant cockle-pickers who died at Morecambe Bay in England in 2004, trapped by the high tide. I was completely taken aback by this installation, its poetic storytelling and audio-visual lyricism.

Although most of the action is centered on South Beach, there’s a lot more to be seen around Miami’s Design District or Wynwood, whose booming art scene includes a series of amazing graffiti murals. And the Little Haiti Cultural Centre is a key location to appreciate the work of Latin American and Caribbean artists. Here, Miami-based Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié has curated various versions of his Global Caribbean project. During Miami Art Basel 2011, this featured artwork by Cuban artist José Bedia, Dominican artist José Garcia-Cordero, and Duval-Carrié’s own work. The cosmological and spiritual visions of Bedia’s large paintings were set in conversation with Garcia-Cordero’s dark paintings of social critique and Duval-Carrié’s mythological focus. The opening of the show was accompanied by a brief preview of a Haitian opera based on the revolutionary hero Makendal.

At this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, apart from Ebony G. Patterson’s gold-leaf pieces, Caribbean art lovers can seek out new works by Trinidadian Christopher Cozier, who will be artist in residence at the trendy Betsy Hotel in South Beach, creating a site-specific lightbox installation. And the Pérez Art Museum Miami will open its elegant new building with a series of exhibitions and projects including Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke’s For Those in Peril on the Sea, an installation of dozens of replica boats and ships suspended in one of PAMM’s new project spaces.

I only wish I still lived in Miami so I could see them live!

The view from the Roost

Tanya Batson-Savage remembers the excitement of Jamaica’s annual pantomime

It’s called the Roost. Otherwise known as the nosebleed seats: those perched at the very top of the Ward Theatre, the powder-blue grand dame of downtown Kingston. But to my eight-year-old self, as I gazed down at the spectacle taking place on the stage far below, they were the best seats in the house.

The occasion was the 1983 pantomime Ginneral B, and my entire family and I were dressed, pressed, and out with a throng of other Jamaicans from across the country to see the production. Ginneral B wasn’t my first panto, but it’s the earliest one I can remember. The memories aren’t very clear. Apart from the sight of actor Oliver Samuels in a bright white suit, and a car that somehow made it onto the stage, it is the feeling of awe that I recall more than anything else.

This has been the hallmark of Jamaica’s annual pantomime, produced by the Little Theatre Movement: a bevy of spectacle, fuelled by catchy music, and populated by engaging sets and vibrant costumes.

Jamaican pantomime is the love child of the British Christmas pantomime and Afro-Jamaican traditions pulling from Jamaican folk culture, history, and contemporary realities. The panto has become a staple of the Jamaican theatrical diet, so much so that in his book The Jamaican Theatre Wycliffe Bennett describes the national pantomime as “uncompromisingly Jamaican as rice and peas and ackee and salt fish.”

The first pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, was staged in 1941, and in those days it stuck close to its British origins. The panto had its first brush with Jamaicanised content in 1943 (Soliday and the Wicked Bird), and its first Anancy play in 1949 (Bluebeard and Brer Anancy, written by Noel Vaz and Louise Bennett). In 1954 there was a forceful move towards indigenisation, with the first Anancy cycle of plays: Anancy and the Magic Mirror (by Greta Fowler) and Louise Bennett’s Anancy and Pandora and Anancy and Beeny Bud.

The productions have benefited from and help to defined and develop some of the island’s best acting, writing, directing, musical, and choreography talent, including the legendary Miss Lou, Ranny Williams, Charles Hyatt, and Rex Nettleford. Not only was it a training ground for many in theatre, but it was also responsible for the birth of the School of Drama, now a part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

In its early days, the pantomime ran for a few weeks. Today, productions usually run for approximately three months. The themes over the decades have been varied. Recent pantos have pulled from history in Combolo and Miss Annie, explored folk tales in Iffa Nuh So and Anancy and Goat Head Soup, and dealt with contemporary happenings in Runner Boy and Howzaat.

The 73rd pantomime, The Golden Maccafat, will continue the tradition of exploring contemporary issues through a folk prism, fuelled by dance and music. It opens on Boxing Day, 26 December, 2013 — with more than a few awestruck youngsters in the audience.