Art buzz (September/October 2006)

Galvanise stages a major intervention in the Trinidad art scene • Barbara Jardine’s precious masterpieces are sculptures as much as jewels

Art by one of the Galvanise artists. Carry Your Burden (2004), by Jaime Lee Loy; charcoal on brown paper. Image courtesy Jaime Lee LoyArt by one of the Galvanise artists. Deity (2003), by Nikolai Noel; acrylic on board. Photograph courtesy Nikolai NoelArt by one of the Galvanise artists. Sphere (2006), by Marlon Griffith; washi sculpture and installation. Image courtesy Marlon GriffithBracelet of black seed pearls with garnet, gold, mother-of-pearl, ebony, and diamonds. Photograph by Michele JorslingGold, ivory, and diamond ring; pair of gold and diamond earrings; necklace of citrine beads and gold-coloured seed pearls. Photograph by Michele JorslingMario Lewis. Photograph by Philip Sander

Shock of the new

On a July morning, the conference table at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA) centre east of Port of Spain is covered with packages. Each contains an artist’s proposal to participate in a bold new contemporary arts programme, Galvanise, which will open in September.

At the head of the table sits artist Mario Lewis, through whose persistence Galvanise has moved from notion to reality. The others in the room are some of the advisors Lewis has assembled to shape the programme: Trinidadian artists Christopher Cozier and Steve Ouditt; Trinidad-resident British artist Peter Doig; Caribbean Beat editor Nicholas Laughlin.

In 2005, returning to Trinidad after completing a fine art MA at Goldsmiths College, Lewis set about investigating the problems faced by young artists like himself: a scarcity of platforms for their work, no access to curators, a deafening critical silence. As he spoke to other artists, the Galvanise idea evolved.

The group around the table sifts through the proposals. They decide on nine artists, ranging from recent art-school graduates to seasoned veterans, whose ideas accord with Galvanise’s aim: to make a grand intervention in Trinidad’s conservative cultural scene. How? By showing their work in non-traditional venues around Port of Spain, in the first place, to engage the public in unexpected places and ways. The artists — Akuzuru, Tessa Alexander, Sabrina Charran, Gerard Gaskin, Marlon Griffith, Jaime Lee Loy, Parker Nicholas, Nikolai Noel, and Alex Smailes — propose to install works, some of them site-specific, in an abandoned building, a tattoo parlour, a downtown dancehall, shop windows, along a major highway.

The logistics are daunting, especially because this inaugural version of Galvanise — which the organisers see as an experimental prototype for a larger annual programme — is being pulled together with next to no budget and in a very short space of time. Apart from the artists’ projects at the core of the initiative, the six-week programme (which runs from 14 September to 26 October) includes music events, literary readings, and a series of public dialogues. A key factor is the support of CCA, an institution founded to assist contemporary artists in Trinidad and Tobago in the face of the neglect (or outright hostility) with which the art establishment greets those who stray beyond the bounds of the conventional. According to CCA founder Charlotte Elias, Galvanise offers the organisation a way to revive the contemporary art season that was once a core event on the CCA calendar. And she’s excited that Galvanise has been driven by artists themselves. Every element of the programme has evolved in response to questions raised by the artists consulted by Mario Lewis.

It was Peter Doig, Lewis remembers, who first used the phrase “visibly absent” to describe the dilemma of artists in Trinidad working outside conventional genres. Eventually it was adopted as the theme of Galvanise 2006. The clearly implied goal: to create a visible presence for these artists and their work, to trigger some kind of critical conversation “where,” according to the project’s statement of purpose, “everyone is both a speaker and a listener . . . where above all we pay real attention to each other.”

Galvanise, of course, is the corrugated metal sheeting used throughout the Caribbean for building roofs. For Lewis, the name suggests solidarity among artists; he thinks of the strength of the metal, providing shelter. It also suggests the chemical process of galvanisation — electric stimulation. What metaphor more apt for a plan to shock a dozy public into taking notice?

Philip Sander

Galvanise 2006 runs from 14 September to 26 October at venues in and around Port of Spain. At press time, the schedule of events was not yet final. For information, contact CCA at (868) 625-1889; email crf.ideas@gmail.com; or check projectgalvanize.blogspot.com

 


Private treasures

Turning her back on what would literally have been a glittering career, Barbara Jardine left London and flew home to Trinidad almost thirty years ago. She had studied jewellery-making, graduating in record time with a master’s degree from the prestigious Royal College of Art. One of the pieces she made for her graduation show, the Woman Warrior bracelet, carved from ebony, was featured in Vogue, and was later bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum for its permanent collection. But Jardine has worked in Trinidad ever since, in splendid isolation. While painters have flourished here for decades, there was no tradition of art jewellery in the country when she began her career.

Jardine works at a bench in the loft of her hillside apartment overlooking Port of Spain, among cupboards and drawers stuffed with precious objects: tiny gemstones, dried beetles, seashells, a plastic model of a skull, shards of turtle-shell. Harking back to the ancient traditions of her craft, she works alone, fashioning each piece from start to finish, and drawing on her own offbeat imagination and her sure hand with colour. Even the smallest of her pieces is instantly recognisable as hers, thanks to the wealth of materials she lavishes on them, the unexpected combinations of tone and texture, the classical techniques she employs in a highly individual style. What makes them precious isn’t so much the stones or metals that go into their making, but the artistry and care.

Among the materials Jardine favours are ebony, recycled ivory, opals and moonstones, abalone and pearls. But the medium she has made completely hers is turtle-shell, used hundreds of years ago by West Indian craftsmen whose techniques are now lost, but which Jardine has reinvented. She has used them to perfect the art of inlay, carving tiny pieces of turtle-shell and backing them with red lacquer or gold foil to produce incandescent shades of scarlet, gold, and tawny browns.

Jardine uses the same method of inlay to sprinkle amber beads with tiny splashes of opal or gold, to dapple a silver perfume bottle with scales of glinting grey mother-of-pearl. In her figurative work, she creates complex yet seemingly artless patterns of heliconia flowers or bamboo stalks, or glowing anthuriums. Or she might carve a mysterious moon face in mother-of-pearl, to be glimpsed through a dome of rock crystal; a weird insect-woman of black coral emerging from a chrysalis of gnarled ibex horn.

Her art lies not only in the skill and patience with which she shapes her materials, but also the emotions they express. Not all Jardine’s pieces are made to be worn, and many are meant as private treasures to be contemplated in solitude. They often have an air of melancholy and nostalgia, reinforced by her Art Nouveau-influenced style. Whether carved into jewels like miniature sculptures or inset into the lid of a tiny box, all her pictures tell a story, but in a personal code. Those lucky enough to own or wear such jewels must match their creator’s skill and patience to puzzle out what they mean.

Judy Raymond

 

Barbara Jardine’s jewellery is available at Precious Little, Pole Carew Street, Woodbrook, Port of Spain. A book on her work, Barbara Jardine: Goldsmith, will be published later this year and can be ordered through the 101 Art Gallery at 101arts@tstt.net.tt or (868) 628-4081