Art Beat (March/ April 2005)

Trinidadian artist Shastri Maharaj paints unsettling, unexpected landscapes

Early (2005), oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy Shastri MaharajShastri Maharaj. Photograph courtesy Shastri Maharaj

Landscapes of home

When Shastri Maharaj returned to Trinidad with a Canadian art education in the early 1980s, he set in train a vigorous career as a painter and image-maker that has achieved a strident, exemplary pace. His latest work, showing from February to April in Florida (alongside work by fellow Trinidadian Kenwyn Crichlow), demonstrates the artist’s well-known re-makings of himself and his art, a rewarding departure along a consistently creative path that still promises to catch us out at every turn.

Trinidad is hardly an easy place for a painter to work in, given the burden of expectations among audiences and critics for adherence to ethnic archetypes. That this has often threatened to limit the ways art is received is perhaps more true now than ever before. But Maharaj subverts and frustrates the easy assumption that his paintings should ooze traces of Indo-Caribbeanness, instead setting out to trick and tease viewers, but never without reward.

Where you’d expect his landscapes to resonate with references to Asiatic motifs, their iconography is actually far more elusive, and indeed placeless. The stilt-houses (or, as he suggests, “bird-houses”) that people his series of largely defoliated rural settings, jutting above smooth, baked-earth horizons, take us into some urgent territory. This is Maharaj generating pictorial space and sparingly adding symbols from a deliberately ambiguous frame of reference. If his houses suggest the fast-disappearing edifices of Trinidad’s Caroni plain, they also issue reminders of what landscape becomes when buildings come to life and animate their surroundings, returning the viewer’s gaze in a bizarre sort of concrete awakening. Maharaj plays with geometry, geography, signs, and, ultimately, regimes of representation that sometimes ensnare rather than nurture art in the Caribbean. The result is a deeply self-reflexive series of paintings that indexes him as a compelling presence.

Maharaj has always made seriously lavish, painterly meditations on the tradition of Trinidadian landscapists to which he partly belongs, in closest dialogue with the late M.P. Alladin. (No coincidence that Maharaj, as an educator, shares his predecessor’s commitment to a modern marriage of visuality and freedom.) Those who know that tradition will recognise Maharaj as a keen interlocutor. Those with an outer-national sense of art and its history will find a painted clarity beyond. His work directly repays interest about what to expect when consistent artistic maturity meets a newly sustained vision.

Leon Wainwright

Two Views: Trinidad runs from 25 February to 8 April at the Arts Complex Gallery, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida

 

Sonja Sinaswee talks to Shastri Maharaj

Your latest show is called Two Views: Trinidad, a joint exhibition with Ken Crichlow.

The concept of the show is to showcase two different approaches to art by two Trinidadian artists — me being figurative and Ken being non-figurative. Ken’s work deals with the culture in a more abstract presentation, whereas I include solid and clear images within my works about the culture. I will also spend a week at the university producing an art installation that will deal with the concept of the stilt-house. It will be a three-dimensional piece of work, about seven feet high, and will consist of clay, canvas, paint, and metal.

How did you get involved with Florida Gulf Coast University?

I met Professor Patricia Fay from the university about two and a half years ago. She came to visit me at my studio. There she discovered a series of paintings dealing with stilt-houses — house on tall posts — as seen in Caroni, and women in the rural landscape. These images have become part of an iconography I am creating to deal with aspects of Trinidad culture. She invited me to show at the university, choosing paintings from my last exhibition.

You have referred to your art as another family. You call it a demanding woman. Has it become more demanding over the years?

As the years have gone by, the art has become less demanding. This has to do with a greater awareness of myself and an understanding of material and technique . . . I try my best not to be too predictable, and keep redefining, modifying, and being innovative. There is ongoing change, research, and drama in the art.