Thursday, February 12, 2015

Arresting the Tears for us and the Haytian globe

Let’s observe a minute of silence in memory of the bodies that were found in various stages of decomposition somewhere in merging with the soil in our islands, in our region in our little world this morning, yesterday – our world that has become a metaphorically Hayti- for which we want to cry - and ask that we reflect on how we have contributed to making it that way, and how we could make it otherwise: with our words and our pens and our images and our thoughts and our actions.

Chief Ifa Oje Won Yomi Abiodun—Master Artist, Leroi Clarke our guest of honour, it is my distinctive honour, in this, my maiden public address as the Chair of the first board of the National Museum and Art Gallery - that the first public act of this Board is to throw open the doors of this institution to a phenomenon like this one. It is our honour that Master Artist Le Roy Clarke has recognised the need to sanctify this space with his art – a space which we call a National Art Gallery, but which to many has to yet live up to that name.
As you may or may not know, the board was so constituted by an Act of Parliament in 2000, and we became the first Board to take office under than act late last year – 14 years – that’s how long it takes to move from paper to action here, it seems – 14 years after the act was passed. (in insurance terms I believe that is a lifetime) But this is only its most recent incarnation of a system to exercise jurisdiction over this space.
Lest we forget, sitting as it does next to the shiny silver caterpillar next door, to some of us, this space might mean nothing; evokes no sentiment, stimulates no memory, but for many others it means many more things. In another life – it was known as the Royal Victoria Institute, established in 1892 – as a science and art museum.
Master Artist, if you might allow me to take a little of this space to reflect on some things that we do not know, or have forgotten, and because we have forgotten have lost respect so that we could wake up each morning unphased that another dead or decaying body of
someone’s mother, sister, brother, child has been found and for whom we may have a few tears and wonder why they are so few.
I recall, feeling the waft of the departing spirit of Pat Bishop in the heights of the Twin Towers as her last words, “I have no more words,” drained out of her body, and the countless artists and poets and playwrights from whom this country has drained life and blood and creativity….
Of Mr Ajit Praimsingh, who to his death bed in another State continued to proclaim this Mere Desh – my country, but whom- I daresay if you ask the person next to you, is likely to ask ‘who be he?’
And there are those who are still alive. I remember, drying the tears of not one, but many a laureate: Pearl Springer, Lovelace, Michael Anthony among them, Naipual and Derek Walcott. I recall Walcott, buoyed by the euphoria of nightly applause to his production (of Steel), only to wake the next day to the scorns heaped by the morning’s news and reviews.
So who do we blame when their works seem at times to reflect back on us the scorn we have presented them, and with our scorn of ourselves?
In preparing for today, I turned to see what I had represented of this, the Royal Victoria Institute,and how it was represented in our rich literary fiction in my book LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago.
It recalled the widows needlework group that led me to these words and I am resisting the urge to ask anyone present here to identify them:

He wanted to do something that that would be a defiance of what happened. The body lying in earth, was unhallowed, and he owed it honour: the mother who had remained unknown and whom he had never loved. (...)
To do honour he had no gifts. He had no words to say what he wanted to say, the poet’s words, which held more than the sum of their meanings. But awake one night, looking at the sky through the window, he got out of bed, worked his way to the light switch, turned it on, got paper and pencil, and began to write. He addressed his mother. He did not think of rhythm; he used no cheating abstract words. He wrote of coming up to the brow of the hill, seeing the black, forked earth, the marks of the spade, the indentations of the fork prongs. He wrote of a journey he had made a long time before. He was tired; she made him rest. He was hungry; she gave him food. He had nowhere to go; she welcomed him. The writing excited, relieved him; …
The poem written, his selfconsciousness violated, he was whole again. And when on Friday the five widows arrived in Port of Spain for their sewing lessons at the Royal Victoria Institute (do we know that place?), (…he) went to the meeting of his literary group and announced that he was going to read his offering at last.
“It is a poem,” he said. “In prose.”                                    
….() “There is no title,” he said. And, as he had expected, this was received with satisfaction.
Then he disgraced himself. Thinking himself free of what he had written, he ventured on his poem boldly, and even with a touch of selfmockery. But as he read, his hands began to shake, the paper rustled; and when he spoke of the  journey his voice failed. It cracked and kept on cracking; his eyes tickled. But he went on, and his emotion was such that at the end no one said a word.

Do we know that he? Who was He who wrote that? Who was the he being written about? Who was the mother? Why was the audience satisfied that it had no title?  .. these are questions I might ask if I were in a classroom of one of our illustrious education institutions, well if they wanted our children to be so stimulated to be so curious…
What was the disgrace, the source of self mockery? Was it the mothers crying in Laventille, and behind the Airport where I believe one of the more recent evidence of our decay has been found?
Is it a cry of one of the children of this actual or the mythical Hayti written on these walls, that are about to be unveiled?
If those classroom cannot so enlighten our children, Master Clarke, I hope that this space could; that from this space we would begin to inspire conversations like this one – between and among art, between and among our artists, across the genres of creativity – music, dance, poetry prose, images created from your fingertips or from the tools of technology … so we may know and our children may  know the regenerative and restorative and empowering nature of our art; of ourselves; to lift us off to see something bigger in ourselves; for retribution; for reparations – the new political postering of our self mockery.
So we could understand that those who pen the poisoned letter or editorial tearing into the judge, the businessman, the politician, the editor as the passage I read would have described had I continued – we would know the source and void of their pain, and their ignominy. We may know the source of their disrespect…
Incidentally, that was written in 1961 – it is the only hint I’d give, and one of the haunting representations of this space I tabulated in LiTTscapes.
 Yesterday another National Gallery, in another place, hung a portrait of this - one of our sons, while ours – I mean our National Gallery, this space, has yet to offer an iota of recognition or respect for the years he has spent, digging into his flesh, dipping into his tears, to write the story of us, and too, did you know, writing with his blood the story of the breaths that pulse through institutions like these – the once Royal, Once Victorian, Once an Institute for not just old ladies with needlework but of sciences and the arts.
When did our soul become so blackened that it is impermeable to the cries of our colleagues being murdered in their beds; when have we become so impervious to the spirit of our sisters crying out for justice for the bullets pumped into their chests; of our mothers holding babes in arms breathing their last premature or preordained breaths?
How did we allow this space born out of a legacy of oppression a symbol of colonial wealth and power transformed from mimicry of old ladies needlework that became the post colonial symbol of this society that has little demonstrated regard for the value of the arts?
When we think it justifiable to make or artists grovel and beg for respect and when we do that how could we respect or expect respect for other so called leaders of politics and industry?
We create offices and proceed to emasculate and disempower its holders.
We champion our leaders and then prick out their eyes so they could claim justifiability in leading us blindly.
We hope that we work together to turn our space  - this space to which we have been made custodians for a few months into a place to explore interrogate celebrate and transform the worst in and of us into the best of us.
So what right do we have, Master Clarke - having here, already bared your soul to our criticism and our scorn  - what right do we have to ask of/from you – men and women like you who have already given so much; what right do we have to ask one more piece, one more song one more word one more one more note so we could hide and drown out and commiserate with in our shared pain.
The heritage community are not beggars asking for scraps, subject to those few trying to hold us to ransom our souls while wondering where did this kidnappers mentality come from?  We do not have to look far from the jackets colours in offices around us, do we?
If the world, the decision makers, business and industry, have turned their backs on us, on the arts and cultures, our collective energies, the strength of the art world alone can restore, and can regenerate and sanctify this space so our artists and creators can feel at home.
We hope to make this a place so our children can find a play and a stimulant to creativity; so our mothers can breathe with relief that there is place to knit and sew together the frayed fragments of our place.
We have asked of this Master Artist one more thing: to be our guinea pig so in an environment that prefer to heap scorn to allow for us to carve out a model of partnership between this institution and the rest of the artistic community.
We are children sitting at the feet of and learning from our masters so our children can see this as a space for learning and the halls of our museum is an attractive alternative to the wa─║ls of the prisons.
We have all the raw materials we need right here, all the ingredients, why aren’t we trying to generate from them the solutions? I watched and helped my mother as a child take cow dung to create warm and safe home and fireplace to cook our food and yes to ward off mosquitoes. Isn't there some traditional practice like this to ward off mosquitoes that we could draw on to stem the spread of Chikungunya that we are not looking at in our granny ads that prefer to promote our illiteracy – and I could here already see the headline: Use Gobar  To Arrest Chik-V, says Chair of the National Museum and Art Gallery (yeah I used to write headlines like that)and think of this more freely available more fragrant alternative to mud grease and paint of Jouvay -with the added bonus of preventing Chik-V, you see!
As I close I want to commend a young man who not only season after season since he was seven been offering us music to lift our spirits and defy those who make us think we are less than we are; Who defy mediocrity in his art, as we all should; Who from his talent has grown not just industry but a range of satellite industries that recognise the selflessness of our creative energies and empower us to celebrate us; Who recently also launched his museum collection and a fund to support colleagues in the creative arena: setting standards, demanding standards and respect for his art, for our art, for us. Machel Montano we salute you.
We salute Gaylord Kelshall who single-handedly collated what may be the most valuable collection of military history in this hemisphere, but which is lying in various stages of neglect in Chaguaramas.
We salute you, little people all of us, reacting to the cries of their souls and with their tears painting and celebrating our dreams of ourselves so we can be something bigger than ourselves.
So how do we end the carnage and the tears?
Let’s start here.
I thank you Master Clarke for allowing yourself to be the guineapig on which we may experiment on our dream to restore, from ignominy, this place.
As I have shared with my Board, I can barely hold the tears that well up when I enter, have not been able to for many years, at what we have allowed this institution that is our national patrimony to become. As we explore with you ways in which we may retrieve that; as we invite partners and friends and leaders in politics and policy and business to join us in repairing the damage we have done to national soil and ourselves  Thank you for partnering with us to hold our hands, as we would invite others, in the arts and industry and  otherwise to do: to work with us to reverse the dishonour, and the disrespect to the men and women who have been felled - dishonoured, unhonoured, with no one to celebrate them with poetry or in prose, in words or with tears; as we restore respect for our artists when they demand standards of professionalism because they know, if we refuse to, the value of their art, the value of their self.
And so in arresting the spiral of disrespect we could arrest too the spiral of murders and the carnage on the road and the tears that are flowing all around us.
We, this new Board, are committed to making, to reclaiming, and returning public spaces like this one, to our people. We believe that our public institutions ought not to be hijacked and appropriated as self-space by a few misguided public officers who we hope to teach through our own actions - actions like this one, to understand that we are only custodians, and only for a short time, and that the spaces and nameplates and offices we occupy in it are only markers of our mortality unless we allow this space to resonate with the strength and power of the people of Trinidad and Tobago who are the real and rightful owners, and from here spread, like little ripples across this space to our islands, across the archipelago to Haiti, and the larger global Hayti.
As I had said at the last meeting of the UNESCO Executive Board in Paris a few months ago:  scrambling to adjust to diminished financing, turn to us, we here know, we have experience of turning nothing into survival; of making music out of rejected metal; or building temples to our gods from pebbles on the shore. We hope from this we begin to make this a warm and welcoming space to the young and not so young; a place where the young can sit at the feet of elders like Mr Clarke, and learn of their history and culture and heritage and the fine strands of traditions of five continents with which we are endowed.
We are not empty of spirit and of creativity. We have stood the test of time. And from the tears, and the tears of our global Hayti we could create the world we want.

We now turn to you to learn of this.
Remarks by Chair, National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago
Exhibition Media Walk with Chief Ifa Oje Won Yomi Abiodun—Master Artist Le Roy Clarke,
At National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago, Port of Spain February 11, 2015

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