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The diplomacy of Art

Thursday, July 4, 2013
Thomas Smitham, Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy described the installation of art at his residence as “the diplomacy of art.” He is seated near the CLR James-inspired work, Beyond the Boundary (2013) by Dean Arlen.

“In my line of work as a diplomat, we often talk about the art of diplomacy as we try to build bridges, connect with people, and improve people’s lives around the world,” Thomas Smitham, Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy, explained recently.


“But another way to think about this installation is as the diplomacy of art.” 


Smitham was talking about a project that showcases the work of local artists at the Chief of Mission residence at the Embassy of the United States. The Embassy located on a small hill in Port of Spain, with its security gates and barriers, has always had an underlying air of exclusivity, but Connecting Cultures: Contemporary Art from Trinidad and Tobago went a long way towards opening doors.


As you enter the rather unpretentious residence, Sarah Knights Girl In A Striped Dress (2012) greets you.


The acrylic and newspaper on canvas piece is extremely moving. Well drawn and carefully crafted, the vulnerability of the red-headed girl with her partially exposed back to the viewer, wearing a striped dress, barely held together with an actual button and loose thread, pulls you in almost immediately.


Then turn and enter the dining room, where watching from above are two rather evocative, winged Baby Krishnas by Wendy Nanan. The papier mache, oil, enamel and gold leaf sculptures completed in 2011, are allegorical works of art. The Baby Krishna “Food and Oil” holds a tasty “doubles” in one hand and an enamel coffee cup, with the last dregs of black oil in the other, while “Sugar and Salt” holds in one hand a traditional sugary sweet and a small “mountain of salt to suck” in the other (a symbol of hard-times).


Along the corridor is one of Eddie Bowen’s surreal works of acrylic and graphite on paper that has been praised for “revealing an intense psychological engagement with the artistic process.”


This untitled work, thematically links the exhibition together. 


As you enter the living room you’re immediately drawn to one of the largest pieces, the CLR James-inspired Beyond the Boundary (2013) by Dean Arlen. Stationed on the adjacent wall is Irenee Shaw’s triptych that explores the dichotomy of freedom and imprisonment, featuring the burglar-proofing and bricks that so impact on our psyche juxtaposed with the precarious bird on a wire in Let’s Fly (1993).


Many of the pieces by the eight artists, share common stories of dispossession, democracy, corruption and imprisonment, from Merylle Mahabir’s 1988 The King, to Abigail Hadeed’s Moko Jumbie and Chris Cozier’s tongue in cheek linocut of a dustpan in After All That Talk and an enclosed wall, surrounding an empty space, after the home has been demolished, in Site of Exchange. Yet in each one, there is still an underlying optimism, the glass is either half empty or half full.


The exceptional team of Geoffrey MacLean and Martin Mouttet from Medulla Art Gallery, alongside curator Jeremy Fowler, selected and hung the works in a somewhat challenging space.




Jeremy Fowler, Foreign Service Officer on the art exhibit, spoke about the experience in a recent interview. 


AW: How did this all come about ? How did you go about selecting the work in Connecting Cultures? 


JF: When the new head of our Embassy, Charge d’Affaires Thomas Smitham, arrived, he found bare walls in his residence and decided that a good use of the space would be to showcase artists from Trinidad and Tobago. He asked me to curate an exhibit that would display the best of contemporary art from local artists. We wanted to include work from a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, and prints; genres - portraits, representational and abstract work - and artists, lesser known, mid-career, and more established. We were also interested in contemporary artists whose work explores themes and motifs relevant to Trinbagonian society in an effort to promote mutual understanding between the people of T&T and the US. Of course, where possible, we also wanted to highlight work by Trinbagonian artists who have studied and worked in the US, illustrating the strong educational and cultural links between our two countries. Working with the Medulla Gallery, I came up with a broad selection of works for Mr Smitham to choose from. 

AW: And were you pleased with the selection?


JF: Personally I am very pleased with the selection, installation, and catalogue of the works of art. The installation’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive, judging from the excellent reviews I have heard first-hand from our many visitors and read in the press. I am grateful to all of the artists whose work is featured, and to the Medulla Gallery team, without whom the project would not have been possible. I am also grateful to Charge d’Affaires Smitham for his forward-looking vision and championing of contemporary art, and to the Embassy staff for their steadfast support and encouragement.

AW: Why were you drawn to these pieces ?


JF: I was impressed by the artists’ mastery of technique, their originality and creativity, and the compelling themes the artists’ chose to explore in their work. Each of the works has its own mood, energy and presence, and I notice new details in each one at every viewing. Given our limitations -space, resources, time- I think we did a good job at presenting a variety of viewpoints and a good sampling of contemporary Trinbagonian art. 

AW: In viewing the selection of art we have to offer -do you see the development of a local or Caribbean aesthetic ?


JF: Absolutely. Despite globalisation, there are still many artists working today whose work is clearly specific to their experience, culture, and society. Dean Arlen’s use of stencils and spray paint and his graffiti-like style is reminiscent of earlier work by American artists Andy Warhol, Christopher Wool, and Glenn Ligon. What sets Arlen’s work apart are his references to Trinidadian culture such as CLR James, cricket, and coconut palms. Wendy Nanan’s sculptures comment on Trinidad’s agricultural and energy-based economy. Abigail Hadeed’s photographs beautifully document some of the traditional Carnival characters like the King Sailor and Moko Jumbie. 


There have been several international exhibitions exploring the diversity of art from the Caribbean basin and its diaspora, including most recently the excellent shows in New York City at El Museo del Barrio, the Queens Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

AW: Why do you think that having this collection at the Ambassador’s residence is important?


JF: Charge d’Affaires Smitham hosts numerous representational events and functions at his residence almost every week, so the artwork on view is highly visible to the many guests who come through. The United States Chief of Mission residence is a terrific place to showcase the array of talent from T&T and the artwork on view is a nice starting point for discussions about some of the issues affecting the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Mr Smitham notes in the introduction to the catalogue we produced, as diplomats, we often talk about the art of diplomacy as we try to build bridges, connect with people, and improve people’s lives around the world. And in art’s universal language expressing the values, concerns, and aspirations of our common humanity, we can develop the diplomacy of art. n Continues on Page B2



AW: You’ve worked as a curator at the MFA in Boston, what are your thoughts on our local museum?


JF: When I arrived in Port-of-Spain, one of my first stops was to the National Museum and Art Gallery. I admired the variety of the collections and the beautiful Victorian architecture of the Frederick St. building. The arts are fundamental to our identity and humanity, fostering creativity and beauty while building healthier, more liveable communities. The arts build bridges between cultures and bring us together despite our social, ethnic, racial, or religious differences. It is my hope that governments around the world continue to recognise the immense educational and economic benefit of supporting and preserving our cultural heritage for future generations.

AW: The exhibition speaks of Contemporary Art. How would you define "contemporary art"?


JF: Of course, all newly produced art is of its moment and of its time. But I think that being contemporary means much more than embracing the present. Art that is contemporary is multiplicitous in character and involves artistic responses and an interrogation of ideas that are in significant ways different from those that inspired artists of previous generations.

AW: How did you go about selecting locations for the pieces in a somewhat challenging space?


JF: Placement of artwork is extremely important, and installing exhibitions is itself a minor art form. We not only had to take into consideration the care and preservation of each work, especially those in high-traffic areas or on bright, sunlit walls, which can be harmful over time to certain media, but also the aesthetics of the overall installation. I had a good idea of the number of works we could include and where each work could be installed, but we definitely had to try things out and move things around before deciding where everything was going to hang. What might look good on paper doesn’t necessarily work well once you see the actual objects together. One needs to carefully balance medium, scale, mood, line, color, and theme. I prefer to allow works of art enough space to breathe, as it were, and I like the strategic placement of artwork to draw one into a room or to have a "conversation" with nearby works. So the sightlines were also important—what is visible from other rooms or vantage points. The arch in the dining room wall nicely frames one of Wendy Nanan’s baby Krishna sculptures. There are some very interesting juxtapositions; for example, between Sarah Knights’ self-portrait and the abstract work by Eddie Bowen. 

AW: Do you have any favourites?


JF: I admire all the works of art we selected for the show, and wish we had the resources and space to include more! Working with Martin Mouttet and Geoffrey MacLean from the Medulla Art Gallery was a wonderful, positive experience. I was also thrilled for the opportunity to meet the artists and talk to them about their work. We produced a fully-illustrated color booklet and an online catalogue to publicize the exhibition and to make the work more accessible. Please see the link: 

AW: What is your critique of the art of T&T—and what do you think is needed for our works to gain international recognition?


JF: The dearth of contemporary art exhibition spaces in T&T is indeed regrettable, but fortunately many of the artists included in our small installation have for years enjoyed international success. Christopher Cozier, for example, recently has had solo shows at major galleries in New York and South Africa, and Abigail Hadeed’s work has been featured at exhibitions in Sao Paolo and Havana, among others. The continued interest in and proliferation of international art fairs, biennials, and exhibitions will help raise the profile of talented artists, and, of course, strategic use of the internet and social media can greatly extend an artist’s reach.

AW: Any other projects in the works?


JF: I hope to continue my work developing cultural programming and exchanges at my next posting at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.


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